High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an essay that was originally written by Reba Gerong Tsering in 2015 but circulated more recently on the official WeChat channel of Tibetan poet Gade Tsering on August 15, 2016.
The essay concerns the waste, litter and general detritus left by pilgrims who circumambulate Mount Khawa Karpo in eastern Tibet. Although the situation has reportedly improved, it seems as though the amount of waste and litter from last year had caused organised trips, such as this one on the YoWangdu website, to be cancelled. By the end, the essay is a plea to religious seniors, both Buddhist and Bon, to promote environmental awareness in accordance with religious texts.
In 2013, High Peaks Pure Earth translated a poem by Reba Gerong Tsering titled “Three Tibetans” that had been published on his TibetCul blog and before that, in 2012, another poem also by him titled “The Fragrant Flower of Freedom”.
“Tibetans, I Ask You to Go On Pilgrimage In A Civilised Manner!”
By Reba Gerong Tsering
From ancient times until the present day, Tibetans would endow all mountains, lakes, rivers, trees, pieces of land, stones and animals with a name, a specific temperament and emotions, and they would regard them as having a body of flesh just like human beings. We firmly believe that the universe is made up of an “internal and external existence” (we could also call it an “outer shell and an inner heart”) and thus all living things need to be cherished and treated with respect. Why do I say “internal and external existence”? It is like the entire universe is an egg; its core nurtures a diverse range of organisms and living beings, while its shell is the natural world, it is what holds the world together. People’s (that is all living things) relationship with the natural world is like the relationship between the egg shell and the egg core.
The year of the sheep is the birth year of Mount Khawa Karpo. Like many Tibetans who practice either Bon or Tibetan Buddhism, I used this opportunity to join four friends from Kyiltang to embark on a pilgrimage around this sacred mountain.
When circumambulating Mount Khawa Karpo, one passes through Dechen county of Dechen Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province, Dzayul County of Nyingtri Prefecture in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Dzogang County of Chamdo Prefecture and other areas. One needs to cross Natong La (in Tibetan it means “where one can see the top of the snowy mountain peak”) at an elevation of over 4800 metres, Doker La (in Tibetan it means “stone steps mountain”) at an elevation of over 4400 metres and Sho La (in Tibetan it means “cedar mountain”) at an elevation of 4200 metres. If one walks the entire route, one needs at least eight or nine days to complete it.
The exotic scenery that one encounters along the circumambulation path is majestic but also charmingly elegant. The pure and fresh climate washes all the dirt and filth off one’s heart. But what we saw in his beautiful environment made us feel very sad, yes even bitter hatred. The environment was intoxicated. Many pilgrims have cultivated bad habits and ignorant and uncivilised behaviour, which has turned this last piece of pure land into a rubbish dump, in some places to dangerous degrees.
The winding path follows the river and mountain stream, it leads through villages and pastures, through wild forests and along high altitude grass slopes, slowly leading towards the end point. In all of the places that pilgrims have passed, along the rivers, forests, grasslands, oaths, mountain ridges, villages and pastures, we saw piles of plastic bags, glass and plastic bottles, empty cans, plastic and stainless steel bowls, a lot of metal scrap and much other domestic rubbish.
Of course, along the slopes, local people have set up camping grounds where the passing pilgrims can camp, eat and rest. Next to these camping grounds we found white rubbish heaps, surrounded by layers of flies and bugs, looking like a thick black moving cloud, making people immediately feel nauseous.
There were some rubbish nets along the path, but they were completely full, looking like they had not been emptied for years. As a result, the bins were surrounded by piles of scattered rubbish. Pilgrims were completely unconscious as to where they put their rubbish; simply tossing it away has already become a deeply ingrained habit of these devout pilgrims. As if they are saying to you: “as long as my heart is clean, the external impurity and dirt has nothing to do with us.”
In Dzayul County, Nyingtri Prefecture, there is a small place in a narrow mountain pass, which is used as a place for worship and the lighting of butter lamps and the burning of incense. On clear days, one can see the faraway Mount Khawa Karpo peak from here. But this is also where I saw the most frightening rubbish pile. In the tiny narrow mountain pass, millions of plastic and steel bowls were piled up full of butter, tsampa and all sorts of fruit that the pilgrims had offered to the sacred mountain. It was like a big “mountain of bowls”; but there is no “bowl mountain” big enough to take on all these bowls that have accumulated and that the many pilgrims have “sacrificed” over the years. There were “bowl mountains” at the foot of the mountain and along the paths, simply everywhere, millions of them; it was shocking.
On top of the “bowl mountain” pilgrims had piled up all sorts of personal stuff, to the point that the rubbish piles exceeded the lines of prayer flags. There is a folk belief that if pilgrims place personal items of relatives on the mountain, their wrongdoings can be absolved and they can receive karmic rewards. This is why we find clothes and many other personal things hanging off trees and covering stones everywhere along the way.
What was more was that the rotting butter, tsampa and fruit exuded a foul stench; the mouldy clothes and other items mixed with butter lamps and incense created a strange smell that followed us along the path and attracted armadas of flies and mosquitos. The stench and the black cloud of flies made us feel sick and absolutely horrified.
At this point, I can hear many people arguing that this is part of a religious practice that has been formed and passed down over hundreds of thousands of years. But I ask you to wait and allow me to describe another phenomenon. The people circumambulating the mountain are prepared to walk for many days, which is why they all carry with them a walking stick. Everyone knows that the climate around Mount Khawa Karpo is warm and that the wild forests grow large patches of bamboo. Almost every single pilgrim will cut off a bamboo stick and turn it into a walking stick of the height of the respective person. This is why we find entire patches of cleared forest along the sides of the path; the vast majority of pilgrims have never cherished forests or shown awareness of environmental protection. They only need one single walking stick, but will cut down many bamboo sticks so as to be able to carefully choose one. I saw so many on my way, some even carrying two or three sticks whose height was on average 1.5 to 2 metres and thick like a wrist.
Just think about the ecology of the plateau and how many years it takes for a bamboo sprout to grow into a tree of the thickness of a wrist. People say that the bamboo at the foot of the mountain is particularly blessed and strong and cannot compare to any ordinary walking sticks. So they cut down a few extra ones to bring back home to accumulate good karma.
What was even more shocking was what we saw on the road from Tsawarong Village in Dzayul County to Bulthog in Chamdo. Along the main road, there is a place where rocks from holy Mount Khawa Karpo are picked up. We saw a massive cliff and on its side there was a huge pile of ash grey crushed and broken stones that must have been tumbling down the mountain for many years; it looked as if someone had used a jackhammer to knock out stones from the mountain top all the way to the main road.
We were shattered when we actually did find several old stone crushing machines on a small platform next to the road. A local fellow told us that about two years ago, a Chinese construction manager realised that the stones that come rolling down the mountain year by year are breaking into pieces and that one can crush them a little bit more to then sell them as gravel to construction teams. With the help of the local government, he managed to purchase some old machines and started this extremely lucrative gravel business. Many construction teams came here to buy. But then surprisingly, all of a sudden, this clever businessman took the money that the local government and several construction teams had lent him to purchase the machinery and escaped without repaying the huge debts that he had with villagers, he just disappeared overnight.
I don’t know how, but suddenly many fellow pilgrims ran over to the machines and started picking up “holy stones”. The local fellow who had told the story shouted: “not those stones, not those! Those are the ones crushed by the machine. The place to pick up holy stones is down there”. But of course, people did not care about what he said, they all just shovelled gravel into their backpacks and pockets, pushing each other out of the way. They all thought that bringing back a few more holy stones would bring good luck to their homes.
We can say that the mix of Indian Buddhism and the local Tibetan Bon religion attaches great importance to environmental protection from the spiritual to the material world. We can see this from the two ancient environmental works “A Guide To the Bodhisattva Way Of Life” and “Liturgical Text Addressed to the Earth Deities for Propitiation and Atonement for Transgressions”. “A Guide To the Bodhisattva Way Of Life” states: “If for no reason I start digging the earth, picking at the grass or drawing patterns on the ground, then by recalling the advice of the Buddhas, I should immediately stop out of fear.” “When I spit or throw away the stick for cleaning my teeth, I should cover it up with earth. Also it is shameful to urinate and so forth in water or on land used by others….”
To prevent air pollution, one of the biggest taboos in Tibetan culture is the burning of dirty items such as plastics, old cloth or hair in kitchen stoves or open fires. Burning incense, in contrast, is a tradition of the Bon religion; the Tibetan word for “incense” means “to eliminate” or “to purify”. So the purpose of burning incense is to purify the air, a much more effective way to clean the air than today’s “air purifiers”. In the past, people would put gold, silver, copper or metals in clay pots and then bury them in the crop lands, making sure that the various elements in the soil would not change and that the ecological balance is maintained. With regards to fertilisers, Tibetans have always relied on the excrements of domestic animals as well as dried leaves. These natural fertilisers contained no chemical elements at all and would thus never harm people. People always believed that the most severe wrongdoing was to “set fire in forests or to put poison into water”. Also, “man, horse and dog are three of the same kind”. “The water is as pure as the mother” etc. These proverbs all emphasise the interconnectedness and interdependence between human beings, nature and all living things.
Rats and locusts are regarded as “harmful animals” in many places. But interestingly, in my homeland, people respect and cherish the two; they will not only not be harmed, rats are even given glorified names like “beautiful girl”, while locusts are seen as the reincarnation of Buddhist disciples. In my homeland, there have been no cases of “locust plague” or “rodents”.
When people go up the mountain, and if they carry food with them, they would always crush tsampa or biscuits with their hands and feed them to insects, birds or ants. Our ancestors did not go fishing or hunting. Fishermen, hunters or butchers were regarded as serious criminals; even in today’s Tibet, there are not many people pursuing such careers, unless they absolutely need to do it to make a living. When going to the mountains to collect firewood, the biggest taboo was to cut off any small trees that did not exceed the height of humans. People believed that cutting down such small trees was like cutting short the life of a human being and was thus regarded as a crime.
In my hometown, when I sneeze or belch, I must always cover my mouth and nose with my hands; the elderly always told us that sneezing is not only contagious, but would also scare and hurt the many material and invisible living creatures living around us. After sneezing or belching one would immediately pray and confess to the three jewels of Buddhism, pray for all the living creatures that they did not get harmed in any way.
Our ancestors created and left us with the at the time most advanced and comprehensive theories for environmental protection; but all this is yesterday’s glory; yesterday’s rainfall cannot satisfy today’s thirst. Facing today’s industrial revolution and breathtaking technological development, many of the old wisdoms and theories that emphasised stability are no longer suitable in addressing or solving the many new problems and conflicts. For example, how should be deal with pollution caused by relatively new things like electronic waste, plastic, synthetic fibre and glass? We are in urgent need of a new “A Guide To the Bodhisattva Way Of Life”, a new”Liturgical Text Addressed to the Earth Deities for Propitiation and Atonement for Transgressions” and new environmental protection theories.
Because of the special reality of most Tibetans strongly believing in Buddhism or the Bon religion, all senior monks of all monasteries must take up the responsibility and set themselves to call upon and guide Buddhists to cherish the environment. For religious Tibetans, there is nothing more important than the words coming from the monasteries; so if monasteries and senior monks who really care for all living creatures stand up and guide the people, it will be the most direct, easiest and most effective way to achieve something that is undoubtedly of boundless virtue, namely benefitting all living creatures. If any wise scholar who really regards all living creatures on earth as his mother can use his compassionate intelligence to write new environmental protection doctrines and actively advocate these, it would also be extraordinarily beneficial to all human beings.
It is time for all of you, senior monks and important monasteries, to carry on, innovate and develop the traditional linkage between religious teachings and environmental protection that former generations have created for us. It is time to step out of your closed-off ivory towers and enter into real life, come to the people and examine yourself your homeland that has been besieged by rubbish piles and severe pollution.
I am not trying to fan fear; but what I am describing is not only true for Mount Khawa Karpo, Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar, Lhamo Lha Tso and many other mountains and lakes whose names we do not even know, it is true for all rivers and the entire vast area that has been intoxicated by layers upon layers of rubbish.
Tibetans, I ask you to abandon all these bad habits, to correct your behaviour and to go on pilgrimages in a civilised manner. I ask you to learn and truly understand the teachings and ideas of Shenrab Miwo, to cherish and protect the environment and to help build a clean and beautiful homeland for all living creatures. Only this would be a truly benevolent and virtuous deed, only this would be a true source of karmic rewards.
This post is also available in: English