Thursday, August 22, 2013

Worm Wars

Yartsa Gunbu - Caterpillar fungus
Earlier this summer, reports emerged about intra-Tibetan clashes in Rebkong over caterpillar fungus. Photos showed people armed with a dagger and Chinese police intervening. Subsequently the Dalai Lama and the Sakya Trizin, appealed directly to these communities, asking them to stop the fighting. On separate occasions, the two religious leaders vehemently invoked the Buddhist concept of las 'bras, or the law of cause and effect, to bring the quarreling parties back to their senses. They reminded the Tibetans that they create heavy negative karma, which will eventually fall back on them.

Although both appeals stopped short of offering more practical guidance on what people should do rather than just urging them what not to do, listening to their messages made me realise that on a deeper level these "worm wars" speak volumes about a core challenge the Tibetans are facing as they come head to head with Chinese-style modernisation. They are slowly forgetting the fundamental Buddhist teaching I assumed all Tibetans sucked up as babies with their mother's milk and which over the centuries became part of our national DNA: That you reap what you sow.

When we go to the bottom of what specifically makes us Tibetan, it's probably this acceptance, this natural and whole-hearted belief in the law of cause and effect. The insight has helped us put our problems, big and small, into perspective. It has prevented us from committing the worst errors, sensitised us for the needs of others and kept us motivated to work through our troubles in a positive spirit – always as a means to improve future situations.

I used to believe language, culture and biology are our most distinctive features but actually these are rather superficial when we try to penetrate what makes us Tibetan. My conclusion boils down to this belief in las 'bras appropriated over generations. That’s what distinguishes us in addition to language, culture and biology. That's what lies at the heart of our Tibetanness. A separate language and ethnicity become meaningless without content. When we think about it properly, living our lives in accordance with the law of cause and effect – whether consciously or automatically - has really been our distinct way of relating to the world and the universe around us.

If some now don’t give a damn about las’bras any longer what is there to give them their humanity? What is there to preserve as "Tibetan heritage"? Once the mentality becomes alien we can totally forget about issues like safe-guarding language or striving for a political solution because we will have become just like them: Reckless materialists whose thoughts and actions are fueled by the three Samsaric poisons rooted in ignorance and driven by greed and hatred. There is nothing distinctive left to cherish.

The reasons for the worm wars are well known: Essentially they are clashes over access to the mountains where these prized worms are found. Without any education, the options for traditional Tibetan farmers and nomads to earn cash and participate in the fast-paced mainstream economy are limited. Possessing no professional qualifications, more and more rural Tibetans go after these worms leading to increased competition. We only have to ask around a bit to notice that stories of violent clashes involving shooting, stabbing and thrashing abound.

Caterpillar fungus or Ophiocordyceps Sinensis is of course not a "worm". It's a larva of some moth that is eaten up alive by a fungus and mummified in the process. I don't know whether that makes it any better. The proper Tibetan designation, Yar-tsa Gun-bu, is a contraction standing for "in the summer it’s a plant, in the winter it’s an insect". But in my hometown people simply call the thing bu – or exactly as I say: Worm.

Spring is the main season for the worm harvest. As soon as the Tibetan New Year is over, the craze starts. The market crashed a few years ago but now it's back. To get a sense, 100 grams are currently worth around USD 1,500. The rule of thumb is, the smaller the worms that make up a batch, the higher the price it fetches. At these pecuniary prospects, it doesn't matter anymore whether it looks pathetic or is stultifying: A grown person can spend entire days in prone position over a two or three square-meter surface, microscopically searching the soil millimeter for millimeter for caterpillar fungi.

No one lost a contact lense; not a collective fit of high altitude sickness either. Merely looking for you-know-what.

The target market for the worms is the superstitious Chinese who see it is an aphrodisiac. They use it as medicine; sell it bottled and soaked in Arrak; sprinkle it over their stir fry; toss it into their soup or simply enjoy the worms à la nature: Once I received a handful, light as a feather, for a gift. When the visitors realised I didn't know what to do with them, they said, "Oh, you can eat it just like this, it's very good for your health!” and there you have it, one of them popped a maggot-mummy into his mouth as if it were a potato chip.

The cash earned from selling handpicked worms however, is usually not invested in the education of the next generation, as we would hope. Rather it is spent on short-lived consumer goods such as a car, motorcycles, fancy TV-sets and the like.

The other lucrative trade for rural Tibetans - illegal and carried out in secret by entire communities - is timber. Logging in Eastern Tibet has been banned since the occurrence of severe flooding further down in China, but it's an open secret that there is a black market with Tibetans on the ground fully drawn to the business. Suffice it to say: People invent all kinds of tricks in order to outsmart the system. In my hometown, villagers are allowed to cut trees in the communally owned forests for self-consumption. Now some build themselves a new house every other year just so they can pull down the old one and sell the wood used for its construction. Miraculously, houses also tend to become bigger each time, while traditional family size is shrinking.

Running after worms, timber and also seasonal gourmet mushrooms have become a top priority for some rural Tibetans. Thinking neither left nor right to the extent where their minds are so deluded that they are capable of killing one another, communal and family lives based on farming and herding often come to a standstill. Positive Buddhist values such as ethical behaviour, consideration and non-attachment which have held communities together for centuries, are threatening to fall apart over short-term material gains.

There is the bride, whose parents are not present at their daughter's big day because lured by cash they prefer to go worm-digging; there is the empty monastery during worm season with no monks to be found for funeral rites - don't ask me what business a Buddhist monk has, digging around in the earth on all fours; and there is the valley, where little children roam around all day without supervision and sometimes get run over by cars because parents and grandparents are all in the mountains digging for you-know-what.

The real problem is that Tibetans in some regions have been spoilt rotten by easy money made from Mother Nature. They may vaguely remember that there is something called las 'bras, which they fear will eventually take care of everything. But their negative habits are stronger. They have become lazy. They don't study and don't learn even when there are schools. The Tibetan language may not be taught in all of them, which sometimes serves as excuse to keep children from receiving an education. But what's the point of being a "pure" Tibetan, when the options for a livelihood are limited to fighting over stupid worms?  

An education in a foreign language is still a thousand times better than no education at all. Our schooling in the West is not in Tibetan either but it works. We also face issues of language and identity loss but we deal with them and somehow we muddle through. There is no reason why people in Tibet cannot do the same especially when they have home-turf advantage.

It's not sufficient to be able to speak only your own language, just as it's hardly enough to only be able to do basic math. Rural Tibetans should leave the evolutionary stage of hunters and gatherers to which they have been degraded. How else can they expect to contribute to social progress? How can they defy the Chinese mainstream that looks down on them as culturally and intellectually inferior citizens? Education is the root of a civilisation. If we don't know how to cherish that, will there be a noteworthy future for our people?

China’s large scale destruction of Tibetan nature by studding it with mines, hydropower plants, damming rivers, cutting down all the trees and polluting the soil or forcibly resettling people, is well documented. But it's more on the quiet that at the grassroots level, Tibetans themselves are contributing to environmental degradation by imitating the materialistic Chinese style with their predatory exploitation of nature. Actually it’s not surprising: When you’re so consumed by greed that you are capable of killing your neigbour, you couldn’t care less about what’s happening in the process to something as ridiculous as “the environment”.

Tibetans are victims of the Chinese but to be honest they are also perpetrators. They have become accomplices as they get engulfed with barbarous greed coming from the Chinese mentality that surrounds them. Through this materialistic, alien habit some Tibetans have become capable of betraying their own valued traditions. In a shortsighted Faustian twist of fate they even betray themselves doubly: First accelerating their own demise by destroying each other and their environment and second by selling the yield to the very people who menace their culture. Oh the sarcasm! Pecunia non olet.

From this point of view, the persistent calls for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama suddenly look perplexing. How can people invite the person revered all over the country as the personification of Buddha Avalokitesvara, the purest being, to come to them, when they don’t make an effort to keep their livelihoods and minds pure? Can this work as ground for the Dalai Lama’s vision of Tibet as a zone of peace?

It is sometimes forgotten that Tibetans living under China are not completely powerless. Generally speaking rural communities do have power over communally owned lands. They are important guardians of our civilisation. In the face of the rapid pace of development in China, which is eroding people’s ethical fundament, they are perhaps also the most vulnerable. The way to go is to remind people to think long-term through the lens of las’bras and also to urge them to start sending children to school without exception. We must help each other to the best of our abilities.

These worm wars are symptomatic for a monumentally larger and existential battle the Tibetans are waging. We are put before the choice between an ethical life in accordance with the Buddhadharma based on personal effort and learning, and a shortsighted mundane life based on an insatiably greedy culture that knows no tomorrow. All Lamas who we look up to as our traditional leaders and basically anyone with influence should be at the forefront to help our people make the right decision. How we respond to the socio-economic pressure on the communal and individual levels may well determine the future of our civilisation.

There are only two options: The easy way or the right way.

Mountain Phoenix