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TIBET: Enduring Spirit, Exploited Land

Ecology of the Land and People


To an outsider, the traditional Tibetan way of life may appear simple, even primitive. But behind this unpretentious lifestyle lies an elaborate network of laws, codes, and ethics, a complex philosophy whose roots reach back thousands of years to religious traditions that preceded even the arrival of Buddhism on the Tibetan Plateau. An exiled abbot, the Venerable Lama Tashi Gyaltsen of the Dip Tse-Chok-Ling Tibetan Monastery School, said during an interview in Dharamsala, India: "When Buddhism came to Tibet... love, respect and compassion for all sentient beings definitely came to Tibet. I think there were many Bodhisattvas before Buddha also. I think the respect for all land was there even before Buddhism was introduced to Tibet. [But] the way we perceived things may have been different then."


Thus a careful stewardship of Tibet's fragile ecology was maintained while both material and spiritual needs were served. Tibetan refugees living in India told us that they had lived with these values all of their lives. For Tibetans, the environment was treated not as a force outside the human community but as an integral aspect of all human endeavors. Nomads and farmers developed a sense of belonging to the environment and an awareness of their dependence on the natural world: if they exploited their environment they were in essence exploiting and hurting themselves. The Tibetan attitude toward the environment fostered an atmosphere of cooperation rather than competition. In the Tibetan economic system, animals such as yaks, sheep, and goats represented personal wealth. However, the land, with its water and grazing rights, was shared by nomads and semi-nomads, a system markedly different from the Western practice of land ownership.

Tibetans used little wood for either fuel or building. They used yak dung for heating and cooking, and built mainly with mud and stone. Tibetans traditionally took care of their forests. For example, we were told by Alak Tsayi, a fifty-two-year-old monk from Tsayi in Amdo, that prior to 1950 "the forests in each region would be the property of the people of that region. If there were any forests near a monastery, they would be under the monastery's control. If one was near a village, the villagers would have authority over that forest. [We were] told that if [we] cut a lot of trees, the value, the fertility of the land would finish off."

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