"I was born in a small village called Taktser, in the northeast of Tibet, on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Wood Hog year of the Tibetan calendar, that is, in 1935," writes the Dalai Lama in his first ever biography My Land and My People, published in 1962.
Eighty-five years since then, on 6 July 2020, people across the world will be celebrating his birthday and his life’s work of promoting universal peace and compassion. As commendation of the Dalai Lama's immense global contribution to world peace and religious harmony, he has being hailed as one of the world's most respected, admired and influential living figures.
The focus of the Dalai Lama’s colossal endeavours extends from the cause of the Tibetan freedom struggle to universal ethics to bridging the gap between science and religion.
Yet another vital aspect of his professed goals towards which he has consistently worked for has been calling for wildlife conservation and environmental protection ever since he took political responsibility of Tibet in 1950.
From ordering measures for forest protection, banning hunting during the period of independent Tibet, ending poultry farming, supporting vegetarianism in the exiled Tibetan community in India, calling for tree plantation and wildlife protection in Tibet, highlighting ecological importance of the Tibetan Plateau, and urging for global cooperation on climate change — the Dalai Lama has consistently worked for environmental conservation for the last seven decades.
An Environmentalist: A Core Principle
Environmental conservation has been a core principle of the Dalai Lama. This principle has been clearly represented in the Three Main Commitments that he laid out in 2011.
After the devolution of all political responsibility to a democratically elected leader of the Tibetan people in 2011, the Dalai Lama evocatively stated that he would continue to devote his life to three main commitments — the promotion of human values, the promotion of religious harmony, the preservation of Tibet's spiritual heritage and protection of its environment. The last commitment reaffirmed his lifelong objective of striving for environmental conservation. Such a significant pledge from the Dalai Lama, who is both the most revered person in Tibet as well as a deeply admired global figure, immensely strengthen the cause of environmental conservation.
Furthermore, the Dalai Lama has been a strong supporter of global cooperation on climate change and global warming. His statement, during the 1992 address to the Parliamentary Earth Summit at the Rio Earth Summit, reads:
“I believe that to meet the challenge of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. Each of us must learn to work not for his or herself, family, or nation, but for the benefit of all mankind.”
In a video message to the delegates of Paris Climate Summit in 2015, Dalai Lama rightly noted that human beings are responsible for the current climate crisis and that it is not a question of one nation or two nations, but a question of humanity affecting the whole world. In a similar manner, the Dalai Lama sent another written message, delivered by hand by this author, to the Conference of Parties (COP 24) and its delegates on 20 November 2018, the message states:
“I extend my greetings and prayers to my dear brothers and sisters, delegates to the 24th Conference of Parties (COP24) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … I would sincerely like to thank all of you who have selflessly and tirelessly put effort into creating a better environment for the world so that future generation will be able to live a healthy, happy life.”
An Environmentalist: Being One in Practice
Proposal for Tibet as zone of peace for men and nature in Five Point Peace Plan - 1987
With an increasingly interdependent world and a rapidly degrading ecological situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama put forth the famous Five Point Peace Plan during an address to the US Congressional Human Right's Caucus in 1987. Proposing for a transformation of the whole of Tibet into a zone of peace, he stated:
“It is my sincere desire, as well as that of the Tibetan people, to restore to Tibet her invaluable role, by converting the entire country – comprising the three provinces of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo – once more into a place of stability, peace and harmony.”
The proposal further adds, “In the best of Buddhist tradition, Tibet would extend its services and hospitality to all who further the cause of world peace and the well-being of mankind and the natural environment we share."
Concerned of the grave implications from a poor environmental situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama called for 'Restoration and Protection of Tibet's Natural Environment' in the Five Point Peace Plan, emphatically voicing against the production of nuclear weapons and the dumping of nuclear waste on the plateau.
He further stated that the Tibetan people's inherent respect for all forms of life is enhanced by the Buddhist faith, which prohibits the harming of all sentient beings, whether human or animal. The proposal to transform Tibet as a Zone of Peace stems from his strong desire for a peaceful co-existence among different nations, and a lasting solution for the ongoing conflict between India and China on Tibet’s border would only result from the fruition of this proposal.
It would also protect the world’s highest plateau from further degradation and destruction, which ultimately would result in the conservation of the source of Asia’s most important rivers such as Senge Tsangpo/Indus, Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Machu/Yellow River, Zachu/Mekong River, Drichu/Yangtze River and Gyalmo Nyulchu/Salween River, which together support more than 1.5 billion people in Asia or a fifth of the world’s population.
Opposing and Ending the Tradition of Wearing Animal Fur Dress in Tibet
Tibetan traditional clothes with a layer of tiger or leopard or otter skin was an extremely popular attire across Tibet, particularly in eastern Tibet. Therefore, an abrupt end to this tradition was an unimaginable scenario until it happened soon after a strong objection from the Dalai Lama in 2006 during the Kalachakra Puja in Amravati, South India.
At the Kalachakra Puja on 9 January, the Dalai Lama strongly spoke out against this practice, stating that:
“Some insensitive Tibetans in Tibet wear outfits adorned with tiger, leopard, and otter skins. Such behaviors, indeed, makes every one of us feel embarrassed. I have emphasised this so many times before. I once again emphasise to all of you, particularly those from Tibet, the flaunting clothes trimmed with animal skins is nothing but an act of stupidity — a source of embarrassment to you and your fellow Tibetans.”
Such a strong objection resulted in scores of Tibetans in Tibet enthusiastically burning, in large numbers, their much loved and expensive animal fur or skin dresses and pledging never to use them again. Such scenes of putting an end to the practice emerged from all parts of Tibet.
This fundamental change has had immense positive effects towards saving hundreds of tigers and leopards in Asia, particularly in India. It was beyond anyone’s speculation that the Dalai Lama’s statement would receive such a prompt and decisive reaction from Tibet. As an environmentalist myself, this author has long considered it as one of the greatest environmental contributions by the Dalai Lama or anyone else.
First Nobel Laureate to be Recognized for Their Environmental Conservation Effort
The Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his decades’ long commitment to a peaceful struggle, even in the face of extreme aggression for the restoration of freedom in Tibet. However, he also became the first Nobel Laureate to be recognised for his motivation and concern towards global environmental problems as well.
In a press release, dated 5 November 1989, on their decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wrote:
“The Dalai Lama has developed his philosophy of peace from a great reverence for all things living and upon the concept of universal responsibility embracing all mankind as well as nature. In the opinion of the Committee, the Dalai Lama has come forward with constructive and forward-looking proposals for the solution of international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems.”
This recognition was a significant milestone in the Dalai Lama’s endeavours for environmental conservation, one that has been supplemented and strengthened by a global acknowledgement of his efforts as an environmentalist.
A Continuing Quest for the Environment
As the Dalai Lama turns 85 this year, his dedication towards the environment has not dimmed in the slightest but continues to grow stronger. The strength behind such dedication stems from the core principle of environmental conservation that is one of the foundational pillars of his belief while he increasingly advocates for a more compassionate human society and a positive relationship with the global environment.
His three commitments to the world have seen him transcend the perception of being a Buddhist or a Tibetan leader to a global figure that is respected and revered across borders, religions, cultures, and politics. As a consequence of such recognition, the Dalai Lama has been able to highlight the importance of environmental conservation, achieve long lasting results and become not just a beacon for compassion and universal ethics, but also as one of the most important ambassadors for environmentalists all over the world.
(Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha is a Research Fellow with a special focus on the socio-environmental impact of climate change in Tibet. He is also the executive Head of Environment & Development Desk of the Tibet Policy Institute. A think tank cum research institute based in Dharamshala, India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)