As Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism spread into the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau, followers of the Buddhist faith constructed temples, monasteries and stupas. These structures are found in an environment that inspires awe. The sites are also of high spiritual, moral and intellectual importance. As such, the landscape where they are located is sacred; it is a sublime realm. One cannot travel in the region without encountering features of Buddhism. Whether it is monasteries with their monks and rituals, the colorful dances that take place during festivals, an old woman in a yak-hair tent fingering her prayer beads, or Tibetan mantras carved into rocks along the trail, Buddhism permeates the land. There is unadorned beauty in the clean architecture of temples and stupas that transcends their simple physical structures and awesome wonder at the undying faith of Tibetans in their religion.
The sublime beauty of the Tibetan and Himalayan landscape has inspired reverence among the inhabitants for thousands of years. It is a revered environment containing, in addition to temples, monasteries and stupas, many physical features such as mountains and lakes considered divine by the inhabitants. The deities ascribed to these sacred mountains and their consorts identified with the lakes are viewed as ruling over the landscape with the power to protect the local inhabitants. As such, the mountain gods are constantly placated. Prayer flags are strung from mountain passes and incense is burned to appease the gods. Pilgrimages are made to holy mountains, lakes and temples. Across the region, people believe that a person's life-force is connected with a locality and the spirits and deities that dwell there and that a deterioration of this bond can have negative repercussions.
Stupas are often built to transform a site into a sacred place. A monument of stone, constructed according to a precise design, a stupa's original purpose was as a reliquary, enshrining the relics of important spiritual masters. With shapes representing the five primary elements - earth, fire, water, air and space - stupas have come to symbolize the omnipresence of enlightenment. Often, eight stupas are constructed in a row, with the design of each one slightly different, commemorating the eight major events in Buddha's life. As such, wherever they are found, stupas bring peace to the surrounding areas and good health and long-life to local inhabitants; they transmit a sense of the sacred to the entire landscape.
After months working with nomads in the remote areas of northern Tibet, one of my favorite experiences as I drove from Nakchu to Lhasa was to come upon the eight stupas on the pass between the Salween and Brahmaputra Rivers near the town of Damzhung north of Lhasa. My Tibetan colleagues would stop the car and we would circumambulate the stupas, giving thanks for a successful journey and asking for blessings as we continued on to Lhasa. With prayer flags fluttering in the wind in front of the holy mountain, Nyenchen Thangla, one sensed the spiritual connection Tibetans have to the landscape.
From a global environmental perspective, few places in the world are as important as the Tibetan Plateau is now. Rising concerns about global warming, climate change, receding glaciers, desertification, food insecurity and loss of biodiversity all point to the significance of the Tibetan Plateau in addressing these global challenges.
With its tenets of compassion and reverence for all sentient beings, Buddhism can be a powerful force for protecting the environment of the Tibetan Plateau. As a first step, we could begin by acknowledging the hallowed nature of the Tibetan landscape and start to treat it with a little more reverence and respect as the Tibetan people have for centuries.
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