As part of the virtual talk series on His Holiness’ three principal commitments, Venerable Chodron discusses his commitment to preserve Tibetan culture and the environment. The series can be seen on TibetTV. [Note: the talk was recorded on November 24, 2020, and broadcast on December 9, 2020.]
My appreciation to the Department of Information and International Relations for their kind invitation to speak during the occasion of the Central Tibetan Administration’s celebration of a “Year of Gratitude to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Of His Holiness’ three principal commitments: (1) to promote human values such as compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, contentment, and self-discipline; (2) to promote religious harmony and understanding among the major religious traditions in the world; and (3) to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist culture and environment, my topic is the last one: preserving Tibetan Buddhist culture and environment. The invitation letter asked me also to include suggestions and guidance that will help translate His Holiness’ thoughts and insights on these topics into actionable projects in the near future. So with my limited knowledge and abilities I’ll do my best to fulfill this request.
First I would like to talk about some of the early successes in preserving Tibetan culture that Tibetans have accomplished in exile under His Holiness’ guidance. Foremost was meeting the needs for housing, food, shelter, and clothing for the tens of thousands of refugees. Together with the Indian government, Tibetan leadership settled the monks in Buxa and later in other areas in India and found jobs doing road work for the lay people. Schools, baby homes, orphanages, and other children’s homes were established to assist these traumatized people to adapt to their new circumstances.
Within weeks of going into exile—on April 28, 1959—the Central Tibetan Administration (previously known as the Tibetan Government in Exile) was established. Set up as a parliamentary government currently based in Dharamsala, India, it was initially headed by His Holiness, with a Sikyong (prime minister) that he appointed. Since 2011, His Holiness has resigned from having a governmental position and the Sikyong is now elected. This was accomplished through His Holiness’ insistence that Tibetans become more democratic. Tibetans are the only people that I know of where the leader wants less power, and the people want him to have more!
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) is composed of a judiciary branch, a legislative branch, and an executive branch. The first parliamentary elections took place in 1960. Tibetans in diaspora vote for members of parliament. The CTA has stated that it is “not designed to take power in Tibet.” Rather, it will be dissolved “as soon as freedom is restored in Tibet” in favor of a government formed by Tibetans inside Tibet. The present cabinet consists of the heads of seven departments: the departments of Religion and Culture, Finance, Home, Education, Security, Information and International Relations, and Health. The organization of a functional government so quickly after going into exile—this alone is a tremendous achievement in terms of preserving Tibetan culture and modernizing the governmental system.
Culture consists of many facets: language, religion, history, values, the arts, crafts, tradition, and so on. Despite his withdrawal from a position in the CTA, His Holiness says, “I retain a responsibility to try to preserve Tibetan Buddhist culture, which is a culture of peace and compassion. My concern no longer is a struggle for political independence, but to focus on the preservation of Tibetan culture, religion and identity.” At present many valuable institutions to preserve and spread Tibetan culture, not only among Tibetans, but also in the world, have been established. Let’s begin with religion.
Since the seventh century, the Tibetan people have developed their own language, religion, and culture. Buddhism was also introduced at this time and it has had a singular influence on Tibetan culture. All Tibetan Buddhist traditions—Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, Jonang—as well as pre-Buddhist Bon—have been re-established in India and many have centers internationally. This is a wonderful achievement.
As religion is the part of Tibetan culture with which I am most familiar, I’d like to make some comments regarding it. First, I personally have tremendous gratitude to the Tibetan sangha and especially my spiritual mentors for sharing the precious Buddhadharma with non-Tibetans. The Buddha’s message of compassion and peace has positively impacted millions of individuals as well as numerous countries (and much more impact is needed in these challenging times).
As an example of how Buddhism infuses so many aspects of Tibetan culture and society, I recall one of the protest marches I joined where we marched through McLeod Ganj to the temple, and then down to Gangkyi. There were some shouts of “What do we want?” “Freedom.” But during most of the march we chanted the verse to generate, preserve, and increase great compassion and altruism for all sentient beings:
May the precious bodhi mind not yet born arise and grow;
May that born have no decline but increase forever more.
Nowhere else in the world have I seen a protest march where the protesters are praying to increase their goodwill and altruism in order to benefit all living beings.
His Holiness has advanced some expansive changes in monastic education. Many times he has emphasized increasing the educational opportunities for nuns and Tibetan lay followers. The nuns in the main nunneries now follow the same Dharma curriculum as the monks (save the complete Vinaya) and many have passed the geshe exams and become geshemas. This was unheard of when I first went to Dharamsala in 1976. In addition, the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics now accepts nuns, Tibetan lay students, and foreigners who join the classes with Tibetan monks. The fact that so many more people and many diverse sections of society now have access to enhanced Dharma education has vastly expanded Tibetan religious culture.
To continue to expand the audience of fortunate people who can learn and practice the Buddha’s teachings, I would like to propose that the monks in the large monasteries conduct weekly Dharma talks in the surrounding settlements, elevating lay followers’ involvement with the Dharma from making offerings and requesting pujas, to study and meditation practice. In particular, the nuns are beginning to teach Dharma classes in the settlements. This not only creates peace in families but also inspires families to send their sons to the monasteries.
The Tibetan Nuns’ Project, founded in 1987, has set up or help renovate seven monasteries with over 700 nuns in India. They have been a strong force in the formation of highly educated female teachers to the Tibetan Buddhist community and the world at large. They have also encouraged self-sufficient projects in the nunneries and worked to improve the living conditions and health of the nuns.
His Holiness also made known his wish that the nuns be able to receive bhikṣuṇī (gelongma) ordination and has encouraged much research into this topic. Unfortunately, this has not yet come to fruition, and His Holiness’s wish remains unfulfilled.
Expanding monastic education further, His Holiness approved a general education for the young monastics where they learn not only traditional Dharma topics, but also science, geography, social studies, Tibetan language, and so on. Most noticeable is the increase in science education among the adult monks and nuns, with some of them attending Emory University in the USA and then returning to India to become science teachers themselves.
In the 1990s I was able to be an observer in some of the early Mind & Life Institute conferences with His Holiness and Western scientists. It was fascinating to see how quickly His Holiness understood complex scientific theories and the depth of the questions he posed to the scientists. At the same time, His Holiness held fast to Buddhist principles: he used logic and reasoning to refute some of the scientists’ ideas such as the mind being the emergent property of the body or brain. It was also remarkable to observe the change in the scientists’ way of thinking and their behavior after having contact with His Holiness. They became more open and receptive to Buddhists ideas and a genuine, respective exchange of ideas ensued.
In the last few decades, global interest in Tibetan culture and religion has increased because more people now realize that Tibetans can contribute a lot to the world in developing inner values of peace and compassion. Even well-known scientists are now engaged in exploring and researching the scientific and philosophical aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in bringing holistic well-being to human beings irrespective of their faiths.
His Holiness has been very direct about the need to improve monastic discipline, saying quality is more important than quantity when it comes to monastics. I teach in East and Southeast Asia, and some people there express doubt about the purity of Tibetan Buddhism. This comes because of the improper behavior of a few monks that is published in newspapers. This situation saddens me, but the reckless or manipulative actions of just a few monks has damaged some people’s faith in Tibetan Buddhism in Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia, and drawn attention away from the excellent study and practice of other monks. Since we all love and revere the Buddhadharma, all of us must take responsibility for preserving it through upholding the Buddha’s ethical precepts.
Another innovation His Holiness has made is encouraging Tibetan Buddhists to be nonsectarian, and when their Dharma knowledge is stable to receive teachings from all four Tibetan Buddhist traditions. He has shown this through his own example. This improves people’s Dharma knowledge as well as increases harmony among the various traditions of Tibetan Buddhists.
These days His Holiness is emphasizing Tibet’s religious and cultural roots in India and welcoming more and more Indian students to learn Tibetan Buddhism as a way of learning their own culture. Tibet House in Delhi has an in-depth course in Tibetan Buddhism that many Indians as well as international people are joining. Recently I watched some teachings His Holiness gave that were requested by the Indian Dharma students, and I was very impressed with the level of questions they asked. Many Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other Southeast Asians are now exploring Tibetan Buddhism.
Needless to say, Tibetan Children Village (TCV) and other Tibetan-centric schools have been remarkable in terms of educating Tibetan children who are orphans, impoverished, or whose parents are unable to care for them at present. At these schools and home, the children are given a modern education as well as introduced to their native language, literature, and culture. To give you an idea of its scale, Upper TCV began in 1960 with 51 children and now serves over 2000. There are multiple branches of TCV in India: Lhadhak, Bylakuppe, Chauntra near Bir, Selakui in Dehradun, Lower TCV, and more.
Tibetans in other countries have set up Sunday schools for their children so they can learn Tibetan language, Buddhism, and song and dance. Some parents send their children to India in the summer to join Tibetan summer camps where they are more fully immersed in Tibetan culture. Education of the youth in Tibet, India and Nepal, and worldwide is essential. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at Tibetan schools in India, Nepal, and America. The children have a modern education and their questions regarding Buddhism and how to live it in daily life are akin to questions of people in the West. Tibetan children are no longer content to recite the prayer to Manjusri before classes in school; they want to know who Manjusri is, how we know he exists, and what is the meaning of his prayer. They are probing deeper and want to know if other realms of existence actually exist, how karma works, and whether Buddhists believe in God.
Words for Tibetan youth
I want to pause a moment here to speak directly to Tibetan youth. Be proud of your Tibetan heritage. You have something extra that some of your friends don’t have because you can join in the culture of the country where you live and you can also join in your Tibetan culture. Don’t feel like you have to be immersed in pop culture like everyone else. You can choose.
I grew up in a minority culture in America. My family didn’t celebrate the same religious holidays as my classmates. They didn’t decorate the house for Christmas or give Christmas presents. But I’ve always felt happy that I came from a different culture and could look at life from a variety of perspectives. So you too, should rejoice that you have a special culture.
Also, you’re very fortunate because you’re growing up speaking Tibetan. You can talk to people, especially the monks and nuns who are wise and can teach you how to live a good life and how to be a compassionate person. Knowing Tibetan, you can hear the Dharma directly without relying on a translator and can read a wealth of scriptures.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama cares a lot about you. A few weeks ago I watched His Holiness give a teaching on Zoom that was requested by Tibetan youth. He looked at you with eyes of love and his affection for you showed in the way he spoke, it was like he was pouring his love and wisdom into you. Since you have this fortune and have a close connection with His Holiness and other wise Tibetans, take advantage of it and learn all you can from them. For those of you who have interest in monastic life, I encourage you to explore that. Living as a monastic is very satisfying and meaningful.
So many Tibetan cultural institutions have opened in India and abroad. I will name only a few. The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives (LTWA), opened in 1970, has expanded year by year. In addition to the English Dharma classes, the Tibetan language classes, a small foreign language library, and large Tibetan text and manuscript library that were there when I first went to Dharamsala in 1976, there is now a one-year diploma course and a two-year masters’ program in Buddhist studies, a museum, science studies and laboratories, and short courses in IT and digital security. There are symposiums for teachers, education conferences, and a variety of other educational opportunities for both Tibetans and foreigners. Book publishing in Tibetan and English has expanded. LTWA is now establishing a branch—the Centre for Tibetan Studies—in Bengaluru.
There is now the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education in Bengaluru, the Nalanda University in Rajgjr, the Dalai Lama Chair for Nalanda Studies at Goa University, and several chairs and departments dealing with Tibetan Buddhism and culture in Western universities.
There are many ways that the people in the Tibetan diaspora communicate with one another to learn about what is happening in other parts of their widespread community. The Tibetan Bulletin, published by the Information Office of the Central Tibetan Secretariat, was established in 1969 to share news. Now there is Voice of Tibet radio begun in 1996, and Tibet TV, the official CTA webtv station. Online there are Tibet.Net, the facebook page of the CTA, and facebook pages for Free Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet, International Campaign for Tibet, Tibet House, and many more. There are numerous other Tibetan organizations that support the Tibetan community in Tibet and in exile, such as The Tibet Fund.
The Tibetan Medical and Astro-Science Institute (Men Tsee Khang) has over sixty branches across India Dharamsala, Leh Lhadak, Mundgod, Bylakuppe, Darjeeling, Rajpur, and so on.
The Tibetan Women’s Association has been instrumental in promoting the social, political, and economic equality of Tibetan women in Tibet and in Tibetan exile communities, ensuring Tibetan women have access to adequate educational information about health care, child care and family planning, assisting the needy, establishing more nunneries, and improving the education of nuns, Tibetan women, and girls.
The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Upper Dharamsala was founded soon after going into exile. Lhamo, or Ache Lhamo, is a classical secular theatre of Tibet with music, dance, story-telling, and colorful costumes and masks that has been performed for centuries. Plays and operas are regularly performed at TIPA, and it is wonderful to see the adults as well as the children learn their culture through the arts.
Norbulingka Institute, located in Sidhpur, near Dharamsala was founded in 1995 to preserve Tibetan literary and artistic forms. There, students learn the intricate art of thangka painting according to the centuries-old methods of master painters. Other artists teach statue-making, screen-printing, applique, woodcarving, wood painting, papermaking, and wood and metal craft. The Academy of Tibetan Culture, established in 1997, offers a three-year course of higher education in traditional Tibetan studies, as well as English, Chinese, and world history. The Research Department at Norbulingka is compiling a comprehensive encyclopedia of Tibetan culture.
Gompa Tibetan Monastery Services is now live streaming pujas at Tibetan monasteries in India so that donors worldwide can watch them. It is also making available Dharma teachings of some of the khenpos, geshes, and other Tibetan and Western monastics.
There are many more Tibetan organizations established to preserve Tibetan language, culture, and religion. My apologies for not being able to credit all of them.
To conclude this section on Tibetan culture, I quote His Holiness: “Tibetan cultural and religious traditions emphasize the inner values of truth, kindness, peace, and the well-being of humanity. I am seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people that would ensure the long-term survival of our Buddhist culture, our language, and our distinct identity as a people. The rich Tibetan Buddhist culture is part of the larger cultural heritage of the world and has the potential to benefit our brothers and sisters everywhere.”
His Holiness often speaks about climate change and the need to combat global warming. He recently declared that if the Buddha returned to the world today, “The Buddha would be green.”
The environment in Tibet
Speaking of the environment in Tibet, His Holiness has said, “The large-scale deforestation in Tibet is a matter of great sadness, not only for the local areas, which have lost their beauty, but also for the local people, who now find it difficult to collect enough wood for cooking. Relatively, these are small problems but looking from a wider perspective, many of the rivers that flow through large areas of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—the Yellow River, Brahmaputra, Yangtse, Salween, and Mekong—originate in Tibet. At the sources of these rivers large-scale deforestation and mining are occurring, polluting the rivers, and affecting the health and welfare of countries downstream. If global warming reaches such a level that rivers dry up and Tibet looks like Afghanistan, this will have terrible consequences for at least a billion people dependent on water from the plateau at the roof of the world.”
Tibetans have a great respect for all forms of life. This feeling is enhanced by the Buddhist faith, which prohibits harming sentient beings, whether human or animal. Prior to the Chinese communist invasion, Tibet was an unspoiled wilderness sanctuary in a unique natural environment. Sadly, in the past decades the wildlife and the forests of Tibet have been almost totally destroyed, and the effects on Tibet’s delicate environment have been devastating. What little is left in Tibet must be protected and efforts must be made to restore the environment to its balanced state.
Environmental concerns can’t be focused on one area, since the climates all over the globe are related to one another. His Holiness is delighted that Biden is intent on the United States rejoining the Paris Agreement. He said, “I have no hesitation to support initiatives that protect the environment. This is a question of survival because this beautiful blue planet is our only home.”
Scientists have recently cautioned that we must reduce our carbon imprint when it concerns food. Eating meat is very bad ecologically because feeding, raising, and transporting cattle vastly increase the amount of methane released into the atmosphere. His Holiness says, “Many people in the world, including us Tibetans, eat too much meat. We should promote vegetarianism as much as possible. These changes depend not only on governmental policies, but also on educating the public so that people voluntarily reduce their consumption and carbon footprint. We must assume responsibility. Recent studies suggest that the world is getting close to exceeding its carbon budget. Therefore, this budget must become the most important currency of our time. Holding meetings and conferences is not sufficient. We must hold to the timetable set in the Paris Agreement. Only if political leaders start to act now will we have reason to hope. We must not sacrifice our civilization for the greed of the few.”
“I appreciate Greta Thunberg’s efforts to raise awareness of the need to take direct action. Her effort to elevate the issue of global warming among schoolchildren and political leaders is a remarkable achievement. Despite being very young, her sense of universal responsibility is wonderful.”
Over-consumption harms the environment as well as people’s minds, making them value possessions over people, greed over compassion. To quote His Holiness, “It is crucial that we consider how our actions affect the environment and climate, and thus the lives of zillions of living beings. Large nations should pay more attention to ecology. I would like if those big nations who spend a lot of money for weapons or war turn their attention to the preservation of the climate and the environment. It is essential is to find methods of manufacturing that do not destroy nature. We must limit our waste of limited natural resources. I am no expert in this field and cannot suggest how this might be done. I know only that it is possible, given the necessary determination.
Reimagining Doeguling is a project to make the Mundgod area in South India a Tibetan cultural, religious, and environmental center, as well as a safe and sustainable home for the Tibetans who live there. A project that includes the knowledge and skills of Tibetans, Indians, and Westerners, it has already positively affected the environment in the camps and monasteries, not only by improving roads, but also by focusing on the availability of clean water in the area. (Karnataka province has been declared a severe drought zone.) There are monasteries and nunneries from all Tibetan Buddhist traditions in Doeguling (Mundgod), and Reimagining Doeguling has reached out to benefit them all. Such demonstrations of inclusion, no matter what area of Tibet one’s family comes from or which Buddhist tradition one follows, is important. Reimagining Doeguling is planning a development project for the marketplace at Camp 3, which will reduce traffic accidents and increase sanitation, among other goals. Already, they have ensured that all the nuns have iron supplements, curing any anemia among them. They have constructed twelve units to harvest rainwater in the camps, monasteries, elders’ homes, and Indian villages; this will benefit over 2,000 people.
I am especially happy that the water conservation project has helped some of the nearby Indian villages. Because Tibetans are guests in India and because as refugees Tibetans have access to funds that poor Indian villagers do not, it is very important that Tibetans share their wealth and expertise. This creates harmonious relations between people of different cultures who all live in an area where environmental resources are limited.
Environmental concerns relate to sanitation, which in turn is related to health. With the glaciers in the mountains above Dharamsala melting, the area that depends on them now experiences water shortage. This is not helped by the lack of coordinated infrastructure that results in dozens of separate above-ground water pipes running down the mountain side. Here effort needs to be made by all parties—Tibetan and Indian—to work together on infrastructure issues, not only those relating to water, but also to garbage disposal, road maintenance, traffic flow, electricity, and so forth.
I recall His Holiness teaching in Doeguling several years ago. He commented on the beauty of the newly constructed monasteries, but then said that between these lovely, clean, buildings lay pools of muddy water and garbage galore. He stressed the importance of people caring not only for “my” land and buildings but also for the entire area. Without cooperation, everyone suffers.
On the bright side, many Tibetan communities have worked hard to construct clinics and have health care workers who instruct the community about sanitation, clean water, and so on.
His Holiness has emphasized that Tibetans can preserve their traditional culture without rejecting modern technological development and the new perspectives of global society. Technological development has brought comfort whereas culture is more related to the mind and gives people the sense of belonging. As Tibetans meet modern culture, they have the opportunity to take the best of traditional Tibetan culture and the best of modern ways of thinking. This must be done with great care and thoughtfulness and not rushed. Tibetans may find that certain aspects of their cultural heritage are useful and must be preserved. Other cultural values may no longer be useful in daily life and could be put in a museum.
“We see too much emphasis on my nation, my religion. This “us and them” way of thinking causes all the problems due to which different religions and different nations fight. So now we really need oneness. As Shantideva says, ‘May people think of benefiting each other.’ Only through each of us cultivating compassion and wisdom can we solve our difficulties and prevent future problems from arising.”
“It is my sincere desire, as well as that of the Tibetan people, to restore Tibet its invaluable role, by converting the entire country—comprising the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo—into a place of stability, peace and harmony once more. In the best of Buddhist tradition, Tibet would extend its services and hospitality to all who further the cause of world peace and the well-being of humankind and the natural environment we share.”