I believe that Diane Barker was a Drokpa nomad in her previous life.
Her friendship with the nomads which span over two decades, her continuous journeys to their land,
and her deep affinity for their cultural and spiritual legacy manifest themselves in her words,
spectacular documentations, and humanitarian work to improve their plight.
Diane is currently working on a book that celebrates the contribution of nomadic life
to the sacred ecology of eastern Tibet. And this story, as part of that broader research,
reveals a mystical existence that is so integral to this rich culture.
– Mona Kim, Founder of Moowon Magazine
Tibet is a sacred land, its people an expression of that sacredness. For 17,000 years before Buddhism arrived the nomads and farmers of Tibet practiced Bon Shamanism which revered the land and related to it as a spiritual being. The sky, mountains, rivers, and lakes were animated by gods, demons or nature spirits. Bon ritual involved the harnessing, use, or subjugation of the natural elements in order to create and maintain a living balance between the natural and supernatural.
The establishment of Buddhism in Tibet in the 7th century transformed the country. Buddhism absorbed many Bon practices and created a culture of tremendous depth and richness. The people of Tibet held devotion for the sanctity and power of natural places. Today, shamanic practices continue to coexist alongside studious monasticism and a lived compassion for all beings.
What does this ancient world-view mean for the future? As traditional Tibetans hold the understanding of a sacred landscape, they bring reverence, care, and respect to the land. This is a natural attitude of stewardship, the basis of conservation and environmental protection.
"Nomads believe that a person's life force is connected with a locality and the spirits that dwell there and that a deterioration of this bond can have negative repercussions."
(From Drokpa : Nomads of the Tibetan Plateau and Himalaya by Daniel J Miller)
Environmental scientists have recently acknowledged that this traditional approach can make significant contributions to protecting endangered species and conserving biodiversity. What is needed now is not just a return to respecting the land but respect for the knowledge, skills and wisdom of those who have done so for millennia.
Prayer flags reflected in water in the nomad grasslands of Hongyuin, Amdo.
Traditional Tibetan culture knows the outer world as a reflection of the inner world; its values and practices connect the two so that they can nourish each other. Nature is alive with deities and spiritual energies. Sacred sites throughout Tibet are revered as places where these worlds meet, where the separation between inner and outer, spiritual and material, is especially thin. Mountains such as Kawa Karpo in Kham and Amnye Machen in Amdo, springs, lakes, relics, forbidden areas, places associated with spiritual figures (such as Guru Rinpoche,) and pilgrimage routes are respected as sacred. Hanging prayer flags, burning incense (usually Juniper branches), and saying prayers are just some of the traditional ways of honouring sacred sites. These practices protect the areas and their special deities, benefit the Drokpas, their grazing land, and their livestock.
Children (including two young monks) at Karchin healing spring in Amchok, Amdo.
Bonpo Lama conducting a puja for the local protective deity Hogan, Horlung Nor, Kham.
He is chanting specific prayers to generate positive energy whilst burning juniper branches to purify the air.
A few years ago I was travelling in Dzongsar/Meshu area, in Kham, with a friend. We stopped in Horlung Nor, a beautiful and remote nomad valley, to conduct a small prayer ceremony for Hogan, the local male protector deity who lives on the mountaintop above. This deity was also considered to be the protector of my friend's family, and she felt it was important to make an offering to it.
Some old local nomad men came to help us, gathering Juniper for the smoke purification ritual, hanging prayer flags, and joining the simple ceremony. Afterwards, one of the nomads told us that this mountain god had appeared to him when, as a teenager, he was hunting in the forest on the mountainside. He was so surprised and terrified that he threw down his gun and fled home—never to hunt again.
One of the other nomads added: "He is lucky to be alive. My cousin saw the god when he was young and afterwards, he sickened and died." Another one agreed: "Yes, I have heard of people who have seen the god and they generally don't survive!"
I was amazed by the conversation, moved that a people and a place still exist where the magical and the numinous are treated as topics to chat about and where people still had such reverence for their local landscape. In the West, my experience is that people either treat this kind of topic with incredible (and depressing) cynicism or see it as a myth, an ancient story that happened somewhere else.
The nomad who had seen Hogan when out hunting as a boy.
He told us that he had thrown down his gun and fled, never to hunt again.
His friends said he was lucky to be alive.
Horlung Nor, Kham.
Women with traditional hair decorations of coral and turquoise at a Lama Dance Festival. Manigango, Kham.
Monks dressed as deer taking part in the Lama Dances, Chung Lung Bonpo Gonpa, Taerlung, Kham.
Like other Tibetans, the Drokpas love to go on pilgrimage to visit and circumambulate sacred mountains and lakes, as well as holy places such as temples, stupas, and Mani stones. Pilgrimage to sacred sites and to sacred festivals is very popular in Tibet; it is considered a blessing (creating merit for this and future lives), a holiday, and an important social occasion. Often, the finest clothes are worn. Some Tibetans will make prostrations around the holy site, and occasionally, pilgrims will prostrate the entire journey from their local area to Lhasa, the holiest of all Tibet's pilgrimage places.
The Tibetan calendar is full of religious festivals—pujas involving prayer, ritual music, offerings, and sacred monastic dances known as cham. They commemorate the deeds of the Buddha or of great masters of the past associated with Bon or Buddhist traditions and can last for days. The festivals generally culminate in empowerment or blessings from the officiating lamas, and often with cham dances. Cham dances are performed by monks (and very occasionally nuns) wearing ornate costumes and masks and are considered a form of meditation, with each aspect having a symbolic meaning. Their themes are largely about purification, celebrations of Buddhism, and morality. In many areas of Tibet, the monks or nuns involved in these festivals would have been drawn from the local, largely nomadic, communities.
Pilgrim with an amber headdress at a Lama Dance festival. Manigango, Kham.
Little pilgrim in her finest clothes, Jamar Mani, Kham.
Women with traditional hair decorations watching Lama Dancing.
The precious stones are believed to have auspicious and medicinal properties.
One of the festivals I attended in Tibet was the annual Monlam (or prayer festival) of the Nangchen nuns held at Jamar Mani, in the Nangchen area of Kham. These remarkable and humble nuns undertake Tibetan Buddhist yoga and meditation practices from a female lineage and many are, in a most understated way, highly realized and accomplished. All have traditionally come from local nomadic families. The Monlam lasts for a week and is an important annual event for the nuns, as well as for the local nomadic people who throng the remote area during that time.
Wangdrak Rinpoche of Gebchak Nunnery writes of the nuns' spiritual practice and how it relates to care for the earth:
"There are unique practices for women. For example, the most essential practice teaching in Tibetan Buddhism is the Khandro Nyingtik, a female lineage that means "The Heart Essence of the Dakinis"—a teaching given directly from the dakinis [female embodiments of enlightened energy]. We should all know this—what the meaning is of female lineage.
It's explained according to the earth element in the following verse:
The female is like the earth, like the elements;
Like the earth, it is the basis for all qualities.
The verse likens the female body to the earth. Being like the earth, if we have a good relationship with the earth and a good relationship with the feminine, there will be peace and balance in the world. Diseases, famine, epidemics, fighting… there isn't peace in the world now because the earth elements are disrupted and the earth goddesses displeased. They mainly come about due to this imbalance, don't they?
In Tibet we believe in female spirits like dakinis, earth goddesses and so forth. We believe that if we've disturbed or aggravated them, we must confess and do purification ceremonies to appease them. We perform confession and feast offerings, and when the dakinis are pleased the environment is peaceful. Prayers that we make to the dakinis have a special power to come true. The dakinis have also made prophecies about these things in their symbolic language."
Elderly nun with a prayer wheel at the annual Jamar Monlam Prayer Festival, Jamar Mani, Kham.
Nangchen nuns blowing ritual horns during the annual Jamar Monlam Prayer Festival.
The main purpose of the Prayer Festival (Monlam translates as 'path of aspiration') is to recite prayers with the intention
that all beings may reach happiness and be liberated from suffering. Jamar Mani, Kham.
This center of heaven,
This core of earth,
This heart of the world,
Fenced round with snow,
The headland of all rivers,
Where the mountains are high and
The Land is pure.
A country so good
Where men are born as sages and heroes
And act according to good laws.
A land of horses ever more speedy.
Anonymous Tibetan poet,
8th to 9th century
Once, when we arrived at my friend's village, Taerlung, local nomads came to see us. They were worried that the five springs at the foot of a local mountain, used by local people for their water supply, were drying up. These springs would be considered the gift of the protector deity of the mountain, but the Chinese had turned one spring into a bathing area and another healing hot spring was full of rubbish. The nomads were sad about the state of the springs and concerned that the village people no longer circumambulated the mountain that provided their water or made smoke offerings to the local goddess. It was clear from the rubbish-filled hot spring that they had forgotten the sacredness of the landscape around them. We all cleaned out the spring and my friend gave the nomads money so that they could make offerings to the mountain goddess.
The drying up of the springs was symbolic of a dwindling lack of respect for the environment. As the inner springs of spiritual awareness become dry, the outer springs do as well.
The nomads and other Tibetans hold this reverence, just as they are trying to remain stewards of the land they have lived with for thousands of years. Small pockets of awareness of the land's magic, its sacredness, its deep inner value, remain amidst fast-approaching modernity with its decimating and polluting effects.
The land is threatened as Chinese culture, with its modern and materialist values, encroaches and as more and more nomads are settled into villages. It is not just the land one sees—the trees and lakes, the mist and grasses—but the inner land, enlivened with spiritual essence. As the Chinese wake up to the effects of environmental degradation and begin to turn back to traditional spiritual values, I hope they allow for a new appreciation of ancient Tibet's Spiritual Ecology.
Diane Barker is a photographer and artist based in Worcestershire, England. Born in what was historically a pub, Diane's "nomadic" roots trace back to the 70s as a hippie living in a camper van in America. It was also during that time her first encounter with the Tibetan lamas transpired in Wales. During the 1990s, a Buddhist boyfriend lured her into a voyage to India, which eventually led to her encounter with the Tibetan nomads in Changthang in Ladakh. Ever since, the nomads became her obsession and the subject of her heart. During one of her journeys, a compelling incident within the communities instigated the Heart of Asia project,an NGO founded by Diane and her friends. Its objective is to bring healthcare, health education, and essential aid to remote communities in rural Eastern Tibet. For those wishing to donate to the organization, please visit: www.heartofasia.org/donate.php