Stephanie Kaza arrives by bike, dressed for warmth on this nippy Vermont day, and shakes my hand warmly inside the cozy Asian-inspired teahouse in Burlington where we’ve agreed to meet. “Dobrá Tea is one of my favorites,” she says enthusiastically. 

The bike, the simple practical attire, the meditative music, Tibetan rugs and lush floor pillows: Could central casting have picked a better actor or setting to portray a leading Buddhist environmental thinker and author of Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking

Except that I’d be doing both Kaza and Dobrá Tea a disservice by retreating into stereotypes. First, Dobrá Tea is no standard Asian teahouse. Inspired by an underground group of Czech tea lovers forced to smuggle it during the communist years when only party leaders could afford tea, it’s now part of an expanding international chain (dobrá is Czech for “good”) launched in Prague after the Velvet Revolution. Kaza is clearly delighted by the tearoom’s revolutionary roots, not to mention its dozens of unusual teas from ten countries — all individually brewed at precise temperatures. But I digress.

It’s also obvious that Kaza is no standard green Buddhist — at least what I’ve imagined one to be. She’s more passionate and vital, less ethereal and outwardly serene (OK, another stereotype): at once a pragmatic, politically astute scientist and professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont with a Ph.D. in biology; a graduate of a Unitarian Universalist seminary (she almost became a minister); and a nature mystic of sorts (her 1993 collection of meditative essays, The Attentive Heart: Conversations with Trees, offers poetic Zen reflections on our ecological kinship with trees). 

Mindfully Green, her newest book, represents a lifetime of thinking about how to live a truly green life — what Kaza calls the “green practice path.” More than lifestyle change, it’s also about finding a deeper spiritual connection. “When we come to see ourselves as part of the great web of life, in relationship with all beings,” she writes in the introduction, “we are naturally drawn to respond with compassion.”

Kaza encourages those on the green practice path (and if you’re reading this you’re probably marching along somewhere) to witness the suffering of the planet; find causes that touch you along with wise mentors — people, animals or nature — to inspire you; and act from a place of spiritual strength.

Not that any of this is easy. Kaza admits to struggling with aspects of the path, like the Buddhist concept of impermanence. Kaza lost her mother to Alzheimer’s as she was set to write the book and her father-in-law just days after our interview. “As this applies to the green practice path,” she explains, “it’s about accepting my own death as a reality and therefore the need to pass the green spark on to younger people with as much ferocity and brightness as I can.”

Nor does she always bypass moments of dejection — particularly about climate change (“the biggest environmental problem of our lifetime”).

“Some days I really see that we’re making progress and other days I’m discouraged," she says sipping her tea. “But I take a Zen approach. I have faith that there’s a call and response — if we build community, we’ll be able to take on bigger and bigger problems.”

The trick, she adds, is finding your place in the green movement and pushing forward. No need to wait for an eco-“a-ha” moment or spiritual enlightenment, though quieting your mind and unplugging from electronic chatter and material cravings often allows that “small, still voice” of green passion to surface. Read the book for tips.

For Kaza, that voice has led to the classroom — helping build what she envisions as a critical mass of eco-enlightened citizens to usher in true green change. Signs of progress abound: the explosive growth of the campus sustainability movement; the flowering of green religious groups; and 350.org’s recent International Day of Climate Action that resulted in 5,200 rallies in 181 countries up from just 2,000 U.S. gatherings in 2007. Founder Bill McKibben is a friend of Kaza’s.

“I see a lot of critical mass in our young people,” she says. “Something about going through the Bush years and the Obama election was a particular kind of cultural experience for them compared to kids 20 or 30 years ago. Young people want to work across race and gender differences. Plus, they’re more electronically informed. The environmental movement is much more effective now.”

Here’s to even more seekers on the green practice path.

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