A Tibetan picnic and a lesson in lus
From 2012-2013 I spent time working in Tibet (Qinghai Province) and remember a particular picnic spot. It wasn’t a site that was well frequented or even that extraordinary, but served its purpose in providing rest from the long hours of driving across the expansive plateau. My children were travelling with me and the small stream at the site was the perfect opportunity for the kids to soak themselves, have a bite to eat, and allow myself a quick nap on the grass. While playing they happened to find a number of small black frogs and proceeded to collect the frogs in a small bucket we had. A Tibetan colleague of mine gently advised me to inform the kids they should not play with the frogs. While he was not overbearing in his request, I could sense that the request was important to him. The kids and I made sure the frogs were put back without harm and I later inquired further. My colleague informed me that he believed the frogs represented beings that could travel back and forth between a subterranean water realm governed by deities.
It was only years later, during my time in Bhutan that I became aware of the lu. The lu are understood as water-spirits that, when irritated, may cause harm to humans through inflicting skin diseases, joint pain, and other ailments (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1993). While there are a plethora of deities that exist on the Tibetan Buddhist landscape, the lu have come to be a bit of an obsession for me. Shrines to various lu can be found at almost every household in Bhutan, and they are spoken of in both honorific, but more often, fearful terms. They represent pre-Buddhist beings that are understood to be un-enlightened. As such, they are not protective deities that guard the Buddhist Dharma, rather they require appeasement so that one does not offend them. The lu, therefore, is not something to be worshiped as a means to achieve future enlightenment, but are rather deities that require daily thoughtful interaction in order to avoid harm and ailment in this life. They represent a continued connection with pre-Buddhist practice, despite the dominance of Buddhist philosophy and thought in the area.
Mumford (1989) quotes from a number of ritual texts from Tibet known as the klu ’bum, in which appeasements are made to lu (klu). One in particular that fascinates me, and causes me to reflect anew on my Tibetan picnic interaction is the following:
“But we in our ignorance, by stirring up and muddying the water, have destroyed their wealth…We ask for forgiveness for cutting trees, for digging the earth, for turning over rocks, for breaking boulders, for killing sheep and goats that are owned by klu, for baiting birds owned by klu, for cutting up snakes’ bodies, for hooking the mouths of fish, for cutting the limbs off frogs, for destroying the palaces of the klu and emptying their wells, for blocking their springs, and for harming the klu themselves…I beg forgiveness for these acts” (p.101)
What I find so interesting are the numerous claims in which the land, the animals, and the resources are understood as being property of the lu. This ties in very well with much of the work I am doing now that is exploring the human-environment relationship and how it is perceived by rural Bhutanese. What I have found so far is that there is a consistent flipping of the human-environment hierarchy, one in which humans work to appease nature and other actors on the landscape. This is in stark contrast to a more modern approach that views humans as ‘manager’, a particular positionality that affords humans power, power that is not always used wisely.
Mumford, S. R. (1989). Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Nebesky-Wojkowitz, R. (1993). Oracles and Demons of Tibet : The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities. Delhi: Book Faith India.