Himalayan Interdependence

Buddhism, Culture and Environment

The Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau are discernibly interdependent with the traditional cultures and Tibetan Buddhist/Bon spirituality they host. More than 8 million people of Tibetan ethnic origin live in the physical grandeur of their peaks, valleys, high deserts and dense forests. The mountains and plateau are the source of many of the world’s great rivers. The black and white film photographs here focus on these people and the ways in which their shared beliefs and customs are intertwined with their unique natural environment.

Historically, high altitudes and physical remoteness determined that most people shared a common economy built on subsistence agriculture, livestock, use of natural resources and trade. The powerful influence of Buddhism, adapted in Tibet to incorporate traditional beliefs and customs related to nature and healing, manifest in similar spiritual practices and institutions across the region.

But change is a constant. When I first started photographing the inhabitants and natural environments of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau in 1991, most people lived off the grid removed from mass communications and consumerism. Over the intervening years, telecommunications, roads, electricity and increased educational opportunities have penetrated even the most remote of these mountains and high deserts altering lifestyles and economies. Cultural and religious traditions in turn are affected. Economic development policies and practices threaten conservation of natural resources and wildlife habitats, as well as the continued existence of many animal and bird species.

While the relationships among cultural values, spiritual practices and respect for nature are inevitably threatened by elements of modernization; many in this region are making conscious efforts to support these synergies. Perhaps the strongest voice has been that of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who speaks often of interdependence, the special wisdom of the Tibetan people and the imperative of environmental conservation.

This photo essay is organized around a short statement by the Dalai Lama in his book, “My Spiritual Journey”1 in which he describes the interdependence of traditional Tibetan culture, spiritual beliefs and the natural environment and their effects on the psyche of the Tibetan people. His words resonate with my own experiences during years of traveling and working in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and interacting with ethnically Tibetan people in India, Nepal, Bhutan and China.