“Superstition Is The Cause Of Environmental Destruction” By Thubten Phuntsok

High Peaks Pure Earth presents the English translation of a Tibetan language article by Tibetan scholar Professor Thubten Phuntsok which was posted online on July 16, 2019. That day corresponded with the Buddhist festival of Universal Prayer Day or Dzam Ling Chi Sang.

Professor Thubten Phuntsok’s strong views on religion and Buddhism have been seen before, in 2015 we published his message to Tibetan youth in which he stated:

Actually in today’s society, the relationship between Lamas, the leaders and the people has come to look like a triangular fire pit. All the Lamas and Trulkus are afraid of the leadership. The leadership is afraid of the people. And the people in turn are afraid of the Lamas and Trulkus. Under such a situation, the coalition between Lama and leader, has in some Tibetan areas, in a manner contradictory to both religion and politics, become responsible for a certain way of exercising control over the people, that creates suffering for the common person. I think this is the fundamental cause of the lack of stability in society.

His views on Tibetan language have also been the subject of much discussion online. The article below looks at Buddhist practices which he sees as questionable and the knock on effect they have on the environment. Several points of criticism include the practice of saving animal lives and the Ten Virtues propagated by many influential lamas.

As always, a huge thank you to Bhuchung D. Sonam for the English translation.

“Superstition Is The Cause Of Environmental Destruction”
By Thubten Phuntsok

The level of progress in a country
Depends on the standard of people’s education,
The great advancement in scientific education
Led to the progress in Europe as we see.

Focus on science and avoid superstition
Respect the law of the land and avoid religious decrees,
If one embraces material advancement
Empty illusive beliefs will gradually vanish.

In order to have a healthy mind and body
A clean natural environment is necessary,
Superstitious Tibetan belief system
Leads to environmental harms as we see.

On the outside there is garbage and pollution
Inside there is the pollution of superstitions,
If one wants to avoid these two pollutions
Enter into the study of sciences.

In order to accumulate merit
One has to have aspirations to help others,
Hoisting prayer-flag for self benefits
Only leads to harm other’s well-being.

Heads and necks of wild animals get entwined
Domestic animals also get tangled,
Days and nights they suffer terribly
And die of hunger, what a pity.

Green grass devoid of sunrays
Steal warmth and peace from insects,
Land is turned into desert
Vegetation is cut off from the soil.

Roots of vegetation rot and
Leaves of trees dry up,
Leaves in the forests are taken away,
Superstitious prayer-flags are an ecological menace.

Treasure vases buried in the earth
Treasure boxes thrown into water bodies,
Supposedly to increase water quality
Become poisons for living things in water.

Greedy ones disguised as religious figures
Hoisting a flag of sog-lu* in Tibet,
Money accumulated by the superstitious ones
Fall into the pockets of the deceitful ones.

They buy fish from China
Which fill Tibetan waters with dead fish,
Aim to save lives only ends up killing them
Just think whether this is a good or a bad deed.

Although the great traditions and masters
Of the past did not say such a thing,
These new China lamas
Decree that everyone should become vegetarian.

Buddha, the enlightened one, in his
Two hundred and fifty-three Vinaya rules,
Did not recommend one to avoid meat,
Now how can it be decreed upon ordinary people?

These lamas and tulkus of Tibet today
Not knowing anything about Vinaya rules,
Selectively use some sutra texts to ban
Meat eating is like the ways of Hashang.**

The lamas ban beneficial diets
While monasteries sell garbage-like edibles,
In the bodies of faithful Tibetans
Rainbows of illnesses arise.

In a nutshell this foolish religion
Causes pollution to the environment,
Spreads various diseases in the bodies
And leads Tibet to a wrong path.

In order to practice Buddhism, one must first have the clear aspiration to work for the benefit of others and to avoid selfishness. Each of us, whatever we do is for self benefit alone and there is hardly anyone who does otherwise. For example, anyone in Tibet when performing religious rites, whether done by common people or religious practitioners, is for self benefit and to acquire fame. This goes without saying. If the very intention is like that then religious practices only bring about opposite results.

1. On Prayer-flags:

There are many ways in Tibet to increase one’s fortune or luck through prayer-flags. This may be an ancient tradition but certainly it is not a genuine Buddhist practice. Hoisting flags in the mountains with the hope of increasing one’s fortune is not a Buddhist aspiration. The main Buddhist principle is the law of cause and effect. Without accumulated merit from previous lives or without any genuine bodhicitta, there is no reason that by simply putting up prayer-flags in the mountaintops would bring one any good result. Contrary to this, these prayer-flags harm the wild animals since large animals like deer, wild sheep as well as domestic animals like yak, dzo, goats and sheep become entangled in this mess of prayer-flags and they die from suffocation and hunger. We see many pictures online of such cases. Countless smaller creatures such as insects who depend on soil for their livelihood also die because the soil becomes dry from climate change. Throwing up papers printed with mani and other mantras everywhere has two negative consequences – from the religious point of view it shows disrespect to the mantras; and from the scientific point of view it causes pollution to the land. Hence the throwing of paper prayer-flags is harmful both for this and the next life. This is a result of not knowing how to practice Buddhism.

Death of Animals

2. Treasure Vases:
In order to fool their patrons, fake monks and lamas these days make all kinds of terbums or treasure vases stuffed with various items claiming that these will enhance their wealth, life and luck and patrons are then made to buy them. After buying these vases, they are buried on high peaks and pure land, which are in turn carried away by water systems into lakes and seas. Many of these vases are also thrown into lakes and seas by these fake lamas and monks while chanting meaningless mantas such as hum pha hum pha etc. etc. These water bodies that have never witnessed any pollution are contaminated. Living things in these larger waters die whereas smaller water bodies dry up. Large lakes turn dirty as can be seen from many pictures available online. This too is a result of not knowing how to practice Buddhism.

3. Sog-lu or ransom:
Ransoming animals or setting them free from being slaughtered is an ancient Tibetan tradition. This was done according to astrological calculations when someone in the family has a severe illness in which case a few animals are set free in order to alleviate the sick and with hope the patient may live long. However, fake monks and lamas these days in order to gain fame and fortune have started this ransoming of animals chiefly for their superstitious Chinese patrons and ordinary people. This act has turned all the fish into money-making tools thus making three groups of people very rich i.e. fish-sellers, fake lamas, and the associations who engage in the ransom acts. But the fish suffer 1. they suffer from being caught in the first place; 2. they suffer as they are transported long distances from east to west and consequently many die because of a lack of native water. Hence water bodies are filled with dead fish and they become polluted. This too is a result of not knowing how to practice Buddhism.

4. Vegetarianism:
We live on this earth and not in heaven like deities and angels. The thought that all of us, both lay people and religious practitioners, avoid committing sins and the aspiration to march together into the realm of the Pure Land is contrary to reality. Perhaps, for a well off person, they can have a choice as to whether to have a vegetarian or meat-eating diet. But for the poor and subsistence of ordinary people, this choice does not exist. In the Kham region of eastern Tibet, because of the ban on eating meat, a large quantity of old and out of date food items from cities are transported and sold in villages where Tibetans live. This has become a kind of habit for people to show off by eating these Chinese foods. This is one of the main consequences of banning eating of meat. This too is a result of not knowing how to practice Buddhism.

5. Taking of lives:
Lamas and tulkus these days tell the nomads again and again not to kill yak, sheep and goats. As a result, fewer and fewer nomads kill their animals, which may be a good thing. But the monks in the monasteries take the wives of nomads and engage in sexual activities, and cases of lamas killing people are increasing each year. Thus, how wonderful if there is talk in the monasteries regarding the importance of not taking lives by lamas and tulkus. As you know, in Buddhism it is said that there is no greater sin than killing; and this ‘killing’ refers to killing of human beings. From the four major transgressions of the monastic vows, ‘killing’ has to have four elements of shi-sam-jor-tha or ‘basis, intent, engagement and completion’. The slaughtering of yaks and sheep do not fulfill these requisites. Thus there is a sky of difference between an ordinary person slaughtering a yak and a lama killing another human being. Perhaps, because lamas and tulkus these days only engage in the practice of the tantric great perfection, and not even glance through vinaya tradition, they may be ignorant about the pham-tung or severe violation. After reading this piece, they can spend some time to look into the vinaya practice. Perhaps, it may lead them act little more like the Buddha himself.

Tibet may be filled with monks
But the land is filled with conflicts,
They may be praying for world peace
But their land is filled with fighting.

Mountains and valleys are filled with prayer-flags
Amidst these flags are the carcasses of dead yaks,
Businessmen may ransom many fish
But dead bodies of these fish fill the water bodies.

Nomads avoid slaughtering
But lamas commit murders,
Farmers abide by the five precepts
But monks engage in sexual acts.

There are things here in Tibet
That do not exist elsewhere,
This religious education,
A la la! What a wonder!

This was written as a response to some message I saw online in the morning of 16 July, 2019.

Translator’s Notes:
* Sog-lu – lit. ransom of lives, is the act of buying and freeing animals who are to be slaughtered. These animals are generally kept separate from regular flock and are kept free until they die from natural causes.

** Hashang – lit. means a Chinese Buddhist priest. Also Hashang Mahayana was a Chinese monk who took part in the Samye debate, and is cited as an example of nihilism. Consequently, Hashang Gi Tawa or Hashang View is a view propagated in Tibet by Chinese Buddhist masters. When used in a negative sense it means to simply pursue a meditative state devoid of conceptual thinking, believing that to be the ultimate hence lacking the clarity of discriminating knowledge.

This post is also available in: Tibetan


  • Well translated.
    Thank you both Sonam and Dechen la.

  • Yes, Buddhist rituals should be conducted in harmony with the environment.

    I agree that vegetarianism is not a solution for rural areas in Tibet.
    but Tibet with its climate is really an exception.

    Vegetarianism is prescribed in the Lankavara-sutra (Lang kar gshegs pa’i mdo) and other Mahayana texts, and there was a discussion about this in Indian Buddhism.

    The Vinaya rules are for monks and nuns who were supposed to live on leftover food and they cannot be applied to normal lay followers.

    That the killing of cattle is explained as killing in detail by Vasubandhu in chapter 4 of the Abhidharmakosha (mNgon pa mdzod).

    So, we should probably think about vegetarianism by looking at the details, also in the ancient texts.

    It would be helpful to take the traditional doctrines of Buddhism into account when talking about vegetarianism.