Traditional Environmental Protectionism in Tibet

    Toni Huber

    Before becoming involved in Tibetan studies I worked in the
    field of forest ecology, often studying natural ecosystems which
    have been heavily modified by the human activities of recent
    centuries.  Lately I have also been involved in teaching a
    university course on belief systems and ecology, so I was
    naturally interested to read Marcy Vigoda's article 'Religious
    and Socio-Cultural Restraints on Environmental Degradation
    Among Tibetan Peoples - Myth or Reality?' in this journal
    (vol.XIV, no.4, pp.17-44). I am glad that she has contributed to
    the scholarship on this important topic, and I find myself
    sympathetic to her conclusion that the ethics of some non-
    Christian world-views, such as Tibetan Buddhism, can inform us
    very positively about our relationship with the natural
    environment in the modern world.  While I agree too that, to
    some extent, aspects of traditional Tibetan religion and culture
    acted as a restraint on environmental degradation, I also feel
    that the relation between what Tibetans believed and what they
    actually did in the past was not as straight-forward as Vigoda
    would have us think, and that she has somewhat misrepresented
    the record of life in traditional Tibet in order to make her
       While Vigoda has consulted much material to demonstrate
    links between religious beliefs, and cultural and social practices
    and " ethos of environmental protectionism" (p.17) in
    traditional Tibet, I found aspects of this presentation
    unsatisfactory.  After taking the trouble in her introduction to
    emphasise the bias that exists in much of the literature on
    Tibet, she unfortunately then goes on to introduce her own
    unacknowledged bias with a selective presentation of data on
    traditional Tibetan beliefs and practices relating to the
    environment.  I believe there is partiality in all texts, and I too
    have my own bias here in presenting materials which Vigoda
    has chosen not to draw attention to.  I am writing from a
    position which considers that.  Tibetans, like all pre-modern
    peoples, actively exploited the natural environment in spite of
    their beliefs.  Also, that the recognition of this leads us to ask an
    alternative set of questions to those which Vigoda has posed
    about traditional environmental protectionism and its relevance
    for present-day concerns.  In the following brief notes I will
    restrict myself to discussing mining, hunting and the killing of
    animals, aspects of the Tibetan social system and an interesting
    example of a sacred nature preserve in pre-1959 Tibet.

    Mining in Tibet

    After a discussion of Tibetan belief in autochthonous spirits(1)
    associated with the earth, water and other natural features
    Vigoda states (without reference to sources) that there was "...a
    prohibition on mining in Tibet" (p.27), and "The prohibition
    applied to gold, silver, copper, iron and lead..." (p.39, n.27).
    This statement is certainly incorrect and there are various
    references to mining in Tibet in traditional texts, and many
    references to it in European language accounts of Tibet in this
    century.  To begin with Vigoda cites a traditional model
    (without giving any sources) for a ban on mining which
    originated from the semi-legendary 8th century Indian siddha
    Padmasambhava.  There is, however, an excellent indigenous
    model for mining found in the biography of the well known
    15th century Tibetan saint Thang-stong rGyal-po.  Thang-stong
    engaged in a kind of spiritually inspired mineral prospecting,
    through which he discovered various large deposits of iron ore
    in the Himalayan borderlands of Tibet.  He organized the
    mining and forging of the ore so that it could be used to
    construct his famous chain-link suspension bridges.(2) The
    religious legitimacy of this model for Tibetans is that
    Thang-stong is regarded as a bodhisattva, the most potent ideal
    of human perfection in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and that
    his mining was a benevolent aspect of his enlightened activity.(3)
      As for the actual extent and nature of Tibetan mining an
    early European description of Tibet by the Capuchin Francesco
    della Penna in 1730 states, "There are many gold mines in the
    provinces of U, Tzang, Chang, Takpo, Kombo, Kham, and silver
    (as far as it is known) in the province of Khams.  There are also
    mines of iron, copper ... sulphur, vitriol, cinnnabar, cobolt,
    turquoise stones, a yellow substance called paula, borax,
    rock-salt ... [etc. a range of other minerals, crystals and soils in
    mentioned]."(4) Gold mining (gser-'don) was widespread in Tibet
    for centuries, the major goldfields being near Thak-jalong on
    the Changthang, around the headwaters region of the Lo-ro
    Chu and Bya Chu in lHo-kha, and areas throughout Western
    Tibet.  Later accounts by Bailey, Bell, Hedin, Norbu,
    Pranavananda, Sherring and Waddell, to name but a few,
    describe the mining operations of the Tibetan gser-pa, or
    'goldsearchers' and 'goldwashers' in these and other areas.(5) The
    Tibetan government itself generated tax revenue from gold
    mining operations (a poll-tax on miners of 10-12 rupees per
    annum in about 1905), which an official known as the gser-dpon
    or 'Gold Master' set out from Lhasa to collect.(6) Some powerful
    aristocratic houses had independent control over gold mining on
    their lands, such as the lHa rGya-ri of E, who sent workers to
    dredge the riverbeds on their claims.(7)  Tibetan gold was traded
    in Lhasa, and also exchanged for goods in India.(8) Tibetan Iron
    was also traded along the southern borderlands.(9) It is also
    known that there was a major iron mine in sPo-smad, sulphur
    and lead were mined along the eastern Tsangpo,(10) lead and
    borax in Western Tibet,(11) and silver and mercury at Litang and
    Batang in the east.(12)
       It is clear from the accounts that while holding their beliefs
    about nature spirits Tibetans from both the upper and lower
    strata of society were openly involved in mining for livelihood
    and profit.  There are a few examples of gold and borax mines
    being closed in the immediate area of the great sacred lake
    Manasarovar in Western Tibet, ostensibly because of a local
    smallpox outbreak said to be connected with spirits disturbed by
    mining.(13) Given the special sanctity of this area for Tibetans this
    was hardly a surprising action, but as Vigoda herself indicates
    (p.28) bans on mining were in reality not simply 'spiritual'

	(2 Pages missing)

     them in a sanitised fashion.19 Now with frank lay and subaltern
     accounts available we have more information about the actual
     extent of such practices before the 1950s.20 As one reads a
     greater number of different Tibetan accounts what is revealed-
     is on the one hand the propensity, through either need or greed,
     of ordinary folk in Tibet to engage in activities such ;as hunting
     and other acts unwholesome in the Buddhist view, and on the
     other the pressure that the Buddhist'clergy had to maintain on
     them not  to.21 It seems to me that such questions as this 'ethical
     tension' in Tibetan society 'and its dynamics should be investi-
     gated in discussions of the relationship between beliefs and
     practices relating to the envirorunent.  Attention to such issues
     would help to reconstruct just what an 'ethos of environmental
     protectionism' in traditional Tibet, meant; was it - a deeply
     committed part of individual and collective belief structures, or
     more a set of occasional actions tailored in response to urgina
     from an ecclesiastical elite?
        Part of my aim in mentioning all the above is that when
     traditional societies undergo transformations to modemisation,
     higher impact on the natural environment in places like Tibet
     is not just a one-way street of exqgenous changes (c.E Vigoda
     pp33-4).  What happens to the environment as a result of major
     change is not only a product of the introduced ideologies and
     influences like Maoism and Western tourism in Tibet.  Tibetans
     have responded to change on the basis of what they already
     know and did in their traditional society.  An example of this is
     the case of the fur trade, something which we know already
     existed in traditional Tibet.22 Although the external demand is
     now much greater than it ever was in the past, and species like
     antelope, bear, snow leopard and other cats are now becoming
     endangered by hunting pressures, it is Tibetans themselves who
     are hunting and providing the skins, selling them, and in many
     cases illegally trading them out of the country.23 Hunting and
     the fur trade may have taken on new, and perhaps tragic
     dimensions in modem Tibet, but their existence today is just a
     continuation of an aspect of the Tibetan way of life in the past.

     The Tibetan Social System

     In her article Vigoda has made various comments on the
     Tibetan social system and characterises it in terms of
     'non-development' (p.24) and 'successful stagnancy' (p.25) due
     to its social and religious institutions.  She later promotes the
     ""...relatively low productivity of traditional systems..." as
     perhaps the most suitable models for development in areas such
     as Tibet (p.35). While all this may be fine with regard to
     environmental impact, she neglects to mention something I feel
     is of fundamental importance to these issues: the human
     dimensions of the traditional Tibetan social system which
     allowed for its apparent 'environmental friendliness'.  Any
     thoroughgoing analysis of Tibetan society2A finds that by all
     present standards it was one which produced and perpetuated
     gross inequalities, and particularly disadvantaged the laity,
     women and non-Buddhists.  'Me system maintained the mono-
     polisation of capital, both symbolic and material, and political
     power by a small group of aristocrats and the main religious
     institutions, especially the dge-lugs-pa church, and depended
     heavily upon the Tibetan form of serfdom as its economic base.
     As far as the description 'successful stagnancy' goes, the system
     was indeed 'successful' for the elite who did enjoy successful
     exploitation, continuing to accumulate wealth, build up their
     institutions and extend their power, and it was indeed 'stagnant'
     for the majority of ordinary folk whose low levels of material
     life and social status were reproduced for centuries to the
     advantage of the minority.  This leads me to inquire how, and
     even if, certain 'environmentally sound' institutions, beliefs and
     perhaps even ethics, can be de-linked or abstracted from the
     total context of the traditional societies in which they appeared
     successful, and then applied in a new context of human social
     and political relations that would be acceptable in the modern
     world?  Questions of this sort are 'the hard ones' for practical
     eco-politics, and although she gives no pithy discussion of them
     Vigoda is at least correct in stressing that as a first step local
     knowledge must be closely integrated into any strategy for

     A Traditional Nature Preserve In Tibet

     I would like to complete these notes by briefly discussing a
     Tibetan institution which in some senses we could refer to as a
     'Tantric Buddhist national park, and which is a concrete
     "ample of how beliefs directly influenced environmental pro-
     tectionism in Tibet.  In the district of Tsa-ri to the south of
     Dwags-po is the snow peak of Dag-pa Shel-ri,. one of Tibefs
     most venerated holy mountains, It hai long been the location of
     several important pilgrimages and the hermitages of Tantric
     yogins.  Large numbers of pilgrims and meditators from all over
     Tibet regularly visited the mountain and its sacred precincts.
     One of the principle reasons for the mountain's great sanctity
     was the belief in its actual identity with a leading Tantric
     Buddhist tutelary deity (vi-dam) Cakrasamvara, his consort
     Vairavirihi and a lare assembly of Tantric deities such as
     dakinis, ksetrapalas, etc. The mountain, its environs and all
     the living beings there were themselves considered sacred
     because of an aspect of this identification.  In the 14th century
     the 3rd Karma-pa incarnation Rang-byung rdo-rje said of the
     place that "As there are sacred manifestations of the dikws as
     people of all kinds, and animals, and various beasts of prey and
     game one should not cause harm, and should generate a posi-
     tive view towards everything [at Tsa-ri] because one cannot
     know just how they will appear." Thus any threat to, or taidng
     of life was ruled out, and the region became a Buddhist nature
     sanctuary.  At least in the main Tsa-ri valley to the east of the
     holy mountain, in the area between the Kong-mo pass and
     Klo-mi Khyim-bdun (Migyitiln) village, the taking of all life,
     animal and insect, was prohibited and even the tilling of soil for
     crop cultivation was banned.
         How did the Tsa-ri sanctuary function and what were the'
     implications of its operation?  From what I presently know,
     within the fixed boundaries local Tibetans for the most part
     respected the prohibitions, although they continued to hunt
     game and cultivate crops immediately adjacent to the area. 28
     Tsa-ri received many thousands of pilgrims annually, and due
     to the nature of Tibetan pilgrimage practice and motivation it
     was much less of a problem for them to obey the prohibitions29
     than it was for the local inhabitants.  Nevertheless, total
     protection could not be achieved because of political difficulties
     associated with the region!s location along an ill-defined
     frontier, and during certain seasons parties of Ariinachal Daflas
     hunted game in the sacred area regardless of Tibetan prohibi-
     tions?o Ironically, the Tibetan Government encouraged hunting
     in the general. region as the Lhasa authorities required
     Tsa-ri-bas to supply them with musk (gla-rtsi) and bear's gall
     (doin-mkhris) when village representatives were given an annual
     grant of grain in return for managing resthouses (tshul-khang)
     on the holy mountain.  As a result Tsa-ri-bas hunted many musk
     deer and bears just outside of the central pilgrimage area.          
     While nature was left unexploited within a defined area,
     humans had to adapt and as traditional agriculture and hunting
     were disallowed there was a considerable economic impact on
     those who resided in the villages throughout the Tsa-ri district.
     Not only did the Tsa-ri-bas have to purchase or trade their food
     stocks from adjacent crop growing regions,   but they also had to
     meet the regular tax obligations imposed by government admi-
     nistrators, and the local aristocrats in hia-yul.  While tax
     obligations were partly discharged by performing corvee labour
     ('u-lag) and through servicing  pilgrims and officials visiting the
     holy sanctuary, Tsa-ri-bas were forced to spend much time on
     extensive begging tours (sanctioned by the goverm-nent) to
     obtain food, and to accumulate cash and trade items necessary
     for later food purchases and remaining tax payments. The
     restrictions also lead to inflation in the local economy, and what
     food there was to be purchased within the Tsa-ri district itself
     was very expensive, with traders at times making food supplies
     the object of speculations
        To my present knowledge the Tsa-ri sanctuary was unique
     in Tibet in terms of its size, the prohibition on cultivation and
     the extent to which it effected conununity economics and
     lifestyle.  If Tsa-ri is an example of a positive link between
     Buddhist beliefs and nature protection we should note that the
     doctrines so often cited in relation to Buddhist environmental
     protectionism, such as the prohibition on the taking of life, and
     theories of causality and karma were not the fundamental basis
     for the existence of the Tsa-ri sanctuary, although they
         undoubtedly helped maintain it in practice.  Rather, it was based
         on an esoteric Tantric tradition concerning embodiment (kdya)
         which became applied in a very particular way in a unique
         Tibetan religious context.  AJso, generally comparing the Tsa-ri
         sanctuary in traditional society with the existence of ;nodem
         parks and preserves in present-day Asia and elsewhere it is
         interesting to see that some of the same issues, such as
         poaching, political boundaries and effects on local econoniies
         and people's lives are resonant tliemes.  Vigoda maintains that
         ,g ... the Tibetan experience is of relevance to us today." (p.33),
         and I respond that we must meet the challenge of looking very
         closely and critically at the past to see if, and exactly how, it
         might inform us constructively regarding our own present and

         Concluding Remarks

         In recent years there has been a blossoming dialogue between
         the proponents of religious systems such as Buddhism and the
         ecology movement."' I believe such exchanges are vital if we are
         to evolve a new worldview. to check processes of global
         environmental degradation.  This is also a time when many
         people (including myself) are looking towards the traditional
         values and lifestyles of pre-modern societies to inspire and help
         put into practice our growing environmental consciousness, and
         I also consider this to be a valuable exercise.  However, there is
         now increasing scholarly recognition of a gap between the
         'ideal' and the 'real' (i.e. what was believed and what was
         actually done) in presentations of how pre-modem societies
         lived in relation to the natural-world.  There is a noted tendency
         to idealise life in traditional societies, particularly those whose
         belief systems have been adopted as a spiritual basis for the
         modern ecology movement.  While looking at past ways of living
         in places like Tibet we should, as scholars, be careful not to
         distort the historical and ethnographic record of those societies
         in order to strengthen our own case.


       1.  In introducing this section Vigoda gates 44 ... Budih*,m in Tibetan areas is
           distinct from its practice elsewhere by virtue of its integration (rather than
           expulsion) of these early indigenous influences.,, (p.26). Howmr, it
           should be pointed out that all major anthropological studies of other
           Asian Buddhist cultures contradict this assertion.
       2.  See Gyatso (1986), pp-93-4; Stein (1972), pp.27, 79.
       3.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the saint's portrait, including a small
           vignette of his mining operation (found in the upper right-hand conier),
           appeared in a recent Chinese collection of a new style of Sino-Tibetan
           painting, see dkar-mdws Bod-ris (1987), 'Thang-stong rgyal-po' by
           Blo-bzang Byang-chub and skal-bzang Ye-shes, plate 35, p.41. Many of
           these images have been carefully chosen and constructed to subtly cast
           traditional Tibetan icons and culture into the mould of the modern
           Chinese historiography of Tibet, and also the ideals of the Communist
           state, such as technological advance and increased production and
           development, for which the figure of Thang-stong as traditional engineer
           and miner, etc., is ideally suited (note also the similarity of the image to
           Karl Marx in the portraiture of Socialist Realism!).
     4.    Markham (1989), p.316-17.
     5.    Bailey (1914), p.36 & (1957), pp.187-88, 193; Bell (1928), pp.110-111;
           Hedin (1909), pp.279, 287, 324; Norbu (1960), p.53; Pranavananda (1949),
           pp.49-51; Sherring (1974), pp.156,302; Waddell (1905), pp.474-5 & 'Map
           of Route to Lhasa' at end of volume.
     6.    Sherring (1974), p.302; Hedin (1909), p.324, also mentions the
           'Serpun-lam' (Tib. = gser-dpon lam ) as the road along which the officials
           traveled to levy the gold tax.
     7.    Bailey (1914), p.36 & (1957), p.188; On E as a famous gold-bearing region
           see Karsten (1980), p.163.
     8.    Pranavananda (1949), p.49 on Lhasa gold trade; Waddell (1905), p.102 on
           gold trade to India via Phari, and p.478 on gold and silver exports via
           other routes.
     9.    Bailey (1914), pp.32-3
     10.   Bailey (1914), pp.35-6
     11.   Sherring (1974), pp.263,302 on borax mines; Pranavananda (1949), pp.49,
           51 on borax and lead mines.
     12.   Waddell (1905), p.475.
     13.   Sherring (1974), p.302; Pranavananda (1949), p.49.
     14.   When the 13th Dalai Lama returned to Tibet from his exile in Darjeeling
           in 1913 he signaled a new, but short-lived, era of modernization in a
           general proclamation issued at the time; with regard to development he
           stated such things as, "Tibet is a country with rich natural
           resources ... Some local officials and landowners are jealously obstructing
           other people from developing vacant lands ... People with such intention [as

         obstructing] are enemies of the State and our progress." see Goldstein
         (1989), p.61. One of the four young aristocrats sent to England by the
         Dalai Lama at this time for a Western education studied                in'm&
         Goldstein, pp.158-9, n.24; and a survey of the mineral wealth of Tibet was
         conducted in the early 192Ct, Goldstein, p.12L The progress of these and
         other modemisations was thwarted mainly by the Tibetan clerical elite
         and monastic institutioin, not because of Buddhist beliefs or ethics, but
         because they were seen as a threat to the continued increase of their
         wealth and status in Tibetan society.
     15. Bell (1928), p.111.
     16. Ekvall (1964), p.75.
     17. Some examples are given by EkvaH (1964), pp.75-6.
     18. Goldstein & Beall (1990), pp.124-8.
     19. An exception is the 14th Dalai lama's elder brother who says of life in
         A-mdo, "AJtogether, hunting played quite a role in our lives@ because
         there was plenty of game in the neWibourhood.", Norbu (1960), pp.55-6.
     20. See for example Richardson (1986), pp.34,65 on the monastic demand for
         large furs and the involvement in hunting of Tibetan clerics; and Norbu
         (1986), pp.61-3 for an interesting account of wild yak hunting, and pp.70-1
         on export of game products from Eastern Tibet; also an earlier source,
         Combe (1926), pp.110-11, on hunting and the fur and game products trade
         in parts of Khams; on the use of exotic skins by the elite see also the
         plates in Tsgrong (1990) of the Dalai LamA's leopard skin tent (p.4) and
         tiger skins used in marriage rituals (p.73).
     21. One still finds this ethical tension between clerics and laity in Tibetan
         communities today.  An excellent published example of it in a Tibetan
         community is found recurring in a series of traditional autobiographies of
         Dol-po lamas which span the 15th-16th centuries, see SncUgrovc (1967),
         all the refs. to 'hunting' in index, A classical model for this relationship
         in Tibetan society is found in the popular story of the saint Mi-la Ras-pa's
         conversion of the deer hunter Khyi-ra-ba mgon-po rdo-de, we Chang
         (1977), pp.275-86.
     22. WaddeU (1905), pp.480-3 lists at least 15 different fur species available in
         Lhasa markets in 1903-4, including Himalayan tiger, snow leopard, bear
         and also trophy stag's heads for sale; see p.478 on fur and musk exports
         from Lhasa; Bailey (1914), p.33, 35 on musk trade and exports;
         Richardson (1986), pp.34; Combc (1926), pp.110.
     23. My knowledge of the modern fur trade was pined while in Tibet during
         1987 and 1990; see also Goldstein and Be&U (1990), p.124 & W.
     24. See especially Goldstein (1989), pp-3-37.
     25. The beat Western sources on the sacred landscape of Tsa-ri are Martin
         (1988), pp.356-7, (see also his article and bibliography on the area); and
         Stein (1988), pp.37-43.
     26. Kun-grip Chos-kyi snang-ba, E17a,7-17bl: / sna tshogs mi dang dud'gro
         dang // gcan gzan ri dwags sna tshogs la // mkha"gro'i rnam 'phrul dag
         pa yis // ji ltar ston pa mi shes phyir // bsdigs pai mi bya dag snang

       Z7.  Bailey (1914), pp.10, 68, and p.7 of Morshead's report in the same
            volume; Bailey (1957), pp.198,202.
       28.  Interview with Tsa-ri-ba Sonam Pagyal in Rajpur, February 1991; Bailey
            (1914), pp.10, 69.     -
       29.  It is common for Tibetans to renounce activities such as any taking of life
            (e.g. hunting, and even killing vermin insects) while on pilgrimage so as
            to increase the merit generated by the observance.  Pilgrimage also helps
            eliminate the defdcments one accumulates due to actions such as the
            taking of life.  Worship at Tsa-ri was regarded as particularly effective for
            this purpose.  Padma dkar-po, p.90, said of Tsa-ri that "Circumambulating
            it is the most excellent means of purifying dordements." (/ 'di bskor ba
            ni sdig sgrib sbyong ba'i thabs mchog yin pa ... /).
       30.  Bailey (1914), pp.11,19; This fact may explain the observation by Bailey
            and Morshead that, "As no animals may be killed in the district we were
            rather surprised to see no game and very little signs of animal life at an
            except in the main Tsari valley.". pp.11-12.
       31.  Interview with Tsa-ri-ba Sonam PagyaL Feb. 1991.
       32.  Interviews with Tsa-ri-ba Sonam Pagyal and Sherab Gyatsho Jan.-Feb.
            1991, and rtsa-ri Tshul-pa bKra-shis-lags, ms. pp.20-24 on taxation details
            and subsistence beggin& According to them Tsa-ri-bas went as far as
            Kong-po, Dar-rtse-mdo (Tachienlu) on the Sz=huan'border and to
            Western Tibet (stod) and Darjeeling in order to live by begging; see also
            Bailey (1914), p.10 who records their visits to spo-smad and Tawang.  The
            Lhasa authorities and high ranking clerics from the 'Brug-pa and
            'Bri-gung-pa sects issued the Tsa-ri-bas with slong-)dg ('begging
            certificates') to sanction this activity.
       33.  Bailey (1914), p.11, and Morshead's report, p.7; Bailey (1957), 201.
       34.  On Buddhism see for example Dhanna Gaia A Harvest of Essays on
            Buddhism aiid EcoloV, (1990); Tree of Life.  Buddhism and Protection of
            Nature, (1987).


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