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Tibetan Buddhism and Environmental Protection in China by Joshua Esler

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Tibetan Buddhism and Environmental Protection in China
Joshua Esler, University of Western Australia

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This paper examines the recent convergence of Tibetan Buddhism and the environmental protection movement, particularly in China as an increasing number of Han Chinese are adopting Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism has been ‘superscribed’ with many new layers of meaning as it has spread throughout Greater China (by Greater China I am specifically referring to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan). These layers include traditional Chinese ideas and beliefs, as well as various discourses of modernity such as Chinese Marxism (in mainland China), modern Protestantism (in Hong Kong), and Humanistic Buddhism (in Taiwan). [1] Since the mid-1980’s Tibetan Buddhism in exile has also been layered with an ‘environmental superscription’. Following the visits of Tibetan Government in Exile delegations to Tibet from 1979 to 1985, and collaboration between the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans in exile with WWF and other environmental NGOs, the image of Tibetan Buddhism as ‘green’ has become more solidified. The fact-finding reports carried out by the aforementioned delegations from Dharamsala to Tibet, and ongoing reports of ecological destruction caused by Chinese occupation, has fuelled the West’s imagination of Tibetans and their religion as being environmentally friendly. Among many recent propagators of this ‘green Tibetan’ image is the 17th Karmapa in exile, who has instigated many noteworthy initiatives such as organising conferences on the environment to educate Tibetan monastics about environmental protection, and implementing environmental programs at Karma Kagyu monasteries and centres.

Under the Chinese state there is a different type of ‘green Tibetandiscourse, which, in opposition to the account given by Tibetans in exile regarding the current situation in Tibet, portrays Tibetans as recipients of a ‘green science’ and technical knowhow for preserving the Tibetan landscape. No longer are they ‘passively adapted’ to the landscape as in ‘old’ Tibet but are in control of its preservation. At the same time, ‘sacredTibetan knowledge is paid lip service by officials in places such as Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, where local deities and spirits have become part of this ‘green Tibetandiscourse. For officials in Diqing, these entities are useful for their efforts to portray the area as a ‘lost Shangrila’ which these ‘gods’ have preserved in pristine condition. For transnational and local environmental NGOs, the promotion of mountain cults, together with an overlapping Tibetan Buddhism is important for their environmental conservancy efforts. Tibetan religious leaders have been ‘recruited’ by such NGOs to help educate locals about the importance of protecting the environment.

This paper examines the experiences of five Han Chinese and ethnic Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism located in Beijing or Gyalthang (Eng – Shangrila, in Deqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province) in relation to their understanding of local Tibetan deities and spirits within the wider discourse of environmental protection in China. In traditional Tibetan belief these deities (e.g. mountain deities) and spirits inhabit every part of the Tibetan landscape, and are believed to be intimately connected with both the land and the people. Such entities are believed to provide blessings when their sacred abodes are not disturbed, and may exact severe punishment on those who cause damage to their habitat (e.g. by cutting down a tree from a sacred mountain). Many of these pre-Buddhist entities have been incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism as protectors of Buddhism in Tibet, and some are even believed to have become enlightened. This paper seeks to explore the perspectives of Han Chinese and ethnic Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism regarding these entities; specifically, it seeks to ask whether the recent convergence of the ‘sacred knowledge’ that these entities symbolise with the discourse of environmental protection has weakened their position as fierce protectors of religion. That is, if these entities are simply drawn into the discourse of environmental protection and portrayed as primarily protectors of the environment rather than protectors of Buddhism, does their identity become secularised to an extent, and what does this mean for Tibetan Buddhism in general? Ultimately, I seek to show how the convergence of environmental protectionism with beliefs in local Tibetan deities and spirits, and the translocal and transnational forces which are influencing this convergence, is reflective of the wider adaptation of Tibetan Buddhism to contemporary Greater China and similar forces which are influencing this adaptation.

This paper is based on interviews with Han and Tibetan informants in 2011. I have chosen for this paper informants from both Beijing and Gyalthang to examine the differences in opinion between those living far from the Tibetan landscape to those living in close proximity to it, regarding local Tibetan deities and spirits in relation to the environmental protection movement. I seek to explore the role that distance from the Tibetan landscape plays in influencing the opinions of practitioners concerning local forms of Tibetan Buddhism, in addition to the backgrounds and translocal/transnational movements of these practitioners and the subsequent discourses to which they have been exposed. Although I only examine the experiences of five practitioners in this paper (due to lack of time), their experiences are nevertheless largely representative of the more than forty informants I interviewed on the mainland in Beijing and Gyalthang.


To explore perspective of Han Tibetan Buddhists and ethnic Tibetan Buddhists towards local Tibetan deities and spirits.

To examine whether these deities and spirits retain their traditional roles in Tibetan belief, become subsumed within discourse of environmental protection, or take on both roles.

To ask how appropriation of these deities and spirits to discourse of environmental protection reflects wider local/transnational scope of Tibetan Buddhism in China.



5 Han and Tibetan practitioners

Province Proximity/distance:

Local Deities and Spirits in Tibetan Society


Green Tibetians: in Exile


Green Tibetans: in China

‘passively adapted’ to landscape as in ‘old Tibet’.

  • Officials in Diqing.
  • Transnational and local NGO’s.
  • 1998 ban on logging in northwest Yunnan Province – timber production has given way to ecotourism.

Case Samples

Experience roughly divided in two:


  • All hybrid between these two spectrums to some extent

Circular Experience - ‘Tashi’

Mediated Experience - ‘Lin’

Eco-sublime Experience - ‘Zhang’

Rebirth Experience – ‘Fei’

Revival Experience – ‘Tsering’

‘You are the mountain god protecting all the world and the mountain. You have no need of a hairpiece because snow adorns you; you have no need of a covering for your body because the forest dresses you; you have no need of accessories on your feet because the streams flow below you.’
  • He added:
‘Kawagebo is called grandfather in this area. He is a part of our family.’
‘If we say they [ environmental protectionists ] have to protect the mountain, it makes the mountain deity weak. He has no need for our protection. The mountain deity has the ability to protect us and we have the ability to protect it only to a limited extent – so it is an equal relationship. In Buddhism all things are equal. The mountain gives meaning to the people and the people give meaning to the mountain...If you do something wrong against Buddhism, Kawagebo will punish you. This idea helps people to maintain morality as well as protect the environment. ‘


Perspective of informants regarding local deities and spirits reflects wider trend of Tibetan Buddhism in China among Han and Tibetans:

a) Circulated Tibetan Buddhism
b) Mediated Tibetan Buddhism
c) Eco-sublime or ‘earth-inspired’ Tibetan Buddhism
d) Rebirth-experience Tibetan Buddhism
e) Revived Tibetan Buddhism

Above trends show how Tibetan Buddhism is going out and coming back; is being received through media outside mainland; is being experienced through pilgrimage; is being explored through lived experience of Han working in Tibetan areas; is experienced through psychology of rebirth; and is being revived through a process of negotiation between ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ worldviews.



  1. The separation of these discourses into territories is for convenience here, as there is some overlap of these discourses in these territories, and these are not the only discourses being appropriated and hybridised with Tibetan Buddhism; I have singled out these discourses due to their dominant influence in the abovementioned locations.


Joshua Esler, University of Western Australia
The third International Conference Buddhism & Australia 2014