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Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit


Tuesday 29 November

Charles Ramble

EPHE – PSL University, CRCAO, Paris

Deferring Environmental Responsibility? The Evolution of Tibetan Serpent-Spirits in a Buddhist Climate


Tibetan-speaking communities in the Himalaya are acutely aware of the fragility of their natural environment. In a terrain that is susceptible to drought and flash floods, both of which are the result of insufficient winter snowfall that “binds” water on mountain tops and releases it steadily in summer, careful management of natural resources is crucial for survival. Most communities have strict rules proscribing activities that are likely to exacerbate a precarious situation, such as felling trees or grazing cattle in areas where forest or grassland needs to regenerate, or uprooting shrubs on slopes that support irrigation canals. Widespread beliefs about praeternatural beings inhabiting the landscape may well reflect a sense of the immediacy of environmental risks. In the Tibetan pantheon, the class of beings most closely associated with the earth are the sadak, “landlords” or “owners of the earth,” and the most prominent among these are the lu. In the earliest Tibetan literature humans and lu live in harmony, until this balance is disturbed by human activity such as digging, building, felling trees and polluting water sources. The spirits retaliate by visiting calamities – weather disasters or epidemics – upon humans, who must then restore good relations by performing rituals of appeasement. Versions of these stories that have been influenced by Buddhist accounts add an additional step in the process: humans are afflicted not by direct retaliation on the part of the spirits but as a result of the karma that they have incurred by so harming them, and the ripening of this karma may by no means be immediate. If the insertion of the karmic element adds an additional distance between the cause (environmental disturbance) and the effect (illness or bad weather), there is evidence that even the notion of retaliation by nature spirits may be a relatively late additional step in an even more direct reciprocity. As recent research by Bazhen Zeren (Paldrun Tsering) shows, this is due to an apparent change in the characterisation of the lu. Whereas both Buddhist and later Bon works assimilate these spirits with the Indic nāga, earlier sources suggest that they are an aspect of the environment itself, and that humans are themselves part of this matrix. Misusing the environment has immediate consequences for humans insofar as it amounts to a sort of self-harming. Whatever importance the doctrine of karma may have in Buddhism, or the presence of lu in indigenous Tibetan religion, human relations with the natural environment in Himalayan Tibetan village communities are determined more by an ethos that recalls the third and (possibly) most archaic of the causal schemes outlined above: viz., that mismanagement of the environment is intrinsically deleterious to the perpetrators and those around them, and that the avoidance  of  such misuse does not need to be justified by an explanatory narrative. Through the prism of recently-discovered texts that reflect an early Tibetan worldview, this presentation will consider how the Buddhist diminution of the importance of indigenous divinities, as well as the promulgation of the doctrine of karma, have tended to distance humans from their natural surroundings.


Tuesday, 29 November, 2022 - 16:30 to 18:00
Event location: 
Mond Building Seminar Room