Insights from Tibetan Buddhism

The Buddhist scholar, Antonio Terrone (JSRNC 8.4 (2014) pp. 460-482), has explored how the Tibetan Buddhist terma (treasure) tradition of revealed teachings is based on forming an interdependent exchange between humans and the land they inhabit.  The terma tradition is associated with the 8th century mystic Padmasambhava who is credited with bringing the tantric form of Buddhism to Tibet, at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen of the Yarlung Dynasty, to help with the establishment of Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery at Samyé, on the banks of the Tsangpo River, south of Lhasa.

Padmasambhava, who became known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher), is the foundational figure in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.  Known as the ancient lineage, it brings together different elements that define Tibet’s Buddhist culture:

  • The incorporation of the ancient spiritual forces of pre-Buddhist Tibet as dharma protectors, tamed by Padmasambhava and held under spiritual oath to continue to protect the dharma
  • The continued veneration of the Mountain Gods and earth spirits and their life-giving energies within the wider framework of Buddhist practices, as can be seen in the way the legendary activities of Gesar, the great cultural warrior of East Tibet, are also read as Buddhist activities defeating the ‘demons’ of the negative emotions and wrong views that wreak havoc in the world
  • The combination of mythopoetic ways of knowing through tantric practices combining visualisation, mantra, dance (cham) and music with robust reason-based philosophical inquiry into the nature of human perception and conceptualisation in the main Indian-sourced schools of Buddhist philosophy
  • The terma tradition of revealed teachings whereby Padmasambhava, through his principal female disciple, the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, secreted his teachings away for future generations by hiding them in the landscape of Tibet, under the protection of spirit guardians, Terdaks, and in the wisdom mind-stream of his disciples and their future reincarnations, to be revealed at a time and place that met the needs of beings of that time. The revealers of these termas (treasure teachings) are known as Tertons, a special class of Buddhist spiritual masters who have played a leading role in Tibetan Buddhism to this day.

Terrone concludes that as a result: “The source of the Treasure becomes a place deserving respect, protection, and devotion on both religious and ecological levels. I call this phenomenon ‘the ecology of revelation’, and I maintain that this is a fundamental socio-religious ethic characterized by respect for the environment and awareness of humans’ connection to it.” He suggest that Tibetans’ interactions with their environment are rooted in indigenous understandings of their landscape as a locus of human exchange with the divinities that inhabit it for both this-world material gain (good harvest, livestock health, well-being, etc.) and transcendental purposes (revelation, spiritual realization, favorable rebirth, and so forth) – Terrone, 2010.A Different State of Consciousness

In my memoir, Call of the Dakini (2021), I discuss how it was my immersion in these mythopoetic ways of knowing, through engaging in tantric practices and the mystical practice path of guru yoga, that I began to see parallels with the nature of Australia’s First Nations knowledge systems, and that of many other First Nations people’s who have retained a profoundly eco-spiritual relationship with their natural world. It is an entirely different state of consciousness than that which is enshrined in modernity, with its focus on individualism, individual rights, and progress as rising material wealth.

These First Nation knowledge systems cut through the deeply entrenched binary nature of modern thought that privileges the human species over all others, which sets us on one side of the ledger, and all other lifeforms and the natural world on the other.

This binary construct is found in the very foundations of the monotheistic Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  In its foundational myth expressed in Genesis 1.26: that God created man in his image and gave him dominion over the Earth and all its lifeforms.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals,[a] and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

The Genesis myth provides a religious/spiritual justification for the logic of ‘extractivism’—that human wellbeing is based on our ability to extract wealth/value from the Earth and all its lifeforms, that other lifeforms have no soul and are therefore little more than biological ‘machines’, as can be seen in the logic of the factory farming of animals, the use of ‘lab rats’ for medical experimentation, and the casting of those humans we exploit as ‘no more than animals’ or ‘sub-human’, ie: not truly human—an idea long projected onto the people of Africa and other so-called primitive people.

This foundational myth of human exceptionalism has led to existential loneliness in our profound alienation from the world around us. We seek to transcend this by having some creatures as our domestic ‘pets’ with a quasi human status through emotional attachment, to set aside some areas of nature as ‘national parks’ and ‘protected wilderness areas’, to seek to revive our spirits by going hiking or camping in the bush, swimming in the wild untamed waters of the ocean.  But these attempts remain fragile.  We remain pervaded by a sense of existential angst. Pets are abandoned when inconvenient; national parks vulnerable to the discovering of important minerals beneath the ground; wilderness areas left untended to become the sources of huge infernos in raging bushfires.Green Nativism and Eco-Fascism

While denial of the climate/environmental crises currently enveloping the human species has long been the preferred strategy of the business elite, particularly those dependent on the resources sector such as in Australia, a more worrying trend is now emerging in the form of Green Nativism, an environmental populism that reverts to earlier tropes of the eco-fascism that pervaded Nazi ideology.

Will human exceptionalism contract to protecting ‘our people’ in the face of the swelling tide of refugees expected to be fleeing climate related devastation and violence?

Will we see a new version of neo-malthusian and ethno-nationalist thinking shaping right wing populism against the ‘other’, the ones who are not us.

In Spain, Santiago Abascal, leader of the populist Vox party, has called for a “patriotic” restoration of a “green Spain, clean and prosperous”.

France’s National Front, once a bastion of derisive climate denial, has founded a green wing called New Ecology, with Marine Le Pen, president of the party, vowing to create the “world’s leading ecological civilization” with a focus on locally grown foods.

As a strange alliance of people demonstrate against Government measures to contain the global COVID pandemic as an impingement of their individual freedoms and rights, we can expect to see this tide of disaffection rise when measures to address global warming begin to bite and political adversaries attempt to weaponise this for their short term political gains.

Will we see the calling for smaller government, no taxes, no changes to the pleasures we of the global 1% have enjoyed at the expense of our 300 year rape of the planet in the name of economic progress that has progressed since the Industrial Revolution and the Age of European Imperialism?

As our politicians rage against China’s carbon emissions, research has clearly demonstrated that the main instigators of the climate crisis are wealthy people in the wealthy countries of the West. The richest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015, with high consumption economies like the US, and high resource intensive economies like Australia and Canada among the highest emitters of carbon per capita.  And with Australia, at least, determined to hang onto its coal-earning exports in order to protect a few thousand jobs and export earnings as long as there are customers—it’s the customers who are to blame.  After all that’s how markets work!

We wait with baited breath to see whether the anti-vax, anti-government movement will expand and morph into Green Nativism—protecting our environment from the global climate refugees, such as the Pacific Islanders facing ocean inundation seeking safe harbour.

Will we reject any government measures that threaten our ‘standard of living’ as we attempt to deal with climate adaptation in measures beyond the promise of Australia becoming a global renewable energy superpower—the next magical thing after ‘riding on the sheep’s back and riding on the ‘mineral resources boom’ of iron ore and coal—to preserve our privileged way of life?

For those of us feeling some satisfaction we have reduced our electricity bill with solar panels on our roof, it must give us pause to realise that over 60% of the production of these solar panels comes from ‘slave’ labour – the Uyghurs of China in their thought detention camps.  And then we have to think about how the metals are mined, how the spent panels will be recycled, how much of our national landscape do we wish to see covered in metal solar panels?The Ecology of Revelation

In contrast to the trope about Australia becoming a renewable energy superpower with yet higher standards of living sustaining our claim to be one of the world’s wealthiest and most liveable places, the idea of the ecology of revelation points to a very different way of understanding our place in the world as we confront our global climate/environmental crisis. Because we must remember that this sits on the back of deeply entrenched social inequality and human exploitation of other humans in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’.

One recent example of the ecology of revelation is the way in Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche, a recognised reincarnation of Terton Sogyal Lerab Lingpa, who revealed many important termas (treasure teachings) in early 20th century Tibet, was able to draw on this ecology of revelation to revive the study and practice of Buddhism in Tibet following the very difficult years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Through a series of visionary experiences and communication with such powerful ancestral figures as Padmasambhava and Gesar, in the 1980s Khenpo Puntsok established Larung Gar as a new centre of Buddhist learning in the remote Sertar valley in north Kham, which is now part of Sichuan Province.

Drawing on these connections he reinvested Buddhist cultural energy in the Tibetan physical and imaginal landscape through reviving the tradition of sacred geography though rituals, dreams, miraculous events and terma revelation associated with Padmasambhava and Gesar, ‘the Great Lion of the World, King Gesar who epitomises the Body of the Buddhas through the three times’.

In a similar way we see the role of an ecology of revelation in Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander cultures in Australia and their tradition of songlines and ceremony.  I live in the Blue Mountains, near the Gully in Katoomba, which is Gundungurra Country.

As the Gundungurra artist, the dancer and choreographer, Ian Colless recently explained at an Eco-Arts Seminar for the Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute, culture is a process that produces art (not art that produces culture).  It is a process for keeping Country alive (mobile) by activating the essences left there by the Ancestral Beings of his culture as recorded in their songlines that wind through the valleys and mountains of Gundungurra Country that stretches from the Souther Highlands to the Blue Mountains, centred around Lake Burragorang.

Colless pointed out that it is precisely this relationship that makes Aboriginal art so powerful and vital because it comes from a cultural responsibility to Country. not just an individual desire to ‘make art’ for the art market.  Ian says this is how art is also political for his people. “It shows who we are—our multi-intellectual and multi-generational connection to Country that cannot be taken from us and which is our responsibility, handed to us by our elders, the cultural custodians, to keep our Country alive with the Dreaming, which is past, present and future.  It is why for millennia my people have come to the Blue Mountains for spiritual healing.  It is a special place for us. Our sacred trust is that if we look after Country, then it will look after us.”

It must be remembered that the meaning of Country is not just the environment.  Gundungurra elder, Aunty Sharyn Hall says that Ngurra (Country) takes in everything within the cultural and spiritual landscape—landforms, water, air, trees, rocks, plants, animals, foods, medicine, minerals, stories and significant places.  It includes Cultural practices, Knowledge, songs, stories and art as well as Spiritual beings and people, present and future.  Ngurra has a deep meaning of belonging.

For this reason, the English word ‘country’ is always capitalised when it refers to the Aboriginal idea of Country.Ecological Epistemology

What First Nations’ people in Australia, with their profoundly eco-spiritual relationship with Country, take for granted as self-evident, requires a torturous wrangling of the Western imagination away from its tendency to abstract universalism, to the separation of mind from matter, to the abstract categorisation of all phenomena. Instead we are being called to a different way of thinking, what some have called ecological epistemology (EE).

This is not only about embodiment with the human mind-body complex, but complete embodiment of the intrinsic relationship between all lifeforms and landscape, with agency—not just human agency but pervasive agency, what has been dismissed by modern ‘scientific’ thinking as animism.

Yet, even the world of science is abuzz with new understandings of diffuse forms of intelligence and communication. More and more we are discovering the language of communities of trees via their rhizome root structures and fungi. The language of birds, of insects, of the water flowing in rivers, of animals and fish. Language is not limited to the syntax of the human voice-mind—language implies intentional communication.  As our First Nations people tell us.  We have but to just learn HOW to listen.

I remember how Leanne Tobin, one of our Wild Mountain Collective Patrons, told me that as she researched her family’s Darug history and embraced her Darug cultural heritage she found herself more and more able to ‘hear’ the language of the birds and her Country.

Isabel Cristina de Moura Carvalho of the Universidade Federal de São Paulo, writes that Ecological epistemology (EE) demarcates an area of convergence between contemporary theories whose common core is the recognition of the agency of natural processes, objects, and materials. EE encompasses the knowledge emerging from the assumption of symmetry between things and thought, human and nonhuman beings, and historical and natural processes.

She contrasts this with the western philosophical construction that takes knowledge as a mental construct, regardless of its material base. The idealist perspective in this approach takes knowledge as a representation of reality, which is processed through the logical operation of abstraction and detachment from its empirical object. This is the relentless search within the Western/Modern knowledge system to find universal truths that are then projected back onto specifics.

Instead, EE avoids diluting culture into nature or assimilating nature into culture but seeks to merge the human and natural histories considering all, nonhumans and humans, co-residents, and “co-citizens” of the same world. EE claims a return to things, reality, body, and organisms. Against the imprisonment of knowledge within the human mind, ecological epistemologies bring to the fore the world’s materiality an autonomous rethinking of the status of reality.

For instance, human learning, in this perspective, is a skill acquired in relation with organisms and other beings who inhabit the same world that they do, rather than a rational prerogative of the restricted space of the human mind. Such a perspective has enormous implications for pedagogy—it also points to why First Nations people learn best, when that learning takes place ‘on Country’.  It is not only mind-body integrated learning, but mind-body-Country integrated learning using all our senses for meaning-making.

This shift to include nonhumans in the epistemological horizon undermines the deepest foundations of modern knowledge, as well as the basic pillars of normal science.

In this sense, these epistemologies are ecological because they give voice to the world, considering the autonomy of things and nature in its relation to the human, avoiding determinisms, be they biological or cultural.

This presents a profound and transformative challenge to the entire edifice of Western/Modern knowledge making and learning systems across all levels of our educational system: pre-school, primary school, secondary school, tertiary and vocational, and professional.