||Issue Date: 6 / 2006
Lessons from Ladakh, the "Little Tibet"
A version of "Little Tibet" was awarded First Prize in the 2004 Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics Essay Contest, an annual essay contest sponsored by The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity (http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org).
A Buddhist statue in Ladakh, or "Little Tibet," a small town
located in the remote trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir.
Click image to enlarge.
It is strange to think that Jigmet is only thirteen. Yesterday, she invited me to go on a walk. Her perfectly bald head and delicate, bird-bone face gleamed in the sun. As always, she wore the standard deep red robes of a Tibetan Buddhist nun. We trekked up the rocky mountainside towards a distant monastery. I trudged purposefully, while Jigmet skipped from stone to stone, laughing and humming the tune of a mantra in praise of the Three Jewels. I had heard it before and began to hum quietly in time. Jigmet’s narrow back was bent under a gigantic basket of fresh apricots that wheezed juicily with every step she took. She wouldn’t let me help with the load, though I offered again and again. As we turned upward, losing sight of the grumbling, gray river where we swam, bathed and laundered our clothes, the young nun turned to me and asked, “Why did Osama bomb Washington? I mean,” she said, “what made him sad enough to do that?” I had no answer. I had never thought of 9/11 in terms of the sorrow of terrorists.
We finally reached the foot of the ancient gompa. Jigmet spread the oozing treasures she had lugged from miles below across the bottom stair leading up to the prayer room. As we turned to leave, the old lama who had received us at the door reached for Jigmet’s sticky palm, thanking us and begging us to stay for tea. “Man,” she said in her language. “Man ju-le.” But no matter how many times she refused, he persisted, tugging gently at the edge of her robe, even searching my foreign face for a look that could mean yes.
Located in the remote trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir, Ladakh or “Little Tibet” has been an enclave of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism since 200 B.C. In Ladakh it is polite to decline any offer several times before accepting. Sometimes it is necessary to cover your cup or even veer away from your hostess as she approaches wielding a warm teapot and a plate stacked with homemade bread. If you do not decisively refuse, a Ladakhi host or hostess will never stop showering you with gifts of food, tea and time. Even children know no other way.
In Ladakh, if a child whose allowance for an entire month is twenty rupees (approximately forty-three U.S. cents) spends five rupees on a small chocolate bar, she will instinctively share it with all the other children hovering around the candy stand, whether she knows them or not. It doesn’t matter if adults are watching. This practice has nothing to do with rules or punishments. It comes from a deeper place. Like most Americans, I had been raised to believe that the more I earned and achieved over and against my competitors, the more I would have, the more I would be. In Ladakh, however, this is not the case.
I told one of the nuns that my bag was still tied to the Jeep. Taking a moment to calculate the grammar of her response, she asked me, in surprisingly coherent English, why I always used that word. “What word?” I asked.
“My,” she said, “you always say: my this, my that, but we say our---our bags, our food, our land…like that.” Perhaps noticing the tattling tint of my cheeks, she added, “I guess the languages are just different.”
In time I realized that my pronoun use disclosed a profound distinction between my own culture and that of the people of Ladakh. The nun’s confusion at my constant division of all things into categories of “mine” and “not mine” begins to reveal her own radically relational concept of self; a concept so unlike my own that had I not seen it articulated in the language and lives of the Ladakhi people I would never have recognized it as a viable possibility.
I came to Ladakh as a volunteer and a student. I planned to live in a local Buddhist nunnery and teach English at an understaffed primary school. Upon my arrival, Ringzin Tsering, a young Tibetan college student whose father had been a freedom fighter during the Chinese invasion, was recruited to show me around town. Over a couple cups of tea in a dimly lit cafe I asked Ringzin what religion he practiced. He quickly replied that he believed in them all and that Buddhism, especially, was very nice.
He went on to tell me that Buddhists believe in emptiness or sunyata. This means that the distinction between "I" and "you" is simply a matter of convention. “I and you are only words, only names,” he insisted. “In reality, I am constantly transforming in response to the world around me. From moment to moment I am never the same. I am dependent on the food I’m eating and the fork in my hand and you. If you are angry right now I will be sad, if you are happy then so am I. So, naming the points where I begin and you end is, in a way, meaningless, because all of this, everything”--he proclaimed, gesturing wildly with his steaming mug--“only exists in so far as it is interconnected. Right?”
Before Ringzin would allow me to excuse myself for a long-forestalled bathroom break, he took my hand, saying, “It is not that nothing exists, but only that nothing has permanent, independent existence. So, the self dissolves into an intricate network of relationships that are always in flux.” I grinned, nodded effusively and promised that I had understood it all. And to some extent I had. But as more and more children pressed dried apricots into my pockets, or poured water into my cupped hands or slowed their pace so I wouldn’t have to walk to school alone, I began to understand emptiness in everyday, ethical terms. I discovered that even Ladakhis so small in stature that they were at eye level with my hipbones possessed the instinct of interconnectedness. I had encountered a living view of the world, which presumed, paradoxically, that the more one gives to others the more one ultimately has, and the more we all have in the end.
Though Ladakh has been predominantly Buddhist since long before the birth of Christ, the ethic of interconnectedness palpably present in Ladakhi society is not only a consequence of religious belief, but is also grounded in the people’s traditional way of life. Due to its inaccessibility, inhospitable climate and scarcity of resources, Ladakh was not an object of colonial designs. Until recently it stood out as one of the few subsistence economies that remained virtually intact and relatively untouched by the outside world. It is significant that in this isolated, local context the network of relationships necessary for survival were apparent and even tangible. In traditional Ladakhi villages, comprised of less than a hundred houses, the scale of life made the ethical theory of interdependence a vital, visible reality.
“Is there much crime here?”
“But, there has to be a little, sometimes. There is a lot of crime where I come from.”
“I heard of a kid stealing something.”
“Come on, that’s it?”
“You see, if someone did something, everyone would know. So then what would they do? Just leave? Apologize? No one would trust them after that. Then how would they get by?”
As folksinger John Prine observes in a quirky number about a couple attempting to conceal an illicit affair, scale matters. He sheepishly croons, “In a town this size there’s no place to hide.” In traditional Ladakhi villages people could see how their actions affected the well being of the community, and themselves as a part of that community.
Enclosed by towering peaks and vast stretches of uninhabitable desert, Ladakhis did not have the option of moving west to the next manifest destiny any time they committed an offense. The lack of anonymity this small-scale, closed system engendered, combined with the intimacy felt by families that grew up together, farmed together and prayed together all their lives, inevitably fostered a strong sense of accountability within the community. This kind of ethical integrity, which pervades every aspect of life in Ladakh, is much more difficult to achieve in a large context where the forces of a faraway bureaucracy can only uphold a rigid list of institutionalized justices.
At first I couldn’t understand it. Why did everyone call me nomo-le, nomo-le, like they’d forgotten my name? I thought it meant foreigner or white. I thought maybe they were making fun of me, of how I dressed or talked.
Today I found out that nomo-le means little sister.
Traditional Ladakhi communities were close-knit enough that corruption and crime were virtually nonexistent. Buyers and sellers inevitably had a personal connection and were therefore dissuaded from carelessness or abuse. The goba or village head could speak face-to-face with those over whom he presided and therefore was motivated to act in accord with their interests. The goba of a Ladakhi village had probably held most of his people’s children in his arms, and would attend some of their parents’ funerals. Relationships like these, as opposed to distantly generated, variously motivated mandates, have characterized Ladakhi governance and moral life.
As subsistence farmers, coaxing primarily barley, peas and turnips out of the craggy terraces of the high-altitude desert, Ladakhis have had to become acquainted with the way the earth responds to their actions. Because the food they eat originates from the land they plow, they have inherited a sensitivity for nature’s needs and limited capacities. In the city the water and soil on which your life depends are sometimes hundreds of miles away. In a subsistence economy, one look across the land can approximate how many mouths it will support.
As a result of this necessarily intimate connection with nature, in traditional Ladakhi society, resources were used conscientiously. Virtually all plants were gathered and used as food or medicine. Dried dung was collected to be burned as fuel in winter when temperatures sink as low as –40 degrees Fahrenheit. If an old robe, hand-spun from yak hair, could no longer be patched back to health it was packed with mud and used to fortify the walls of a weak area of an irrigation channel.
This pragmatic resourcefulness is echoed in Buddhist belief and derives, in part, from sunyata, which entails the understanding that if we exploit the earth to which we are undeniably bound, we are actually inadvertently exploiting ourselves. Buddhist teachings, which assume that most of us have been animals and even insects in our former lives, recognize that we do not live alone and are not set apart from the rest of the natural world.
Today one of the older nuns sat and watched as a bed bug feasted greedily on her fingertip. Its once drab fleck of a body, now a striking neon red, had swollen to twice its former size when she finally took it outside and allowed it to alight. When I asked why she waited so long she told me, “If it had been me, and it easily could have been, I’d have been grateful for that last bit, wouldn’t you?”
At the time this seemed part nonsense and part brilliance, but whatever it was I could not stop imagining my own face in the trunks of trees, the eyes of spiders and the open palms of stooped pan-handlers. I wondered--could it have been me?
Western tourism in “Little Tibet”
The Ladakhi worldview invites us to wonder if it could have been us. It requires us to see ourselves in every inch of the world around us and to respect it as we might respect our own bodily selves. What if, as Ringzin claims, the branch of a tree waving at me through a frosted windowpane might as well be called I? What if everyone I met was like a sister or a brother? Or even like a blood cell, contributing to my survival even as I, in turn, enliven its being?
But what happens when someone peeks over the 20,000 foot crests, that have, for centuries acted as the stoic, stony guardians of Ladakh’s traditional culture? What happens when the boundaries sustaining Ladakh’s small-scale community begin to erode under the weight of external political and economic pressures? Traditional Ladakhi society had the advantage of being an intimate, closed system, in which it was obvious that the Buddhist philosophy of interdependence was not only valuable, but furthermore, true. Within the past several decades Ladakh has been absorbed into the vast global community. As a result, the outward signs verifying the validity of the ethic of interconnectedness are becoming less and less visible.
Since 1974, when the Indian government opened Ladakh to tourism and initiated a comprehensive development program in the region, the small-scale, subsistence economy that historically reinforced the Buddhist ethic of sunyata has begun to disintegrate. Based on the Western model, development efforts in Ladakh have focused primarily on construction and expansion of infrastructure such as roads and energy production sources. A sub-standard Western-style health care system and narrowly defined educational paradigm that focuses heavily on acquisition of the English language have also been introduced.
There are no desks or blackboards in the classroom where I teach. Students must share pencil stubs and eraser crumbs. Tashi, a young nun, showed me her social studies book today. The scene depicted looked familiar enough to me, but Tashi was spellbound. She ran her finger across the page, stroking the happy white faces.
She read aloud in stilted English: “Bobby, stop watching the television. Sally clean up your toys.” Was she imagining herself in the scene?
Tashi is seven. She hauls jugs of water from the 300-gallon community tank down the road, (refilled only twice a week), to the kitchen of the nun’s hostel where she lives. She washes all of her own dishes by hand and helps cook every meal. She does her own laundry in a nearby irrigation ditch.
She sometimes catches a glimpse of the programs playing on the shopkeeper’s television two streets down, but the other kids are taller so she can never see much.
In the picture she showed me, Sally, wearing a short blue skirt and shiny black loafers, couldn’t seem to decide what drawer to store her dolls in. Bobby, who had his own watch, was lounging in a loveseat, absentmindedly flipping through channels.
We turned the page to find Sally’s mother brushing her teeth with water that flowed freely from the faucet of a porcelain sink.
“They are millionaires,” Tashi said, “not like me.”
As a result of the booming tourism business and increasing government subsidies on imports, commerce has been growing rapidly. Increased trade has invited traffic and pollution, prompted a rural-urban influx and given birth to a sprawling slum in the capital city of Leh. Disparities in wealth, which were virtually non-existent in an economy where ninety-five percent of the population fell into what could be called a middle class, are now on the rise. In the traditional economy accumulation had natural limits. There was a point at which more yaks or more barley became a burden. Money, on the other hand, can be stored in a bank and requires no maintenance. Perhaps more significantly, integration into the global economy invented new “needs” in “Little Tibet.” European tourists, the most palpable of all forms of Western media, would spend more in a day than an average Ladakhi family could make in a year, causing many Ladakhis to begin to understand themselves as poor and deprived.1 In these ways, what Weber terms the “Protestant Ethic,” or the axiom of wealth for wealth’s sake, has made its way across the Himalayan desert.
Lolo liked me from the start because I was a Westerner. He wanted to know everything about me. The day we were introduced he asked me if I drank or had boyfriends. He hugs me whenever we meet, which I was warned against, as it is not a Ladakhi custom. While his traditionally dressed mother and brother weed the flower beds around the hotel they own or carry warm water to the rooms of perturbed foreign guests, Lolo stands at a street-side shop in a black leather jacket selling Buddhist relics to the highest bidder and practicing English idioms on attractive European girls.
On my days off from school I come into Leh and sit in his restaurant grading papers. On one occasion, he asked why I was wearing Indian clothes. He warned that they would just fall apart. What happened to my nice American outfits? Why was I so dirty? Did I ever stay in hotels or was I always at the hostel with the nuns? Did they even have running water there or electricity? He asked me why I wasn’t interested in clubs or shopping, why I seemed to spend no money. I wanted to ask him why he gelled his hair everyday, why he never dressed traditionally, why he always rode around on that terrible motorcycle and never worked in the garden with his mother. I wanted him to be pristine, serene untouched Ladakh, a treasure chest of ancient intuitions. He wanted me to be the progressive, modern, fast-paced West that could make him a magic million.
For a while we were not on the best of terms. I secretly rejoiced when he was ticketed for riding his motorcycle without a helmet after I had warned him against it several times that day. Perhaps he derived similar enjoyment from informing me that I had become quite fat during my two-week stay in rural Tia. In any event, Lolo and I have stopped talking about things we don’t agree on, like whether I need to take a shower with running water or not. Now we talk about the one thing we both know is true, that nothing happens in isolation, that the West is changing Ladakh and that Ladakh is changing the West, and that for better or worse as microwaves and prayer flags cross continents, trading places, all things living are inevitably intertwined.
In contemporary Ladakh, the land a person farms is rarely where she gets her food, as most modern farmers grow cash crops for export. These days, Ladakhis are governed by district commissioners they will never meet. The cramped, dirty city of Leh now supports a burgeoning population of displaced persons looking for work at whatever cost. In spite of these changes, however, the ethic of interconnectedness somehow survives. Though city dwellers do not enjoy the intimate social network traditional villages provided, and though families are becoming increasingly scattered as men travel to the cities to sell their prayer wheels to tourists, every Ladakhi person still refers to every other person as if he or she were a blood relation. The people of Ladakh continue to speak and behave as if all beings were in fact inextricably bound, in spite of the fact that the complex economic and political structures that characterize the modern era have to some extent disguised this fact. Even in modern Ladakh, good and evil are not seen as separate poles. Just like I and you, good exists only in terms of evil, and therefore, on some level, does not exist at all.
Lhakpa is my best friend here. A monk, and headmaster at the school where I teach, he is always late to class because he was fixing something for a cousin or a brother or a sister, which by now I know just means a friend. Bob is one of the other volunteers. Born in London, but of Indian descent, Bob is almost twice Lhakpa’s height and watching them argue yesterday resembled watching a magpie peck at a worm that just keeps dividing into more and more squirming segments.
Bob told Lhakpa he didn’t like the American government.
Lhakpa said that he personally did.
“What about the war in Iraq? You like war, Lhakpa?” Bob snapped.
The author, wearing traditional clothing, and a friend stand
near a Buddhist temple in Ladakh. (Leslie Barnard)
Click image to enlarge.
“Yes, I do,” Lhakpa said.
“You like war? You like it when people die? Lhakpa, what are you saying?”
“He’s saying--" I began--but I didn’t know what he was saying.
“I’m just saying its good what Bush is doing. Just like what the Chinese did in Tibet was good.”
“That was good? Didn’t your uncle die during the invasion?” I was surprised Bob brought that up.
But Lhakpa wasn’t. He said, “There is an old Buddhist saying. I can’t remember it exactly. But its something like, what is good without evil? How can your friends teach you to have patience when they just agree and agree? Tibet had to learn that it was vulnerable, that the outside world was changing all around it. Your enemy is actually your best friend because only your enemy can show you the parts of yourself that you cannot see in the mirror."
Lhakpa’s understanding of the interpenetration of all things is so complete that he has the ability to perceive even seeming dualisms such as good and evil as inextricably intertwined phenomena. Though he has plenty of friends that adore and admire him, when a testy foreign tourist belittled Lhakpa for his lack of English proficiency, he became her shadow, following her everywhere, insisting that they spend more and more time together. I was mystified by his interest in this grotesquely sunburned woman until I recalled his appreciation for the Chinese invasion that had killed his only uncle.
My time in Ladakh made me realize that there are other ways to see the world, other eyes that trace the threads between creatures, drawing out a luminescent vision that insists upon the inherent oneness of all life, even apparently “evil” life. However, it is one thing to take pity on a face, or a voice, or the daughter of someone you used to know, but it is a stretch of our moral muscle to extend ourselves to a smeared statistic caught under the wet print of a coffee cup on the last page of the Times. The same rules of give and take that applied in hundred-person Ladakhi villages are just as valid in the broader context of globalization in which we now live. However, because distance delays and detaches our understanding of our impact on others, because we cannot look down upon the whole earth at once while still seeing all its nooks and nostrils and peculiarities, the intricate web into which we are woven is significantly less viscerally felt, but no less real.
In this uniquely challenging modern era, an era in which the value of the dollar on any given day can determine who eats in Africa and who doesn’t, connectedness cannot and must not be denied. Jigmet’s assumption--that the September 11th attacks were not simply random acts of isolated evil, but were instead a sorrowful response to a preexisting relational reality--is eerily insightful. Though I still have no answer to her question, I am beginning to understand why she might have asked it and why we must allow ourselves to listen to the complex causes of suffering, of which we are undeniably a part. Like this thirteen-year old nun, musing on a moment that occurred half a world away from her home in Ladakh, we must learn to understand ourselves as beings that do not end at our own fingertips. Beings, which in fact, may not end or begin at all.
--Norberg-Hodge, Helena. "Ancient Futures." Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Read more about Ladakh, the "Little Tibet," in The World & I Online archives:
--"Trekking in Ladakh," by Barbara McClatchie-Andrews, October 2000. (Article #20784)
Leslie Barnard received her B.A. in Religious Studies at
Pomona College in Claremont, California. She traveled to
Ladakh in the summer of 2003 to study Tibetan Buddhism from a
female perspective, but instead became enthralled by the ethic
of interconnectedness that clearly permeated every aspect of
life in “Little Tibet.” She is currently teaching elementary
school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation as a member of Teach
for America, an organization that recruits exceptional college
graduates to teach at-risk youth in low-income areas across