Author Raymond Lam describes photojournalist Diane Barker’s exploration of the lives of Tibet’s nomadic drokpa, “people of the solitudes,” living on the remote Tibet-Qinghai Plateau. Barker’s photos capture the nomads’ intimate relationship with their high-altitude environment. Their way of life is a model of ecological balance and sustainability, but is being forced to adapt to challenges of government resettlement policies, global consumer culture, and climate change.
All images © Diane Barker and reproduced here with permission.
by Raymond Lam
Few outsiders to the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau have had the same access as Diane Barker, a painter-turned-photographer who has moved in diverse circles across Asia since the 1990s. Since 1978 she has maintained a strong connection with Vajrayana Buddhism, and by 1994 she acted on her fascination with Tibetan culture and began taking photos of different Tibetan communities in India. At present, her photographic focus is on the drokpa, which translates roughly to “people of the solitudes.” These nomadic communities embody the oldest traditions of life in this remote region: patterns of herding, horsemanship, and kinship bonds that date well into the earliest periods of Tibetan history.
Diane has come to appreciate how the nomads’ stewardship of the land, which she describes as gentle, self-sustaining, and organic, is very pertinent today and can teach us important things amid the global climate crisis. “They live their life in harmony with the seasons and are mindful of the health of their animals and that of the high-altitude grasslands. Nomads have always been very careful not to harm their environment. Anything they no longer needed was easily biodegradable—clay stoves, for example, were left behind to disintegrate back into the earth when they moved on. Their footprint was very light,” she notes.
“Tibetan nomads are not driven by market forces and consumerism, and live their traditional lifestyle in preference to a settled urban one. Traditionally yaks (and often sheep and goats) provided the drokpa with most of their needs: food, wool for clothes and their tents, hides for bags, dried yak dung as fuel for their stoves, and so on. For other needs, such as barley for tsampa, Tibetan nomads operate as a small co-operative, to barter with farmers in the valleys.”
If and how the nomads can sustain their lifestyle is another question. Recent years have seen motorbike culture replacing the use of horses. Many nomads have moved to the edges of ever-expanding Tibetan towns as a result of government resettlement policies or to be nearer to schools and hospitals, and struggle with finding new livelihoods and adaptation to peri-urban life.
The very definition of Tibetan nomadic life is that they are surrounded by the grandeur and vastness of nature. Barker’s photos reflect the drokpa’s intimate connection with their physical environment. How will they cope with being separated from it? How are we in the West coping with our own separation from nature?
“The Tibetan belief that the land is sacred, animated by earth-protector spirits (that they should respect and not offend), demonstrates their sensitivity to and protection of their environment. Unfortunately, we in the industrialized world have long lost the belief that our earth is sacred. We exploit and plunder it as if it’s an infinite resource, but if we learned from the nomads, and Tibetans in general, we would think carefully about everything we do in relation to our mother the Earth. We have forgotten that we are one with her. Sadly, separation seems to dominate our global consciousness in these times and, if we do not heed the warnings of our Earth—floods, wildfires, melting glaciers, loss of species—it could lead to our extinction.”
(This article is adapted from one that appeared in Buddhistdoor in November 2019 titled Visions of Spiritual Ecology: Diane Barker’s Photography of Tibetan Nomadic Life in China. Barker’s photos can also be found on her website, http://www.dianebarker.net/.)
Raymond Lam is senior writer at Buddhistdoor Global and editor of its “Buddhism in the People’s Republic” project. Born in Hong Kong, he read religion and philosophy at The University of Queensland in Brisbane, and Buddhist Studies at The School of Oriental and African Studies in London. A Mahayana Buddhist layman since 2008, he became a religion journalist and began working for the Buddhistdoor organisation in 2010.
Practice and Compassionate Action
in Uncertain Times
Joan Mooney reviews the most recent book from Buddhist scholar and writer Stephanie Kaza—Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times (Shambhala Publications, 2019). Kaza’s previous books include Conversations with Trees: An Intimate Ecology; Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism; and Mindfully Green: A Personal and Spiritual Guide to Whole Earth Thinking.
Longtime environmental scholar and writer Stephanie Kaza’s latest book Green Buddhism is a rich resource for Buddhists trying to address the environmental crisis, indeed for anyone interested in the intersection of Buddhism and environmentalism. The book brings together 21 essays spanning 25 years of Kaza’s remarkable career combining Buddhist practice with activism and scholarship: from learning meditation and Buddhist creativity with Chogyam Trungpa, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Glass at Naropa to Zen practice at the Santa Cruz and Green Gulch Zen Centers; organizing work with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship; and serving as education director of the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden and faculty member of the Environmental Program at the University of Vermont. Throughout, she has studied with a panoply of influential Buddhist teachers—Kobun Chino Otogawa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, Joanna Macy, Robert Aitken, Rita Gross, Blanche Hartman, among others.
“It seems like an indulgence to take the time to cultivate mindfulness when so much is being lost. But this is the tension – to find a considered way of acting not based on reaction.”
The book begins with a section titled Intimate Relations and includes Kaza’s exploration of conditioned mind versus attentive mind and direct experience, and the “desire to fully meet others as complete beings” without the conditioning of self. Here, she masterfully conveys some of Buddhism and ecology’s most sublime thoughts, drawing on 12th century Zen master Honghzi’s poetic description of the “field of bright spirit” to describe the “unified field of energetic flux out of which all forms arise.”
Envisioning Green Buddhism
In the second section of the book, Envisioning Green Buddhism, Kaza profiles leading green Buddhist thinkers John Daido Loori and Joanna Macy and offers her vision of the “green practice path and possibilities for deepening green Buddhist practices in community.” In one chapter she discusses the importance of mindfulness in environmental activism: “It seems like an indulgence to take the time to cultivate mindfulness when so much is being lost. But this is the tension – to find a considered way of acting not based on reaction.” It is an important message to remember for anyone involved in a climate march or other mass environmental action, which often involves shouting and tense emotions.
Another chapter focuses on applying mindfulness to consumerism, as an examination of consumerism is at the heart of any serious environmental practice.
If our spiritual goal is to reduce harm in the world, we must ask such hard questions as: What do I actually need? What is my fair share? How do my choices impact others?….The point is to contemplate these hard questions with full attention and see where they lead you…
They lead Kaza to suggest launching a Buddhist consumer-activism movement, with Buddhist centers “modeling the reduction of consumption, promoting a lifestyle based on simplicity and restraint.”
Acting with Compassion
In part 3 of the book, Acting with Compassion, Kaza looks at the “interdependent concerns of green Buddhism, ecology, and feminism” and identifies three contributions Buddhist teachings can make to the climate conversation: exposing dualistic thinking; developing a Buddhist climate ethic; and building capacity for resilience.
“The environmentalist can be perpetually anxious and out of touch with sustaining sources of joy. In the face of unending challenges this is not a recipe for stability or equanimity.”
Dualistic thinking makes it easier for people in the West to ignore the problems of the climate have-nots in poor countries such as Bangladesh. Buddhists can help break down such thinking with continued reflection on the interdependence of self and other, and the core practice of self-reflection as part of action. Buddhism’s nondualistic view of reality also encourages acting from an inclusive standpoint, not the us-versus-them stance that’s common in environmental battles, based on the Western emphasis on individualism. Kaza writes, “It is the inflated idea of the self as one’s central identity that blocks collaboration.”
Nonharming is the central tenet of a Buddhist climate ethic. In the simple and eloquent words of Cambodian Buddhist teacher Ghasananda: “If we protect the world, we protect ourselves. If we harm the world, we harm ourselves. We are in the same boat. Therefore, we must take care of the boat.” After all, Kaza writes, the nonharming that Buddhism teaches applies to humans, places and the beings within the places.
Kaza addresses the very real fear many of us feel that our individual efforts are tiny and futile in the face of the overwhelming problems of the climate crisis. Our individual efforts do matter, and our group efforts matter even more, she says. “Green Buddhist practices are a part of this ethical effort to build a more mindful, stable, sustainable, and peaceful society,” Kaza writes. “This is certainly a tall order, but every action in this direction counts, and all of it helps stem the frightening tide of planetary destruction.”
Dualistic thinking makes it easier for people in the West to ignore the problems of the climate have-nots.
In regard to resilience, while Green Buddhism is not overtly an activist’s handbook, Kaza encourages us to look at our own attitudes and practices as activists. In the chapter “Practicing with Greed,” she writes of the need to examine greed, not to banish it, and shows how investigating it can be fruitful. She talks about the “greed” of some on the environmental path for more time, more knowledge, more citizen engagement, more status and more power to “take all the actions we see as necessary to save the ailing planet.” These are wise actions in service of a wholesome aspiration. But, Kaza writes, “Caught in a cycle of greed for time, the environmentalist can be perpetually anxious and out of touch with sustaining sources of joy (such as fresh strawberries). In the face of unending challenges this is not a recipe for stability or equanimity.” Thus, again, the value of bringing mindfulness and non-attachment to climate action.
Because these writings are collected from Kaza’s work over many years, some themes – the importance of nondualistic thinking and of interdependence – come up again and again, reminders of their importance. If there is one unifying theme in the book, it may be that of interconnectedness. Kaza explores the vivid metaphor for interdependence of Indra’s net, which
consists of an infinite number of crisscrossing nets, with a jewel at every point of intersection. Each jewel has an infinite number of facets that reflect every other jewel in the net…. There is nothing outside the net and nothing that does not reverberate its presence throughout the net. The image [conveys] the interdependent nature of reality, infinitely linked in relationship and infinitely co-creating every being.
In a section on relational ethics, Kaza writes:
The aspiring bodhisattva encourages the practice of compassion as a means of establishing a profound sense of interrelatedness. This is what allows us to feel the connections with disturbed ecosystems and threatened species, distressing as they may be. Sensitivity and moral concern can extend to plants, animals, forests, clouds, stones, and sacred places. Buddhist relational ethics are based on knowing that one cannot act without affecting other living beings, that it is impossible to live outside the web of interconnectedness.
Joan Mooney is a writer and Buddhist practitioner in Washington, DC.