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.

DSC01492 DSC01497 DSC01513 DSC01487  DSC01511http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaijatra