Ancient Futures: learning from Ladakh

Helena Norberg-Hodge travelled to Ladakh on multiple occasions, starting from 1975. Multiple visits and study of the Ladakhis way of life provided an insightful journey through the developments between 1975 and late 1980s. In 1991 a book was published based on her observations. In the “olden” world, Ladakhis women enjoyed high social status and families and communities ties were very strong. 2nd part of the book described how the peaceful land of Ladakh changed socially, ecologically and economically when “development” set in. Ladakhis starts to enjoy the comfort and convenience of modernisation, at the same time, increasing greed, intolerance, unemployment, inflation. pollution set in and is threatening the ecological balance and social harmony which were maintained over the past centuries. The book raises important questions about the whole notion of progress, and explores the root causes of the problems faced by a highly industralized societies. Ancient Futures book was translated into almost 40 languages and use regularly at the grassroots to raise awareness. Check her talk on TEDx in Christchurch, July 2011.

Some excerpts from the book below.

Especially in winter, Ladakhis eat meat (goat in particular, but also yak and dzo) presumably because it would be difficult to survive without. Fish is never eaten, as it is thought that if you are going to take a life, it is better for it to be the life of a large animal that can supply food for many people; if you ate fish, you would have to take many more lives. The killing of animals is not taken lightly and is never done without asking for forgiveness and with much prayer: Those animals which I use for riding and loading, Which have been killed for me, All those whose meat I have taken, May they attain the state of Buddhahood very soon. (p. 31)

Illness is caused by a lack of understanding. – A Ladakhi Amchi (p. 37)

One of the first things that struck me on my arrival in Ladakh was the wide, uninhibited smiles of the women, who move freely, joking and speaking with men in an open and unselfconscious way…women generally exhibit great self confidence, strength of character, and dignity. Almost all early travellers to Ladakh commented on the exceptionally strong position of women. (p. 68)

Are there special qualities that people look for when choosing a wife? Well, first of all, she should be able to get along with people, to be fair and tolerant. What else is important? Here skills are valued, and she shouldn‘t be lazy. Does it matter if she is pretty or not? Not really. It‘s what she‘s like inside that counts—her character is more important. We say here in Ladakh, A tiger‘s stripes are on the outside; human stripes are on the inside.‘ (p. 71)

Everything in Ladakh reflects its religious heritage. The landscape is dotted with carved prayer stones and chortens, fluttering flags whisper prayers to the winds, and always on some high distant rise the massive white walls of a monastery. Buddhism has been the traditional religion of the majority of Ladakhis since approximately 200 BC, when it was introduced from India. Today, all sects of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism are represented, under the overall spiritual leadership of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The villages where I have lived are Buddhist, but in the capital almost half the population is Muslim. In addition, there is a small group of Christians numbering a few hundred. Relations among these three groups have changed in recent years, but when I arrived they all showed profound mutual respect and an easy going tolerance, strengthened by frequent intermarriages. On the main festival days of the respective religions, people from all groups would visit one another, exchanging kataks, the ceremonial white scarves. In my first few months in Ladakh, I was invited to join in the festivities at the time of Id, a Muslim holiday. I will never forget the sense of warmth and good humor as Buddhists and Muslims sat down together. (p. 73)

One of the central elements of Buddhism is the philosophy of sunyata, or emptiness. I had difficulty understanding the meaning of this concept at first, but over the years, in talking to Tashi Rabgyas, it became clearer: ―It is something that is not easy to talk about, and impossible to understand through words alone, he told me once. It is something you can only fully grasp through a combination of reflection and personal experience. But I‘ll try to explain it in a simple way. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it—all form part of the tree. Ultimately, if you think about it, everything in the universe helps make the tree what it is. It cannot be isolated; its nature changes from moment to moment—it is never the same. This is what we mean when we say that things are ‗empty,‘ that they have no independent existence. (p. 73)

The use of the terms emptiness or nothingness to define sunyata has led many Westerners to think of Buddhism as nihilistic. It is often assumed that its followers are an apathetic lot who do not care if they live or die. Ironically enough, Tashi once expressed similar sentiments in reference to Christianity. ―Everything is all laid out for you, he said. ―Everything has been determined by God and is controlled by Him. It must make people very apathetic. There seems to be no room in Christianity for personal growth in the way there is in Buddhism. Through spiritual practice we have an opportunity to develop ourselves. (p. 74)

Buddhism does not say that nothing exists, nor does it in any way encourage pessimism. On the contrary, it teaches that once we have understood the nature of the universe, we will realize a lasting happiness that is unaffected by the transient flow of outer events. Our ignorance—our experience of the world through the senses and through conceptualization—prevents us from seeing beyond the ordinary ―everyday‖ world of appearance, where things exist as separate and permanent things. As long as we persist in seeing things in this ―ignorant‖ way, we are in samsara, trapped on a wheel of existence. We are being asked not to deny the ―existence‖ of the world, but to alter our perception of it. Things do not exist insofar as we perceive them with our senses, but rather to see it in a different light. The Buddha taught that beyond this world created by our own senses and limitations, the phenomenal world dissolves into a dynamic process. The true nature of reality lies beyond the realm of language and linear analysis. Tashi would often quote the renowned scholar Nagarjuna: ―Those who believe in existence are stupid like cattle, but those who believe in nonexistence are still more stupic. [Things are] not existent, not nonexistent, not both and not something that is not both.‖ It is said that the universe is like an endless river. Its totality, the unity does not change, yet at the same time it is in constant motion. The river as a whole exists, but you cannot say what it consists of; you cannot stop the flow and examine it. Everything is in movement and inextricably intertwined. Tashi again: ―Everything is subject to the law of dependent origination. As Nagarjuna said, ‗Origin through relations is the Buddha‘s rich profound treasure.‘ On this level our categories, distinctions, and labels—‗you‘ and ‗I,‘ ‗mind‘ and ‗matter‘—become one and disappear. What we take to be solid and substantial is in fact changing from moment to moment. Just in the same way that the tree is ‗empty,‘ the ‗self‘ is empty. If you reflect on it, you too dissolve as part of everything else around you. The ‗self‘ or ego, is ultimately no more separate than anything else in the universe. The delusion that self exists independently is perhaps the greatest obstacle on the path to enlightenment. The belief in absolute, permanent existence leads to a cycle of endless craving, and the craving brings suffering. In our attachment to the notion of a separate self and separate things, we end up constantly striving and reaching for something new.
Yet as soon as we have attained what we are seeking, the luster is gone and we set our sights elsewhere. Satisfaction is rare and brief; we are forever frustrated…Tashi would often remind me that knowledge and understanding were not sufficient in themselves. In fact they could be dangerous, he would say, if not accompanied by compassion. (p. 75)

Ladakhis will not think in terms of fundamental opposites, for instance, between body and mind or reason and intuition. Ladakhis experience the world through what they call their samba, best translated as a cross between ―heart and ―mind. This reflects the Buddhist insistence that Wisdom and Compassion are inseparable. (p. 82)

With so much of our lives colored by a sense of insecurity or fear, we have difficulty in letting go and feeling at one with ourselves and our surroundings. The Ladakhis, on the other hand, seem to possess an extended, inclusive sense of self. They do not, as we do, retreat behind boundaries of fear and self-protection; in fact, they seem to be totally lacking in what we would call pride. This doesn‘t mean a lack of self-respect. On the contrary, their self-respect is so deep rooted as to be unquestioned. (p. 84)

I have never met people that seem so healthy emotionally, so secure, as the Ladakhis. The reasons are, of course, complex and spring from a whole way of life and world view. But I am sure that the most important factor is the sense that you are a part of something much larger than yourself, that you are inextricably connected to others and your surroundings. (p. 85)

A healthy society is one that encourages close social ties and mutual interdependence, grating each individual net of unconditioned emotional support. Within this nurturing framework, individuals feel secure enough to become quite free and independent. Paradoxically, I have found the Ladakhis less emotionally dependent than we are in industrial society. There is love and friendship, but it is not intense or grasping—not a possession of one person by another. (p. 86)

Contentment comes from feeling and understanding yourself to be part of the flow of life, relaxing and moving with it. If it starts to pour with rain just as you set out on a long journey, why be miserable? Maybe you would not have preferred it, but the Ladakhis‘ attitude is ―Why be unhappy? (p. 87)

I was in Ladakh from the time tourism started, and was able to observe the process of change from the beginning. Since I spoke the language fluently, I gained an insight into the intense psychological pressure that modernization brings. Looking at the modern world from something of a Ladakhi perspective, I also became aware that our culture looks infinitely more successful from the outside than we experience it on the inside. With no warning, people from another world descended on Ladakh. Each day many would spend as much as a hundred dollars, an amount roughly equivalent to someone spending fifty thousand dollars a day in America. In the traditional subsistence economy, money played a minor role, used primarily for luxuries—jewelry, silver, and gold. Basic needs—food, clothing, and shelter—were provided for without money. The labor one needed was free of charge, part of an intricate web of human relationships. In one day a tourist would spend the same amount that a Ladakhi family might in a year. Ladakhis did not realize that money played a completely different role for the foreigners; that back home they needed it to survive; that food, clothing and shelter all cost money—a lot of money. Compared to these strangers they suddenly felt poor…Tourists can only see the material side of the culture—worn out woolen robes, the dzo pulling a plough, the barren land. They cannot see peace of mind or the quality of family and community relations. They cannot see the psychological, social, and spiritual wealth of the Ladakhis. Besides giving the illusion that all Westerners are multimillionaires, the tourist also helps perpetuate another faulty image of modern life—that we never work. It looks as though our technologies do the work for us. In industrial society today, we actually spend more hours working than people in rural, agrarian economies. But that is not how it looks to Ladakhis. For them, work is physical work, walking, and carrying things…Every day I saw people from two different cultures, a world apart, looking at each other and seeing superficial, one-dimensional images. Tourists see people carrying loads on their backs and walking long distances over high mountain passes and say, ―How terrible; what a life of drudgery. They forget they have traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars for the pleasure of walking through the same mountains with heavy backpacks. They also forget how much their bodies suffer from lack of use at home. During working hours they get no exercise, so they spend their free time trying to make up for it. Some will even drive to a health club—across a polluted city in rush hour—to sit in a basement, pedaling a bicycle that does not go anywhere. And they actually pay for the privilege. (p. 96)

For millions of youth raised in rural areas of the world, modern Western culture appears far superior to their own. It is not surprising since, looking as they do from the outside, all they can see is the material side of the modern world—the side in which Western culture excels. They cannot so readily see the social or psychological dimensions—the stress, the loneliness, the fear or growing old. Nor can they see the environmental decay, inflation, or unemployment. (p. 97)

The changing economy makes it difficult to remain a farmer. Previously, with cooperative labor between people, farmers had no need for money. Now, unable to pay larger and larger wages for farm hands, some are forced to abandon the villages to earn money in the city. For those who stay the pressure increases to grow food for profit, instead of food for themselves. Cash cropping becomes the norm as farmers are pushed by the forces of development to become dependent on the market economy…The new economy also increases the gap between rich and poor. (p. 103)

It is easy to romanticize traditional technologies, but it is also common in the West to ignore many of their benefits. Tashi Rabgyas would sometimes talk about the advantages of the old over the new, and in particular of working with animals rather than machines: ―They become your friends, you relate to them. If they have done a particularly good job, if they have worked particularly hard, you might give them something special to eat. But machines are dead, you have no relationship with them. When you work with machines, you become like them, you become dead yourself. (p.106)

The Ladakhis now have less time for each other and for themselves. As a result, they are losing their once-acute sensitivity to the nuances of the world around them—the ability, for instance, to detect the slightest variations in the weather, or in the movement of the stars. A friend from Markha Valley summed it up for me: ―I can‘t understand it. My sister in the capital she now has all these things that do the work faster. She just buys her clothes in a shop, she has a jeep, a telephone, a gas cooker. All of these things save so much time, and yet when I visit her, she doesn‘t have time to talk to me.(p. 106)

The world views of the lama and the engineer are very different. The old beliefs were based on a description of reality that emphasized the unity or dependent origination of all life, whereas the new scientific perspective emphasizes its separateness. It seems to say that we stand apart—outside the rest of creation. And to gain a greater understanding of the way nature works, we simply have to split matter into smaller and smaller fragments and examine the various pieces in isolation. The shift from lama to engineer represents a shift from ethical values that encourage an empathetic and compassionate relationship with all the lives toward a value-free ―objectivity‖ that has no ethical foundation. (p. 109)

No one could deny the value of real education, that is, the widening and enrichment of knowledge. But today education has become something quite different. It isolates children from their culture and from nature, training them instead to become narrow specialists in a Westernized urban environment. This process is particularly striking in Ladakh, where modern schooling acts almost as a blindfold, preventing children from seeing the context in which they live. They leave school unable to use their resources, unable to function in their own world. With the exception of religious training in the monasteries, the traditional culture had no separate process called ―education. Education was the product of an intimate relationship with the community and its environment. Children learned from grandparents, family, and friends. Helping with the sowing, for instance, they would learn that on one side of the village it was a little warmer, on the other side a little colder. From their own experience children would come to distinguish between different strains of barley and the specific growing conditions each strained preferred. They learned to recognize even the tiniest wild plant and how to use it, and how to pick out a particular animal on a faraway mountain slope. They learned about connections, process, and change, about the intricate web of fluctuating relationships in the natural world around them. For generation after generation, Ladakhis grew up learning how to provide themselves with clothing and shelter; how to make shoes out of yak skin and robes from the wool of sheep; how to build houses out of mud and stone. Education was location-specific and nurtured an intimate relationship with the living world. It gave children an intuitive awareness that allowed them, as they grew older, to use resources in an effective and sustainable way. None of that knowledge is provided in the modern school. Children are trained to become specialist in a technological, rather than an ecological society. School is a place to forget traditional skills and, worse, to look down on them. (p. 111)

The new economy cuts people off from the earth. (p. 111)

In every corner of the world today, the process called ―education‖ is based on the same Eurocentric model. The focus is on faraway facts and figures, a universal knowledge. The books propagate information that is meant to be appropriate for the entire planet. But since only a kind of knowledge that is far removed from specific ecosystems and cultures can be universally applicable, what children learn is essentially synthetic, divorced from the living context. If they go on to higher education, they may learn about building houses, but these houses will be of concrete and steel, the universal box. So too, if they study agriculture, they will learn about industrial farming: chemical fertilizers and pesticides, large machinery and hybrid seeds. The Western educational system is making us all poorer by teaching people around the world to use the same resources, ignoring those of their environment. In this way education is creating artificial scarcity and inducing competition. (p.112)

The yak is important in the traditional economy. It is an animal perfectly adapted to the local environment, actually preferring to stay high up in the vicinity of the glaciers, at about 16,000 feet or more. It covers vast distances, climbing up and down vertical slopes to graze, thriving on the sparse vegetation that grows in this difficult terrain. Its long hair protects it against the cold, and despite its enormous size, it can balance with remarkable grace on a ragged rock face. The yak provides fuel, meet, and labor, and hair from which blankets are woven. The female also gives a limited amount of very rich milk, an average of three liters a day. According to the modern way of looking at things the yak is ―inefficient.‖ Agricultural experts who have received a Western education tend to be scornful of it. ―The drimo [female yak] gives only three liters of milk a day,‖ they say. ―What we need is Jersey cows—they give thirty liters a day.‖ The experts‘ training does not allow them to see the broader cultural, economic, and ecological implications of their recommendations. The yak, as it grazed, was gathering together energy from vast distances—energy that, in addition to fuel, was ultimately being used by people in the form of food, clothing, and labor. The Jersey cow, by contrast, cannot even walk up to 16,000 feet, let alone survive there. She has to stay down at 10,000 feet or 11,000 feet, where people live, and has to have special shelter. She has to be stall fed on specially cultivated fodder. (p. 112)

Modern education not only ignores local resources, but, worse still, makes Ladakhi children think of themselves and their culture as inferior. They are robbed of their selfesteem. Everything in school promotes the Western model and, as a direct consequence, makes them ashamed of their own traditions. (p. 113)Education pulls people away from agriculture into the city, where they become dependent on the money economy. In traditional Ladakh there was no such thing as unemployment. But in the modern sector there is now intense competition for a very limited number of paying jobs, principally in the government. As a result, unemployment is already a serious problem. Modern education has obvious benefits, like improvements in the rate of literacy and numeracy. It has also enabled the Ladakhis to be more informed about the forces at play in the world outside. In doing so, however, it has divided Ladakhis from each other and the land and put them on the lowest rung of the global economic ladder. (p. 114)

Today‘s centralized economy is dependent on the use of large quantities of energy, and leads to a higher consumption of resources in general. Enormous investments in networks of new roads encourage a dependence on products from farther and farther away. In Leh these days, people provide almost nothing for themselves; food, clothing, and building materials all have to be transported into town—in a constant caravan of polluting trucks—in some cases from as far away as the south of India. Even water has to be ―imported,‖ often at the expense of the surrounding countryside, where essential irrigation supplies are being reduced. As a consequence, the age-old system of rotational sharing is breaking down. (p. 117)

A gap is developing between old and young, male and female, rich and poor, Buddhist and Muslim. The newly created division between modern educated expert and illiterate backward farmer is perhaps the biggest of all. (p. 125)

Despite the very real problems in the traditional society and the equally real improvements brought about by development, things look different when one examines the important relationships to the land, to one another, and to oneself. Viewed from this broader perspective, the differences between the old and the new become stark and disturbing—almost, but of course not quite, black and white. It becomes clear that the traditional nature-based society, with all its flaws and limitations, was more sustainable, both socially and environmentally. It was the result of a dialogue between human beings and their surroundings, a continuing dialogue that meant that, over two thousand years of trial and error, the culture kept changing. The traditional Buddhist world view emphasized change, but change within a frameworks of compassion and a profound understanding of the interconnectedness of all phenomena. (p.136)

The primary goal of ―counter-development‖ would be to provide people with the means to make fully informed choices about their own future. Using every possible form of communication, from satellite television to storytelling, we need to publicize the fact that today‘s capital and energy intensive trends are simply unsustainable. Ultimately, the aim would be to promote self-respect and self-reliance, thereby protecting life-sustaining diversity and creating the conditions for locally based, truly sustainable development. One of the most critical failings of conventional development is its reliance on a narrow, short-term perspective dominated by quantitative analysis. Counter-development would move beyond specialization and fragmented expertise to reveal the systemic underpinnings of industrial society. It would draw attention to family and community break-up; it would show up the hidden subsidies of a society based on fossil fuels; it would place environmental damage on the debit side of the economic balance sheet. In short, it would expose the escalating costs of our industrial way of life. (p. 160)

A movement to build eco-villages is sweeping Sweden: two hundred are already planned, all of them based on renewable energy and the recycling of waste. Increasing numbers of people are choosing to buy organic food and are strengthening the local economy by buying from farmers close to home. The government has committed itself to establishing an environmental accounting system in which the destruction of natural resources will be subtracted from the gross national product. (p. 190)

Around the world, in every sphere of life, from psychology to physics, from farming to the family kitchen, there is a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of all life. New movement are springing up, committed to living on a human scale, and to more feminine and spiritual values. The numbers are growing, and the desire for change is spreading. These trends are often labeled ―new,‖ but, as I hope Ladakh has shown, in an important sense they are very old. They are, in fact, a rediscovery of values that have existed for thousands of years—values that recognize our place in the natural order, our indissoluble connection to one another and to the earth. (p. 192)

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