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Tibetan Culture and Environment

The protection of the environment is of course important, but what about other environments? Khenpo Sogargye Rinpoche discusses not only conserving our physical environment, plants, and animals, but talks about protecting the Tibetan cultural environment and how purifying our inner environment is essential as well.

Preview

“It is extremely important to protect our external environment, but what is even more important is our inner environment. Without protecting our inner environment, even if we live in an extraordinarily luxurious house and have a very good outer environment, we will not be able to live a happy life.”

Speech from Khenpo Sodargye

Protecting Tibetan Culture and Environment

Introduction by Professor Emily Yeh

Khenpo is a teacher of the Nyingma school and is very well known in China and Tibet. Born in 1962, he is from the Chinese province of Sichuan and this is his first trip back to the US since his last visit to Boulder, twenty years ago.

In addition to being a well-known Buddhist teacher, he’s done a lot in terms of promoting vegetarianism and other environmental issues within the Tibetan and Chinese communities. He has also become an important figure in spreading Buddhism among both Tibetans and Chinese.

Protecting Tibetan Culture and Environment

I’m delighted to be here today to discuss both Tibetan culture and environmental protection, at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Twenty years ago, in 1993, I was here at the university and had the opportunity to participate in discussions with students and scholars. I was quite young at that time. As I think back on it today, back then I accompanied His Holiness Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche to this place. Now, it is nearly 10 years, since he has entered parinirvana, and so, many feelings come up for me when I think about that trip.

I hear that Colorado is geographically quite like Tibet and I know that many teachers and students here attach great importance to the Tibetan culture and its environment. Personally, I regard the Tibetan culture and its environment to be as precious to me as my life, and I have a strong awareness of the need for their protection. In comparison to many other places Tibet is not nearly as vast, and the total population is far smaller. However, in terms of Tibetan religion and culture, I believe it would be worthwhile if people all over the world worked together to protect and propagate its unique heritage. This is something, about which I feel very definite.

So what makes Tibetan culture so worthwhile of protection? Of all the nations and regions of the world, Tibet possesses many unique features. I am not exaggerating this just because I am a Tibetan. Historians and archeologists who have spent many years studying its culture have acknowledged its uniqueness.

The traditional Tibetan approach to study is quite different from that of modern times. Tibetan people are creative in their thought process and meticulous when it comes to the study of underlying principles. This way of thinking is not a result of spoon-feeding nor does it follow a strictly regimented pattern. Instead, it is the result of ongoing innovations led by the wisdom of scholars from the past.

Debate is highly emphasized in Tibet as a tool that can effectively enhance one’s knowledge and wisdom. Why? When one person’s opinion contradicts another’s, they are allowed and encouraged to refute their opponent’s position. This maintains a very open kind of thinking.

I’ve said that Tibet has a long history. From the first king of Tibet, Nyatri Tsenpo, to King Langdarma represents a time span of 1,600 years. The longevity of this dynasty, which lasted from 825 B.C. to 842 A.D., is very rare in world history. For the purpose of comparison, in China’s early history, there are the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties; of these, the Zhou Dynasty, which is a comparatively long one, actually lasted for only 700 years. Compared to the history of America, the history of Tibet is remarkably long.

The traditional Tibetan approach to study is quite different from that of modern times. Tibetan people are creative in their thought process and meticulous when it comes to the study of underlying principles. This way of thinking is not a result of spoon-feeding nor does it follow a strictly regimented pattern. Instead, it is the result of ongoing innovations led by the wisdom of scholars from the past.

Tibetan Medicine, History, Literature and Architecture

Tibetan Medicine, History, Literature and Architecture

Tibetan medicine is also a unique part of this culture. Its studies of human anatomy and surgery can be traced back to the 7th century. At that time, surgery was already being performed on the eye and heart, and detailed anatomical diagrams of the human body appeared in the medical literature. Current anthropologists agree that this is quite amazing.

If we turn our attention to the subject of Tibetan food, tsampa, which is a staple of the Tibetan diet, is also, I believe, the healthiest, and longest lived, fast food in the world. According to historical records, this convenient food has been around for more than 1,000 years.

Although the Tibetan population is very small, the number of commentaries written by the wise masters in Tibetan history is huge compared to other nations. Some Harvard professors have said that a collection of commentaries this extensive is very rare in human history. We visited Boston a few days ago, and in the course of their research on Tibetan literature, they have collected nearly 17,000 Tibetan books. We all agreed that this is one of the treasures of mankind and should belong to the whole world.

In Tibetan history, the Epic of King Gesar comprises over 140 volumes. The sheer size of this is in itself, rare among all epics in the world. Tibetan history makes note of Thonmi Sambhota, as the earliest Tibetan student to study abroad, having left Tibet around 630 A.D. to study in India. On his return, he invented the Tibetan script, thereby ending Tibet’s previous history of illiteracy. Although, many of my friends despair of the fact that these days, very few Tibetan students study abroad, I tell them that Tibetans had students traveling abroad to study 1,300 or 1,400 years ago. This phenomenon is itself very rare for other nations.

At that time, King Songtsen Gampo sent one minister, Thonmi Sambhota to India and another minister to China for study. The latter invited Princess Wencheng of China and Princess Tritsun of Nepal to Tibet. History has his name recorded as Gar Tongtsen and he was the first diplomat to create diplomatic relationships between Tibet and China and Nepal. These countries also created notable economic and cultural exchanges with Tibet, amongst which were the gift of two Jowo Buddha statues that were brought to Tibet from China and Nepal and the building of the Jokhang and Ramoche temples in Lhasa, where the statues were installed. At that time, this was likely regarded as a cultural as well as an economic exchange.

Before the construction of the Jokhang Temple, the landform of Tibet was examined and found to be shaped like an ogress lying on her back. They chose to build the Jokhang Temple on the ogress’s chest because if a monastery had not been built there, according to local belief, the whole culture might have come to some harm.

I believe that the art of Tibetan architecture was already very advanced by that time, and that at that point in history, there were not many countries that had achieved such an advanced degree of skill in building and construction, which when combined with their skills in architecture and design, resulted in the Jokhang Temple being built for the king’s two brides. Although, different versions of its history exist, it is certain that the palace was built by combining elements of Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan traditions.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa is an iconic symbol of Tibetan culture for its design as well as its structure. In terms of design, at that time, such high buildings were extremely rare. Nevertheless, the lofty and magnificent palace, which was designed and built 1300 years ago, has now been standing for over thirteen centuries. Admittedly, it has had some restoration and repair done since that time, but the main construction and structure hasn’t changed much in over 13 centuries. In comparison, many modern concrete structures are in need of rebuilding, not long after being completed. So I think the people of that time had quite some amazing knowledge and wisdom.

As I mentioned, Jokhang Temple was actually built on the chest of the above-mentioned ogress. Further monasteries were built on each of her four limbs to suppress her negative influence. Such use of feng shui, or in other words, close attention being paid to natural landforms and environment, has contributed greatly to the long-term preservation of Tibetan culture.

Preserving Tibetan Plants and Animals

Over a very long time, Tibetans have successfully managed to preserve their culture and traditions. However, on the other hand, the effects of the industrial revolution have done a great deal of damage to, and affected various aspects of, the Tibetan environment; i.e. many forests have deteriorated, much grassland has been degraded, many rivers have dried up, and many rare species of plants and animals are becoming extinct.

One example are Tibetan antelopes who, in recent times, have become nearly extinct. This is, in fact, related to commerce. It is said that in the 18th century, the French emperor, Napoleon, presented a Shahtoosh shawl, made of the underwool of Tibetan antelopes, to his wife Josephine. She loved it so much that she ordered 400 more. This led to Shahtoosh shawls becoming very popular and being sold at extremely high prices throughout Europe. The result is that, back on the grasslands of Tibet, Tibetan antelopes are on the endangered species list. I have also heard it said that the leather from Tibetan antelopes is highly prized and very expensive. Experts now say that there are approximately 50,000 Tibetan antelopes remaining in the world, but that doesn’t keep people from hunting them in various ways. If this hunting continues, I believe that the species will gradually fall into complete extinction.

There is also an active but little-known trade in Tibetan caterpillar fungus and numerous traders make all kinds of claims for its medicinal properties. There are even claims that it can make a human immortal! As a result, many people dig up this fungus and this has caused serious damage to the Tibetan environment. When I was young, I used to herd yaks and also ate this fungus in the spring, but I never noticed that it was of any great benefit and, really, it didn’t have much effect on me.

Today our values tend to be affected by advertising and mass media as well as some under-the-table manipulation. In terms of minerals, animals, and plants, we human beings, shouldn’t dig these things out of the ground or put them to death; we should leave them some habitat in which to live out their own lives.

When I came to the U.S., I found that there was not much mining going on here. This is really good. We should preserve the resources of the planet for the following generations. Actually, in our world, many precious treasures deserve our protection, however, rather than protecting these treasures, people continue to mine for gold and various other minerals and to cut down forests on a massive scale. Instead of creating a relationship with nature that will bring us benefit, all this destruction of nature will bring adverse effects on us. If we cause too much damage, the counterforces of nature will bring all kinds of disasters into our lives.

Hence, in Tibetan culture, we emphasize purifying the inner environment by removing such negative emotions as desire and hatred. Actually, more than we need the wealth of outer material resources, we need compassion and wisdom, and the wealth of love and spirituality. If we could recognize the nature of our minds or develop true altruism, then even if we lived in a very bad environment, we would still be very happy.

Inner and Outer Environmental Protection

Inner and Outer Environmental Protection

I have heard that many intellectuals in the U.S. pay great attention to environmental protection. I think this is very meaningful, and I’m also making efforts on that front. We should make ourselves aware of the current state of our environment and find methods to protect it from further damage, and also to find remedies to repair the damage that has already been done. When the history of humanity is written, we don’t want to be regarded as its destroyers.

So it is extremely important to protect our external environment, but what is even more important is our inner environment. In this regard, there is abundant knowledge in Tibetan culture. Without protecting our inner environment, even if we live in an extraordinarily luxurious house and have a very good outer environment, we will not be able to live a happy life. There are many people who live in luxury homes, drive high-class cars and wear brand-name clothes, that still experience immense suffering and depression. Therefore, it’s very important for the younger generation to find a mind of peace and inner happiness.

Our minds contain a lot of distorted thinking, such as competitiveness, hatred, and desire. All of these improper mental activities constantly disturb us. If we do not gain a genuine mastery of inner happiness and contentment, then no matter how abundant our material resources, we still will not feel the vastness of inner calm.

Hence, in Tibetan culture, we emphasize purifying the inner environment by removing such negative emotions as desire and hatred. Actually, more than we need the wealth of outer material resources, we need compassion and wisdom, and the wealth of love and spirituality. If we could recognize the nature of our minds or develop true altruism, then even if we lived in a very bad environment, we would still be very happy.

Actually, Buddhist education has had a direct impact on Tibetan culture. This culture, in turn, directly influences the environment. More than 99% of Tibetans are religious followers. Therefore, they possess an inner self-discipline rather than relying on being disciplined only by the law. The law is a kind of passive control, while religious faith is a natural tool of self-discipline. So, regardless of which school I travel to, I make an appeal to them to cultivate correct faith. If you do not have a religious belief, it’s better for you to have a faith in the truth.

I believe that a genuine and good religious faith is actually a faith in the truth. Without faith in the truth, if you live only to earn money desperately, seek temporary emotional happiness, and pursue an elevated status and reputation, in the end you will not gain happiness. This kind of faith in the truth can be developed in peaceful places, such as Tibet or Colorado, because the wisdom and love of human beings actually interacts with the natural environment.

I went to the national park yesterday. Although the heavy snow prevented us from entering, I was very happy being in the forest. I told my hosts that if we were to have a retreat here, our innate wisdom would surely arise. A while ago, I stayed in some tall urban buildings and felt very uncomfortable. It seems that it’s very hard for me to practice inner wisdom and compassion inside those buildings. Therefore, it seems to me, that we humans have a greater need for inner peace and an altruistic mind, than for material wealth, no matter how abundant.

University of Colorado Boulder