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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Why did some Sherpas first go on expeditions…

On this anniversary of the first ascent to the summit of Everest, let’s pause a moment to remember why men from the Sherpa ethnic group in Nepal first went off to work on expeditions.

Kancha Sherpa is the last surviving member of that 1953 expedition, perhaps because he was very young when he went off to Darjeeling in search of expedition work. Kancha told me his story in December 2009 in Namche.

“When I was a kid we were so poor, we had no mattresses just yak skins and the wooden plank for a pillow. We used to walk to Kathmandu in 8 days, carrying tsampa cause we had no money to stay in hotels.

“We carried loads to Tibet. There were three people who traded Nepali paper to Tibet to use in the prayer wheels. We earned Rs.5 to carry 30 kg loads for the 4-day trip to Kyabrak, just over the Nangpala. The Tibetans would pay us in salt – 8 pathis (30 kg) that we carried back to Khumbu in three days. Then we carried four pathis at a time to Kharikhola where we got three parts of corn for one of salt – so we could not take too much salt at once to be able to carry the corn back to Namche.

“Then we dried and ground the corn to eat. Then we started the whole circuit all again. The paper was made in Karikhola and they brought it here to sell. There was thick and thin paper for the inside of prayer wheels and pecha (religious books). At the age of 13-15, I would go 11 times a year over the pass. We were walking on snow for about an hour at the top of the pass.

“I first went to climb in 1953. Three friends and I decided to go to Darjeeling to see if we could get work on an expedition. While my mother was out with everyone dancing in a potato field, I hid some corn flour in one of her shirts. My friends each had Rs.15 and 20, but I had none so I took the corn for us to eat. We left at night and got to Chaunrikharka at day light -looking over our shoulders to see if our families were coming for us.

“It took four days of walking over the hills to get to Darjeeling. We met a woman from Thame village there, carrying a load of vegetables. We asked her where Tenzing’s house was. She took us to his little house. He asked who our fathers were and since he knew my father, he took me in to work while my friends found work elsewhere. Tenzing liked my work cleaning and getting firewood so he said he would take me to Everest in a month. I was so happy, I carried even more firewood.

“Then I worked on expeditions until 1973, when my wife asked me to stop as so many friends had been killed. I liked the expeditions cause I got clothes and money.

“During these years, 1953-73, I would also earn more money by buying western watches in Calcutta with loans, and selling them in Tibet. One time in Shakya, I was caught by the Chinese army, who took all my watches and money. We were stuck inside the jail for a week without any water. My older brother was in jail in Lhasa because they did not know who was Tibetan or Sherpa. I had a letter written and showed our Nepali passports. Eventually, we got back here.

“Afterwards, I started working trekking. Since I can only write my name, Kancha (Tenzing’s little daughter taught me in 1953), I’d keep accounts on trek with my beads and have someone who could write make notes.

“Now, we earn money here and don’t have to go away. The kids whose parents have earned well with hotels all have good educations. Now, the Tibetans all come here to trade and earn money. Now, I’m an old man doing my prayers.”

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Experiencing another culture

Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions. I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.

Arriving at the ridge crest, each Sherpa companion murmured a prayer and placed a small stone from the path on the cairn with prayer flags. I followed suit, relieved that our trekking group had traveled this path safely.

Further along, we paused and turned out backs as wind and dust blasted across the pastures. We hid our faces in our jackets. Seeing only the ground before me, a premonition — an impact on the back of my head and a sudden sense of nothingness.

I reacted by taking two steps forward. In that instant a thick plank, blown off a nearby hut, hit the back of my ankle. Stunned, I realized that had I not moved, the plank would have struck my head.

This event was my first real experience with the Sherpa perception of place, of the power of these mountains.

Mountain scenery first attracted me to the Himalaya, but the warm, friendly people became my enduring connection. From 1983 to 1989, I had the opportunity and privilege to live and work with Sherpa people in the Khumbu Valley of east Nepal near Mount Everest, helping to create a museum of Sherpa culture at Tengboche monastery.

The Sherpas are renowned through the literature of adventure, where they have earned an international reputation for their work on mountaineering expeditions, especially on Everest. However, this reputation focuses on an occupation, rather than the Sherpas’ rich cultural heritage.

The museum described mostly what the Abbot of Tengboche calls the Sherpas’ “inner culture” and the importance of ceremonies that link their spiritual and physical lives. The preparation of the museum took time because it was essential to first know the people and the many dimensions of their culture in order to accurately and concisely depict it.

While compiling information for the museum, I often found that conversations encompassed aspects of philosophy, psychology, and spirituality. Often the subjects we discussed wandered to the questions we seek to answer with religion or science: How did the earth begin? What happens after death? What is our relationship to nature? To our symbols in the environment?

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Conversations encompassed the metaphysical and the everyday.

Over the years, my questions turned from the intellectual to the intuitive. I began to experience the culture rather than question it. Life with the Sherpas revealed different ways of seeing the world. It peeled away my preconceived notions so that I began to appreciate the significance of rituals, traditions, and symbols. In the process, I was changed.

Sherpa friends introduced me to a new way of seeing the world through everyday life. Whether monk or shepherd, they know who they are and what they believe as “Sherpa people”. I saw an acceptance of mystery and of questions we just cannot answer.

Living in another culture forced me to think about how it works, to confront the ironies and inconsistencies of a different way of being. Soon, I realized that one layer of meaning reveals more queries within. The more one starts to understand, the more one realizes all there is to question and explore.

Looking at other cultures as different from our own, we split the whole into parts. We analyze what we see happening and ask why. For people of the other culture, it is their way of life.

We examine the oddity of different traditions and customs rather than the inner purposes that might bring us into an understanding of the culture. We end up looking at how the “other” culture is different from our culture rather than at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.

While working on the museum, I started to see and question the ironies of my own culture and gained a new way of looking at myself and at my own way of life. I was moved by what I saw and experienced.

I became a believer in the value of inner culture that manifests itself in everything we do — in small actions in everyday life, in our interactions with everyone we meet, and in what we think and say.

I have come to see that while outside cultures divide us, inner cultures, the core of all religions and beliefs, can bring us together.

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The intention of offerings is most important.

 

 

Tengboche in our hearts and minds

Pic013Tengboche holds a special place in the hearts and minds of both Sherpas and world visitors. On a ridge in the heart of the Khumbu valley, it is more than just a monastery. The scene of the monastery surrounded by snow-clad peaks, realizes many people’s notions of Shangri-La, of a sacred place beyond our daily existence.

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Married lamas performing village rituals, Junbesi, 1983

Despite Tengboche’s fame, the Sherpas only founded celibate monasteries relatively recently. For about four centuries, they practised their faith in hermitages and each village’s gonda (temple) under the direction of married lamas (teachers) who performed the rituals required by the community.

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Lama Sangwa Dorje footprints in stone, Tengboche

In 1914, the Abbot of Rongbuk monastery on the north side of Everest in Tibet told a devout Sherpa, Lama Gulu, to establish a celibate monastery in the Khumbu. Lama Gulu went home to Khumbu and discussed the request with other Sherpas. They proposed several sites, including a remote ridge called Tengboche. Lama Gulu returned for advice to Rongbuk, where the abbot replied, “At Tengboche, at the edge of the flat area, where Lama Sangwa Dorje left footprints in stone.”

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Tengboche monks reading Buddhist books in Namche gompa

Sherpas from many villages worked for three years to build a gonda for Tengboche monastery. They completed it in 1919 and the Abbot of Rongbuk came for the opening celebrations. His presence attracted Sherpas from several days’ walk away. Thus, Tengboche became a focal point for Sherpa religious activities and the larger community of Khumbu.

In 1932, an earthquake destroyed the monastery’s main temple. Lama Gulu was not injured but passed away that night. The monks of Tengboche went to Tibet to visit the Rongbuk Abbot, who told them to rebuild the gonda. He donated some money to start the reconstruction.

Six years later, a young child from Nauche was brought to the Rongbuk Abbot, who recognized him as the reincarnation of Lama Gulu.

That child grew up to be Tengboche Rinpoche, the abbot of Tengboche monastery in the Khumbu valley. The Sherpas regard him as the reincarnate of the monastery’s founder. Everyone calls him by his title, Tengboche Rinpoche, and rarely by his given name, Ngawang Tenzing Zangbu.

Tibetan Buddhists reserve the title Rinpoche for special teachers and their reincarnates. The Buddhist people of the Himalaya revere thousands of rinpoches in Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India.

When asked about the changes in the Khumbu valley, Tengboche Rinpoche has replied:

“There are outward changes in appearances: some of our dress, houses, occupations, and opportunities.

“However, our Sherpa ceremonies and traditions — how we name children, assist the dead, get married, and celebrate a year’s passage — all this remains intact. What is most important to us remains. The coming of foreign visitors to Khumbu has not changed our inner culture.”Pic0103