In this age of pandemic which commands new standards in cleanliness and social distancing, it is interesting to look at the Tibetan world view on the matter. Tibetans have always considered the physical on equal footing with the spiritual, the obvious, perceived by our senses, and the more subtle, directed by ethics and religious thought. In many cases, the former overshadowed the latter in importance, as the main focus in life was, or was supposed to be, the ability to secure a good rebirth through positive actions in this life.
The Tibetan view on cleanliness is unique in that spiritual purity is the dominant factor, one that requires to be accompanied by physical cleanliness. A temple is a receptacle for spiritual advancement and is always kept meticulously clean, statues and thangkas carefully dusted, brass kept to a high polish, and stone floors and wooden surfaces polished to a shine. A dusty temple or shrine is taken as a sign of downfall, of fallen luck, and keeping it clean is considered a spiritual activity that also cleanses the mind. It is believed that a clouded mind can be sharpened by regular sweeping accompanied by certain prayers. The purity of a person is equated with their level of saintliness, and the people serving a high lama or holy monk need to keep themselves clean and their mouth covered when bringing them food or drink to avoid polluting it with their (less saintly) breath. The same is true of any offerings to deities, such as tormas and holy pills, which are made by mask bearing monks who will hand them over to holy people for blessings.
Though in the past Tibetans had little scientific knowledge, they were very much aware that a lack of cleanliness could bring about unfortunate results, among them, communicable disease. Pandemics could be associated to the mistreatment of nagas, snake like creatures that inhabit lakes and streams, by polluting their water, or visiting ‘unclean’ places such as hospitals or places with sick people. One could be vulnerable to the ‘underlying polluted atmosphere’, another way of describing the danger of contagion.
In Ritoma, wearing face masks was already widespread long before the pandemic. It is considered a practical alternative to covering one’s mouth when meeting someone of a higher spiritual level, but is also a way for women to protect themselves from the sun, and to avoid passing on a cold. In the spring, when dust storms are frequent, it is a must, especially when riding a horse or a motorcycle. The pandemic brought old habits into sharper view, with the additional practice of hand washing added to mantra recitation to keep ‘unseen dirt’ at bay.