Tibet: Outer Conflict, Inner Peace

December 16, 1990|By Galen Rowell | Galen Rowell,Universal Press Syndicate

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people. . . . The Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the Committee the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues and global environmental problems.

'--Oslo, Norway, Oct. 5, 1989

A year ago this month the Dalai Lama went to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation he received was the first in the history of the prize specifically to mention efforts on behalf of the environment.

Although the Dalai Lama actually has not been in Tibet in more than 30 years, anyone visiting his country quickly understands that his views reflect the attitude of the Tibetan people toward their environment. Their individual pilgrimages through the rugged highlands of their country bear an uncanny resemblance to the wilderness travels we in the West find so liberating.

Back in 1981, when leading the first American adventure travel group to the Tibetan base camp for Mount Everest, I had the feeling that I had seen all this before. A member who had spent time in a Buddhist retreat in Colorado suggested the possibility of reincarnation. But as a lifetime Californian with little exposure to Bud-dhism, I had a more practical explanation. I had seen a similar landscape in my home state.

Tibet's open vistas of arid lands that rise up to join eternal snows bear an uncanny resemblance to the eastern Sierra of California, which I've visited hundreds of times since I was a child. Both regions lie in the shadow of high mountains. The most obvious difference is in scale -- at 29,182 feet, Mount Everest is two 14,495-foot Mount Whitneys.

The instant connection I felt with Tibet's wild environment soon extended to include the Tibetan people and their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in Dharmsala, India, seat of the Tibetan government in exile, since his flight from the Chinese communists in 1959.

More than 30 years later, his spiritual presence is felt in the remnants of Tibet's old Buddhist culture. Monks with impish grins walk through the streets, and oval-faced women greet visitors with smiles that rival the rising sun. It is hard to comprehend such serenity in the face of one of the great cultural tragedies in history, in which all but 10 of Tibet's 6,000 monasteries were destroyed and 1.2 million people were killed by the Chinese communist regime.

Despite the Chinese invasion, in Tibet visitors still find one of the Earth's unique wild places where human beings have lived in harmony with their environment for more than a millennium. While most of the civilized world has spent the last few centuries in conflict with the environment by treating nature as an enemy to overcome, Tibetan Buddhists have maintained a reverence for the interdependence of humans and nature.

This interdependence is the essence of the Dalai Lama's philosophy of each individual's universal responsibility. A trip to Lhasa, Tibet's capital, provides a short course on how Tibetans practice compassion toward other human beings in their daily lives. The traveler feels instantly accepted, even loved, by strangers on the street. Pico Iyer, a staff writer for Time, says, "I felt these were days of heaven, and I would never know such purity again."

But to see the broader picture of how these remarkable people relate to the earth, one must travel deep into the outback, as I did on the most memorable of my five visits to Tibet -- a pilgrimage on a simple path around a holy mountain where Tibetans and groups of foreign trekkers share a common goal.

Shorter itineraries to Mount Everest Base Camp or overland to Katmandu, in Nepal, will give a traveler a feeling for Tibet's

snowy heights and vast open spaces, but to see some of the remaining wildlife, no other organized trek rivals a journey to Mount Kailas.

We began in the fabled city of Lhasa and drove overland west on dirt roads in Toyota Land Cruisers for five days to reach the base of Mount Kailas, which Tibetans believe is the earthly manifestation of mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe. The wildlife that disappeared from most of Tibet after the arrival of China's armies still was here in the far reaches of western Tibet. We saw antelope, gazelle, mountain sheep, wild yak, wild asses, wolves and many great birds of prey.

The land grew more austere each day, until it became a multihued surface of rounded rock dotted with grasses and sedges. We seemed to be riding on the bones of the Earth. I understood how pilgrims, walking overland for weeks or months, believe they are arriving at the center of the universe.

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