Fish Liberation

Fig 1: Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö blesses the fish prior to release.

Over the past several months, a group of Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö’s chinese disciples have been releasing fish into a lake just south of Chengdu. And not just a few fish either. Each day for one hundred days, they released something on the order of half a million small fish. That’s a lot of fish that will no longer become part of someone’s dinner. In line with traditional Tibetan tsetar practices, prior to releasing them, Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö and his disciples offered extensive prayers for the fish’s present and future well-being (see fig 1). They were then loaded on a boat and transported out into the lake and released (slowly, so as not to harm them in the process. see fig 2). Two points are also worth noting at the outset: first, I was assured that the fish were of a species native to the region, and second, each day they were released into a different part of the lake, so as to minimize the impact on specific areas. Still, releasing half a million fish a day into a lake, even a large one like this, is bound to have an impact on the local ecosystem.

Fig 2: A basket of fish ready for release.

And therein lies one of the more interesting things this practice reveals: a difference between Tibetan and Western attitudes towards the natural environment and the animals living in it. When I discuss these fish liberation episodes with Tibetans, they are overwhelmingly pleased with the number of fish being rescued. My foreign friends, on the other hand, tend to be horrified at the presumed damage being done to the lake’s ecosystem. Admittedly, these have not been formal, statistically rigorous surveys, and I’m sure I’m opening myself up to charges of simplification, essentializing Tibetan culture, and other grave academic faults. But I do think I’ve spoken with enough people to observe a basic pattern: Tibetans are primarily concerned with the individual animals while foreigners are more concerned with the well being of the ecosystem. It could be suggested that this difference is due to scientific ignorance on the part of the Tibetans, who might be unaware of the impact of releasing fish, but from the conversations I’ve had, I don’t think this is the case. Several of the Tibetans I’ve spoken to (including Khenpo Tsültrim Lodrö) have understood that releasing fish into the lake impacts the lake overall, but have argued that the benefit to the fish being released outweighs this concern. So I think I’ll stick with my guns and my oversimplified, stereotyped distinction.

Fig 3: Slowly pouring fish into the lake.

What makes this even more interesting, to me at least, is that it largely (if imperfectly) mirrors a debate in western environmental ethics. Some ethicists, such as Peter Singer, have argued that it is an animal’s ability to suffer (or experience happiness) that gives it moral value, and that justifies it’s protection.[1] Thus, an ecosystem (lacking an ability to suffer in its own right) is not inherently valuable in itself, but only in it’s ability to impact the lives of the animals that live in it. We save ecosystems for the sake of the animals, not vice versa. Deep Ecologists (and others), on the other hand, see primary moral value lying in the healthy functioning of an ecosystem as a whole.[2]Individual animals are only a part of that system, and their individual suffering is secondary to the health of the ecosystem. Often, these two approaches line up well. After all, usually what is good for the ecosystem is also what’s good for the animals concerned. But every now and then conflict arises. A classic example is the culling of overpopulated animal populations, where a great deal of suffering is inflicted on a few individual animals so that the ecosystem as a whole can prosper. I might suggest that the release of fifty million fish into a lake is another example. You have a very significant reduction in suffering for fifty million individual animals (they don’t get cooked), but also the risk of destabilizing an entire lake’s ecosystem. Given that the overwhelming majority of my western friends expressed more concern about the ecosystem than the fish, I think I am safe in suggesting that something akin to the Deep Ecology perspective (if not necessarily as radical as a true Deep Ecology position) has become fairly standard among educated westerners.

So what is the point of this long ramble? Not much really. Merely to observe an interesting similarity between what I have been hearing from Tibetans and Singer’s perspectives on animals. Obviously, these are just observations, so I don’t want this to be construed as a definitive statement of ‘Tibetan thought’. I do, however, want to suggest that there might be an interesting kinship between at least some aspects of Tibetan Buddhist attitudes towards animals and Singer’s approach. The Deep Ecologists have long invoked Buddhist notions of dependent origination (give skt / Tibetan) to support their theoris of a deeply interdependent biosphere, and to underscore the importance of using ecosystem health as the baline for making environmental decisions. Perhaps Singer and his followers could also look to Buddhist thought in support of their theories.


[1]This comes out in Singer’s most famous work, 1975’s Animal Liberation, but is more explicit in his 1979 book Practical Ethics.

[2]This idea has its roots in Aldo Leopold‘s thought, but is now widely represented by many different strands of environmental ethics. It is perhaps the Deep Ecologists who take this idea to its extreme, arguing not only that a functioning ecosystem is the baseline unit of moral value, but that the nature of that functioning is beyond the range of scientific thought.


How do You Spell Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ Anyway?

Figure 1: Maṇi on a hill near Tau with a subscribed a-chung.

A while ago I wrote a post about the proliferation of giant hillside renditions of oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion and mythical patron of all things Tibetan. This mantra, known simply as the maṇi, is one of the most pervasive practices of Tibetan Buddhism, being inscribed on stones, rendered across hillsides and recited by millions of Tibetans daily. One early Jesuit missionary, ignorant of Buddhism but struck by the pervasiveness of the maṇi mantra, reported that the Tibetans worshiped the god ‘Manipe’.[1] Despite the pervasive presence of the maṇi in Tibetan religiosity, however, there does not seem to be consensus on how it should be spelled.

Figure 2: A pool table converted to a maṇi plaque near Katok Monastery. No a-chung.

An observant reader may have noticed that the hillside maṇi pictured in my earlier post has a small a-chung (འ) underneath the oṃ (ཨཱོཾ; see figure 1). Most renditions of the maṇi that you see around Tibet, however, lack this subscribed a-chung (ཨོཾ; see figure 2). This tells us a couple of things. First off, the fact that all of those hillside maṇis I saw last summer uniformly included the same quirky spelling probably means they are all the work of one industrious person or group. Secondly, either that person or group is just plain wrong, or there are multiple traditions floating around for how to spell one of Tibet’s most important cultural touchstones. And that’s kind of neat, and definitely worth looking into.

Given that the maṇi is a Sanskrit phrase rendered in Tibetan script, the obvious first stop for someone trying to resolve this riddle is to figure out how the syllable should be written in Sanskrit. While I, unfortunately, don’t read Sanskrit, I do know several people who do, and I’ve spent the last few weeks grilling them about how one should properly write the syllable oṃ in the language of the gods. (the next bit is kind of technical, and I’ve probably got it wrong anyway, so if you’re in a rush feel free to skip to the conclusion) When rendering Sanskrit in Tibetan script, a subscribed a-chung like the ones we see here is used to turn a short vowel into a long vowel. So, for instance, the short ‘a’ (ཨ; अ in Devanagari, the most common Sanskrit srcipt) becomes the long ‘ā’ (ཨཱ; आ) with the addition of a subscribed a-chung. Sanskrit, however, does not have a short ‘o’, so an a-chung is not needed to create the long syllable ‘ō’ (ཨོ; ओ). Instead, adding the a-chung to ‘o’ gives us ‘au’ (ཨཱོ; औ). So, without the a-chung, we have the syllable ‘oṃ’ (ཨོཾ; ओं) and with the a-chung we have the syllable ‘auṃ’ (ཨཱོཾ; औं). As for which is the correct spelling, I am told that in general practice the syllable is usually rendered ‘oṃ’. This is the familiar glyph ॐ, and would seem to favor those versions of the maṇi that lack the subscribed a-chung. On the other hand, the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad, an early Indian scripture that deals entirely with this sacred syllable, is less straightforward. In its opening line, the syllable is spelled ‘oṃ’, but a few lines later the constituent phonemes are identified as ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘ṃ’.[2] Finally, Wikipedia, that great arbiter of all knowledge, spells it ‘auṃ’. So, even in the Sanskrit, we have multiple ways of spelling the syllable oṃ. Or is it auṃ?

Figure 3. Three maṇis in an old manuscript of the Maṇi Kabum. No a-chungs.

Another way to look at this would be to consider historical and contemporary instances of the maṇi and see what percentage of them have an a-chung. Here, the balance clearly seems to tip in favor of oṃs without a-chungs. Sitting around on my computer, I have two scans of a Tibetan text known as the Maṇi Kabum.[4] As its name implies, this text is one of the most important Tibetan works on the maṇi ever composed (its title can be loosely translated as Collected Works on the Maṇi), so it seems like a good place to look. No a-chungs in either copy (See figure 3). Additionally, a few months ago I remember seeing a 13th century funerary slab from Mongolia with the maṇi on it with no a-chung.[3] So this spelling is attested at least that far back. Further, the images produced by searching google for ‘maṇi stone’ almost invariably lack a subscribed a-chung, which goes someway towards showing how widespread this spelling is. The epigraphical record, however, does not entirely favor the no a-chung camp.  Browsing the Tibeto-Logic blog a while back, I came across these images of the syllable oṃ from texts preserved in the Dunhuang caves (see figure 4).[5] These ancient doodles, at least a thousand years old, have large, clear, unmistakable subscribed a-chungs. Whatever happened later, at least we know that oṃ could be written with a subscribed a-chung a long time ago.

Figure 4. Oṃs from Dunhuang, with subscribed a-chungs.

We started out with a quandary: should the first syllable in the ever-present mantra oṃ maṇi padme hūm have an a-chung? We looked at the Sanskrit, and concluded that in general use the Sanskrit does not require an a-chung, but that there were notable instances indicating it should be there. Then we checked the epigraphical evidence, which overwhelmingly favored the anti a-chung element, except for that pesky Dunhuang scribble, which just happens to be the oldest version of the syllable I’ve seen. (No, I haven’t combed through the rest of the Dunhuang documents. Anyone interested in doing so can look through most of them at the International Dunhuang Project. Let me know what you find.) If it seems like we’re no closer to an answer than we were at the beginning, that’s probably correct. But, at least now we have some idea why we don’t know anything.

Thanks to Karen Lang, Kurtis Schaeffer, Dominic DiZinno, Ben McClintic and Eva Natanya for their sanskritic insights.

[1] Lopez, Donald S. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1999. p 117. If you read latin and prefer the original, check out pages 72 and 73 of Kircher, Athanasius. China Monumentis: Qua Sacris Quà Profanis Nec Non Variis Naturae [et] Artis Spectaculis Aliarumque Rerum Memorabilium Argumentis Illustrata. Meurs: Jacobum, 1667.

[2] Olivelle, Patrick. The Early Upaniṣads: Annotated Text and Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 473-477.

[3] This was on loan to the UVA Art Museum, but the docent yelled at me for trying to take a picture, so I can’t produce any photographic evidence.

[4] Those with access to TBRC can download the Punaka edition of the Maṇi Kabum, reference W19225.

[5] These images are from Pelliot Tibetain 1230