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Listening without Distraction: Sustainability in Little Tibet.

by Pamela Uschuk
Photos by William Pitt Root

View of the Himalayas looking southeast from Mangyul, Ladahk, India.
  View of the Himalayas looking southeast from Mangyu, Ladahk, India.

At 12,000 feet, adjectives like grandiose and awesome dwarf to ridiculous understatements. The Himalayas literally knock out one’s breath at the same time as they astonish with their granite and snowy infinity. No wonder humility is one of the prime characteristics of Tibetans. In our memories, the Rocky Mountains shrink to museum dioramas. Both mountain ranges are young and still growing, but you can actually feel the Himalayas swell. Trying to look at their immense panoramas is akin to trying to take in the Grand Canyon—unless you’re a liar or are deluded, it’s impossible to fathom either one.

From Southwestern Colorado, we’ve traveled halfway around the globe to Ladahk (Little Tibet) in Kashmiri Northern India, and specifically to the village of Mangyu. Our tour is arranged by Global Lab, headquartered in New York. Our guides, Galen Murton and Rinchen Namgial, are excellent. Calm and extremely competent under the most trying of circumstances, Galen hails from Maine and is, as another guide describes him, “the gem of the Himalayas.” Namgial grew up in a traditional Ladahki village and holds an advanced degree in Tibetan Buddhism from the University of Heidelburg. Namgial has a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor and is a font of information. Our group is lucky to be in such competent hands.

For a short time, we’ll dip our neglected spiritual toes in the ancient currents of this sustainable Tibetan Buddhist community, nestled in a high valley, where, despite pressure from the outside world, people live much as their ancestors did 2,000 years ago. Aside from the sheer vastness of the gigantic, skree-covered peaks surrounding the village, the utter contentment and natural happiness of the Tibetan Buddhist inhabitants are what one is continually stunned by. Smiles, raised right hands, tilting heads, and the singsong Julay, julay, julay (welcome and hello) greet us every few feet from people of all ages, male and female. Animals (cows, donkeys sheep, cats, and dogs) and people share the narrow paths through the village.

Although the conservationist ideas that are central to the sustainability movement have been around since the 1970s in Colorado, it was just a few years ago that the movement gained any real momentum where we’ve come from. Back home in Durango, when we talk about sustainability, we speak in terms of buying locally produced food, using alternative energy like solar or wind, living in small communities where we can walk or bike where we need to go. Sustainability supporters work hard at this grassroots movement. In Ladahki villages like Mangyu, sustainability is not a concept or a goal, it is a millennia-old fact of life. It is also gravely endangered.

Mangyu villagers don't often see tourists and respond with friendly curiosity.
Mangyu villagers don't often see tourists and respond with friendly curiosity.

I am traveling with my colleague, Kate Niles, my husband, the poet William Pitt Root, and a class of eight students from Fort Lewis College. We share an interest in sustainable communities as well as concerns about global warming and about our country’s often aggressive and violent foreign policy. The main tenets of Tibetan Buddhism include compassion, forgiveness, nonviolence, and the preservation and conservation of the natural world. Our students write poetry or short fiction nearly every day. In our readings and travels, our class is also studying Tibetan sacred poetry and termas, Tibetan Buddhism, the effects of the Chinese invasion and subjugation of Tibet, as well as the effects of “modernization” and “technology” on Tibetan sustainable societies. The most viable remaining communities are in Ladahk and Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan exile community, home to several dissident poets and writers and the 14th Dalai Lama. Our hosts in Mangyu are Choskit and her daughter, Padma. Through an interpreter, we learn that her husband and son, as with so many other male members of the community, have gone off to the capital, Leh, to work. The work of maintaining the household, animals, and crops have fallen to these women.

The first night of our visit, we help prepare a dinner of pasta and vegetables by making noodles from roasted barley flour and water that will be cooked with homegrown greens, similar to arugela. Fresh dzo milk, condensed milk, and curry are used to thicken the sauce. Padma laughs timidly as we struggle to roll dough between our palms and then pinch it off in a crude attempt to emulate her finely made pasta shells. Next we share the one paring knife the family owns to chop greens, passing it between us. Choskit then soaks the greens and adds big handfuls to the cooking pot. To accompany our meal, we are offered yak butter tea or chai. Nearly everything we eat in this meal has been grown, harvested, or milked in the village.

The Tibetan tradition of hospitality includes a ritual refilling of the guest’s plate over and over again, despite the protestations of the diner. Man julay (no thank you), we learn to repeat, shaking our heads while smiling and pulling back our plates as Choskit ladles more and more helpings. Finally, we have to resort to Danze!, meaning we truly couldn’t eat another bite. The same kind of ritual offering and refusal of chang (traditional homemade beer) is prevalent. It is clear to us that although these people are not rich in the monetary sense, they have plenty of food to eat, have shelter and clothing, and are especially wealthy in serenity and contentment.

After dinner, Choskit refuses our offers to help with dishes. Since there is no running water, except for the diverted mountain stream running along one side of the house, water has to be hauled and stored in containers. Choskit scrapes the dirty plates into a small amount of cold water in a dish pan—sans soap—then washes the plates with her hands and stacks them on a shelf to dry. We are more than a little worried about E. coli. Nothing in this house, though, is wasted. The dishwater with its cargo of drenched leftover food is served to the family’s dzos (a cross between a yak and a cow) which lap it up.

A mother accompanies her children to school just beyond the colorful stupas.
  A mother accompanies her children to school just beyond the colorful stupas.

Besides the lack of soap in the kitchen, we must adjust to the bathrooms. Toilet facilities in Choskit’s home bear almost no resemblance to Western bathrooms. Without running water, there is no flush toilet. There is no bathtub. For each floor of the house, there is a small adobe room with a dirt floor. Dirt is piled knee-high in each corner. Leaning against the wall is a shovel. Next to that is a bag of ashes. There is no light, which makes using the toilet at night tricky. The toilet is a composting toilet, consisting of a hole in the floor with a chamber eight feet below to catch waste. After each use, the user takes the shovel, tosses the waste down the hole, then throws in a thin layer of ash, followed by a scoop of dirt. There is no toilet paper, but plenty of spiders. From the bathroom window, the view is like a movie set—over the heads of dzos and cattle in the yard and beyond tundra mountains that look like those I’ve seen in National Geographic in an article on the Kyber Pass in Afghanistan, rises an immense, snow-covered peak. Who cares about toilet paper?

Electricity runs from 7 p.m. until 11 p.m. in the summer—6 p.m. to 10 p.m. in winter—generated by solar panels. Each family is charged about $23 dollars a month for solar power. The Ladahk Autonomous Hill Development Council provides a 95 percent discount. In Southwest Colorado, where sunshine is abundant, the price of solar panels is often too expensive for common people to afford, so they opt to use natural gas, pumped from an alarming number of gas wells whose questionable drilling practices may be contaminating the area’s water table, or electricity produced by a coal-fired Four Corners plant that pollutes the air over the region. There are tax exemptions available for those buying solar water heaters, but the exemptions do not defray the high cost of solar. Solar water heaters may cost $2,000 instead of $300 for an electric or gas water heater. A minimal set of solar panels suitable for generating electricity for a small one-room building adds up to about $20,000. For most families living on a budget, the price for converting to solar is prohibitive. It is clear we could learn a valuable lesson from Ladahk in providing affordable alternative energy for everyone.

A woman hoes shortly after sunrise.
A woman hoes shortly after sunrise; note the lean-to under the poplars where shelter from the full sun can be found later.

At blue dawn, we are awakened by smoke from a small bowl of incense burning outside the door. It mixes with smoke from the dung-and-willow cooking fire in the kitchen directly below us. Just as the sun begins to slip over the ridge, the villagers (mostly women) head for the barley fields. Along the way, they sing to their dzos and to each other.

Poetry and ritual singing play a intricate part in Ladakhi culture. Ritual songs involve almost all aspects of traditional Ladakhi life. There are songs to sing to working animals, to birds, to the mountains, to the plants, to water, for visitors, for weddings and for funerals, and so on. In this old culture, songs and poetry provide a basis for communication, or, as in the chang songs, a harmonious call and response between people and to all sentient beings.

Imagine commuters singing to their SUVs and commuters as they navigate early morning rush hour traffic. I wonder what that would do to road rage.

One of my favorite of these traditional poem/songs was cited by sustainable community champion and conservationist Helena Norberg-Hodge in her informative and moving book, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. The song, translated, is:

Oh, you two great bulls, sons of the wild yak!
Your mother may be a cow, but you are like the tiger and the lion!
You are like the eagle, the king of birds!
Aren’t you the dancers of the high peaks?
Aren’t you the ones who take the mountains on your lap?
Aren’t you the ones who drink the ocean in one gulp?
Oh, you two great bulls, Pull! Pull!

Each school day begins with an assembly that includes recitations, often to music.
  Each school day begins with an assembly that includes recitations, often to music.

Barley is the staple food of Mangyu. The villagers use its flour in nearly everything—mixed in yogurt, it provides a hearty breakfast. Roasted barley flour is used to make a variety of forms of pasta, and to make chipati, as a thickener for soups and stews. Vegetables, especially potatoes, and in the summer, greens are another major food group. For desserts or snacks, there are dried apricots. Of course, there is milk from the dzos and from tame Pashimi goats as well as yogurt, in abundance. Made from fermented barley, each household has a plentiful store of chang, a tangy, refreshing beer that tastes a bit like applejack. Other than chang, Tibetans daily consume a voluminous amount of chai and yak butter tea. Although most of our group eschews the yak butter tea, I find it interesting, like drinking green with with a tinge of liquid potato chips.

Before pressure from the World Bank and multinational corporations to “develop” Ladakh for its rich natural resources, Ladakhi villages were self-contained, peaceful, and sustainable. There was no homelessness. There was no poverty. Food was shared. There was cooperation at every level of village life. The Buddhist belief of not harming any sentient being (people, animals, including insects) made for a balanced and cooperative existence. Villagers helped each other in the fields; with planting and harvests; with weddings, births, and funerals; and they settled any disputes peacefully through mediation. Anger was almost unheard of. Laughter, playfulness, hard work, contemplation, nonviolence, story-telling, meditating, and a strong spirituality were an intrinsic part of life.

And yet, because no profits are involved, there are those who persist in calling this kind of society primitive. What do we Westerners fear in the term primitive that we, in our messianic frenzy, seek to convert it to a monetary economy? Do we really find urban sprawl, modernization, and technology that alienates us from one anther to be superior? Perhaps it is not so much that we believe technology and economics to be the hallmarks of civilization as it is a matter of our overwhelming greed for more money, more things, more food, more recreational toys, more of everything. But are we happy? What we found in Mangyu villagers was an innate joy in being that is rare in our “first world” nations.

Western thinkers like Laurens van der Post, Joseph Campbell, Paul Shepherd, Barry Lopez, Peter Matthiessen, and C.J. Meier have written extensively about our search for meaning, about the need to preserve myth, to preserve indigenous societies—to preserve the primitive. A cultural equivalent to chimpanzee conservationist Jane Woodall, childcare specialist Helena Norberg-Hodge has spearheaded a movement and worked for nearly all of her adult life to educate the public to preserve this Tibetan sustainable society. Here in Ladahk, traditional life hangs on by its fingernails, threatened by diesel exhaust, television, and the Free Market.

An elder walks along a diverted stream which provides water for homes and fields.
An elder walks along a diverted stream which provides water for homes and fields.

Yet there is hope. Ladahk and Dharamsala became the first places in the world to ban plastic polystyrene bags. With the influx of tourists and commerce, there was no way to deal with the buildup of this plastic waste that began to threaten the high Himalayan countryside.

On our last full day in Mangyu, we visit Mangyu’s small public school, where we are invited to teach classes and help draw murals to decorate classroom walls. Upon arrival, the opening assembly for students is held outside. Students from preschoolers to high school sit in rows on the stony earth. While one pupil after another is then called in front of the group to sing and perform a folk dance from his or her village. We note the confidence and pride with which children perform these ancient arts. We also can’t help but notice that same community and cultural pride welling up in the students’ poetic imagery. In this way, culture is preserved. Classes are small—four to ten students each—and the friendly and curious students trek over mountain passes and through valleys from surrounding villages to attend.

Our group speculates on Ladahk’s future. Among us is a budding economist, who believes change is inevitable. The poets lament the loss of a simpler, happier lifestyle. Some students wonder how they can go home and be satisfied again with the fast-paced lifestyle that models success on how much money one makes. Others, like me, ask if they’ll be able to take what they’ve learned with them to incorporate into their daily lives. Our questions bring us to a larger issue: What is the nature of meaning? What is meaningful in a deep sense? One thing is clear, whether we are Ladahkis or Americans, we want the same thing: an end to suffering, and to be happy. We want communities that are sustainable and likewise sustain us through love.


Pam Uschuk is the author of three books of poetry, the latest Scattered Risks from Wings Press. Her work is widely published in journals, and she teaches creative writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.

William Pitt Root has been ensorcelled by photography ever since, as a pre-TV era boy, he was casually shown a b&w Kodak snapshot of a dinosaur on the local Gulf coast beach he swam from regularly. When he finally understood it was "real" but not a dinosaur he was left permanently fascinated by this medium through which truth (dinosaur) was made apparent to a child but concealed as appearance (iguana) from adults. He lives in the Southwest. His photos have been in books, magazines, exhibitions; he is a poet.

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