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Phayul[Tuesday, December 08, 2009 12:59]
One evening at McLeod Ganj, in the late ‘90s, a couple of my sarjor (new arrival) friends from Lhasa brought Taktra Rimpoche over to my house. He was the incarnation of the last regent of Tibet who died in 1951, or thereabouts. Rimpoche had been a small boy when the ’59 Uprising took place but in its aftermath he was imprisoned along with a number of young trulkus: Reting Rimpoche, Khardo Rimpoche, Drigung Kyapgon and others at a special laogai facility. After Deng’s “liberalization” these young lamas were released from prison and “rehabilitated”. Taktra was appointed one of the vice-chairmen of the Tibetan Buddhist Association. Rimpoche had, of course, come from Lhasa to Dharamshala to meet His Holiness, but he was young and outgoing and my Lhasa friends thought he might enjoy talking to me.

It was a memorable evening. Rimpoche had a fund of remarkable stories, and though he only drank tea, at the time, he was as animated as the rest of us who were drinking beer or rum. Rimpoche and the other young trulkus were held at a special sort of labor camp where they not only dug ditches and hauled “night-soil” (human excrement used as manure) as other Tibetans had to. Instead the Chinese, in their typically “sado-didactic” way, assigned them to become slaughterers, butchers and fishermen, as a hands-on Marxist-Leninist education on the fallacy of Buddhist compassion. Rimpoche became a fisherman and fished the waters of the Yamdrok Lake and the great Namtso Lake in the Changtang. Among other stories, he told us of a night when their nets got entangled with a monstrously large creature that nearly overturned their old steamboat, before tearing the net and getting away.

Rimpoche also talked about fishing in the district of Jun. The area was rocky and infertile so the inhabitants fished for a living. I knew of this district since the locals traditionally had their own opera (ache-lhamo) company in pre ’59 Tibet. Rimpoche said he met some of the local fishermen who used traditional nets woven out of yak-hair. He noticed that the weave of their nets, the mesh size, was rather large, and he asked them why they did not use Chinese nylon nets, which had much closer weave mesh.

One of the older Jun-pa told Rimpoche that in the past the Tibetan government regulated the mesh size of their nets. Periodically, the district officials would come to Jun to check the nets of the fisher-folk and make sure that a prescribed number of fingers (I forget how many) could slip in and out of each weave. The official would also read from a proclamation of some kind to the population, telling them that it was important to make sure that no tiddlers or baby fish were caught in their nets, and that the small fish should be allowed to breed and grow. Otherwise, there would be a shortage of big fish which, in the course of time, would negatively affect the livelihood (tsowa) of the people of Jun. Taktra Rimpoche seemed very impressed that even after a decade of Communist indoctrination about the evils of old Tibetan society (chitso nyingpa) the fishermen of Jun believed in the rightness of their old ways of doing things and the regulations of the Tibetan government.

I have been somewhat long-winded in telling this story, but I wanted readers to appreciate the gritty reality of this environmental tale. We Tibetans are rightfully proud of the fact that we were traditionally kind to animals and did not thoughtlessly exploit our wildlife and environment as the Chinese are now doing in their frighteningly mindless and rapacious way. Yet at the same time we have been unable to present this positive and admirable aspect of our society and culture in a way that supports our demands to be allowed to rule ourselves and take care of our own land and environment.

I feel we make the mistake of presenting our case near exclusively in terms of religious sentimentality, of people who would not kill a mosquito, sort of thing, largely to underscore, it seems to me, our official ideology of pacifistic quietism. This was reflected in a cringe making scene in the film Seven Years In Tibet where Tibetan labourers and monks frantically rescued earthworms from a building site, and the entire Namgyal Monastery performed pujas for the spiritual benefit of the worm’s (“In past life, this innocent worm your mother, your father. Please no more hurting!”). When this scene, worthy of Saturday Night Live, played on the screen I wanted to crawl under my seat.

The Tibetan government did not just tell its subjects (mi-ser) at Jun that fishing was an un-Buddhist thing to do. Clearly the people of this district had to make a living, and pay their taxes. So though there was a religious predisposition against fishing[i] an exception had to be made for the Jun-pa, and other people under similar circumstances. So laws and regulations were put in place to ensure that fishermen (also farmers, herdsmen, gold-miners and others) did not exploit their resources to a degree where it would adversely impact the local environment or the livelihood of everyone else – and their own. The fishermen of Jun were even allowed to sell their catch in Lhasa and other towns and hamlets. In the interest of religious propriety, though, the peddlers would shout “chu-labu say” or “ water radishes for sale”. It didn’t fool anyone, but niceties were observed. Some Lhasa folk enjoyed a dish of nyap-jen or fish tartare (with their tsampa), spiced with garlic and hot chilli.

However high-minded the religious concepts behind Tibetan ecological practices, what is impressive is the way the Tibetan government and religious and social institutions, implemented them in practical and commonsensical ways: through legislation, moral codes, annual festivals and observances, and conservancy institutions, all diligently recorded in government archives and regularly publicized to the Tibetan people. This probably makes Tibet one of the few nations in the world before the 20th century to undertake such long-term ecological programs in this surprisingly contemporary manner.

The most well known way in which the Tibetan government publicized, or made known to the populace, its laws and observances regarding wildlife conservation and other matters, was through the “Mountain Valley Edict” (ri-lung tsatsik). This edict was issued by the government every year after the New Year/Monlam celebrations in Lhasa, and copies of it were distributed to every district throughout Tibet. Rebecca French, the scholar on Tibetan jurisprudence, was told by “…a former clerk in the Private office of the Dalai Lama who had himself copied it (the edict) hundreds of time over several years…” That the work of copying many hundreds of the document by government clerks began…right after the new year”. He also “confirmed that the decree was forty-five lines long and done in the best script and on the best papers with large seals in red ink at the top and bottom.”[ii]

When such an edict arrived at a district headquarters, the dzong-pon, the district magistrate/administrator, would first place the folded document on his head. He would then pass it over the purifying smoke (sang) of juniper or sage, before opening the document and reading it. The next day, the people of the district would be summoned, generally in the courtyard before the dzong or the castle, which housed the district administration. The dzong-pon would read the entire edict aloud to the gathered populace. He would finally read out the full name and titles of the Dalai Lama or regent in question, the Tibetan year and date when the decree was issued, and make mention of the official seal. He would also issue a warning that people who violated the edict would be punished and there could be no excuses as they had all heard it read to them. The official would then hang up the document “under the eaves of the district house on a wooden board.” Sometimes it might be displayed under a canopy or within a sheltered space. Once the official had gone back into the castle, everyone would gather around the edict, to read it or touch their heads against it, hence receiving the blessings of the Dalai Lama, as represented by his large red seal.

Mountain Valley Edict in enclosure. Photo: Hugh Richardson.
Mountain Valley Edict in enclosure. Photo: Hugh Richardson.
The document is around forty inches wide and from eighty to a hundred inches long. It is a single sheet of seamless Tibetan paper especially manufactured for this purpose. The main text is penned in black ink though a few phrases are customarily written in red. The calligraphy is invariably exquisite and always in the druk-tsa style. Many of these edicts are decorated with paintings of auspicious symbols. One document I saw had a golden pagoda roof on the top of the page with flower designs growing from two bhumpa (flower pots or vases) and spiraling up two long columns on either side of the text. A small lotus throne might be painted under the seal of the Dalai Lama or the regent, which in turn might be held up in the paws of a snow lion or sometimes a garuda.

The edict always has a standard introduction describing Tibet as the “land of snows” where the Buddha’s teachings were followed, and provide an overview of the rights and duties of every Tibetan. It also instructs government officials, central and local, to dispense justice in an impartial manner and admonishes them against exploiting the people. The main text might also contain “…such details as the interest allowed on government loans, private loans, and contracts.” One edict specifically prohibits the charging of compound interests on all loans. This probably makes the old Tibetan government, in this instance, a more enlightened institution than the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

The Mountain Valley edict generally deals with wildlife conservation towards the middle of the document. This excerpt below is from an edict issued, coincidently, by the regent of Tibet, Taktra Rimpoche in 1944:

“…for the sake of the dharma and for the benefit of all sentient beings, the village heads, officials and governors of all districts of Tibet are commanded to prevent the killing of all animals, except hyenas (sic: phara or wild dogs) and wolves. The fish and otters of the water, animals of the hills and forests, the birds of the air, all animals endowed with the gift of life, whether great or small must be protected and saved. Governors must see that the contents of this decree are carried out fully.”[iii]

This second excerpt is from 1901 edict issued by the 13th Dalai Lama and translated by Dr. Tenzing Choddak of New York.

“From the first Tibetan month of the year, the occasion for commemorating the miraculous feats of the Buddha (mon-lam chen-po, sMon-lam chenpo), until the thirtieth of the seventh month, all Tibetans must strictly observe the law of the prohibition of hunting. Tigers, leopards, brown bears, wild dogs and mice must not be killed. Generally, birds, untamed animals, fishes, seals (sic: otters) and carnivorous wild animals are included in this law of prohibition. In short, all undomesticated living creatures are not to be killed. … (though) the official decree about prohibition will be issued from time to time, the district officials, especially in the hinterland, should not relax the supervision of the said prohibition policy due to negligence or personal greed… from this time onwards, the prohibition decree must be studied, explained and distributed without delay. The lives of all living creatures, big or small, may not be harmed so as to promote the peace and happiness of all sentient beings.”[iv]

I was told by the late Sonam Tomjor Tethong, a scholar and a government official in old Tibet, that the injunctions against killing of predators as wild dogs and wolves (phar-chang) might vary from year to year depending on circumstances. For instance if herders had had a particularly hard winter with the resultant loss of cattle, then killing of such predators might be allowed, or in case the wolf or wild dog population became excessive. But in certain years of national calamity or a Dalai Lama’s “obstacle” (kag) year, all hunting might be banned outright.

One Western scholar on Tibet, noting the duration and specificity of annual bans on killing wildlife, has written that consideration should be given to the fact that the ban period “…coincides with the pregnancy and birthing seasons for major game animals.” He further mentions that “… several of my Tibetan informants confirmed that there was a pre-modern awareness about prohibiting hunting during breeding and pregnancy periods.”[v]

Excerpts from edict issued by Demo Regent. Courtesy of Tashi Tsering
Excerpts from edict issued by Demo Regent. Courtesy of Tashi Tsering
The origins of the Mountain Valley edicts are not clear. A Tibetan government website mentions that, “As early as 1642, the Fifth Dalai Lama issued a Decree for the Protection of Animals and the Environment. Since then, such decrees have been issued annually.”[vi] The director of the Amnye Machen Insitutute, the incomparable scholar, Tashi Tsering, told me that while this could be accepted as a formal beginning for the issuing of edicts by the government, there were textual references to such edicts during the Rimpung dynasty and the Tsangpa rulers. Tashi la was also kind enough to show me an old Mountain Valley edict issued in the Wood Dog year (1814) by the second Demo trulku, (demo kutok nyipa) who was regent of Tibet at the time.

Aside from the issuing of edicts instructing the populace, the Tibetan government and clergy appear to have undertaken more specific hands-on projects to ensure the protection of wildlife and the environment. One approach was through “sealing the hills and the valleys”, (ri-gya lung-gya dompa). In a meticulously researched paper, Professor Tony Huber of New Zealand, tells us that this unique ecological institution seems to have evolved from an older religio-political system of “Territorial Sealing” (rgya sdom-pa). But, by the 15th century, this practice of “sealing” had evolved into a “…more Buddhist inspired ethico-legal institutions used to especially prohibit all kinds of hunting and trapping of wild game animals.”[vii]

Huber also tells us that this practice appears to have become “…the particular preserve of local / Buddhist lay rulers (usually styled khri or chos-gyal), or heads of states such as the regents and Dalai Lamas.” The first comprehensive examples of ri-rgya lung-gya territorial seals to specifically prohibit hunting and fishing are found in documents issued by the lay Tibetan ruler of Gyangtse, Rabten Kunsang (who also built the amazing Kumbum stupa-cum-temple complex) between 1415 and 1440.

In effect, local rulers, monasteries and the (Ganden Photrang) government put in place a system of, what in modern parlance might be described as, wildlife sanctuaries, nature preserves, or even national parks. A comparison could perhaps be drawn to the game preserves of kings and aristocrats in Britain and Europe. But it should be noted that, in the latter case, the protection of wildlife, especially deer and game birds, was undertaken for the exclusive hunting privilege and pleasure of the monarch or aristocrat in question. Commoners who attempted to hunt such game were deemed “poachers” and till fairly recent times could be imprisoned, even hung for their crimes.

In Tibet the punishments meted out to those who violated a sealed territory varied, but it does not appear that they were fatal or necessarily brutal. Fines in kind (offering of communal tea, votive butter lamps etc. to the monastery) were fairly standard but usually described as “offerings”. Sometimes the protective deity (choskyong) of the monastery or area could be inducted to play a role in enforcing the hunting ban. For instance the hunter could be made to offer his rifle or musket to the deity’s shrine; a not inappropriate act, since weapons as swords, spears or firearms were an acknowledged feature of these shrines. Also the violator might be made to swear a sacred oath before the deity, which was usually an effective deterrent, given the reputation of such fierce deities. The establishment of “sealed” wildlife conservation areas was not merely a matter of issuing orders and inflicting punishment. Individual lamas and rulers also had to be prepared to invest their own resources in these ventures. Huber provides the example of the famed Jigme Lingpa, who purchased and sealed whole mountains as an act of compassion to animals.

Protection was not only extended to wildlife but often to the environment: the forests, grasslands, lakes and streams. Lama Lobsang of Ladakh told me of a forest outside Leh which was effectively under the protection of a fierce deity, who effectively deterred locals from chopping down trees, and even being mindful when gathering fallen twigs and branches.

Huber goes into considerable detail about how such “sealings” were put into practice, and the different ways the sealed territories were defined. Many such territories had precise boundaries in relations to natural landmarks or cultural features often fixed by naming the specifically designated territories or the nature of the frontiers, watercourses, passes, etc. of the sealed territory. Other ways could be less exact but perhaps effective enough and even charming in their own way. The Seventh Dalai Lama describes the sealed monastic precinct surrounding Demo Choede Loseling existing at “…a distance as far as the sound of a conch trumpet can be heard”.

The study also notes that the proclamations and decrees of the Tibetan government from the 15th century onward, displayed a notable development towards enumerating the classes and species of wild animals to be protected, as well as those to be exempted. An excerpt from one decree: “This legal protection is further extended to include lesser creatures of harvest and control, such as birds, fish, otters, and even bird’s eggs and bees. The stock phrase is “all creatures great and small dwelling on dry land and in water” (srog chags skam gsher du gnas pa che phra thams cad).”

One interesting historical/legal conclusion that Huber draws is that “Establishing a ri-rgya klung-rgya territorial seal became a legislative act. Indeed, we gain almost all our detailed knowledge of later ri-rgya klung-rgya type sealing from historical Tibetan legal and administrative documents, including codes of monastic regulations or monastic constitutions (bca’-yig), public proclamations and decrees (rtsa-tshig, bca’tshig, bka’-shog, etc.), and state law codes (khrims-yig)

Even areas of Tibet not under the central government, where political control was fragmentary and law and order often absent, seemed to have somehow adopted similar practices, though perhaps in less comprehensive ways. Informants from parts of Amdo and Kham told Huber of local forms of “sealing” which they described as “ri-trims” (mountain laws) or “ri-gya” (mountain seal).

Namkhai Norbu Rimpoche noted the use of customary territorial sealing when visiting the pastoralists of Dzachukha and Golok Sertha in 1953.

Among his many observations of Tibetan national character Charles Bell noted that “Most Tibetans are fond of birds. Certainly the Dalai Lama was. Whenever I visited him, there was always a bird or two, not far away, perhaps a talking myna from India….” In the many stories and anecdotes I heard from my mother and other older Tibetans, there would be constant references to the birds of Tibet especially the crane (tung-tung), the lammergeyer (jha-goe) and the cuckoo (khuyu). They would sometimes mention a special shrine dedicated to birds somewhere near Tsetang, south of the Tsangpo, at the head of the Yarlung valley.

I first came across a written reference to this unique place in the Guide to Holy Places of Central Tibet by Jamyang Khyentse, the previous incarnation of my root guru, Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö. Khyentse Rimpoche mentions that this temple, the Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang, is “famous” and houses the great image of rNam snan (Vairocana) made by the order of the Chogyal Pel Khortsen.[viii]

Professor Tucci, who traveled in these parts, provides us a little more information on the temple in one of his books. “Chasa (Bya sa), an ancient Sakyapa lamasery. On the lintel of the door, perhaps as old as the temple itself, eleven animals were carved.”[ix]

Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang. Photo: Hugh Richardson
Yarlung Jha-sa Lhakang. Photo: Hugh Richardson
But it was that intrepid explorer and one of the earliest Tibet experts, Sarat Chandra Das, who gave me the information I was seeking. “We forded the Yarlung river…and passing to the villages of Yangta and Gyerpal, we came to the old sanctuary of Yarlung, called the Chyasa lha-khang or ‘the resting–place-of-birds temple’, for the vast flocks of birds which pass here in their migrations making it a resting-place. It is situated on the banks of the Tsang-po, and is a finely built and well-kept edifice, with a courtyard and beautifully frescoed walls.”[x]

A more recent reference is in a guidebook by Keith Dowman, who provides us with some historical information. The temple was built by Chogyal Pel Khortsen, the grandson of the Emperor Langdarma, at the end of the 9th century, and it “was renowned for its statue of Nampar Nangdze (Vairocana)”[xi]. Dowman also tell us that the site of this ancient monument “…one of the oldest foundations of Tibet”, and carefully preserved till 1959, “…now consists of small heaps of rubble marked by a tharchen pole.”

But in pre ’59 Tibet, on the fifteenth day of the third Tibetan month (early May) a special ritual and celebration took place at this temple to welcome the cuckoo, the king of the birds, and all the other birds migrating north from across the Himalayas. Two officials were dispatched from Lhasa to welcome the king of the birds. In a park (lingka) by the temple, all kinds of grain – barley, wheat, peas and so forth – would be spread out on large felt sheets and mats. Tables would also be set up where butter tea, barley ale (chang), Tibetan cookies (khapsay), dried fruits and nuts would be served and where two special votive butter lamps called the khuyu chome or “cuckoo lamps” were lit.

It is claimed that the cuckoo does not fly directly to the temple, but stops at the Shel Drak or Crystal Rock before the Vulture Plain (Jha-goe Lingka), a few miles south of the temple. There he rests, preens his feathers and otherwise prepares himself for the coming event. The cuckoo king also dispatches a scout or emissary bird (khu-da), to reconnoiter the area ahead and check that preparations for the festival had been made and everything was in order.

Then the cuckoo would fly to the temple and after calling three times, alight on the table and partake of the offerings. Flocks of other birds would also alight and begin to feed. The local population would observe the ceremony with reverence and, possibly, gratification. The timely arrival of the birds was considered a good omen and a promise of a bountiful harvest. The Lhasa officials along with the officials of Tsetang Dzong and the sacristans of Jasa temple and the headman of Jasa village would preside over the ceremony. The Lhasa officials would read from a document which would instruct the birds to abide by the laws of the Buddha’s teachings, and for the cuckoo king to enforce the laws justly.[xii]

It is not only Tibetans who have regarded the cuckoo as an avian monarch of sorts. Aristophanes in his play, The Birds, went one further and made the cuckoo the king of Egypt and “the whole of Phoenicia”. But, royalty or not, the cuckoo has been a welcome bird in most cultures, a harbinger of warm weather and the easy time of the year. As the mediaeval English song goes: “Sumer is icumen in, Laud sing Cuckoo.”

As might be expected, the cuckoo has also found a place in Tibetan religious symbolism. A fundamental Dzogchen text, The Six Vajra Verses, is also called The Cuckoo’s Song of Total Presence, “as the cuckoo’s first call is the harbinger of spring, so the six verses introduce the total presence of the nature of mind.”[xiii] I would, personally, recommend a charming and wonderfully Jataka-like folk story, of how the birds of the Himalayas met under the leadership of the cuckoo on a holy mountain and how they were instructed in the Buddhist way of living and thinking. Written by an unknown Tibetan lama three centuries ago, and translated by the late Edward Conze as The Buddha’s Law Among the Birds[xiv], the book is available in a revised Indian edition (2002) with a preface by Professor J. Bacot.

Reting Monastery. Photo: Hugh Richardso
Reting Monastery. Photo: Hugh Richardso
One month after the event at the Yarlung Bird Temple, a similar ceremony took place at the monastery of Reting, founded by Atisha’s chief disciple Dromtonpa in 1056. This important Kadampa center is located in a beautiful valley eighty kilometers due north of Lhasa. Rakra Rimpoche of Switzerland told me about the bird festival that took place there on the fifteenth day of the fourth Tibetan month, which was called the Reting Khuyue Choepa or the “Reting Cuckoo Offering”. The monks of the monastery also performed a special cham (religious dance) for the occasion and a feeding of the birds also seemed to have taken place as at Yarlung.

Charles Bell points us to where another such bird festival might have taken place. “It is believed that every year the birds hold their parliament at a large lake north of Lhasa, where justice is administered by their king, the cuckoo. The saying runs that law and justice will prevail among men and women for so long as there is law and justice among birds … so he (the Dalai Lama) sends a yearly deputation to this parliament of birds. A lama addresses them on the importance of law and order, and at the same time gives them a present of food.” [xv]

Namtso Lake and Nyenchentangla range
Namtso Lake and Nyenchentangla range
One cannot be certain but the “large lake north of Lhasa” is most likely the great Namtso Lake in the Changtang, 190 kilometers due north of Lhasa. This highest body of saltwater in the world is home to countless birds, resident and migratory, who lay their eggs on the shore and breed there. The wildlife in this area was once exceptionally varied and abundant, but has been greatly depleted due to commercial fishing and hunting by the Chinese. This entire area is said to be under the protection of one of Tibet’s oldest mountain deities, Nyenchenthangla, ruler of the “Trans-Himalaya” as Sven Hedin has described this range. The goddess of the lake, Namtso Chugmo, was considered to be the consort of the mountain deity.

The largest monastery in the area, at the north shore of the lake, was the Jha-do gompa, or “bird confluence monastery”, which was shut down by the Chinese in 1959 when its monks supported a nomad resistance movement in the area. It was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and efforts to rebuild it have been consistently blocked by Chinese officialdom. This monastery, or the area immediate to it, is possibly the site where Bell’s “parliament of birds” convened, and where some sort of annual festival and feeding took place.

One traveler has recently written that the lake “was the object of an annual government sponsored ceremony called mTsho rdzes (Riches for the Lake). This ceremony was also sponsored by the Accounts Department in the Po ta la and officiated over by the monks of the rNamrgyal grwa tshang. Its purpose was to ensure the well-being of the people, the growth of crops and the fecundity of the nation’s livestock. It took place after the break up of the winter ice-mass.”[xvi]

Jha-sa Temple in Yarlung, Reting monastery, and the Jha-do monastery by Namtso Lake form an almost straight line on the migration path of birds flying to the Changtang from Mon, or the Arunachal Pradesh area. So it is conceivable that these festivals were a way of aiding and supporting these exhausted migrating birds on the way to their breeding grounds in the north, and also of making the local public aware of this important event.

Jha-sa Monastery near Phari. Photo: L.A.Waddell
Jha-sa Monastery near Phari. Photo: L.A.Waddell
Another “flyway” for birds migrating to Tibet appears to be from across Bhutan and Sikkim, through the vicinity of the Chomolhari mountain near Phari. Thomas Manning came across the lake Sam-chu Pelling around the Phari district near Chomolhari, and wrote that it was …“half frozen but well stocked with wild ducks and geese. He also came cross herds of antelope and kyang. Interestingly enough, Manning and other early English travelers to Tibet mention the existence of a Jha-sa Gompa (Chatsa and Chassa Goombah) or “bird sanctuary monastery” in this area. Wadell locates the monastery on “the flank of Chomolhari.”[xvii] and adds that Captain Turner’s mission lodged there in 1783.

Samuel Turner calls this lake “Rhamtchieu” and provides a detailed account of the bird-life in this area: “The lake is frequented by a great abundance of water-fowl, wild geese, ducks, teal, and storks, which, on the approach of winter, take their flight to milder regions. Prodigious numbers of saurasses (sic), the largest species of the crane kind, are seen here at certain seasons of the year, and they say, that any quantity of eggs may then be collected; they are found deposited near the banks.”[xviii]

When Spencer Chapman attempted the ascent of the sacred mountain in 1937, he noted that when the expedition was proceeding toward the Jha-sa monastery for the ascent of Chomolhari, he saw “Brahminy ducks flying noisily over us from the south, and very high up we saw a buzzard with pale head and tail, several vultures and the usual horned larks and snow finches.”[xix]

Jhomolhari and Rham-chu Lake: Photo: Ernst Schafe
Jhomolhari and Rham-chu Lake: Photo: Ernst Schafe
Manning makes it fairly clear that the area was an official sanctuary for birds and other wildlife. He notes: “We should have had excellent sport, but for my friend Paima’s scruples. He strongly opposed our shooting, insisting that it was a great crime, would give much scandal to the inhabitants, and was particularly unlawful within the liberties of Chumalhari.”[xx]

Further east of Chomolhari and Kanchenjunga we have the Mount Everest region. It is hard to imagine why birds would use such an inhospitable and perilous area as a possible crossing point, but I recall a nature documentary about birds attempting to fly across the Everest range, and succeeding – after a couple of desperate attempts. Was it possible that even in such a desolate and remote part of Tibet some sort of official protection (perhaps even support) was traditionally accorded to the wildlife there?

When Charles Bell asked for Tibetan government permission to climb Everest in 1921, the Dalai Lama gave him a strip of Tibetan paper, which contained the name of the district and location and other details of the mountain. This note made by one of his staff read “To the west of the Five Treasuries of Great Snow Mount (Kangchen Dzonga), in the jurisdiction of White Glass Fort (Shelkar Dzong) near Inner Rocky Valley (Dza Rong Buk) monastery is the district called ‘The Southern Country, where Birds are Kept’ (Lho Chamalung).”

Later Bell had a conversation with “…that alert and widely read man, the Peak Secretary.” The Secretary told him “…that the Tibetan name for the mountain was Kang Chamalung, adding that Chamalung is short for Cha Dzima Lungpa. (It is the usual practice in Tibetan to shorten names in this way.) Kang means ‘Snow Mountain’; Cha means ‘Bird’; Dzima means ‘taken care of’ Lungpa means ‘Country.’ Thus the name at length means ‘The Snow Mountain in the Country where Birds are taken care of.’ Or ‘The Snow Mountain of the Bird Sanctuary.’”

Bell also writes “…The Peak Secretary told me that an old and well known book, the Mani Kabum, records that in the times of the kings of Tibet, during the seventh and eighth centuries of the Christian era, a large number of birds were fed in this district at the expense of the kings.”[xxi]

Rongbuk Monastery 1922. Photo: Capt.J.B.L.Noel
Rongbuk Monastery 1922. Photo: Capt.J.B.L.Noel
Captain Noel, who was the photographer for the first two Everest expeditions provides a translation of their Tibetan passport in his account. An excerpt: “…We have requested the Sahibs to respect the laws of the country when they visit Chomolungma and not to kill Birds and Animals.”[xxii] Captain Noel also mentions that the area around Everest was called Chamalung or “The Sanctuary of the Birds” and that “…all wild creatures live there unharmed and untouched”.

Observing the cheerful monks at the Dza Rongbuk Monastery, Noel writes that
Rongbuk Monastery 1981. Photo: Galen Rowell
Rongbuk Monastery 1981. Photo: Galen Rowell
Tibetans were fun-loving and “laughter is universal in Tibet…although they lead as hard a life as any of the human race.” He also makes this observation: “One thing about the lamas that catches your immediate sympathy is their gentleness. On the whole they and the Tibetans at large are extremely kind. They are almost fantastically humane towards animals, especially wild creatures.”[xxiii] This and other reports from the expedition about birds and wild animals accepting food from the hands of hermits and lamas, created a lasting and positive impression in the West. The fact that Noel’s two films and accompanying lectures and slide-shows were, at the time, major media events on both sides of the Atlantic, almost certainly contributed to a fresh Western perception of Tibet as a magical and utopian idyll. It replaced, to a considerable degree, the previous image of the country as a barbaric, xenophobic, priest-ridden backwater, which British travelers, before and around the period of the Younghusband expedition, had managed to create; in some cases clearly as a rationalization of the military invasion – a casus belli.

Peter Hopkirk. the popular writer on Tibet, Central Asia and the “Great Game”, touches on this lasting contribution to the Tibet fantasy that the early Everest expeditions were possibly responsible for. “The silent valley (Dza Rongbuk), untouched by the passing of time, ran wild with small creatures which showed no fear of man. Perhaps it was the climbers accounts of this lost Tibetan valley and its monastery which inspired James Hilton’s Shangri La in Lost Horizon.” [xxiv]

In a previous essay, I wrote that this particular representation of Tibet, for which Hilton’s novel has been the principal inspiration and a wellspring for fantasy fiction of this kind, cannot be dismissed out of hand by hostile critics of Tibet, or wished away by Tibetan realists. Yet it is important for us to ensure that what was real, and positive and admirable about Tibetan civilization, not be turned into fantasy, cuteness and mush, as is unfortunately happening in all too many cases.

Many Western travelers writing about Tibetan kindness to animals, tend to focus on the unusual and bizarre, unintentionally lampooning this national virtue. Even an old friend such as Heinrich Harrer exaggerates the conduct of Tibetans in this regard. I mentioned the business of earthworms earlier, but Harrer also talks about Tibetans going into a panic when a fly falls into a teacup. Granted, one or two of Harrer’s aristocratic lady friends might have done that, but most other people: farmers, nomads, muleteers and so on, would have just poured out a bit of their tea along with the fly (trying not to kill it, of course), and gotten on with their breakfast, without any fuss.

Nearly all British travelers have represented Tibetan antipathy to hunting and fishing as a product of religious superstition – people believing that wild animals and birds were reincarnations of their dead parents or grandparents. This is, of course, simply nonsense. None of these travelers seem to have asked themselves if Tibetan religious belief restricted parental reincarnation to wildlife and not domesticated animals. When these same travelers write about banqueting with Tibetan officials or their Tibetan friends, consuming dishes that presumably contained mutton or beef, no mention is made of reincarnating parents or metempsychotic cannibalism.

There is a general folk belief that the ruling deity of certain mountains and the nagas of certain lakes or springs might punish those who hunted or fished in those areas. There is also the belief that polluting certain bodies of water would bring about punishment in the form of sickness and ill fortune. But this “superstition” does not seems to have been entirely capable of restricting Tibetans from fishing (as in Jun) or hunting, when they had too. Tibetans were fond of guns, and hunting, in spite of the religious injunctions and prohibitions, was fairly widespread in Tibet. It was particularly popular with young people in nomadic areas, in Eastern Tibet and with the poorer sections of society who often supplemented their diet with game.

Of course the laws and injunctions against hunting definitely helped to limit and curb the practice, and therefore they were not just decorative expressions of theological sentiment, but served an important and useful ecological function. Also, at some point in most people’s lives the Buddhist injunction against taking life did make itself felt. Stories of hunters giving up their weapons and taking to a life of spirituality are fairly widespread, in literature and real life.

Besides the superstitions and folk-beliefs that existed within traditional rationalizations for protecting wildlife, we must take into special consideration the Buddhist recognition of the sacredness of life in all its forms. For Tibetans, taking the life of a creature is wrong because the animal has as much reason and justification to exist, in and of itself, as a human being does, though it might be on a lower rung of the evolutionary or karmic ladder. It is clearly at variance with the standard Christian/Western view that animals were created to serve man. In Genesis God tells Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Hence, the most commonly expressed rationale in the Western world for protecting wildlife and endangered species, that “…our children and grandchildren won’t see them in the future.” would appear somewhat grotesque and self-centered to Tibetans.

More recently, some Western interpreters of Tibetan culture and New Age Tibetans have attempted to depict the Tibetan attitude to nature, or environmental philosophy, in terms of primitivism. Comparisons are made to primal or aboriginal beliefs and practices, particularly those of Native Americans. “The earth is my mother, the sky is my father” sort of thing. For all their good intentions I think that such comparisons are neither helpful nor accurate.

The iconic Claude Lévi-Strauss, “the father of modern anthropology”, who died just a month ago, argued that the mythologies and cultural thinking of primitive tribes displayed remarkably subtle systems of logic, showing rational mental qualities as sophisticated as those of Western societies. But Lévi-Strauss also made sharp distinctions between the primitive and the modern, focusing on the development of writing and historical awareness. It was an awareness of history, in his view, that allowed the development of science and the evolution and expansion of the West.

Tibetan efforts at wildlife protection and environmental conservation, might therefore be viewed as a proto-modern endeavor, undertaken by governmental and religious institutions through environmental legislation, the establishment of wildlife sanctuaries, and even through regular “public-relations events” to teach and remind the people of their spiritual, national and ecological responsibilities.

Finally, I think that it should be borne in mind that Tibet is not your tropical (or even temperate) paradise. Agricultural land in Tibet is far less fertile and water-accessible than that in China or nearly anywhere else in the world for that matter. The Tibetan plateau is arid, windswept, in many places close to desertification, and at elevations that can only be described as exceptionally extreme. The powerful kingdom of Guge in Western Tibet practically disappeared in the 17th century because of (among a couple of factors) a drop in the water table of the region. Areas in Central Tibet have been constantly threatened throughout history with desertification. The countryside around Samye is surrounded by actual sand dunes, like a desert, and the local farmers fight a constant battle against nature to hold on to their patch of farmland.

Tibetan farmers have over centuries developed sophisticated yet sustainable and non-intrusive agricultural techniques, and the Tibetan system of irrigation (on which agriculture is near totally dependent) is as much a marvel of traditional technology as of a sophisticated framework of official and communal regulations, which allow the efficient and cooperative use of the system. Somehow these things haven’t received much attention so far, but I hope to write a bit more about them some day. I have made a passing reference to them today to suggest that a possible additional reason for Tibetan ecological sensitivity might stem from a hard practical awareness of the fragility of the ecosystem of the Tibetan plateau, and perhaps even of the world we live in, the realization of which most modern nations are only now beginning to come around to.

This preliminary grab bag of research and writing was posted to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I don’t think the confab will do anything for Tibet, or global warming for that matter, but I hope this piece will provide Tibet related environmental activists with a cultural and historical counterpoint to the growing and very disturbing body of information that we now possess about China’s “ecocide” on the roof of the world.

[i] Western travelers frequently write about the Tibetan religious taboo against eating fish, pork or chicken (and eggs), similar to the Muslim or Jewish ban against eating pork. There was a kind of “folk-belief” that these three meats were unclean and that giving them up (nga-phag-gong sum pangba) was an act of merit, but it was not considered sound theology. There was also an assumption that it was less harmful to eat beef, since only one large animal like a yak had to be killed, while many chicken and fish had to be killed for the equivalent meat. But few people took this very seriously.

[ii] French, Rebecca. The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet, Cornell University, Ithica, 1995. p 208, 209 & 213.

[iii] Tibet: Environment and Development Issues (1992): Wildlife Conservation Decree Issued by Tagdra Rinpoche the Regent of Tibet in 1944.) DIIR CTA, Dharamshala 1992.

[iv] Chhodak, Tenzing Dr. The 1901 Proclamation of H.H.Dalai Lama XIII, The Tibet Journal Volume iii No.1 Spring 1978. Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, Dharamshala. p 31

[v] Huber, Toni. “Territorial Control by “Sealing (rgya sdom-pa): A Religio-Political Practice in Tibet.” (PDF). [ZAS 33 (2004)]

[vi] http://www.tibet.com/WhitePaper/white9.html

[vii] [vii] Huber, Toni. “Territorial Control by “Sealing (rgya sdom-pa): A Religio-Political Practice in Tibet.” (PDF). [ZAS 33 (2004)]

[viii] Ferrari, Alfonsa (translator). (completed and edited by Luciano Petech) MK‘YEN BRTSE’S GUIDE TO THE HOLY PLACES OF CENTRAL TIBET. Series Orientale Roma XVI, ISMEO, Roma, 1958. p 54.

[ix] Tucci, Guiseppe. To Lhasa and Beyond, Snow Lion Publications; 2nd edition, Ithaca, 1987. p 144.

[x] Das, Sarat Chandra. Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet, (Royal Geographical Society), John Murray, London, 1902. p 234.

[xi] Dowman Keith. The Power-Places of Central Tibet: The Pilgrim’s Guide, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1988. p 162-163.

[xii] This account of the annual festival has been put together from discussions and interviews with older Tibetans, and from a brief report on a tourist website. It seems very likely that this particular report was originally written in Tibetan by a native scholar, then translated into Chinese and finally into this near unreadable pinyin dense, English.


[xiii] http://www.keithdowman.net/dzogchen/cuckoos_song.htm

[xiv] The original Tibetan title is Bya chos rinchen’ phren-ba, or “The Dharma among the Birds, a Precious Garland.”

[xv] Bell, Charles. Portrait of a Dalai Lama, Wm.Collins, London, 1946, p 169

[xvi] Bellezza, John Vincent. Divine Dyads: Ancient Civilization in Tibet. Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamshala, 1997. p 251.

[xvii] Waddell, L.A., Lhasa And Its Mysteries, Methuen & Co., London, 1906. p 117

[xviii] Turner, Samuel Capt. An Account of an Embassy to the Court of the Teshoo Lama in Tibet, G.W.Nicol, London. p 212.

[xix] Chapman, F. Spencer , Helvellyn to Himalaya; Including an Account of the First Ascent of Chomolhari, Harper and Brothers, New York and London, 1940. p 222

[xx] Markham, Clements R. narratives of the Mission of George Bogle to Tibbet and of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, Trubner & Co., London, 1876. P 71-72.

[xxi] Bell, Charles. Portrait of a Dalai Lama, Wm.Collins, London, 1946. p 277-278.

[xxii] Noel, Captain J.B.L. Through Tibet to Everest, Hodder & Stoughton, London,1927. p 101

[xxiii] Ibid. p101

[xxiv] Hopkirk, Peter. Trespassers on the Roof of the World, John Murray Publishers, London, 1982. p 210

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