The Ladakhis’ attitude to life—and death—seems to be based on an intuitive understanding of impermanence and a consequent lack of attachment. Rather than clinging to an idea of how things should be, they seem blessed with an ability to actively welcome things as they are.

by Peter Matthiessen (1991)

Ladakh, under Karakoram, in the trans-Himalayan region of Kashmir, is a remote region of broad arid valleys set about with peaks that rise to 20,000 feet. It lies in the great rainshadow north of the Himalayan watershed, in a sere land of wind, high desert, and remorseless sun. It is easier to travel north into Tibet than south across the Himalayas to the subcontinent, and the people speak a dialect of the Tibetan tongue. Like Assam, Bhutan, the Mustang and Dolpo regions of northern Nepal, and other mountainous regions of the great Himalayan frontier, Ladakh for the past one thousand years has been an enclave of Tibetan Buddhism.

Politically, La dags, the Land, is a semi-autonomous district divided (by the British-administered partition of 1947) between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Culturally, it is far more ancient, a two-thousand-year-old kingdom of Tatar herders who have learned how to grow barley and a few other hardy crops—peas, turnips, potatoes—in the brief growing season at these high altitudes. Black walnut trees and apricots are maintained at the lower elevations. The doughty way of Ladakhi life is made possible by skillful use of the thin soil and scarce water, and by hardy domestic animals—sheep, goats, a few donkeys and small shaggy horses, and in particular the dzo, a governable hybrid of archaic Asian cattle with the cantankerous semi-wild black ox known as the yak. These animals furnish a resourceful folk with meat and milk, butter and cheese, draft labor and transport, wool, and fuel. In a treeless land, the dried dung cakes of the cattle, gathered all year, are a precious resource, supplying not only cooking fuel but meager heat in the long winters in which temperatures may fall to – 4o°F.

Until recent years, essential needs of the Ladakhis—housing, clothes, and food—were produced locally, by hand, and so a precious resource is communal labor, which is given generously for house construction (stones and mud, whitewashed with lime) or in harvest season, or for tending herds. The high altitudes are greener than the valley floor, and the herds, taken to high pastures in the summer, are thereby kept away from the small barley fields and vegetable gardens. Livestock manure is gathered for cooking fuel and winter heating, and human waste, mixed with ash and earth, is spread upon the gardens; there is no pollution. Thus nothing is wasted and nothing thrown away; a use is found for everything.

In the very grain of Ladakhi life are the Buddhist teachings, which decry waste, and encourage the efficient husbanding of land and water—a frugality, as Helena Norberg-Hodge points out, that has nothing to do with stinginess (also decried in Buddhist teachings) but arises, rather, from respect and gratitude for the limited resources of the land. Water is drawn carefully from glacial brooks—one stream may be reserved for drinking, the next for washing. Indeed, it is pains-taking attention to each object and each moment that makes possible this self-sustaining culture that nonetheless provides Ladakhis with much leisure time.

Watching a mother and her two daughters watering, I saw them open small channels and, when the ground was saturated, block them with a spadeful of earth. They managed to spread the water remarkably evenly, knowing just where it would flow easily and where it would need encouragement. A spadeful dug out here, put back there; a rock shifted just enough to open a channel. All this with the most delicate sense of timing. From time to time they would lean on their spades and chat with their neighbors, with one eye on the water’s progress.

Like the Hopi and other AmerIndian peoples (now thought to have come from the same regions near Lake Baikal and the Gobi Desert as the Tatar peoples who came later to this Himalayan region), the Ladakhis share the Tibetan perception of a circular reality, with life and death as “two aspects of an ever-returning process,” and even in certain details of material culture, comparisons with AmerIndian ways are very interesting. The barley farina known in Ladakh as ngamphe is called tsampa in Tibetan; a very similar corn farina made in America by Algonkian peoples is called samp.

Even if samp-tsampa were mere coincidence, other parallels are not easily dismissed, such as the custom that a habitation should face east toward the sunrise, the prohibition against telling tales in winter, certain healing techniques mysterious to Westerners, and the profound respect for old people and children, who are welcomed to each activity of every day. In AmerIndian tribes of the Amazonian basin, one may be banished into the surrounding forest for displaying anger; schon chan (one who angers easily) is one of the worst insults in the Ladakhi language. Rather than fume when put upon, as Westerners might do, the Ladakhi says, Chi choen—What’s the point? “Lack of pride” is a virtue, for pride, born of ego, has nothing to do with self-respect among these Buddhist people; I witnessed this repeatedly in Himalayan travels with Sherpas (in Tibetan, “easterners”) and the folk of Dolpo, who like the Ladakhis live a pure Tibetan Buddhist culture.

Though I have never found the opportunity to travel to Ladakh since the author first invited me ten years ago, the aesthetic and spiritual correspondences between this land and Dolpo are very obvious in her account. Both are dry, fierce, all but treeless mountain landscapes set about with stupas and chortens, prayer flags and cairns, and prayer walls of carved stones. The dominant wild animals are the blue sheep (actually a goat), Asian wolf, and snow leopard. The author describes the experience of a Ladakhi shepherdess tending her sheep along a ravine:

Just above the path, a ball of burtse, a shrub that is used as fuel, began rolling down the scree: not bouncing, as you would expect, but gliding smoothly, even over bumpy stones. It surprised her; she had never seen anything like this before. Puzzled, she watched it roll closer. As it came to a standstill a few yards from the animals, it looked up at her, this shrub, and she suddenly realized what it was—a snow leopard.

The celebration here of traditional Ladakhi life induces exhilaration but also sadness, as if some half-remembered paradise known in another life had now been lost. So evocative is it that I felt—I’m not sure what—homesickness for the Crystal Monastery? Or perhaps a memory of “homegoing,” as if I were returning to lost paradise, that ancient and harmonious way of life that even Westerners once knew—and indeed still know—in the farthest corners of old Europe.

The Ladakhis’ attitude to life—and death—seems to be based on an intuitive understanding of impermanence and a consequent lack of attachment. . . . Rather than clinging to an idea of how things should be, they seem blessed with an ability to actively welcome things as they are . . .

It is easy to romanticize self-sufficient economies and traditional technologies, and it is also easy, as the author makes clear, to ignore their benefits, from the consolations of working the soil with draft animals rather than tractors to grinding grain with water-powered wheels instead of engines. Many archaic societies are more sustainable than our own in terms of their relationship with the earth, and their patterns of living more conducive to psychological balance— “more in touch,” as the author says, “with our own human nature, showing us that peace and joy can be a way of life.” Anyone with experience of such societies can testify that this thinking is neither wishful nor romantic. Anyway, Ms. Norberg-Hodge is essentially pragmatic and hard-headed:

[The] one-dimensional view of progress, widely favored by economists and development experts, has helped to mask the negative impact of economic growth . . . This has led to a grave misunderstanding of the situation of the majority of people on earth today—the millions in the rural sector of the Third World and has disguised the fact that development programs, far from benefiting these people, have, in many cases, served only to lower their standard of living.“

Modern technologies, based on capital and fossil fuels, lead inevitably to centralization and specialization, to cash crops as opposed to subsistence agriculture and barter, to time-wasting travel and stressful town life among strangers. And they are labor-saving only in the narrowest sense, since gaining one’s livelihood in the new ways, which are competitive rather than communal, demands more time Dependence on international trade for goods and materials leads inevitably to a monoculture—the same sources and resources for both material and abstract needs, from dress to music—and, increasingly, a common language (a pauperized English, in most cases), and even a common education and set of values, with corresponding dismissal and even contempt for the local culture. Modern education tends to belittle local resources, teaching children to find inferior not only their traditional culture but themselves.

Meanwhile, the intense competition that replaces barter and communal effort leads inevitably to increasing dissatisfaction, greed, dispute, and even war, all on behalf of an economic model that the local people cannot emulate and that, even if they could, would almost certainly be inappropriate for Ladakh (and other Third World lands of narrow resources). Yet the future of such countries lies entirely in the hands of development corporations and financial institutions, including the World Bank, where decisions are based on Western economic systems rather than the welfare of the client states.

Another unfortunate consequence of disruption is population increase, which underlies the breakdown of cultures the world over. Until recent years, the Ladakhi population was well adjusted to the limited amount of arable land and the slender resources of water and stock forage. The increasing dependence on the outside world, the author says, “erodes personal responsibility and clouds the fact that resources are limited. Optimists assume that we will be able to invent our way out of any resource shortage, that science will somehow stretch the earth’s bounty ad infinitum. Such a view is a denial of the fact that there are limits in the natural world which are beyond our power to change, and conveniently circumvents the need for a redistribution of wealth. A change in the global economy is not necessary if you believe that there is going to be more and more to go around.”

Is it (as suggested here) that the would-be corporate developers and the would-be benefactors, with their inappropriate technologies, are out of touch with reality, or is it that, while quite aware—indeed, more aware than anybody else—of the debt, dependence, and environmental pollution being inflicted on a formerly clean and self-reliant culture, they pursue nonetheless the easy short-term profit, leaving behind not just pollution but frustration, misery, and anger? For the ethical basis of traditional Buddhist belief, based on the unity and mutual interdependence of all life, is grievously missing from the Western codes that now impinge upon the people of Ladakh.

The Buddhist ability to adjust to any situation, to feel happy regardless of circumstances, is already eroded, and so is that “deep-rooted contentedness that they took for granted.” Only sixteen years ago, when Helena Norberg-Hodge first went to Ladakh, the people would not sell their old wood butter jars no matter what was offered by their few visitors; today, only too eager to sell, they store their butter in tin cans.

From a social point of view, the losses that accrue to misguided development may become even more painful than the material ones. As the author demonstrates, the small communities and large extended families of Ladakhi life are a better foundation for “growing up” than the unnatural alienation of leaving home, which leads, paradoxically, to clinging and grasping attitudes and relationships that directly contravene the Buddhist teachings. In addition to the contempt for one’s own culture, the aspiration for what one is taught to want but will never (in the great majority of cases) have is encouraged by misplaced technological progress and its many ills. With the advent of specialization, work is done away from home, social life depends on business associates and strangers, and the children are increasingly excluded. The culture fragments at an ever-increasing rate, as so-called “progress” divides the Ladakhis from their native earth, from one another, and from what Buddhists call “their own true nature.”

As Wendell Berry has written in The Unsettling of America:

What happens under the rule of specialization is that, though society becomes more and more intricate, it has less and less structure. It becomes more and more organized, but less and less orderly. The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms and enactments of the relations among materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilization and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death—just as the individual character loses the sense of a responsible involvement in these relationships. . .

The only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present. When supposed future needs are used to justify misbehavior in the present, as is the tendency with us, then we are both perverting the present and diminishing the future . . .

Although responsible use may be defined, advocated, and to some extent required by organizations, it cannot be implemented or enacted by them. It cannot be effectively enforced by them. The use of the world is finally a personal matter, and the world can be preserved in health only by the forbearance and care of a multitude of persons.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is certainly one of those persons, and her valuable book cries out to those who are not. On occasion over the years, I have attended her eloquent public appeals, and know how effective an advocate she is, not only because of her intelligence and sincerity and presence but because of a profound commitment that has taken her to Ladakh for half the year for the past sixteen years.

A highly trained linguist who had studied in five countries and spoke six languages, she learned the Ladakhi dialect in her first year, and since then she has informed herself in all the societal, environmental, and alternative energy disciplines that she had to understand in order to establish the remarkable Ladakh Project, set up “to warn the Ladakhis of the long-term ‘side-effects’ of conventional development and to present practical alternatives, from the demonstration of solar heating systems to educational programs for schoolchildren.” Since its founding, the Project has earned the strong endorsement of numerous world figures. Ancient Futures reveals a knowledge of certain complex principles of Buddhist doctrine that permit her to understand this ancient social order that much better—the humanism of old ways that worked, emotionally as well as economically, now threatened with fatal loss by ways that don’t.

This is not to say that the pervasive human well-being in Ladakh is gone forever. Indeed, it is one of the virtues of this book that it points to real solutions, and ends on an inspiring note of hope and determination. As the author suggests, we have much to learn from Ladakhi culture, and we will ignore these teachings at our peril.

Source: Introduction to Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh


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