case study:

Perpetuating Tibetan Spiritscapes as unique refugia and exemplars of spiritual governance

Photo above: Men honouring and appeasing a gzhi bdag by burning bsang (juniper)- Near Donggo, Qinghai Province – Awang Jikmed 2017. 

Dr John Studley

Since Neolithic time’s “spiritscapes”, i.e. Sacred Natural Sites inhabited by numina spirits (known in Tibetan as gzhi bdag) have been a defining cultural feature of Tibetan lay society and their terrestrial abodes (gnas), in the upper slopes of most mountains have been exemplars of ritual behaviour that mimics explicit nature conservation. The animistic beliefs that support Tibetan spiritscapes have had to be discursively recreated in response to Bon, Tibetan Buddhism, and they almost became extinct during The Cultural Revolution. Since China’s religious revival (from 1978) and the felling ban (1998) conservationists (Shen et al 2015) have established that biodiversity in Tibetan SNS/spiritscapes have recovered using the “metrics” of biodiversity. It would appear on the basis of the author’s research (Studley 2005, Rowcroft Studley and Ward 2006, Studley 2007, Studley 2010, Studley and Awang 2016 Forthcoming) and predicated on a suite of participatory field methods that the spiritual and cultural beliefs that support spiritscapes have also “spontaneous recovered” (Schwartz 1994) but urgently require international protection.

Cultural and spiritual significance of nature

Spiritscapes are a defining feature characteristic of Tibetan lay society under the aegis of “mountain cults” (Blondeau and Steinkellner 1998) or the “cult of height” (Stein 1972) because they are situated in the upper slopes of most mountains. Historically the cultural identity of Tibetan nomads and farmers was predicated on honouring the numina (gzhi bdag) that inhabit the spiritscapes and protecting their abodes and flora and fauna. The mountain cults are part of an animistic and shamanistic tradition concerned with the immediate world, involving ceremonies and rituals which take place in the home and mountain locales (Huber 2004). The gzhi bdag, theoretically “tamed” by Bon and Buddhism are closer to lay Tibetans in geography, identity and in sensed presence. Tibetans are not only conscious of the constant scrutiny of the gzhi bdag in their daily lives but engage in rituals and place demands on them for protection and health, and success, in hunting, trading, travel, farming etc. Participation in gzhi bdag cults (Makley 2014) is still an essential element of rural Tibetan life and identity and is expressed in cultural, economic, eco-spiritual and political behaviour.

The psycho-spiritual behaviour (Studley and Awang 2016 Forthcoming) lay Tibetans exhibit within the domain of a gzhi bdag might be described by conservationists as ‘explicit nature conservation’. In reality, however, the behaviour is much more complex and sophisticated with humankind comprising only one element of the “topocosm” (Gaster 1961 17).

To maintain snod bcud do mnyam or topocosmic equilibrium (Studley and Awang 2016 Forthcoming) and enjoined by the gzhi bdag local people are obliged to treat animals and plants as members of the topocosm. Tibetans are not attached to and do not identify physically with spiritscapes (Studley 2012) because they are socially and culturally constructed as places and categories (Verschuuren 2007). It is not the physical elements of spiritscapes (flora and fauna) that are important but the topocosmic inter-relationship renders the resources apparent and concrete (Lye 2005; Nightingale 2006).

Ecology and biodiversity

It is important to recognise that many of the terms used in the conservation literature (conservation, ecology, biodiversity, “nature”, management, governance) are the products of western reductionism and are meaningless to indigenous people who are part of the topocosm (Gaster 1961)

Until very recently there was no term in Tibetan for conservation or biodiversity and the nearest equivalent term is srung skyob or protection which is ritual behaviour. For most lay Tibetans the animistic spiritual significance of “protection” is more significant than the ecological importance of conservation or biodiversity (Callicott 1989 Yeh 2015)

“Conservation” is often regarded by lay Tibetans as a foreign bio-centric intervention which at best has a very limited interpretation of culture and worse is guilty of cultural chauvinism.

The ritual protection of spiritscapes, however, emulates ‘explicit nature conservation’ so serendipitously they serve as refugia of biodiversity. Research (Studley and Awang 2016 Forthcoming) suggests that in spite of the Cultural Revolution and Logging between 1950 and 1998 of those interviewed 83.33 per cent believed that there was more biodiversity inside the local spiritscapes than outside, although most of them recognised that there had been much greater biodiversity prior to 1950. In addition 66.66 per cent of those interviewed were able to name unique flora and fauna. Biodiversity studies of Tibetan Sacred Sites suggest some significant differences based on ‘sanctity’. These included differences in useful species, endemic species, tree size (DBH) and basal area (m2/ha) (Anderson et al. 2005, Salick et al. 2007) and the recovery of forest cover on sacred mountains since the cultural revival (Shen et al 2015)

It has been estimated that 25% of The Tibetan plateau is comprised of spiritscapes (Buckley 2007) which are unrecognised and currently lack international protection. Currently spiritscapes are threatened by formal ex situ primary education, mass tourism and “ecological migration” and there is an urgent need to prevent further loss. Although the protection of spiritscapes is not predicated on conservation or biodiversity enhancement it is a recognised human right (Article 26 UNDRIP 2007) the animistic belief system that supports protection needs to be encouraged and protected internationally (in toto). 


Spiritscapes are predicated on non-human or spiritual governance (Nicholas 2006) because they are owned by a gzhi bdag who are de jure and de facto custodians of the flora and fauna within their domain (Maffi 2014 pers. comm.). The gzhi bdag not only require honouring and thanking but they place behavioural expectations on the local people (who enter their domain) as a contractual condition for providing protection and health, and success in hunting, trading, travel, farming etc.

The onus is on the local people to conduct regular eco-spiritual audits to maintain topocosmic equilibrium. This has become more of a challenge since the extinction of trance mediums during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Behavioural expectations are updated in response to new interventions (mountaineering by foreigners, cable cars, commercial gathering of medicinal herbs etc) and the modalities of communication include dreams, omens, visions, theophanies, divination and untimely deaths. In 2014 some villagers in the Sanjiangyuan Nature reserve stopped collecting medicinal herbs following the untimely death of a local woman, and in response to divination (Awang 2015)

There is no reason why the sui generis basis for spiritual governance should not gain recognition given that legal pluralism that underpins the ECtHR and ECHR and the existence of many trajectories of jurisprudence that have a similar basis of non-human governance (Blackstonian, Christian, Halakhah, and Sharia). Spiritual governance is augmented by limited voluntary patrols (known as bsher ri) around the liminal periphery of the spiritscape to ensure hunters from outside the area do not trespass.

Lessons learned

Most of the most widely quoted papers on Tibetan SNS concentrate on the metrics of biodiversity but fail to include a detailed cultural analysis. They tend to assume that “nature conservation” occurs mostly under the aegis and regulation of Bon or Tibetan Buddhist institutions and some authors suggest that their strengthening is key to conservation. They fail to recognise that Tibetan Buddhism is preoccupied with emptiness (stong pa nyid) and non-attachment (ma-chags-pa) and not with this world and it might even be questioned whether it is appropriate to attempt to harness Tibetan Buddhism for the purposes of conservation goals (Swanson 1993, Tsering Gyatso 1990). As a result the recommendations of some conservationists appear to ignore the key role of lay people in environmental protection and most of Tibet’s SNS/spiritscapes.

In order to enhance environmental protection of spiritscapes among animistic indigenous peoples it is crucial to understand their culture, worldview, beliefs, history, values, perception and the geospatial spread and distribution of their customary beliefs. A suite of participatory tools (that can be used among non-literate and non-monetised people) was adopted to achieve this goal predicated on cognitive/MDS mapping, kriging, wombling analysis, environmental values ranking, cultural and historical context analysis, and PGIS. All these were used to inform a bio-cultural audit of the status of spiritscapes in NW Yunnan.

  • There is a nexus of five concepts which coalesce around protection (blessing, gzhi bdag, environmental and hydrological services and protection “work” by monasteries). This suggests from a lay perspective that “protection” embraces the gzhi bdag domain resulting in blessing and environmental/hydrological services but it does not include the state (state forestry or socialism)
  • Environmental values in this case are influences by ethnicity, topography and outside intervention. The Qiangic speaking peoples (East) identify strongly with environmental protection, the gzhi bdag cult and place. The Khamba Tibetans (West) are close to the Yangtze and the area has been heavily felled, which has influenced their values. The Khamba Tibetans (Middle) are further from the Yangtze and their values are intermediate.
  • In this case changes in environmental values coincide with changes in ethnicity.
  • From a lay perspective the commercial values of forest are only 6% of the total value (of the forest) and “conservation” is only ranked 8th out of 13. Forests have high intrinsic value because from a lay perspective they are presided over or inhabited by a divinity.
  • Neither Bon or Tibetan Buddhism is indigenous and both tried to assimilate the gzhi bdag cult to give them more legitimacy. In spite of attempts to co-opt the gzhi bdag cult or destroy it during the Cultural Revolution it appears to be extant to this day. In most villages in Tibet there two cultural poles (Karmay 1998) and villagers participate firstly in devotions to the gzhi bdag and secondly to Buddha.
  • 60% of the Yubeng valley is comprised of spiritscapes and the gzhi bdag cult is being maintained. The protected forests closest to Upper and Lower Yubeng are under most threat due to demand for timber for Yubeng’s expanding tourist trade. Developers are beginning to ask villagers if the gzhi bdag will really resort to retribution if trees are felled.
  • There are 3.08 gzhi bdag sites per village, comprising 700ha and they are very widely distributed, not only in Deqin, but across the Tibetan world and among the diaspora (India, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Pakistan, Myanmar, Switzerland). The cult has revived and biodiversity within the spiritscapes. The only element of the cult that is being undermined is retribution which was supported both during interviews (Tanga Lobsang 2013 pers. comm.) and in the literature (Coggins and Hutchinson 2006).

Although the protection of spiritscapes is a human right (Article 26 (3) UNDRIP 2007) and bodies such as a ECHR accept legal pluralism and sui generis frameworks most efforts to secure international protection for spiritscapes have failed. Attempts have fallen on deaf ears, met with indifference, ridicule, incredulity and crude efforts to stifle debate. The concept of spiritual governance, however, has raised more interest with a number of researchers offering to write book chapters.

To reiterate and conclude – if we are concerned, in general, about the lay protection of SNS and, in particular, a 4000 year old tradition that embraces 25% of the Tibetan Plateau the two largest challenges are:-

  • securing international protection for spiritscapes
  • the acceptance of a new IUCN category addressing spiritual governance.

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Appendix 1 Historical Analysis

10,200-3000 BC Neolithic Era The Genesis of the mundane divinity cults (yul-lha and gzhi bdag) with origins in the animistic High Asian steppe culture and the domestication of yak.
ca 5c BC Bon culture introduced Torpa Shenrab introduces Bon into Zhang Zhung (W Tibet) and mythically “tames” the local mountain divinities
221-206 BC Qin Dynasty (China) The Qin persecute the Qiangic speaking peoples who migrate to the Eastern Edge of the Tibetan Plateau
127-104 BC King Nyatri Tsenpo (1) The Zhang Zhung alphabet was created and Bon teachings were written in Zhang Zhung script (there were 3 scripts)
11 – 32 AS King Drigum Tsenpo (8) First persecution of Bonpo – Bon banished to periphery of Tibet
525 – 550 AD King Thothori Nyantsen (28) First Dissemination of Buddhism – A basket of Buddhist scriptures arrived in Tibet from India
618-649 AD King Songtsan Gampo (33) Buddhist scriptures translated into Tibetan – the King overran the Zhang Zhung kingdom which was integrated into Tibet (645 AD)

King sent Sambhota to Kashmir in 632AD to bring back a written language – which was an adaption of Khotanese based on Brahmi and Gupta scripts.

740-797 AD King Trisong Detsen (38) The King invited Shantarakshita to establish Buddhism in his country and Guru Rinpoche visited Tibet and brought “all the local gods under his command”
Second persecution of Bonpo – Bon banished to periphery of Tibet
King Mutri Tsendo (39?) The King imported Bon teachings from the Zhang Zhung region and had them translated into Tibetan
1042 AD King Tsenpo Khorey /
King Song Ngey of the
Ngari region of Tibet
Ex King Tsenpo Khoray (who abdicated) invited Dipamkara Shrijnana Atisha to came to Tibet (Ngari). Atisha wrote a book called “Lamp to the Path of Enlightenment”. Although Tibet was still politically fragmented, Atisha’s arrival in Tibet in 1042 marked the beginning of what is called the “Second Dissemination” of Buddhism in Tibet. Through Atisha’s teachings and writings, Buddhism once again became the main religion of the people of Tibet.
1360 AD New or Modern Bon Second Diffusion of Bon begins (aka Modern Bon)
1391 AD Dalai Lama dynasty begins 1st Dalai Lama born
1966-1976 Cultural Revolution The mundane divinity cults almost became extinct, and their trance mediums (lha-pa) were persecuted and ritual cairns (la btsas) were destroyed.
1978 Hu Yaobang (China) Hu Yaobang visits Tibet and is shocked by conditions

11th Peoples Plenum – measures introduced for the “revival” of religious expression

1980s Gradual spontaneous recovery of folk practices, including the gzhi bdag cult – this was accompanied by biodiversity recovery in SNS
1998 Felling Ban A felling ban was introduced in SW China as a result of annual serious flooding of the main rivers in the region.

Appendix 2 Tibetan Words

Tibetan Wylie English
གཞི་བདག། gzhi bdag Local Spirit
སྣོད་བཅུད་དོ་མཉམ། snod bcud do mnyam Eqilibrium between in/animate worlds
བཤེར་རི། bsher ri Mountain examiners
སྲུང་སྐྱོབ། srung skyob Protection (guard and protect)
སྟོང་པ་ཉིད། stong pa nyid Emptiness (Skt. sunyata)
མ་ཆགས་པ། ma chags pa Non-attachment
རི་རྒྱ། ri rgya Mountain “sealing”
ལ་ཆོས། lha chos Sacred (TB) dharma
བོན་ཆོས། bon chos Bon beliefs
མི་ཆོས། mi chos Customary ways of man
ཀླུ། klu Snake (naga) spirits that live in water
ཡུ་ལྷ། yul lha Settlement divinities
གནས། gnas Abode


Appendix 3 Epistemic and Ontic sacred Landscapes

According to Huber 99 p 31One can distinguish two broadly different traditions of sacred geography in many societies, two ways to attach meaning to the natural environment. One tradition is that of preliterate and stateless populations who assume (rather than impose) chthonic or telluric sacredness within the features of the natural landscape, such as mountains and lakes. The other is that of the imposition of meaning on the envi­ronment—the embodiment of historical discourse—mainly through building activ­ity within the context of the centralized order of the state and organized salvational religions. These two different approaches to sacred place and space are often closed-combined in pilgrimage cults that have been historically constituted through the introduction of universal religions into local contexts, as found, for example, in the cults and shrines of Andean pilgrimage.25 Tibetan societies also have aspects of both approaches, sometimes referred to as shamanic versus clerical or ontic versus epistemic modes (Daniel 1984)

Huber, T. (1999) The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet. vol. a. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Daniel, E.V. (1984) Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. University of California Press)

Ontic modes to landscape and sacredness provide a way of being in the world and epistemic modes of seeing the world. The ontic mode is an embodied discursive practice and the epistemic is predicated on theoretical discourse…..(in Sri Lanka) ontic modalities provide a means for people and landscapes to be psycho-spiritually attached and to enable them to find a whole way of being in the world. In contrast to epistemic landscapes that are defined and demarcated to serve the interests of outsiders. (See Valentine, D.E. (2002) ‘Afterward: Sacred Places, Violent Spaces’. in Sri Lanka, History and the Roots of Conflict. ed. by Spencer, J. Routledge, 227–244)

Epistemic (or “ad hoc”) landscapes are artificial and contrived, imposed and invented by outside observers according to whatever single-factor variables they choose, however irrelevant those criteria are to local residents. Ontic landscapes are self-consciously known and defined by the people within them, may or may not correspond with prominent and visible features or with political divisions; what is important is that the people themselves know and can point out the boundaries.. which are accurately defined only from within. (See Lightfoot, W.E. (1983) ‘Regional Folkloristics’. in Handbook of American Folklore. ed. by Dorson, R. Bloomington, 183–193)

Every world is the work of the gods/spirits, for it was either created directly by the gods or was consecrated, hence cosmicized, by men ritually reactualizing (renuminising) the paradigmatic act of creation. This is as much as to say that spiritual man can live only in a sacred (ontic) world, because it is only in such a world that he participates in being, that he has a real existence, This spiritual need expresses an unquenchable ontological thirst. Spiritual (animistic) man thirsts for being. His terror of the chaos that surrounds his inhabited world corresponds to his terror of nothingness. The unknown space that extends beyond his spiritual world— an uncosmicized because unconsecrated (un-numinised) space, a mere amorphous extent into which no orientation has yet been projected, and hence in which no structure has yet arisen — for spiritual man, this profane (or un-numinised) space represents absolute nonbeing. If, by some evil chance, he strays into it, he feels emptied of his ontic substance, as if he were dissolving in chaos, and he finally dies. (See Eliade, M. (1959) The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

“Ontic” animistic landscapes inhabited by a gzhi bdag that are real and experienced by lay people on the basis of cult participation, autochthony (i.e. native or indigenous) and belonging (Lightfoot 1983- Eliade 1957)- all concepts which are alien to Tibetan Buddhism.