Skip to content

July 31, 2022

Into Their Culture, Helina He Yuheng, BFA ID 2023

by Yuheng He

Into Their Culture

I was out of quarantine. I was excited since I was finally able to enjoy the other half of my program in person. On the same day, I drove non-stop from Chengdu to Sêrtar County, to find Zhou Ba, the coordinator of LDONGTSOG. Sêrtar County is remotely located on the border of Qinghai Province and Sichuan Province, with an altitude of around 4,100 meters above sea level. However, Sêrtar is still a five-hour drive away from Kehe Village, where the base of LDONGTSOG is. 

The Satellite View of Sêrtar County
from Baidu Map

In the following two weeks, I will be living with Zhou and his family. I will make use of this chance to observe their lives and learn some Tibetan language. Thanks to the seminars I held, I already had a basic understanding of the culture that I was going to enter: their religion, their history, their customs, etc.

On the night that I arrived, I was welcomed with a cleaning ritual by Zhou Ba and his wife Mu.

Tibetans believe the smoke of birth leaves can clean away the dirt. 

As a gift of exchange, I brought them the book Everest from the United States. It is illustrated by Lisk Feng, a former professor at RISD. 

Two days later, Zhou Ba took me to the Sertar Larung Five Science Buddhist Academy (色达五明佛学院,གསེར་རྟ་བླ་རུང་ལྔ་རིག་ནང་བསྟན་སློབ་གླིང་). The main entrance is closed for outcomers due to COVID, so Zhou Ba guided me to bypass the examination spot by climbing the hill. What an unusual way to greet this splendid architectural complex! 

A view from the “hill entrance”: The yak is the main source of economic income for Tibetan pastoralists. Zhou calls them the “mother of Tibetans,” since every part of a yak creates value. Tibetans drink yak milk and yak yogurt, build black tents with yak wool, and sell yak for money. 

After we climbed over the hill, I saw thousands of red wooden huts packed in the valley. According to unofficial data, the academy grew to 20,000 students, despite the government’s efforts to reduce the number in recent years. I saw Buddhist temples with gilded roofs amidst the red ocean, flashing against the sunshine. Monks and nuns walked about in maroon robes, chattering in Mandarin and Tibetan. 

First time riding a bus full of nuns

It was only then that I realized when I was visiting the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world. 

The Buddhist academy is modernized though. I bought Zhou Ba a cafe chat, and asked him some questions about LDONGTSOG. He shared both his expectations of me and the difficulties that LDONGTSOG has faced. During the conversation, I saw Zhou’s deep compassion on animals and the environment.

I was grateful that Zhou Ba took me to this Buddhist Academy when I first came to Sertar. Because it wasn’t until I visited here that I realized the importance of Tibetan Buddhism to the locals. Only with sincere religious beliefs can Tibetans build a school spanning across the valley in just 40 years.  

Suddenly, the argument I mentioned in my last post has its reason: the best way to educate traditional Tibetans about the environment is through religion.

Then Go to Their Nature

One week later, I begged Zhou Ba to take me to the forest at Kehe Village. As Dr. Losang Rabgey, the founder of a Tibetan cultural NGO, advised me, “Your design will be different even if you breathed the air in Tibet.” I wanted to see the vegetation, animals, and cultural life of LDONGTSOG in person.

Rodin is teaching me how to eat a local plant.

I met other group members of LDONGTSOG at the village. They took me to the primeval forest. The forest was a place signified by its biodiversity. At the foot of the mountain, it was the typical scene of a temperate monsoon climate. Tall trees and wild strawberries were visible. The landscape transformed into rocks and grass resembling those on a plateau as we ascended the mountain. At the top, we held a worship ritual for the mountain god Dongge. Zhou Ba said it always rained after the ritual was performed. 

At night, I saw the most brilliant starry night I have ever seen in China. I used to believe that city pollution had caused the stars to fade, but now I see that they still shine where there is nature. Protecting this pristine region from the consequences of human civilization became spontaneous for me.

What’s next? 

LDONGTSOG is going to host an eco-trip in August. I intend to write some instructions for the tourists coming to Kehe. Additionally, I will design pamphlets and maps that tell the story of LDONGTSOG. I am driven to use my writing and design so that visitors to Kehe will value the local nature and culture just as much as I do.

%d bloggers like this: