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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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.

 

 

The most common of experiences

DSC01500Late in the monsoon, lines of families wind their way through the streets of old settlements in the Kathmandu Valley. Boys and some girls are dressed in festive costumes as ‘cows’. Wealthy families have a band, whether a blaring brass band or a traditional band with drums and bamboo flutes.

Some families lead a cow on a leash; a cow being the symbolic assistant for the deceased in their journey through the afterlife. Gai Jatra is is a procession of the families bereaved in the past year. Crowds come out to watch for everyone is sharing their common experience, an experience that is part of life for each and every one of us. No exceptions.

It all began centuries ago when a queen was distraught at the death of her son. The king had tried everything to console her. Finally, realising the common experience of so many families, he commanded that every family having suffered bereavement in past year should join this procession in recognition of their common experience.

This commonness is shared among the families of the Newari culture as part of the wheel of life, but it is also a festival celebrating the common experience of all beings.

The first times that I witnessed the procession, its profoundness escaped me. Gradually, living in another culture (or cultures) forced me to think about another way of being. Soon, I realized that these processions and rituals celebrated and acknowledged experiences common to everyone. Instead of examining the oddity of different traditions and customs we can seek the inner purposes that might bring us into an understanding of the culture. We can look at our commonness in the wholeness of humankind.

These experiences embracing the sacred and the profane engage us in a whole life experience. I realised how profoundly my own beliefs had shifted to the more eastern, Buddhist perspective when both my mother and youngest sister in Canada were ill and passing away with cancer.

Although I don’t honestly know how I’ll react when my time comes, I realise that this is the most common and inevitable of human experiences. Each of us will experience bereavement and our own death.

How do we as westerners bridge the gap from seeing death as ‘failure’ to seeing life as a precious opportunity, which is by its very nature limited. We make the best of life while we can, but realise that it will end and that each and every one of us will experience this.

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