The Curse Of Geography

Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Text: Sidd Joag
Photos: Xu Shuang
Performance: Arahmaiani


As the passenger van tumbled hastily down the narrow, washed-out road, a loud pop disrupted our journey, and we lurched to a stop. Our guide Nima Renqing instructed us to get out of the vehicle and inspected the deflated tire, seemingly uncertain as to how he should manage the situation. He pulled out a spare tire and jack, laid them next to the van and sat down on the ground with a slightly confused look on his face. “I’ve never changed a tire before,” he quickly offered.

It started to drizzle and a chill swept through the air. We occupied our attention with the herd of yaks meandering down the road towards us. They moved slowly across the valley floor. Their long, matted, black-brown-cream-colored coats dragging on the ground as they grazed along the steep cliffs that dropped into the murky, choppy waters of the Tongtian River (Zhi Qu in Tibetan) below. Ahead of us, stretching across the entire breadth of the gorge, an impossibly long string of multi-colored prayer flags (lung-ta) fluttering furiously in the wind.

Nima Renqing was still having trouble with the tire. Having traveled non-stop for nearly three straight days, the combined effects of exhaustion, acclimatizing to the altitude, and the back-breaking ride were starting to make me desperate when, finally, Nima hailed down a passing car. A smiling man wearing a cowboy hat and boots jumped out. After a brief conference, they decided on a new approach. They walked off in different directions and picked up two large slabs of rock chipped off the side of the mountain. Nima drove the car up onto the ad hoc platform, and within ten minutes they had successfully replaced the tire with the spare. Nima grabbed a bundle of bananas from the back of the truck and handed them to the cowboy, who accepted them with a large, warm smile and took off down the road.

An hour later, we arrived in Labuxiang, a small town nestled nearly 4,000 meters high in the mountains. A blessing of adherents was taking place within the jam-packed monastery. Hundreds of Tibetans of all ages from the surrounding areas were performing ritual pradakshina, winding their way through the monastery (gompa) in huddled clusters, like a procession of ants, as prayers played over a loudspeaker. There was a distinct reverence and excitement among the attendees; this was no ordinary temple visit. Those gathered had come to see Kenchen Rinpoche, one of a handful of highly-revered spiritual leaders still living in the region. This is what Nima Renqing had been rushing toward when our tire blew out. As the devotees bowed before him, Kenchen Rinpoche touched each of their heads with his hands, fingers pointed upwards grasping a statuette of Buddha. Shortly after the ceremony’s conclusion, the town emptied out.

***

The Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture is located in the eastern corner of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in an area known traditionally as the borderlands of Tibetan Kham and Amdo. Sometimes referred to as “the Rooftop of the World,” it is the highest plateau on earth, formed by the collision of the Indian and Eurasian Plates, and it continues to rise by approximately one inch every five years due to the unremitting movement of the plates. At three miles above sea level, and surrounded by the Himalayan, Karakoram, Kunlun, and Qilian mountain ranges, it is some of the most rugged and inhospitable terrain on earth, consisting of more than 1.5 million square kilometers of montane grasslands and alpine tundra—an area nearly the size of Alaska. Home to an estimated 46,000 glaciers, as well as the headwaters of the Yangtze, Huang He (Yellow), Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, and Indus Rivers, the value of the Tibetan Plateau as a water resource cannot be understated, nor can its storage capacity, leading to its nicknames “the Third Pole,” or, more cynically, “China’s Water Tower.” In one corner of this massive expanse of land sits the Buddhist Labu Monastery.

On April 14, 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 struck the prefectural capital of Yushu City, causing massive destruction to surrounding towns and villages, as well as the Labu Monastery. Hundreds of people went missing, thousands died, more than ten thousand were injured, and 100,000 were left homeless. Since the earthquake, the monastic community (sangha) has played a key role in emergency response, rebuilding infrastructure, and providing rehabilitation in the region. In a way, the disaster seems to have imbued the monks with a renewed sense of purpose.

Labu Monastery is home to around 700 monks, ranging from young boys to old men. At certain times of the day, the main street in Labuxiang becomes a flood of burgundy robes. Young monks walk quickly in clusters, holding books and bowls of food, en route to prayers, classes, and meals. The center of town is only a few sparsely populated blocks clinging to a bend in the Tongtian River. There are few paved roads, and those that do exist often end abruptly, leading to dirt and stone paths. Daily life is generally quiet and uneventful, yet the ambience is somehow otherworldly. Yaks roam the streets leaving behind minefields of feces that residents navigate effortlessly. Packs of wild dogs play tag on the hillside during the day and break the silence of nighttime with their symphonic howling. The Labu Monastery—renovated and updated after the earthquake—is the most noticeable structure. The grounds consist of several majestic, aging temples edging up the side of a cliff, and several newly constructed classrooms and dormitories. A single road stretches in and out of Labuxiang. Further north, past the edge of town where the nomads roam, it disappears into the mountains like a wisp of smoke.

***

A figure clad entirely in grey robes slowly ascends and descends the side of a rocky mountain face, waving a yellow flag which bears the “om” symbol emblazoned in black. The same figure appears in a valley walking amidst a field dotted with grazing black-haired yaks. Yet again, the apparition materializes in front of the Labu Monastery. The figure moves slowly, as if being excavated from the earth and shaking off thousands of years of stone and dust. Upon closer examination, the figure is clearly a woman.

Arahmaiani has been described as one of Indonesia’s most prolific and iconic contemporary artists. Her career has spanned four decades and she is widely regarded as a pioneer of performance art in Southeast Asia and internationally, although her extensive body of work encompasses a wide range of mediums. Being an Indonesian Muslim woman, her sharp critiques of chauvinism in Islamic societies and the empowerment of feminist ideals in her work have brought their own difficulties. She has, at several points in her career, been the subject of intense controversy. She has been attacked by fundamentalists and forced to live in exile for periods of time as a result. These events have prompted Arahmaiani to become a nomadic artist, traversing the globe and returning to the plateau every summer.

Since June 2010, Arahmaiani has been traveling annually to Labuxiang and surrounding areas, working with the monks to shape redevelopment initiatives. Her work has been less about artistic production and more about inspiring positive social change, which is evidenced by her approach to utilizing the disaster and rebuilding process to sup-plant destructive ecological tendencies that have taken root over decades of neglect.

The results are disturbingly evident: the perpetual accumulation of non-biodegradable plastics, poor to non-existent sanitation systems, forest degradation, cultural malaise, suppression, and systemic neglect. Suo’ang Dawa, a Tibetan elementary school teacher and Arahmaiani’s local coordinator, recalls: “When I was six or seven, you didn’t see any cans or bottles laying on the ground. We made a bag (from hide) for water, and carried the same bag every day, month, year until we could not use it anymore.” He shakes his head and chuckles wistfully, recalling simpler, more creative, and cleaner times. Through her work on the plateau, Arahmaiani has been successful in leveraging the simple, yet powerful messaging of her performance art to catalyze local environmental activism.

A key component of the project has been the planting of new poplar and pine trees that can survive harsh conditions in the high altitude, without consuming all the ground water. This process not only cultivates more fertile land, but also helps to prevent erosion and landslides. As a result, some monks have begun experimenting with other trees, like walnut and apple, which they grow indoors and then transplant outdoors. It remains to be seen whether these experiments will yield the intended results, but it points to a growing willingness among the monks of Labu to seek innovative solutions to environmental challenges.

Since 2015, the Chinese government has committed significant financial and infrastructural support for this project, which, in addition to tree planting, includes yak banks for nomadic Tibetans in the area and a garbage removal and recycling program. This has been facilitated, in large part, by Arahmaiani’s stature and mobility in the art world, which draws positive attention—including financial support and a roster of visiting artists and environmentalists —to the project. Of most importance, however, is her unique persona: a particular kindness and sincerity that allows her to connect with both monks and lay people.

Arahmaiani’s operating principle has been that in order to change the conditions in Labuxiang, collaboration between the monks, lay people, and Chinese government is absolutely essential. Her role is that of a broker, bringing parties to the table and negotiating partnerships. Of course, this has at times been met with resistance from different directions. “Oh, so you work with the Chinese government?” she says, scrunching her face as she imitates her critics. But she has successfully pursued this organizing practice by utilizing the art world as a mediating tool to promote cooperation. “This is not about being politicized, this is for the common good.”

The central question for Arahmaiani, is: “What do we need to educate monks, lay people, young people?”

Kenchen Rinpoche believes that people “in modern times need to not just pray, but to understand what they are believing in.” This ability to interpret Buddhist teachings in contemporary contexts, he says is “not just a monk’s job anymore.” He acknowledges that elder Tibetans mostly operate on blind faith and reverence, while young people are starting to ask critical questions. Kenchen Rinpoche sees this as a welcome challenge, an important opportunity for transformation and evolution in Tibetan society.

Before the Chinese government added their support, the project successfully planted 230,000 new trees in Labuxiang and the surrounding area. Since 2015, the project members estimate they have planted more than a million. Despite this notable success, there have been persistent difficulties.

Compared to the other programs taking place around Yushu, the garbage removal and recycling project has been the most complicated. Townsfolk and monks collect the rubbish off the street and transport it to a storage area where it is picked up by government-provided garbage trucks that transport it out of town for recycling. But this new system does not yet sufficiently account for the volume of trash being produced. To complicate the matter further, because the classification of trash is ill-defined, it is often dumped in the river or burned, simultaneously pollut-ing water sources and creating toxins that are harmful to trees. While safe and effective disposal of the trash remains unresolved, previous attempts to work with a local collective of artisans to repurpose the trash into hats, clothes, and bags, was, for no ascertainable reason, discontinued after some minor success. Kenchen Rinpoche believes it is because: “Once people see it as rubbish, it’s just rubbish.” Changing these static views is an ongoing process that requires a significant investment of time, energy, and patience.

The most glaring problem stems from government support being split between the town and the monastery. While the latter has a transparent system, it is difficult to monitor exactly how local leaders are spending their allotments. Multiple levels of corruption are being revealed, deepening rifts between the two main governing interests. Furthermore, the monastery is home to monks from both India and Tibet, who operate from different perspectives and educational backgrounds.

Suo’ang Renqing, a gregarious monk with a warm smile, says most of the teachers at the monastery are from India, because their level of education is generally higher. This can contribute to a sense of indignation and resistance among local Tibetans, even to good ideas, as the outsiders, linked to higher education, are perceived as too “Western.” “Some Tibetan monks don’t like being told what to do” by their Indian counterparts, says Arahmaiani. And since the abbots of the monastery rotate out every five years, changes to leadership and differing priorities have been an obstacle to the consistent development of the project, curtailing its maximum impact.

There are those like Suo’ang Renqing who are clearly committed to tackling the environmental challenges at hand. He recalls people asking if he had mental problems when he began picking up rubbish around town. Changes in the management of Labu Monastery have prevented Suo’ang Renqing from working directly on the project. Consequently, Nima Renqing volunteered to take over the grunt work required to cultivate the project. He, like many of the monks and lay people in Labuxiang, appreciates Arahmaiani’s long-term investment in the project. To support her is to support Labuxiang, so it follows that she is treated like family.

A few hours south of Labuxiang, in Nangqiang (Nangqên in Tibetan) County, Lama Minam Rinpoche sits across the room on a raised dais. He speaks slowly and with deliberation, alternating between Tibetan, Chinese, and English, often taking long pauses before completing his thoughts. His smile seems a mixture of mischief and boredom. The sprawling complex he presides over includes a workshop and training facilities, as well as a library, yoga studio, gift shop, and his own lavish calligraphy studio. Minam Rinpoche is generous with his words and time, and offers a live demonstration of his calligraphic skills. He says the three things he needs to create art are music, incense, and ink. He says he often paints for eight hours a day.

Beyond his artistic endeavors, Minam Rinpoche has devoted much of his time to philanthropy, donating ¥500,000 RMB in cash and supplies (more than $70,000 USD) to refugees of the 2010 earthquake. Minam Rinpoche’s nephew, Gongba Tubaga, has followed his uncle’s lead. Impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit and sporting a long ponytail, Gongba has devoted himself to environmental protection since 2007. At first, there was only one person who shared his vision, but over the years, the group has grown to over thirty volunteer rubbish collectors. They ride motorcycles up the mountain to collect rubbish floating down from the upper river before it flows into the valley. Gongba Tubaga believes that it’s important to ensure the water source remains clean to preserve the wellbeing of people down river.

While “socially-engaged practice” has been codified in the international art world to which Arahmaiani belongs, it is a natural way of being that is inherent to Tibetan Buddhist living. Every monk we meet has their own personal artistic practice—photography, calligraphy, music, painting, building. Artistic expression is ubiquitous among the myriad mantras graffitied and carved on the sides of rocks and mountains, the elaborate arrangements of prayer flags strung from stupas, throughout the complex, colorful weaving of clothes and tapestries, the ornate jewelry and ornamentation of shrines, and in the very physical act of greetings.

Tibetans are, by tradition, almost embarrassingly hospitable hosts. Guests are welcomed with a ritual in which white silk scarves (khata) are placed around their neck, and are later treated to a large spread of dried yak, yak tea, yogurt, and droma, a variety of wild sweet potato roots prepared with yak butter. Generosity and collectivity are deeply engrained values within Tibetan culture and are interwoven with spiritual and social practices.

Many of the ideas that Arahmaiani has workshopped and endeavored to introduce into the community in collaboration with monks in Labuxiang readily appear in Buddhist teachings. These values are familiar to the local population, albeit often in disguise from the realities of the modern world. Amidst the myriad challenges facing environmental conservation activists in the region, Buddhist dharma and Tibetan customs are advantageous for Arahmaiani and the sangha. If communicated effectively, these values can be easily understood, as many of the relationships that define them are already part of the belief system. “Energy that you cannot see.” The basic Buddhist principle is non-violence to do no harm towards “any sentient being.” And meditation is the means to mediate the personal ego and gain wisdom, or the ability to differentiate between the virtual and non-virtual. All the necessary logic is already in place.

***

At nearly 13,000 feet, Yushu Batang Airport is one of the highest elevated airports in the world. Stepping out of the plane, your breath gains weight, your head feels light, and your body is forced to slow down. As foreigners, we are asked for our passports and our names are registered in a ledger by airport police, who question us about our plans. Driving from the airport towards the city center following the Batang River, we notice a large sign that reads “World’s Largest Black Yak Hair Tent.” Another claim to fame. We pass through several police checkpoints on the way into the city (among the thousands scattered across the plateau) and palpable tension overtakes us as our van passes them. While it may not be immediately apparent to the unsuspecting visitor, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is contested terrain. And the constraints have tightened significantly since March 2008, when protests turned violent and riots broke out during the annual observance of Tibetan Uprising Day, commemorating the 1959 rebellion when residents of Lhasa, fearing the People’s Liberation Army would arrest the Dalai Lama, initiated a two-week armed revolt. Travel across the plateau is restricted, and outsiders are monitored closely, lest they foment dissent or simply see or hear more than they should.

Five years ago, when I first visited Yushu, the city was still in ruins. Crumbled edifices were visible everywhere. Today, the city is almost entirely rebuilt. It has seen great expansion, with the addition of new malls, bars, night clubs, and other signs of modernity. Close to the city center, one building with broken walls, folded and leaning at its side, remains suspended in a metal frame—a monument to the earthquake and a reminder of its devastation.

Before the 2010 earthquake, Lama Luosong Rinpoche’s children’s home in Yushu City housed around thirty children. It now houses close to 250. Attached to the children’s home is a trendy little coffee bar, with photos of visitors tacked to the walls. Young people who grow up at the home often work at the cafe until they find other education or employment opportunities. The entire operation is run by thirty-three volunteer supervisors. Some of the young people are part of a singing troupe that is run by Lama Luosong—an accomplished librettist himself —which provides them with another way to make some additional income. Luosong explains that most of the operating funds for the children’s home come from the fees he is paid for lecturing on Buddhism around the country.

Lama Luosong’s work has garnered international acclaim, earning him the derision of other monks who question his authenticity. But internal criticism comprises only part of Lama Luosong’s struggles. He had to stop accepting foreign support when local government officials started to “give him trouble” in 2007. At the same time, the government denied him official certification, which limits the amount of money he can accept—an example of Tibetans not being helped, but also being blocked from helping themselves. To the casual observer, support from the Chinese government for progressive endeavors seems to be welcomed, yet a peek beneath the surface reveals that Tibetans cannot rely on offers of government support, nor does it properly address their needs. As a result, Lama Luosong asserts that the practices of self-help and community service being promoted within this community of marginalized and displaced young people is crucial in allowing them to cultivate a healthy future for themselves.

Similarly, some locals feel that the rapid rebuilding of Yushu serves the agenda of the Chinese government and was never intended to benefit Tibetans. Despite its extraordinary isolation, Yushu is of strategic value to China. The region is a domestic tourist destination, a transportation hub for the development (and shipment) of resource-rich Qinghai province, and, perhaps most importantly, a bastion that helps fortify Chinese military presence in the Himalayan borderlands. In a land of competing interests, it should not come as a surprise that many Tibetans, particularly those driven to improve the quality of life of their people, are trying to find ways to align their strategic interests with those of the Chinese government. The sentiment is that before Tibet can be free, it needs to be healthy and sustainable. And for better or worse, this can only be achieved by working with the Chinese government. This thorny notion is held and bolstered even by proud Tibetan activists such as Nima Renqing, who is adamant that President Xi Jiping’s policies have been “much better for the Tibetan people than [his predecessor] Hu Jintao.” Discontentment continues to hang heavy over the plateau, but there seems to be much optimism for progress.

***

Driving from Yushu City to Buming Monastery in Sichu County takes close to three hours, winding upwards of 4,300 meters through gigantic mountains on a singlelane road hugging deadly cliffs. As Nima Renqing speeds around tight corners and blind spots, I refrain from looking over the edge to avoid panic. Clusters of prayer flags cling to mountainsides like massive spider webs. He points to one cluster, and explains it is charnel ground (durtro)—a sacred space for sky burials, known in Tibetan as jhator. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally dispose of the dead by carefully dismembering the body and leaving it out for vultures and other scavengers to pick the bones clean. Allowing for natural processes to decompose the flesh, the ritual signifies a reconnecting of the body with the earth once the spirit has departed. Nearby the prayer flags, on the side of a cliff, two yaks stand dangerously close to a hundred-meter drop, staring down into the abyss contemplatively.

Shiqu County sits in a broad valley dotted with nomadic tents and wandering yaks, a distinctly different topography than Labuxiang. Our intention in visiting Shiqu is to meet with Kenchen Rinpoche, who relocated here after living a normal life in Singapore for ten years, for the purpose of joining Arahmaiani’s initiative.

All the dishes are served first to Kenchen Rinpoche, by his wife, on elevated platters. Upon laying out the dishes, she moves backwards several steps while facing him before turning to walk away. She wears a traditional Tibetan outfit, and the richness of colors and intricacy of patterns indicate her garb is of the highest quality. He looks nothing short of a Buddha, able to sit in full lotus while wearing cowboy boots. Although he is not entranced by orthodoxy or these rituals, having experienced the life of a common man without extra privileges, he does understand the gravity of tradition.

In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, Lamas can be, but are not always, Rinpoches, and vice versa. It can be translated as “precious one” and bestowed as an honorific term venerating someone or something of great value. As such, a Lama who is called “Rinpoche” leads a monastic life, while “lay” Rinpoches may lead a conventional life. Some Rinpoches are considered Tulku or “Living Buddhas,” who are identified by numerology, birth name, location, ability, and past life status in their youth as reincarnated spiritual beings in the Tibetan tradition. Kenchen was identified as a Rinpoche at the age of four and, after his hiatus to normalcy, this is the role he has returned to assume. Having grown up as a monk in India and having lived as a layman abroad, his return is something of a triumphant anomaly.

***

Kenchen Rinpoche and Arahmaiani have forged a unique relationship across culture, gender, and history. While her focus has been on environmental protection, Arahmaiani has been integrating artistic and feminist ways of being and knowing into the project, and in doing so challenging the traditional patriarchy of Tibetan (and Chinese) society. On the plateau, she is one of a handful of women engaged in extended interactions with monks or lay people. In Tibet, for the most part, men and women co-exist with a clear separation in daily public life, except when men are being served. Arahmaiani’s presence is a seemingly accepted challenge to this binary. Perhaps the measurable benefits of her gravitas outweigh the entrenched traditions—a sign that Tibetans are increasingly more open to fundamental change.

At the same time, when asked about the clear patriarchal structure of Buddhist religious practice, Lama Niman Rinpoche suggests the fundamental and historical difference between men and women’s biological functions became reflected, over time, in the imbalanced valuation of their socio-cultural roles. After women give birth they are subsequently resigned to childcare, so men must carry out primary functions for the family’s (economic) survival, justifying their accumulation of power. Such logic suggests that inequality is a matter of natural evolution, plain and simple. And it is a convenient answer, particularly when you see holy men being waited on hand and foot, by men and women alike.

As the caravan of SUVs pulls up to the monastery, a sea of mostly elderly locals wearing orange vests create a human passageway waving white scarves in unison. The effect is surreal. As Kenchen Rinpoche regally ascends the dais, the acolytes shuffle into the dark chamber. The eldest, with backs bent or broken into question marks, are barely able to stand and require assistance to move. Yet, all are eventually seated on the floor, staring up at Kenchen Rinpoche from below. We are greeted with applause, while several of the townsfolk record the occasion on their smart phones.

Those gathered represent the volunteer rubbish brigade, and they are here to pay reverence and receive guidance from Kenchen Rinpoche. Every twenty-nine days, the volunteer team of 160 local Tibetans collect all the rubbish in town. Their program has had a visible impact, earning them a prize for being the cleanliest district in the region. Kenchen Rinpoche tells us later that “despite their lack of knowledge about recycling, the Rinpoche told them they were doing something good, so they do it.” Through the process, he implies, those who are uneducated about such things become educated. In addition to the recycling program, Kenchen Rinpoche’s monastery has reopened a former government school that houses and feeds over 200 students, a collective dairy farm, and a small clinic purposed with expanding social services locally.

Sitting in his living room, Kenchen Rinpoche is more relaxed than when seated upon the dais. He has traded his robes and regalia for a simple pair of jeans, a tshirt and light hoodie. Yet he is still constrained, as a man who is constantly surrounded by people might be. I get the impression that he wants to laugh, but all he reveals are terse smiles, among very clear and articulate sentences. He adeptly, albeit politely, avoids a request to view his personal photography. He seems to take his situation lightheartedly, yet has embraced his duty to serve his people with vigor.

Arahmaiani and Nima Renqing update him on a setback with the Labuxiang yak bank. According to the nomads, local leaders appropriated some of their livestock as a “tax,” which amounted to nothing short of daylight robbery that, because of deeply entrenched class divisions in Tibetan society, the nomads did not feel empowered to contest. It is likely that some of the monks knew of the theft, but did nothing in response, in order to avoid complicating business relationships with town leaders. Arahmaiani is livid. From the quick change of mood in the room, stealing from the poor doesn’t seem to sit well with this crowd. Fortunately, one of the primary roles of the monks in Tibetan society is conflict resolution, particularly when it comes to the land and the yak, two possessions on a short list of invaluable commodities found in Tibet.

***

The Mother Tree Temple stands solitarily at the edge of the Labu Monastery, enshrined in reddish-brown rocks. The enormous, dead poplar tree was planted a little over a hundred years ago, by the thirteenth Rinpoche of Labuxiang. One of the monks sets a red, leatherbound certificate on the table with pride. It’s the World Record Association verification of the dignified poplar as the oldest, artificially planted tree at the highest elevation in the world.

According to some locals, young monks have been migrating to Labuxiang specifically to engage with the environmental work, with more coming every year. “[The project and its practices] have become commonplace for the younger monks,” says Luosong Nima, Nima Renqing’s son. “They’ve become habit.” Luosong Nima is a fifteenyearold monk with flushed cheeks and a nervous smile. “The most important thing Arahmaiani brought to us is the idea of caring for the earth, how to make it better. It made us realize that it is important to protect our water, which brings prosperity for the community. It made us realize that we are part of the earth.”

Nearly three billion people depend on Tibet as a water source. The effects of climate change on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau will negatively impact one-third of the world’s population due to the headwaters of the rivers that originate there. Steady warming of the region has harshened weather patterns, caused long-term droughts, and depleted grazing land, affecting yak populations, herdsmen and villagers, who all depend on healthy pastures for survival. Natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake will likely become more commonplace. Without immediate, concentrated, and wide-ranging efforts, it is unlikely the damage already sustained to the land can be undone, and it’s increasingly probable that catastrophic effects will be far reaching throughout the continent. As massive development projects—namely the Belt and Road Initiative—cause markets to expand and fluctuate, persistent geopolitical tensions in the region will escalate, trickling down to the local level and resulting in increased conflict over limited resources. In Tibetan communities, the monks will no doubt be called upon to understand and mediate these emerging challenges.

Down the road from the Mother Tree Temple is the first iteration of a community garden. It is a wide expanse of green at the foot of the mountain, cordoned off by a fence that prevents yaks from knocking over the trees before feasting on their leaves. Arahmaiani describes it as a symbolic space where the hierarchy between monks and villagers can be suspended. “[This is a place] where monks and lay people can communicate like normal human beings, on the same level.” Something, that until recently would have seemed as farfetched as monks picking rubbish off the ground.

August 2019 marks the 600th year of the Labu Monastery, an ongoing collective—artistic and spiritual—journey, that is perhaps ready to adapt itself to modern times and ways of thinking. Hopefully, just one part of an expansive global realization that “we are part of the earth.”