Environmental Buddhism, landscape architecture and the Gyama Valley mining disaster in Tibet

I have been reading about Buddhist environmentalism recently. The divergent views can be summarised as follows:

  1. Many western commentators believe that Buddhism is a wholly environment-friendly faith, because of the belief in the ‘oneness’ of the world.
  2. Some western commentators (notably Ian Harris) argue that there is scaracely any basis for an environmental ethic in Early Buddhism, because it is a nihilistic faith with a soteriological emphasis on escaping from this world, rather than trying to improve it.
  3. The Dalai Lama and many other Buddhist leaders are wholehearted supporters of environmental ethics and see the ideas as inherently Buddhist.

In reading about the Dalai Lama’s views I came across this comment: “Now, environmental problems are something new to me. When we were in Tibet, we always considered the environment pure. For Tibetans, whenever we saw a stream of water in Tibet, there was no question as to whether it was safe for drinking or not. However, it was different when we reached India and other places. For example, Switzerland is a very beautiful and impressive country, yet, people say “Don’t drink the water from this stream, it is polluted!”… I remember in Lhasa when I was young, some Nepalese did a little hunting arid fishing because they were not very much concerned with Tibetan laws. Otherwise there was a real safety for animals at that time. There is a strange story. Chinese farmers and road builders who came to Tibet after 1959 were very fond of meat. They usually went hunting birds, such as ducks, wearing Chinese army uniform or Chinese clothes. These clothes startled the birds and made them immediately flyaway. Eventually these hunters were forced to wear Tibetan dress. This is a true story! Such things happened, especially during the 1970’s and 80’s, when there were still large numbers of birds. Recently, a few thousand Tibetans from India went to their native places in Tibet. When they returned, they all told the same story. They said that about forty or fifty years ago there were huge forest covers in their native areas. Now all these richly forested mountains have become bald like a monk’s head. No more tall trees. In some cases the roots of the trees are even uprooted and taken away! This is the present situation. In the past, there were big herds of animals to be seen in Tibet, but few remain today. Therefore much has changed.”
Just after reading this passage I heard of the mining disaster in the Gyama Valley (30 March 2013) in which 83 people died. This led me to look for photographs of forest clearance in Tibet, to see if this could be the cause of the problem, since deforestation so often causes erosion and flooding. I could not find any photographs, so this blog post lacks an illustration. Compared to most of the world’s religions, Buddhism has the great advantage of accepting endless change (anicca) as a fundamental characteristic of the universe and of Buddhism. Islam, by way of contrast, takes the Quran as having been passed from God to Gabriel to Muhammad. This allows some scope for new interpretations (eg in the Hadith) but none for change. Islam is fortunate in having a good base for an environmental ethic. In my view, Buddhism is also in a strong position in this regard and I hope that the reviving popularity of Buddhism in China will encourage the development of environmental ethics everywhere – and of a Buddhist approach to landscape architecture – and mining operations are a special opportunity. Christians have been working at the problem of developing an environmental ethic but have been handicapped by Lynn White’s critical stance.
See the Wiki entry on Religion and environmentalism. Religions often find it difficult to come together but environmentalism offers great opportunities in this regard. Because ‘The Environment’ was not a problem in The Axial Age there are relatively few historical positions which need to be defended.

6 thoughts on “Environmental Buddhism, landscape architecture and the Gyama Valley mining disaster in Tibet

  1. jerry

    I have been reading the history of one of the kings in Qing dynasty. His name was Kangxi. His grandson, Hongli, could answer your question about the reason the Chinese love hunting. The reason is that hunting is linked to the nature of survival ability of human. As my usual idea, reading about buddhist philosophy is much more important than learning any theory of urban planning or landscape planning. There is much more wisdom in Buddhist culture, not only about garden design. This is my real interest.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I think the reasons for the popularity of hunting are similar around the world. And I think Buddhists are generally opposed to hunting.
      I know that the Qing dynasty rulled China but since they used Manchu as the court language one could question whether it was a Chinese dynasty.

  2. jerry

    I have done lots of research about the differences between the English and the Chinese. The basic difference is on their concept of the cosmos. The Chinese have a deeper understand about ‘human and nature relationship’ then the English.
    There is an old saying: rich in 3 generations, people will have good taste in wearing clothes; rich in 4 generations, people will be good taste in making food. In Buddhist culture, riches are not about money – which is the most important thing in capitalism. Anyway, if China had not closed its door to the outside world for a long time it would now be leading the world and the world would be much better – because the Chinese have a deep understanding about harmony.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      There is definitely a lot of scope for the world to be a better place and I will be very happy if the Chinese lead the way to this happy state of affairs.
      But I do not think the man the world regards as the leader of Buddhist culture is expecting the world to benefit from Chinese leadership. He seems to associate it with environmental desctruction.
      Please could you say more about the Chinese concept of the cosmos – and also about the English conception of the cosmos.

  3. Christine

    My biggest surprise was to learn from a Tibetan monk that the giant panda is not Chinese at all, but rather endemic to Tibet!
    [ http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2009/02/08/2003435562 ]

    The panda’s drink water from the rivers and streams. For this reason the pollution of the waterways of Tibet are a serious threat to their survival too. [ http://www.pandasinternational.org/giantpanda.html ]

    It would be a wonderful gesture of peace and harmony between Tibet and China if the Pandas were returned to Tibetan care and then the Tibetans assisted the Chinese with establishing habitat and reintroducing them back into China.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I did not know about the pandas either.
      While I fully accept that Tibet has had links with China since ancient times it has also had strong links with India. What I regret about the present situation is that Tibetan culture, which has something very valuable for the whole world, is being overhwhelmed by Chinese culture. Like most people, I like to see differences between cultures and dread spread of grey globalisation. My guess is that the pandas agree with me!


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