The Tibetan Buddhist view of the Environment
By Kim Yeshi

For centuries, Tibetans lived in their vast, sparsely populated country in perfect harmony with their environment. It was not simply due to a small population and plentiful resources, but the result of an attitude of respect for all living creatures, fostered by the Tibetan Buddhist outlook.
The backbone of Buddhism is the theory of karma and rebirth, the law of cause and effect. Buddhists believe not in a creator, but in beings fashioning their destiny by their own actions. In the course of their lifetime, living creatures perform virtuous or non-virtuous actions (karma) which create predispositions for rebirth in any of the six realms of cyclic existence. Virtuous actions bring about pleasant rebirths in the upper realms of gods, demi-gods and men and non-virtuous deeds, suffering and rebirth in the animal, hungry ghost and hell-beings' realms. When beings have exhausted the karma which caused their rebirth in a particular realm, in dependence on other accumulated karma, they take rebirth in another realm, wandering endlessly within the limits of cyclic existence until they find a way out to liberation or the state of Buddhahood- the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.
Among all the creatures of the six realms, humans are the most fortunate, and have the best opportunity for attaining the ultimate achievement. Gods and demi-gods dwell in immeasurable happiness, exhausting the fruits of their positive karma, and are too distracted with worldly pleasure to seek liberation from cyclic existence. Hungry ghosts and hell beings are too disturbed with suffering and animals are too dumb. Humans, who enjoy both pleasure and pain are the only ones who can seek liberation.
The driving force of this aim for the attainment of Buddhahood is motivation, of which there are three types; motivation of beings of small, middling and great capacities. Though the ultimate goal of all three is happiness and freedom from suffering, the extent of their goals is immeasurably different. The being of smaller capacity's virtuous acts are aimed at securing a rebirth away from the hells, and his basic rule of conduct for achieving this is avoiding the non-virtuous actions which bring about lower rebirths. These are: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander, harsh speech, idle gossip, covetousness, harmful intent and wrong view.
The being of middling capacity seeks to go one step further and achieve liberation from cyclic existence by realizing the Four Noble Truths: true sufferings, which are like an illness, sources, the internal and external conditions that bring about that illness, cessations, the state of being curedo the illness and paths, the medicine which brings about the cure. In order to realize these Four Noble Truths, one must realize
1) the suffering of cyclic existence, like a sick person identifying his ailment,
2) that the origin of suffering is karma and defilements, like a patient identifying the cause of his illness,
3) the existence of a remedy to suffering, like a patient knowing that his illness can be cured,
4) that engaging in the paths will bring about freedom from suffering, like a patient realizing the benefit of medicine.
The being of great capacity feels that liberation alone is not enough, and wishes to attain the ultimate goal
Buddhahood- in order to liberate all sentient beings from the sufferings of cyclic existence. The sufferings of beings are so infinite they cannot be alleviated by an ordinary person. To attain his purpose, the practitioner must strive to become a Bodhisattva, by training his mind in the six causes and one effect. These include practices such as thinking of all sentient beings as one's mother, remembering their kindness, thinking of ways to repay this kindness, immeasurable love, compassion, resolute thought and bodhisattva mind as well as equating oneself with others, exchanging oneself with others, etc. With Bodhisattva mind firmly planted within his continuum, the practitioner is ready to engage in the six perfection of giving, ethics, patience effort, concentration and wisdom. In practising virtue in this unique and immeasurable way, he will not only be able to help beings but will accumulate the immense merit necessary for attaining the state of Buddhahood.
The motivation of the being of great capacity is the core of Mahayana Buddhism, which is the Buddhism of Tibet. Knowing this, it is easy to understand how respect for the environment and for all creatures naturally became not only a norm of social behaviour, but the core of policies formulated by the Tibetan government as far back as the 7th century. At that time, King Songtsen Gampo promulgated religious laws, based on the ten virtues (opposite of the ten non virtues) and temporal laws, including sixteen rules of social conduct. From the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Gyatso, in the I 7th century, the Dalai Lamas and regents promulgated the Rilung Tsagtsig, or decrees that the protection of animal life and the environment, which were issued every year in their names. These not only forbade the killing of wild animals, such as animals of hill and forest, birds, fish and otter, but also that of domestic animals on certain days, such as the 8th, 15th and 30th days of each month. They also forbade the sale of fresh meat in Lhasa during the fourth month, the holiest month of the Tibetan calendar. The edicts commanded village heads, governors and officials of all districts in Tibet to ensure that these orders were enforced and to personally prevent the killing of all wild animals. They were read out by village heads to their assembled populations, and stuck on notice boards where they remained displayed throughout the year. Breaking of Tsagtsig was punished by law. The government also organized a great many rituals for inducing rain, to ensure the well-being of animals domestic and wild, good crops and plentiful trees and flowers.
In the social sphere, though domestic animals were slaughtered, efforts were made to avoid meat eating on certain holidays and In the fourth month of the Tibetan calendar. Buying back animals from the butcher and setting them free was also a common practice. Tibetans were not adventurous in their gastronomical habits and ate mostly yak meat. Survival on the high plateau required protein, but it was considered more ethical to live off the meat of larger animals than on that of many small ones, of which many more would have to be killed. Thus, consumption of fish and chicken was rare and the idea of eating snakes, chibis (prairie dogs) ducks and wild ass, as practised later by the Chinese, totally repulsive. In this way, most wild animals had little to fear from humans. Though some people in remote areas indulged in hunting, it was considered neither a sport nor a pleasure, but more like poaching, practised by individuals who felt they could get round the law and social conventions. Fishing for fun was something unheard of, except in the case of naughty children who did it behind their parents' backs, and poachers, who sold their catch in Lhasa as 'water radish'. Sports such as cock, dog or bull fights and any other games involving cruelty to animals were never seen in Tibet, and their mention to Tibetans nowadays inevitably arouses incredulity and disgust. Every effort was made to avoid unnecessarily disrupting bird and insect life by digging and cutting trees.
The views and norms described above are very similar to those of most animal and wildlife protection agencies. The difference with the Tibetans, however, is that the same criteria was extended beyond the animal world, taking into account all beings of the six realms. Though men and animals are the only tones ordinarily perceived by humans, others such as demi-gods and hungry ghosts are believed to be present in the humans realm greatly influencing many aspects of animal life. There is a saying in Tibetan that 'Gods, demons and men all have the same attitude'. All three, being within cyclic existence, strive for pleasure and avoid pain, and likewise enjoy good treatment and react negatively to harm inflicted by others. Thus, they should be treated equally.
As a result of these views the Tibetan government limited mining and exploitation of natural resources to avoid disrupting not only the animal life and ecological system, but the unseen creatures believed to dwell there. Moreover, it officially organized a great many rituals, which sought tit please the local deities and ensure harmonious natural conditions.
In formulating these edicts and performing these rituals, the Tibetan government sought to achieve both immediate and ultimate purposes: the first was to keep all the potentially dangerous natural forces pleased and satisfied, thus ensuring their good will, or at least, their non-interference, in helping the country achieve peace and prosperity. The second was to uphold the principles of the Buddhist doctrine, which set the conditions for the general population to acquire personal and collective merit by refraining from non-virtuous acts and benefit from the resulting positive karma.
Unseen forces are believed to be as numerous as those we can see: in every pond, forest, tree, house, dwell creatures big and small, important and humble which occasionally appear to humans in various forms, as well as in visions and in dreams.
All these creatures are believed to be ruled by the protectors of the ten directions. These deities include gods from the Hindu pantheon such as Brahma and Indra. They are gods, and though they are immensely powerful and believed to control all the forces of the universe they are not beyond the wheel of cyclic existence and thus cannot be an object of refuge for humans aspiring for liberation. They may or may not be sympathetic to the Buddhist doctrine, but their help and cooperation can be cultivated and is considered essential, since they control all other non-human creatures, gods, demi-gods and ghosts. Tantric rituals always include an offering to them at the beginning to assure their non-interference.
The creatures dwelling in individual places are called Sa-dag or land owners, or guardian deities. They belong to the realm of demi-gods or ghosts- not all ghosts are miserable creatures, some are wealthy and powerful demons. They may appear to people as ghosts, demons, or in dreams in an infinite variety of forms, including the human one and may either help or harm depending on their disposition. Many of the creatures in lakes, ponds and rivers are nagas, or serpent beings who belong to the animal realm. They sometimes appear in the form of snakes, or as half snakes and half humans with elaborate jeweled crowns. They are believed to be infinitely wealthy and to owe their present form to a previous life of unethical generosity.
Human activity is bound to encroach on the well being of living creatures including those of other realms. Coming to a plot of land and inadvertently building a house, cutting trees or mining and digging natural resources will upset nagas and sa-dags just as it does animals and insects in such a situation. It is said that sa-dags and nagas equate the unauthorized use of land and natural resources they occupy to pilfering their personal possessions. The weaker ones among them will undergo great hardship or die off, while the more powerful will react with anger and strike back at the offenders, inflicting disease, death, and sudden catastrophe. They will not necessarily strike at the humans having committed the harm, as most cannot identify the actual offenders, but at any human they see, and innocent people may fall ill or die for no apparent reason, or the whole area be affected with epidemics or cases of leprosy. The following story was related by a Dema Locho Rinpochey, from Drepung, and occurred in the 1950s in Tibet. One day, one of the monks who was responsible for having the trees in the debating square watered, developed a large sore on his thigh. Suspecting it was caused by harm from nagas, he asked Rinpochey to consult an oracle in a nearby village- a nun who was possessed by nagas- to find out the cause of his illness. The naga, speaking through the oracle admitted having caused the harm: 'Yes, it was I who struck at that monk.' When Rinpochey asked the reason, it replied: 'I was angry at humans for other reasons and I saw this monk's luck I was down and that he was vulnerable, so I caused him to develop this sore'.
Humans are most vulnerable to nagas and sa-dags when their luck is low, as it is said that any weakness is immediately apparent to these other-worldly creatures. In order to avert unlucky circumstances which may bring on harm, people hang up strings of different prayer flags bearing the image of a horse. The 'wind-horse' or Lung-ta is the symbol of one's luck. The Tibetan expression 'His wind-horse is running' or 'is broken' refers to this luck, and the prayer flags fluttering in the wind, a tradition of Bîn origin, is believed to give the upper hand to one's wind-horse.
Since humans cannot survive without some form of land exploitation and building, Tibetans take certain measures to prevent unnecessary mishaps. While the hanging of prayer flags is like a general preventive measure, that of avoiding harm which has no direct cause, more particular measures are sought when any kind of digging is involved. Whenever choosing a site for building, whether for a mandala, temple or house, a lama is consulted as to the method by which the nagas and sa-dag on the site might be appeased and treated. The lama will know something about them either through dreams, divination or clairvoyance. According to Buddhist tantric practice, there are other ways of performing rituals. These are: peaceful, increasing, forceful and wrathful. The methods that apply to pacifying creatures of other realms are peaceful and wrathful, and the rituals used are extremely varied, in type as well as in tradition.
Generally, in either case, a ritual based on sutra called Tashi Sojong is performed, to bring good luck and please the dwellers. If performing tantric rituals, the lama will offer tormas to the Sa-dag or nagas abiding on the land. Tormas are conical-shaped offering cakes which have been blessed in three ways by a highly realized being by mantras, where they are purified from any defilements of ordinariness, by meditational stabilization, by which they are made infinite and by gestures, or mudras, which ensure that the recipient is satisfied. The idea of this ritual is to offer gifts to the sa-dag and nagas in exchange for use of their land. It is a deal, a give and take situation like selling a house, and if the 'sellers' are satisfied, things will proceed smoothly. There are some situations, however, where the land may be owned by particularly powerful sa-dags, who will not want to give in to humans and will do their utmost to create obstacles and harm. Such places are known as 'rough'. The spirits and demons inhabiting them it will be unyielding in their views and generally delight in causing harm to human trespassers causing illness and bad dreams. If the lama examining the land sees such a situation, he will either declare the site unfit for building, or deal with the situation using the wrathful method.
Through the possibilities are vast, the most commonly used wrathful method for clearing a site from negative forces, is the 'throwing of ritual cakes' which is like using a bomb to send harmful creatures to another existence. The motivation of the lama is one of compassion, and knowing that the purpose of the project is beneficial one and that the being causing the harm is accumulating negative karma, he will actually help it by transferring its consciousness to another realm where it will be of less harm to other beings. Only a person with a higher level of realization is qualified to perform such a ritual.
When obstacles are removed, the Lu Thaye, a very powerful naga believed to be constantly moving under the ground is dealt with. Sudden digging would disturb him, but his movements in a particular spot can be plotted astrologically, and a spot on the plot can be found where no part of his body would be present at the time of the first, symbolic digging. This would be followed by offerings of ritual cakes to pacify him. This done, the building could proceed without further interference.
In some cases, sa-dags and nagas not only take offense at encroachment on their land, but at harm inflicted on certain animals they feel are their own. The following is a story which took place about eighty years ago in a remote area of Kham. The head of a group of nomads, feeling he was above the law against hunting wild animals which prevailed in his land, one day decided to go shooting. He went off with his rifle and spotted a beautiful stag. He aimed at it, and saw something like a golden stirrup between its antlers. He put down his rifle and stared, but could see nothing. He aimed and put down his rifle two or three times, seeing the stirrup appear and disappear, hesitated, and finally shot. The stag was hit by the bullet but escaped, leaving a trail of blood. That night, the man returned home, unable to find the carcass of the animal he had hoped to kill and suddenly became very ill. As he lay dying, he related to his kin the incident with the stag, regretting he had shot it and mumbling he should have known better, seeing such an unusual object as a golden stirrup between its antlers. He died that very night and his family concluded he was the victim of a revengeful sa-dag to whom either the stag belonged to or of which he had taken the form.
Incense and vase-offering rituals, which were routinely performed by the Tibetan government and also by private individuals and lamas were not only meant as a remedy in case of drought or other calamities, but also as a regular preventive measure to bring about positive conditions. Non-human creatures were known for their liking of fragrant smells, and the tradition of sang-so, which was originally practised by the Bîn to appease and please local deities, was later practised by Buddhists for the same purpose. In the case of vase-offering rituals, vases were filled with different precious metals and cereals, blessed by mantras, meditative stabilization and gestures and placed in lakes or other places throughout the country where nagas were known to dwell, as a boon to them. These gifts could be likened to presents offered by the king of one country to that of another, aimed at pleasing the recipients who reciprocated with timely rain, pure water and a disease free environment. They had ways of showing their liking in particular ways. Dema Locho Rinpochey recalls a time when Drepung Loseling college decided to renovate a small retreat house on one of their estates, a few hours from Lhasa. The place had a spring and was known for its important naga and sa-dag population. The college called on Rinpochey to perform a ritual to keep the nagas out of the way during the time of the restoration work. This involved attracting them into a mirror which was transformed, by the lama's concentration, into a very pleasant abode in which they were asked to remain, as honoured guests, until their usual dwelling was once more fit to stay in. Rinpoche also offered a bathing ritual to the spring, purifying any defilements it would have undergone during the work. He said that the next morning, the caretaker pointed out that the water was much more abundant than usual, a sign that the nagas who dwelled in it were pleased.
Likewise, some spirits liked to return gifts. Once, a merchant was traveling to Lhasa from Kham, with a caravan of yaks laden with tea bricks. This man had a great liking and faith in the guardian spirit of the mountain, the Nycuchen Thanglha, whom he believed helped him on his journeys and his success in business. When he came in sight of the mountain, which stood isolated on the plain and could be seen from a great distance, he unloaded a large bundle of tea and looking towards it, dumped it on the side of the road, his offering to the deity. His companions, who were aware of his gift thought he was really quite simple minded- how would the spirit, from this distance, know the gift was intended for him? The next morning, the merchant went off to relieve himself and saw something like a chibi's hole full of small black and white stones. He took a closer look and found it was a large quantity of zi- the striped and pierced agate stones believed to date back to prehistoric times- and which are highly prized in Tibet as jewelry. He was not a greedy man. He knew it was a gift from the mountain spirit and only picked one from the bunch, never revealing his discovery to his companions. Later, it was said this was an exceptional zi.
Many non-human creatures were dedicated to the Buddhist doctrine and strove to protect and help those who were its living embodiment; lamas and highly realized beings. They could appear to them in different forms and offer assistance in difficult situations or sometimes simply chose to express their faith and appreciation with offerings which materialized in the most unusual ways. The following tent occurred about fifty years ago, near the same mountain, in Central Tibet. A lama, Ari Rinpochey was traveling from his native Amdo to Lhasa. It was his habit, every evening, whether at home or traveling, to offer a butter lamp in front of his altar. When he came to the mountain and set up camp there, he lit his evening butter lamp as usual. He noticed that a little black ball had formed on the wick and was surprised, when it fell, to hear a little 'tac' sound, like something heavy falling into the lamp. Knowing that soot has no weight he was intrigued, and the next morning, asked his steward to check the butter lamp. The steward looked and saw a blue spilt in the hardened butter. He extracted it and held it up in the daylight it was a small bright blue turquoise. Ari Rinpochey, who knew of the powerful spirit of the mountain realized it was his gift.
Nowadays, the environmental situation is deteriorating rapidly in Tibet with deforestation and the depletion of the fauna. Diseases and calamities previously unheard of are now common in many parts of the country. Whatever the causes are, the effects are present and need to be remedied. Although, due to the political situation, little can be done at present, Tibetan Buddhist principles which state that all beings have an equal right to exist, are the basis for the preservation of the environment.
(Taken from Cho-Yang - Year of Tibet Edition)