The Spiritual Ecology of Tibetan Nomads: A Photo Essay

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.

Prayer flags at a sacred spring. Nangchen area, Kham.

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.

Bonpo Lama on his horse. Taerlung, Kham.

Pilgrims returning from Mount Kawa Karpo. Near Chamdo, Kham.

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.

Breakfast at the nomad camp. Nangchen Gar area, Kham.

A family hunts for Cordyceps mushrooms in the hills.

“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.”

Collecting yak dung for fuel. Manigango, Kham.

Serzong’s daughter milking a Dri. Taerlung, Kham.

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.

Motorbikes and black tent. Rongpatsa, Kham.

Young man with a fancy haircut at a Lama Dance Festival. Manigango, Kham.

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?

Pilgrim prostrating at Jamar Mani, Kham.

Ceremony in the Gonpa courtyard. Dzongsar, Kham.

Monks watching Lama Dances. Taerlung, Kham.

“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.”

Father and son collecting fuel. Lhasa to Chamdo highway, Kham.

Prayer flags reflected in flooded grasslands. Hongyuin, Amdo.

(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 LamRaymond 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.

Sit and Help, Help and Sit

The Australian wildfires are a stark reminder of the imminence and magnitude of the ecological crisis and brought forth an outpouring of sympathy and aid for those affected. For many Buddhists they also challenged the value of meditation in the face of such suffering. In this article re-published from Tricycle, Australian Buddhist chaplain Pema Düddul reminds us “it makes no sense to abandon the one thing that provides resilience in the face of pain and suffering at the very time we need that resilience most.”

Practicing in Hell

by Pema Düddul

Every morning I step outside my home in New South Wales, Australia, to check if it’s safe to open the doors and windows. What I find is burnt orange dawns, blood red sunsets, searing wind, and palls of smoke that blot out the sky. For weeks the smoke from nearby fires has been so bad that the air quality in my small town is worse than in the world’s most polluted cities. Often I wake with a dry, sore throat from breathing in the smoke as I slept. On the worst of days, the air smells of ash and death.

Two months back, when a fire got within a mile and a half of our home, authorities told my partner and me to prepare to evacuate. But my partner said he wasn’t going anywhere. He has a serious medical condition and wasn’t well enough to travel. Besides, he explained calmly, he was in retreat and wasn’t about to break it. The fire would just have to burn him up, he said without a hint of melodrama. Luckily, the fires did not get any closer—but they’re still burning.

Along with the acrid smoke, we breathe in daily distress.

Elsewhere in Australia, tornadoes of fire still careen across a bone-dry landscape, cities choke on smoke and wither under record-breaking heat, soot blackens the white sand beaches, and birds fall from the sky dead. Half a billion animals have been burned alive, and nearly as many are starving due to drought. Hundreds of homes have turned to ash, and at least 23 people are dead and more are missing. There have always been periods in history, and in our lives, when the ups and downs of samsara take a steep spiral downwards, when we feel more stressed, sad, or anxious than normal. But this devastation is not business as usual. It’s not even samsara as usual. This is something else altogether; our darkest nightmares have become real. We are living in a kind of hell.

Practice for a Burning World

For many Buddhists here, the calm and stillness that come from meditation have been tested by the immense suffering of people, animals, and nature. Even those with significant meditation experience are finding this moment deeply challenging. Those who are new to meditation practice are understandably finding it impossible to sit and find ease. They may think it impossible to respond as my partner did, whose deep renunciation cannot be shaken, not even by wildfires. Along with the acrid smoke, we breathe in daily distress. Our tolerance for those whose decades of inaction on climate change have led to this catastrophe has burnt to cinders. What is left is mere ash and yet another fire, the fire of anger. Many are asking: What can Buddhists do in the face of this? How can I meditate while the world literally burns around me?

Fire consumes a forest in Australia.
© sippakorn yamkasikorn from Pixabay

With such desperate need in the world around them, many of my Buddhist peers’ practice hangs on by a thread. A number of them have stopped meditating altogether. For some this is just temporary, while they step up and do what they can in this time of crisis. Yet I fear that some of them will never regain their confidence in the many personal and social benefits of meditation. The intense suffering of the external world is turning their attention outward, overshadowing the importance of looking inward, of inner transformation. Their practice is cut; they have mistaken ordinary kindness with ultimate bodhicitta, the awakened compassionate mind.

Every Australian—Buddhist or not—has asked: “What can we do to help?” Many have dug deep. They are all helping how they can––by actively fighting fires, by donating to firefighting services, by volunteering with wildlife rescue organizations, or by giving to those who’ve lost homes and livelihoods. I am moved by how brave, kind, and generous Australians can be, but I also find myself worried for their long term well-being. Without the very practice that equips them to deal with the suffering of the world, how will they cope, not only with this terrible moment but in the long term?

Give support to those who are suffering, yes, but we must also sit. Help and then sit. Sit and then help.

This is why when my fellow Buddhists ask “What can we do to help?” I respond: We should do whatever we can to alleviate the suffering of others while maintaining our meditation practice. It should not be either/or—yet another dualistic choice that is characteristic of samsara, a result of not understanding our interconnected reality. It makes no sense to abandon the one thing that provides resilience in the face of pain and suffering at the very time we need that resilience most. Even if we were willing to abandon our own chance for resilience, it is unkind if not cruel to rob others of any useful example we might have set, any inspiration we might have been to those around us to take up meditation themselves.

Deep Transformation

Meditation better equips us to help others in times of crisis by making us less prone to negative or harmful emotions like anger and hatred. I believe that, with its emphasis on emptiness and impermanence, meditation severs anti-social behaviors like greed, selfishness, and bigotry at the root. By transforming ourselves through meditation practice we affect a broader social change by ensuring that all our actions are helpful. By transforming ourselves, we transform the world, making it a saner, more compassionate place. Without meditation there is only fleeting, partial “compassion” prone to bias, which is not really compassion at all. Meditation is true compassion, lasting and unbiased.

This is what we as Buddhists can do in times of crisis: we can meditate. It is our responsibility and obligation.

To drop meditation in times of crisis is like watering a plant in a basement. The plant will survive for a while, but in the end it will die from lack of light.

Even while the world literally burns around us we must sit. We must find the calm and stillness that leads to the flowering of unbridled compassion; only then will we actually know how to help in meaningful, lasting ways. This is the true revolution we need. Fight fires, yes, but we must also sit. Rescue animals, yes, but we must also sit. Give support to those who are suffering, yes, but we must also sit. Help and then sit. Sit and then help. These two should always be together.

To drop meditation in times of crisis is like watering a plant in a basement. The plant will survive for a while, but in the end it will die from lack of light. The plant is our chance for enlightenment in this lifetime, the sun is meditation, and the water is ordinary acts of kindness. Helping others in practical ways will keep us going for a while, but eventually we’ll burn out; our kindness will wither, as will the likelihood of realization.

Kindness and meditation together lead to the flowering of bodhicitta and enlightenment. We need that enlightenment to save the world. This is why my partner refuses to break retreat, fires or not. The wish to awaken for the sake of others is his primary concern.

Sit and help. Help and sit. This is what it is to be a Buddhist, especially a Buddhist in hell.

This article was originally published in Tricycle. It is reprinted here with permission.


Pema Düddul is the Buddhist Chaplain in the University of Southern Queensland’s Multi-Faith Service and the Co-Director of Jalü Buddhist Meditation Centre (both in Australia). Pema has been a Buddhist for forty years, practicing in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for more than half of that time. Pema has received teachings from masters in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and considers Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (1904-1987), to be his Heart Lama. In 2005 he received the tantric vows of a ngakpa, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a non-monastic religious minister, from one of his principal teachers, Ngakpa Karma Lhundup Rinpoche. Pema is the co-author of Resting in Stillness, a collection of writings about dharma penned with Martin Jamyang Tenphel, his partner and Co-Director of Jalü Buddhist Meditation Centre.

EcoDharma: Rediscovering Our Environmental Wisdom

EcoDharma: Rediscovering Our Environmental Wisdom
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Date/Time
Date(s) – Apr 4, 2020 – Apr 9, 2020
All Day

Location
Casa Werma

Event Sponsor and Host
Casa Werma

 

with Dr. Pasquale Verdicchio and Mayela Manasjan

From the organizer:

One of our age’s most pressing issues is humankind’s relationship to its environment. In this program we will discuss aspects of environmental concern that may at times be divisive, that certainly merit discussion and further investigation, and that are undeniably relatable to all life on the planet. Through a variety of readings, we will uncover the underlying links between ecology and dharma and explore them further through meditation, and contemplation exercises. We will also learn about our climate crisis, evaluate our personal carbon emissions and create our own compassionate climate action plans. All participant travel will be offset by The Good Traveler carbon offset program.

This program is open to all levels of practitioners; no prerequisites.

Learn More

This event is hosted by Casa Werma.
For more information, see the event website here.

Navigating Ecological Tragedy Beyond Hope and Despair

Navigating Ecological Tragedy Beyond Hope and Despair
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Date/Time
Date(s) – Mar 6, 2020 – Mar 8, 2020
All Day

Location
Gomde UK Buddhist Centre

Event Sponsor and Host
Gomde UK Buddhist Centre

 

A Collaborative Inquiry with Buddhists and Christians

From the organizer:

Now is a time between worlds, the one we have always known, and another beginning to unfold. On current trends, climate breakdown and mass extinctions could trigger the collapse of our civilisation.

This is a weekend retreat at Gomde UK, Lindholme Hall, which begins with a panel and open discussion at Doncaster College and University Centre on the Friday evening 6 March.

The event is organised in collaboration with Green Christian’s Borrowed Time project, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council and Doncaster College University Centre.

Learn More

This event is hosted by Gomde UK Buddhist Centre.
For more information, see the event website here.

Book Review: Green Buddhism

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.

Background Photo © Markus Spiske from Unsplash

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.

Indra’s Net

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.