Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, Vol 12, No 4 (2018)

The Ritual Protection of Enspirited Sacred Natural Sites on the Tibetan Plateau and the Optimization of Lay Participation

John Studley
Issued Date: 18 Feb 2019


Little was known, until recently, about the widespread recovery of biodiversity that has taken place in Sacred Natural Sites (SNS) on the Tibetan Plateau since the revival of religious practices in 1978 and the felling ban in 1998. Research within the last 20 years has concluded that there is greater biodiversity in many SNS than in adjacent lands and there has been a recovery of ritual protection practice. The author critiques the most widely quoted research papers and contrasts them with research predicated on participatory research among Tibetan lay people. Many of the findings and conclusions from the most widely quoted research papers have focussed on the metrics of biodiversity and interviews in Tibetan Buddhist and Bon institutions. This appears to result in a biased interpretation of environmental protection and biodiversity recovery. As a result, lay participation in the ritual protection of SNS is sub-optimized in conservation planning and most village-designated SNS are not being recognized internationally.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/jsrnc.35614


Ah Xiang, et al. 1998. Political, Social, Cultural, Historical Analysis of China—Homepage. Online:

Allendorf, T.D., J.S. Brandt, and J.M. Yang. 2014. ‘Local Perceptions of Tibetan Village Sacred Forests in Northwest Yunnan’, Biological Conservation 169: 303-10. Doi:

Anderson, D., J. Salick, B. Moseley, and Ou Xiaokun. 2005. ‘Conserving the Sacred Medicine Mountains: A Vegetation Analysis of Tibetan Sacred Sites in Northwest Yunnan’, Biodiversity and Conservation 14: 3065-3091. Doi:

Awang Jikmed. 2014. ‘Role of Tibetan Sacred Natural Sites in Conservation: Understanding Tibetan Attitudes toward Sacred Natural Sites in the Gador Jowo Sacred Mountains, in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve’ (MSc thesis, The University of Kent).

Bailey, S., J. Xu, and X. Hu. 2004. ‘Using Humanities to Unwrap Biology: The Qiang Controversy’ (paper presented at American Association of Physical Anthropologists 73rd Meeting, Tampa, Florida, 14–17 April). Online:

Banuri, T., and F. Marglin. 1993. Who Will Save the Forests? Knowledge Power and Environmental Destruction (London: Zed Books).

Barnett, R., and S. Akiner (eds.). 1994. Resistance and Reform in Tibet (London: Hurst & Co.).

Bell, T.W. 1992. ‘The Jurisprudence of Polycentric Law’. Online:

Bellezza, J. 2005. Spirit-Mediums, Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Middle Tibet (Leiden: Brill).

Bennett, E., and M. Zurek. 2006. ‘Integrating Epistemologies Through Scenarios’, in W. Reid, F. Berkes, T. Wilbanks, and D. Capistrano (eds.), Bridging Scales and Epistemologies: Linking Local Knowledge and Global Science in Environmental Assessments (Washington, DC: Island Press): 275-93.

Berounsky, D., and M. Slobodník. 2003. ‘The Noble Mountaineer: An Account of La Btsas Festival in Gengya Villages of Amdo’, Archiv orientální 71.3: 263-84.

Berzin, A. 2013. ‘A Survey of Tibetan History—Reading Notes Taken by Alexander Berzin from Tsepon, W.D. Shakabpa, Tibet: A Political History. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1967’. Online:

Blondeau, A.-M. (ed.). 1998. Tibetan Mountain Deities: Their Cults and Representations: Papers Presented at a Panel of the 7th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies—Graz 1995 (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften).

Bowker, J. 2000. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Brautigam, N. 2011. Above the Mukpa: The Shifting Ground of Khumbu’s Sacred Geography (Independent Study Project Collection, Paper 1234). Online:

Buckley, L. 2007. Tibetan Sacred Lands: A Values-Based Approach to Conservation (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute).

Buddhadasa, B. 1986. Dharmic Socialism (trans. E. Swearer; Bangkok: Inter-Religious Commission for Development).

Bum, T. 2016. ‘The Changing Roles of Tibetan Mountain Deities in the Context of Emerging Environmental Issues: dkar po lha bsham in yul shul’, Asian Highland Perspectives 40: 1-33.

Cai Hua. 2001. A Society Without Fathers or Husbands: The Na of China (New York: Zone Books).

Callicott, J. 1989. In Defence of the Land Ethic (Albany: The State University of New York Press).

Chambers, R. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First (Harlow: Longman).

Chambers, R. 1993. Challenging the Professions: Frontiers for Rural Development (London: ITP). Doi:

Clémençon, R. 2005. ‘Costs and Benefits of Global Environmental Public Goods Provision’ (San Diego: University of California, International Task Force on Global Public Goods).

Coggins, C., and T. Hutchinson. 2006. ‘The Political Ecology of Geopiety: Nature Conservation in Tibetan Communities of Northwest Yunnan’, Asian Geographer 25.1/2: 85-107. Doi:

Coggins, C., and G. Zeren. 2014. ‘Animate Landscapes: Nature Conservation and the Production of Agropastoral Sacred Space in Shangrila’, in C. Coggins and E.T. Yeh (eds.), Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands (Seattle: University of Washington Press): 205-28.

Cohen, L., L. Manion, and K. Morrison. 2000. ‘Action Research’, Research Methods in Education 5: 226-44.

Dakpa, N. 2006. Opening the Door to Bon (Boulder: Shambhala).

Daniel, V.E. 1996. Charred Lullabies: Chapters in an Anthropography of Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press). Doi:

Darlington, S. 2000. ‘Rethinking Buddhism and Development: The Emergence of Environmentalist Monks in Thailand’, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7: 1-17.

de Jong, W. 1995. ‘Recreating the Forest: Successful Examples of Ethnoconservation among Dayak Groups in Central West Kalimantan’, in O. Sandbukt (ed.), Management of Tropical Forests: Towards an Integrated Perspective (Oslo: Centre for Development and Environment): 295-304.

Dorje, G. 1996. Tibet Handbook with Bhutan (Bath: Footprint Handbooks).

Dongyal, K.T. 2008. Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom: The Life and Legacy of HH Dudjom Rinpoche (Boulder: Shambhala).

Dudley, N., S. Stolton, A. Belokurov, L. Krueger, N. Lopoukhine, K. MacKinnon, T. Sandwith, and N. Sekhran, N. (eds.) (2010). Natural Solutions: Protected Areas Helping People Cope with Climate Change (IUCN, WCPA, TNC, UNDP, WCS, The World Bank and WWF; Gland, Switzerland, Washington, DC, and New York).

Eckel, M. 1998. ‘Is There a Buddhist Philosophy of Nature?’ in R. Cohen and A. Tauber (eds.), Philosophies of Nature: The Human Dimension (Dordrecht: Kluwer): 53-69.

Eckholm, E. 2001. ‘A Holy Place in China Fights for Its Life, Body and Soul’, The New York Times, 10 July.

Eliade, M. 1959. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Ermakov, D. 2008. Bø and Bön: Ancient Shamanic Traditions of Siberia and Tibet in Their Relation to the Teachings of a Central Asian Buddha. Online:

Goldstein, M. 1997. The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet and the Dalai Lama (London: University of California Press).

Goldstein, M., and M. Kapstein. 1998. Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious Revival and Cultural Identity (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers).

Grunfeld, A.T. 2015. The Making of Modern Tibet (London: Routledge). Doi:

Guo Jing. 2000. ‘A Mountain of Nature, Also a Mountain of Divinity—Indigenous Knowledge about the Space of Khabadkarpo’, in Xu Jianchu (ed.), Links between Cultures and Biodiversity: Proceedings of the Cultures and Biodiversity Congress 2000 (Kunming: Yunnan Sciences and Technology Press): 230-39.

Gyatso, T. 2003. ‘Tibetan Buddhist Perspectives on Spirit in Nature’, in B. McDonald (ed.), Seeing God Everywhere: Essays on Nature and the Sacred (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom): 17-27.

Handa, O.C. 2001. Buddhist Western Himalaya: Part I: A Politico-Religious History (New Delhi: Indus Publishing).

Harrell, S. (ed.). 2001. Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China (London: University of California Press). Doi:

Hassel, C. 2005. ‘The Craft of Cross-Cultural Engagement’, Journal of Extension 43.6. Online:

Hinnells, J.R. 1997. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (London: Penguin Books, 2nd edn).

Holmes, J., and J. Holmes. 2011. ‘Northwest Yunnan Province, Part III—Hiking to Yubeng Village’. Online:

Huber, T. 1997. ‘Green Tibetans: A Brief Social History’, in F. Korom (ed.), Tibetan Culture in the Diaspora (Vienna: Verlag der Osterreichischien Akademie der Wissenschaften): 103-19.

Huber, T. 1999. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Huber, T. (ed.). 1999. Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives).

ICOJ. 1960. Tibet and the Chinese People’s Republic: A Report to the International Commission of Jurists by its Legal Inquiry Committee on Tibet (Geneva: International Commission of Jurists).

Jinba, T. 2013. In the Land of the Eastern Queendom: The Politics of Gender and Ethnicity on the Sino-Tibetan Border (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Karmay, S. 1996. ‘The Tibetan Cult of Mountain Deities and Its Political Significance’, in A.-M. Blondeau and E. Steinkellner (eds.), Reflections of the Mountain (Vienna: Academy of Sciences Press): 59-76.

Karmay, S. 1998. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet (Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point).

Karmay, S. 2004. ‘A Comparative Study of the Yul Lha Cult in Two Areas and Its Cosmological Aspects’, in S. Karmay and Yasuhiko Nagano (eds.), New Horizons in Bon Studies (Delhi: Saujanya Publications): 383-413.

Karmay, S.G., and 長野泰彦. 2008. A Survey of Bonpo Monasteries and Temples in Tibet and the Himalaya (Delhi: Saujanya Publications).

Keown, D., and C.S. Prebish. 2013. Encyclopedia of Buddhism (London: Routledge). Doi:

Levine, N.E., et al. 1988. The Dynamics of Polyandry: Kinship, Domesticity, and Population on the Tibetan Border (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Lightfoot, W.E. 1983. ‘Regional Folkloristics’, R. Dorson (ed.), Handbook of American Folklore (Bloomington: Indiana University Press): 183-93.

Limusishiden. 2014. ‘An Abandoned Mountain Deity’, Asian Highlands Perspectives 35: 159-93.

Luo, Z. 1991. Religion under Socialism in China (New York: M.E. Sharpe).

Makley, C.E. 2007. The Violence of Liberation: Gender and Tibetan Buddhist Revival in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Makley, C.E. 2014. ‘The Amoral Other: State-Led Development and Mountain Deity Cults among Tibetans in Amdo Rebgong’, in E.T. Yeh and C. Coggins (eds.), Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands (Seattle: University of Washington Press): 229-54.

McKay, A. 1998. Pilgrimage in Tibet (Richmond: Curzon Press).

McKay, A. 2013. Pilgrimage in Tibet (London: Routledge).

Miller, D. 2007. Tibetan Pastoralism: Hard Times on the Plateau. Online:

Mills, M. 2003. Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism (London: Routledge).

Mullin, G.H. 2005. The Second Dalai Lama: His Life and Teachings (Boulder: Shambhala).

Nebesky-Wojkowitz, R. de. 1996. Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective (Kathmandu: Book Faith India).

Norbu, N. 1997. Journey among the Tibetan Nomads: An Account of a Remote Civilization (ed. M. Simmons; Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives).

Ourvan, J. 2016. The Star Spangled Buddhist: Zen, Tibetan, and Soka Gakkai Buddhism and the Quest for Enlightenment in America (New York: Skyhorse Publishing Co.).

Powers, J. 2007. Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism (Boulder: Shambhala).

Pungetti, G., G. Oviedo, and D. Hooke. 2012. Sacred Species and Sites: Advances in Biocultural Conservation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Doi:

Punzi, V. 2014. ‘Tense Geographies: The Shifting Role of Mountains in Amdo between Religious Rituals and Socio-Political Function’, in Il Tibet, Fra Mito e Realtà. [Tibet between Myth and Reality]: Atti Del Convegno per Il Centenario Della Nascita Di Fosco Maraini (Florence: Gabinetto G.P. Vieusseux): 71-80. Doi:

Ramble, C. 2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Doi:

Rowcroft, P., J. Studley, and K. Ward. 2006. ‘Eliciting Forest Values for Community Plantations and Nature Conservation’, Forests Trees and Livelihoods 16: 329-58. Doi:

Salick, J., et al. 2007. ‘Tibetan Sacred Sites Conserve Old Growth Trees and Cover in the Eastern Himalayas’, Biodiversity and Conservation 16: 693-706. Doi:

Samuel, G. 1993. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press).

Schaeffer, K.R., M. Kapstein, and G. Tuttle. 2013. Sources of Tibetan Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press).

Schwartz, R. 1994. Circle of Protest: Political Ritual in the Tibetan Uprising (London: Hurst & Co.).

Shen, X., S. Li, D. Wang, and Z. Lu. 2015. ‘Viable Contribution of Tibetan Sacred Mountains in Southwestern China to Forest Conservation’, Conservation Biology 29.6: 1518-26. Doi:

Shen, X., Z. Lu, S. Li, and N. Chen. 2012. ‘Tibetan Sacred Sites: Understanding the Traditional Management System and Its Role in Modern Conservation’, Ecology and Society 17.2. Online:

Sillitoe, P., A. Bicker, and J. Pottier. 2002. Participating in Development (London: Routledge). Doi:

Sponsel, L. 2012. Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO).

Stein, R. 1972. Tibetan Civilization (London: Faber).

Stevens, S. 1993. Claiming the High Ground: Sherpas Subsistence and Environmental Change in the Highest Himalaya (Berkeley: University of California Press).

Studley, J. 1999. ‘Environmental Degradation in Southwest China’, China Review (Spring): 28-33.

Studley, J. 2005. ‘Sustainable Knowledge Systems and Resource Stewardship: In Search of Ethno-Forestry Paradigms for the Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Kham’ (PhD diss., Loughborough University).

Studley, J. 2007. Hearing a Different Drummer: A New Paradigm for ‘Keepers of the Forest’ (London: IIED).

Studley, J. 2012. ‘Territorial Cults as a Paradigm of Place in Tibet’, in I. Convery, G. Corsane, and D. Davis (eds.), Making Sense of Place (Woodbridge: Boydell Press): 219-34.

Studley, J. 2014. Gzhi Bdag: Custodians of the Tibetan Spiritscape: A Bio-Cultural Audit of Sacred Natural Sites in NW Yunnan (with Special Reference to the Yubeng Valley) (Hong Kong: CERS).

Studley, J. 2016. ‘Is Yundrung Bon Compatible with the Tibetan Gzhi Bdag Cult?’. Online:

Studley, J. 2017. ‘Why Shouldn’t Sacred Natural Sites Be Declared as Juristic Persons Predicated on Spiritual Governance?’. Online:

Studley, J. 2018. Indigenous Sacred Natural Sites and Spiritual Governance: The Legal Case for Juristic Personhood (London: Routledge).

Studley, J., and J. Awang. 2016. ‘Creating New Discursive Terrain for the Custodians of the Tibetan Spiritscapes of North West Yunnan’, in B. Verschuuren and N. Furuta (eds.), Asian Sacred Natural Sites: Philosophy and Practice in Protected Areas and Conservation (London: Routledge): 271-85.

Studley, J., and B. Bleisch. 2018. ‘Juristic Personhood for Sacred Natural Sites: A Potential Means for Protecting Nature’, Parks 24.1: 81-96. Doi:

Studley, J., and P. Horsley. 2018. ‘Spiritual Governance as an Indigenous Behavioural Practice: Implications for Protected and Conserved Areas’, in B. Verschuuren and S. Brown (eds.), Cultural and Spiritual Significance of Nature in Protected Areas (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis): 72-84. Doi:

Sun, H. 1990. ‘Languages of the Ethnic Corridor in Western Sichuan’, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 13.1: 1-31.

Sun, H. 2014. ‘Why Do We Value the Qiang’, China Scenic. Online:

Swanson, P. 1993. ‘Zen Is Not Buddhism: Recent Japanese Critiques of Buddha-Nature’. Numen 40.2: 115-49. Doi:

Tucci, G. 1988. The Religions of Tibet (London: Routledge).

Wallace, V.A. 2015. Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture, and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press). Doi:

White, M. 2005. ‘Spirit-Mediums: Sacred Mountains and Related Bon Textual Traditions in Middle Tibet: Calling Down the Gods’, Janus Head—A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature, Continental Philosophy, Phenomenological Psychology, and the Arts 10.2: 633-39.

Wikipedia. 2005. Bon. Online:

Wild, R., and C. McLeod. 2008. Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers (Gland, Switzerland and Paris, France: IUCN and UNESCO).

Wimberley, E.T., and J.F. Haught. 2009. Nested Ecology: The Place of Humans in the Ecological Hierarchy (Baltimore: JHU Press).

Woodhouse, E., M.A. Mills, P.J. McGowan, and E.J. Milner-Gulland. 2015. ‘Religious Relationships with the Environment in a Tibetan Rural Community: Interactions and Contrasts with Popular Notions of Indigenous Environmentalism’, Human Ecology 43.2: 295-307.

Yeh, E., and C. Coggins (eds.). 2014. Mapping Shangrila: Contested Landscapes in the Sino-Tibetan Borderlands (Seattle: University of Washington Press).

Yeh, E., and K. Lama. 2015. Shielding the Mountains: Study Guide. Online:

Yü, D.S. 2015. Mindscaping the Landscape of Tibet: Place, Memorability, Ecoaesthetics (Berlin: W. de Gruyter).

Zangpo, N. 2002. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times (Boulder: Shambhala).

Zhang Qian. 2014. ‘Qiang among China’s Ancients 7/9/14’, Shanghai Daily. Online:

Zhang Zhong Yun. 2003. Tibetans’ Religious Belief in Holy Mountain and Eco-Friendly Traditional Style of Production and Life in Yubeng Village, Deqin County, Yunnan Province (Kunming: YASS).

Zhang Zhong Yun. 2007. Research of Belief of Sacred Mountains and Villagers’ Livelihoods (Kunming: YASS).


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email: [email protected]

Privacy Policy