To Perfect Our Minds

“The purpose of our religion is to perfect our minds,” says Tengboche Rinpoche. His point of view is the Buddhism of the Himalaya, the heart and soul of the Sherpa culture.

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“I was born in Nauche and as a small child talked about wanting to go home to Tengboche,” says Rinpoche. He sits cross-legged on a wide bench in his dark kitchen lined with shelves of copper pots. In his lap he holds the small text from which he reads prayers every day.

“My mother carried me to Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet. Upon seeing a monk, I ran to hug him as if I had known him before. He was the nephew of the founder of Tengboche. The Abbot of Rongbuk recognized me as a tulku [reincarnate of a spiritually advanced person], the reincarnate of Tengboche’s founder, Lama Gulu.

“Back in Nauche, I identified Lama Gulu’s belongings. Everyone was satisfied after this proof, so I was brought to Tengboche at the age of five to be raised as the reincarnate lama and eventually become the Abbot of the monastery.”

Rinpoche spent decades studying at Tengboche and Buddhist universities in Tibet and Darjeeling until he was ready to assume the leadership of the monastery. As a spiritual leader of the Sherpa people, he is equally adept on matters as varied as health, education, politics, the building of bridges, and naming children.

Rinpoche’s life had been devoted to study of the Buddhist faith, which he describes by saying, “Our religion protects our character, which is why religion is so important in our culture. Happiness and unhappiness are caused by one’s state of mind.”

Merging the metaphysical with everyday life, the Sherpas’ prayers and rituals aim to generate positive spiritual energy for the benefit of all beings. Whether layman or cleric, religion is the way of life, unifying all aspects of existence. The practice of religion is not confined to a day of the week, it is an everyday affair.

The Sherpas’ religion is the oldest sect of Mahayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, which was established by Guru Rinpoche, an Indian mystic who was invited to establish Buddhism in Tibet about 730 AD.

Tengboche Rinpoche introduces me to the principles and practices of Buddhism through my work to complete the Sherpa museum. He often uses examples from daily life to illustrate the complexity of Buddhism. For example, one day talking about the Buddhist concept of emptiness:

“Think about this knife on the table,” says Rinpoche. “It’s real when you are sitting here in Tengboche. Will this knife be real to you in Canada? If you think about Canada right now, which is real — Canada or Tengboche, where your body happens to be?

“This is illusion, the unreal objects. The real objects and events happen in your mind. There are two ‘rivers’ to follow in our minds. The first, Sunya, emptiness, is about the knife. It deals with the perception or non-reality of all things. The second, Karuna, is compassion. After one attains perfect understanding of emptiness and compassion, one attains Buddhahood.”

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Meditation, the main practice of Buddhism

 

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Tengboche’s monks read the scriptures of the old sect of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingmapa.

“This is why it is important to remember that the purpose of our religion is to improve our minds. This is why it is important to study the Buddhist teachings, think about them, meditate — and then think some more.”

I wonder how to reconcile the purpose of “perfecting our minds” with the many rituals, offerings, deities, and religious objects of everyday life.

“There are many kinds of offerings,” says Rinpoche. Pointing at the urn of smouldering incense hanging outside his window, he continues:

“This is an offering through the sense of smell. There are physical offerings such as torma [dough figurines], visual offerings like pictures and sand mandalas, sound offerings like the ritual instruments and chants or prayers. Our good intentions are the most important offering.”

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Bells (tilbu) create sound offerings.

Sherpa life is also full of ritual objects. Everywhere in Sherpa country are stones carved with prayers, water-driven prayer wheels, and prayer flags. The carved prayer stones usually contain a single chant, a complete prayer, or a Buddhist image, while prayer wheels contain scrolls of printed prayers, often thousands of them.

Prayer flags, attached to tall poles or on strings, flutter on rooftops and mountain passes, or are strung across rivers and paths. They carry printed prayers and often show the wind horse, the swift bearer of prayers. Their five colours signify the elements — earth, wood, water, fire, and metal.

Stupas, called chorten in Sherpa and Tibetan, are the numerous monuments found across the Buddhist countryside by paths, streams, homes, and gondas. Chorten represent the body, mind, and spiritual development of the Buddha.

Pic05During the historical Buddha’s lifetime, stupas were a memorial for the deceased. As the Buddha lay dying, his followers asked what should be done with his remains. He requested that his body be placed in a simple stupa. Since then, the stupa symbolizes the Buddha, and often offerings or the relics of the deceased, especially lamas, are sealed inside various sizes and shapes of stupas.

While discussing displays for the museum, Rinpoche explains the importance of Buddhist prayers on rocks, flags, and other objects:

“We see them everywhere in the land of Buddhist people. These religious objects are part of our daily lives. They help focus people’s thoughts on the Buddhist teachings and bring about a positive state of mind in people, to the benefit of all.

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“The religious objects help create harmony between our actions, body, and mind. The Buddhist teachings will come easily to us when we gain merit first with our actions and body and then through our minds. So that everyone may understand them, religious objects have many explanations at these different levels.”

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These objects allow anyone to gain spiritual merit through good intentions and each flutter of the prayer flag or turn of the prayer wheel.

The Buddhas walking among us

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The drums beating, cymbals clashing, devotional singing, and a tall golden-faced figure arrives – a Dipankar Buddha. These ‘walking statues’ belong to groups of families, who keep the statues in their neighborhood shrines. Every five years, all the owners of the statues bring them together in a massive festival. There are usually about 100 large and small statues brought about on display.

The ‘walking statues’ are actually worn by a man inside, who has just a small hole in the statue’s garments to see. There are several people helping to guide and celebrate the procession of the statues, first into the Patan Durbar Square and then to the Nag Bahal courtyard.

The Durbar Square was affected by the April 2015 earthquakes but while some of the temples have timbers supporting them, only one temple was destroyed. Certainly the spirit of the Patan people is intact as they celebrated the occasion.

One family with a small wooden statue, only about two feet high, said that it is perhaps 1,200 years old.

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Closing the loop: life before and after the earthquake

LaDSC00135st night thousands of Nepali commemorated the full moon and the birthday of the Buddha 10 days after the devastating earthquake of April 25, 2015.
A return to life and living, a reminder that life goes on, that our spirit continues as the Nepali people recover. Groups of young people stood with signs and donation boxes singing songs encouraging people to contribute whatever small funds they could to help those in need.

College students from near Langtang soliciting donations for their communities in Rasuwa district.  Boudha May 4, 2015

College students from near Langtang soliciting donations for their communities in Rasuwa district.
Boudha May 4, 2015

Life in Nepal has become before earthquake and after the earthquake. The key questions preoccupy most conversations: what were you doing…? where were you? Is your family all okay? How is your house?

Those of us with strong houses and open space were scared but unharmed physically, despite the days and days of aftershocks. In the 24 hours after the initial 7.9 earthquake, people in Nepal sat through 54 shakes over 4.1, and another 33 quakes in the next 24 hours. As of May 4, there have been 143 quakes recorded by the government seismological department since April 24. http://www.seismonepal.gov.np/index.php?action=earthquakes&show=past

In any other circumstances, each of these ‘aftershocks’ would’ve been considered a newsworthy earthquake on its own. This continued with DSC04804decreasing frequency over the next 3 to 4 days but the 6.9 quake on Sunday noon caught everyone by surprise for its intensity and duration and it seems that this quake caused a lot of the damage to buildings weakened the day before.

The quake happened to happen on the day of the week when people were out of doors – a Saturday afternoon. People are relieved that students were not in schools or college buildings that collapsed, workers were not in offices or factories.

A collapsed college building that was empty on the day of the earthquake.

Most people were not so fortunate – the poor living in cheaply built rented rooming houses, those living in remote areas especially near the epicenters of the earthquakes, and those living near hills and ridges that bounced back the shock waves.

The initial response of young people in Nepal has been encouraging and heart-warmin2015-05-01 13.29.07g. They are raising funds and gathering relief materials to take trucks much needed supplies to those in communities for almost every house has been destroyed. They are drawing on the resourcefulness and resilience of their mountain communities.

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The night before the earthquake friends had gathered at Boudha stupa to remember a recently deceased friend. Ten days later we close the loop and return to living in the entirety – the sacredness and the dreadfulness – of this time and very special land, to mourn the dead and to pray for the living.DSC04809

More regular posts are promised in the coming days and weeks.

Bonded Labourers – ‘What Little We Earned’

When the Kamaiya (bonded labour) system of southwestern Nepal was abolished in 2001, the government promised them land, by creating camps for the freed Kamaiya on government land here each family was supposed to receive its own small plot. Several aid agencies started work with these thousands of people – literacy, food-for-work projects, vocational training, and microfinance. During work for one of these organizations, I was interviewing freed Kamaiya and met Kalamati.

Kalamati was a bonded labourer (Kamaiya) for most of her life as her family had had a debt with a property owner for several generations. Despite being released from their inherited debts, her family and many of these people continued to struggle for their daily existence.

“Before, (as bonded laborers) we had to work from morning to night, and never had time for our own development. Now, we can make our own decisions and have our own piece of land.”

The crux of their situation was financial – anyone whose family might have had to take a loan from a landowner in the past. The system started during the settlement of the Terai by migrants from the hills. One landowner said that at the time, many of indigenous people, mostly Tharus, were interested to work the land “under the guardianship of the landowner”. When asked how much debt it took to bind a family for life, the answer was surprisingly little – Rs 15,000, 9,000, or even less. (about $300)

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Even people of other ethnic or caste groups would become Kamaiya if they lost their fields and needed a loan from a ‘zamindar’ (landlord) to buy food. We interviewed a Magar ethnic woman from the hills whose family lost their land to the local moneylender and a high caste man whose parents’ fields had been lost in a flood. The system was institutionalized economic exclusion of the vulnerable who needed a loan.

Families with any size of land holding usually had a Kamaiya family to work the land in return for food and meagre ‘daily wages’ as repayment on the loans. One young man working with us had grown up with Kamaiyas working for his parents. He had questioned the inequities from a young age and joined one of the activist groups lobbying for their release. We heard a story of a generous widow who owned only a small piece of land. She borrowed money from the bank to repay a large landowner the debt of the one Kamaiya working on her land. However, when the government absolved the Kamaiya debts, she still had to repay her loan for the Kamaiyas to the bank.

Some freed Kamaiya have succeeded in earning a simple living by operating shops, learning a trade, raising livestock, or growing and selling vegetables, many have still had a difficult time earning enough to survive. Others were reported to have had to mortgage their children back into bondage as child labourers in order to obtain loans or annual salaries from which the rest of the family could buy food. Many still work on the landlord’s fields but now for regular wages of Rs. 70-100 per day. One man we had interviewed said he calculated that in the past as a Kamaiya, his father had earned only three rupees per day.

In one camp, the men told of working in a sugar factory in Bardiya where they earned Rs 20 per day. The mill was owned by the family of a four-time prime minister. How can Nepal ever change the relationships between the rich and the poor when its leaders continued to assume an attitude of ruling rather than governing and serving the people.

Other people told of having to go out in the fields at night to beat the crops and scarred away insect pests; they had to pay for the kerosene in the lanterns themselves – even though it was the landlord’s crop. When they did not have enough money for kerosene, the landlord loaned it to them, adding to their already overwhelming debts.

The oppression went further for the women expected to work in the homes of some property owners. “It was much harder for the women,” said one older woman. She went on to describe how the ‘tradition’ of young women being expected to sleep with some landlords on the night of their wedding, usually to another Kamaiya, had led her daughter to go join the insurgency as her only means of rebelling. It was 2002. The insurgency was spreading over rural Nepal. We had to leave. Bardiya(Jainpur) # 17 Bardiya(shantinagar) # 29 BoyInFrontHouse FamilyKitchen kaiali Maleketi women 02mar  Manehara Camp#004    WomanChild  Women Participants4_Kailali_UG 3Women  Bardiya(Jainpur) # 14Bardiya(Jainpur) # 15

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A risky living

“If the avalanche had been about an hour later, I would have been right there and so would have been about a hundred more people,” says Pemba. “I was just about to leave base camp!”

Twenty years ago, Pemba had often been the cook on treks I was leading. Since about 1998, he has worked as a high altitude cook on Everest expeditions.

“I prefer expeditions to trekking because I make more money. Otherwise, my wife and I have just a small potato field and this little teashop. Without the expedition money, we could not afford to buy rice and staples at the market – everything has become so expensive!”

Besides, he adds, there are now very few jobs as cooks on treks since most trekkers stay in the many hotels and lodges that have sprung up along the trekking routes. In the decades prior to 2000, trekking groups stayed in tents with own cook and kitchen crew, guiding staff, and porters. With many groups coming with just a guide and porters, the jobs with trekking groups dwindled.

It was about the same that commercial expeditions started on Everest. With several expeditions attempting Everest each season, the demand for expedition workers boomed. At least 400 Nepalis of various ethnic groups, especially some Sherpas, work as high altitude climbers, guides, cooks, porters, and kitchen staff each season.

It is an occupational option, often taken by those Sherpas from poor families living away from the main trekking routes. They just do not have the capital or opportunity to start a hotel, or the education to work in another profession. One Sherpa from a poor family said he was in a fix when his wife demanded that he stop working on expeditions. Luckily for him, an uncle offered a small piece of land and a loan to start a hotel on a newly popular trekking route.

However, for many like Pemba, they may feel that they have fewer options to make money other than expeditions. “I could work in a hotel and one of my bosses at the company said that he would help me to get special training as a chef. But, I would have to work twelve months a year to make the same as I earn in three months on an expedition.”

His wife adds, “Those three months… the whole time I have a knot in my stomach and ask anyone coming down if they have seen Pemba.”

He admits that it is a risky way to make a living. I ask if he has attended the Khumbu Climbing School held each winter to train Sherpas and Nepalis in technical climbing safety. “No, I’ve not gone because I only go through the icefall twice each expedition, once up to Camp 2 and once down.”

Pemba leaves the kitchen for a moment, returning with a small red pouch. “These amulets, relics, and blessing cords from the lamas are all very potent. I have all of them blessed again each year by the lama in Pangboche as I go up for an expedition. I wear it under my clothes the entire time I am on the mountain.”

When I ask if he will go on an expedition again next year, he says, “Of course I will go, how else will I buy food in the market. But it is true, that it would be a lot less risk to my life to go get a job cooking in a hotel.”

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