Dear Love Lawudo friends,
Greetings on the holy day of Lhabab Düchen! Please enjoy this opportunity to re-connect with the highest and most remote retreat centre in the FPMT.
This newsletter is in four sections:
· Crowdfunding appeal for Rinpoche’s sister
· Ven Amy Miller - Lawudo Pilgrimage and Retreat 2023
Rejoicing in the incredible achievements of Sangye Sherpa, former Director of Lawudo
Introducing Lhaktsung-La, Lawudo’s new cook
The Lawudo Chronicles: Nick Ribush writes about his first visit to Solo Khumbu in 1973
Our next newsletter (Chotrul Duchen: 7 March) will include an interview with Lawudo’s Ani Thubten Zangmo, who has just completed her Geshema exams in Dharamsala, a report-back on Ven Robina Courtin’s fourth pilgrimage to Lawudo in October 2022, and the next instalment of Nick Ribush’s Lawudo Chronicles.
1. Latest news
Crowdfunding appeal for Rinpoche’s sister
Anila Nawang Samten needs to visit Kathmandu this winter to see an eye specialist and other medical professionals. She’s hoping to combine this with a visit to Kopan Monastery to see her brother Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Students of Ven Robina have just launched a crowdfunding appeal to meet the cost of the return helicopter flight from Mende (estimated at $5000). To help out, please go to: https://donorbox.org/help-sponsor-ani-samten-la-s-helicopter-from-mende-to-kathmandu before the appeal closes on Tuesday 22 November. Thank you for any support you can offer.
Ven Amy Miller - Lawudo Pilgrimage and Retreat 2023
Ven Amy Miller has been a regular visitor to Lawudo since the 1980s. After taking a break over the pandemic years, she has kindly agreed to lead another pilgrimage and retreat in April-May 2023. If you or anyone you know are thinking of going to Lawudo for the first time – or even for a return trip! - this is a rare opportunity to enjoy an inspiring mixture of trekking, teachings and meditation with someone who has extensive experience of the region. More information including a detailed itinerary is now available at https://amymiller.com/5850-2/.
2. Rejoicing in the achievements of Sangye Chottar Sherpa - Director of Lawudo retreat center 2008-2022
Sangye is the younger brother of Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his sister Ven. Ngawang Samten. He was born in 1948 in the village of Thame in Solu Khumbu, one month after their father died. They were a poor Sherpa family, and the early years were filled with many hardships due to their father’s untimely death.
In 2008 Lama Zopa Rinpoche requested Sangye to become the director of Lawudo Retreat Centre and for the next 13 years he worked hard raising money and maintaining and developing Lawudo Retreat Centre in accordance with the wishes of Lama Zopa.
The immediate advice from Lama Zopa was to tear down the old monastery and build a new, larger gompa that could accommodate 500 monks. Built in 1968 it was in an extremely poor condition and at risk of collapse at any time. The building was sinking into the ground, the front pillars were crooked, and the walls were visibly leaning outwards. However, the senior Lama from Thame monastery, Lama Zopa’s uncle Ashang Yonden, and other Lamas recommended that the old gompa should be preserved as a pilgrimage site because Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe themselves had supervised and planned the construction and carried some of the stones used in the building. Following this input, Sangye decided to reinforce the foundations with concrete while adding concrete beams and pillars in strategic places, while keeping the original building.
The difficulties of building in the Khumbu region cannot be stressed enough. In 1976 the Khumbu region became the Sagarmatha National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site. Everything must be carried or flown into the area. Even wood used for building cannot be cut from local trees. Sangye had to organise cargo helicopters to carry all the materials he used for all the projects he undertook. This also increased the cost substantially with each helicopter costing around 3,000 US dollars plus the porter charges to carry the goods from the Syangboche airstrip to Lawudo. Despite these challenges, new guest rooms, a new kitchen, major renovations and extensions to the existing buildings plus the construction of a library with a balcony overlooking the valley were all completed. The logistics of all of these projects are mind–boggling.
In late March 2015 a group of us accompanied Lama Zopa to Lawudo. Sangye and Ven. Ngawang Samten hosted everyone and there was a big opening ceremony for the new library building, with a procession of monks from a nearby monastery. On April 25th, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had just left Lawudo to return to Kathmandu when a major earthquake measuring 7.6 shook Nepal. No one in Lawudo or the surrounding villages died but most buildings and many stupas on the trails were damaged.At Lawudo the impact was severe. There were cracks in the gompa, the dining room roof fell down, the toilets collapsed, the stone walls of every building cracked open, and the new library where we had just had the opening ceremony was cracked with many stones fallen. Sangye immediately organized an ‘Earthquake Relief for Damage at Lawudo’ to help fund the repairs.
Another task that Lama Zopa gave his brother was to install a 22 feet-high Padmasambhava statue in the gompa at Lawudo. In the standing aspect of Sampa Lhundrup, it was to face eastwards and be surrounded by seven life sized manifestations, all cast in copper with gold finishing. Sangye commissioned the statues from the skilled Sakya artisans of Patan down in the Kathmandu valley. On 27 June 2016 the statues were helicoptered into Mende, the hamlet closest to Lawudo. 35 Sherpas were needed simply to carry the main statue up the steep mountainside to Lawudo.
In May 2021 a pilgrimage to Lawudo was organized for Lama Zopa and a group of students. Sangye and Ven. Nyima Tashi spent months in Lawudo making sure all the building work was completed and the statues were ready to be consecrated. By then the covid pandemic was in its second year, and by May the Delta variant was claiming lives in Nepal and India. Once again Nepal went into a total lockdown and the visit to Lawudo was cancelled. Nevertheless Sangye and his team continued undaunted with their extensive programme of repairs and upgrades. These included introducing a damp course for the Lawudo cave, building a support wall behind the monastery building, and installing safer steps and walkways for the increasingly elderly Lawudo family.
Another extraordinary achievement from Sangye’s time as Lawudo director was to bring fresh running water to Lawudo and 38 other households in the valley. Anyone who has been to Lawudo will know what an extraordinary feat of engineering would be necessary for such a project. The water is piped at 1.7 litres per second from a height of 4500m through a pipe clamped to the vertical rock faces above. The pipeline was inaugurated in November 2019 and is making an incalculable contribution to the health and wellbeing of the local population and its livestock. The budget was millions of rupees, much of which was fundraised by Sangye.
Before dedicating his time to Lawudo, Sangye was a successful businessman, and was also involved in the trekking and tourism business. He lives in Chabhil not far from the Boudha stupa with his wife Nyima, his airline pilot son Pemba, and his daughter in law Sarita Chhetri and two grandchildren. His other three children are married and live in the UK and USA.
Please join us in rejoicing at the amazing contribution that Sangye has made to fulfilling Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s vision for Lawudo, and in making prayers for his health and long life.
Contributed by Frances Howland
3. Introducing Lhaktsung-La, Lawudo’s new cook
Lhaktsung-la, how did it come about that you decided to come to Lawudo and to give support to Ani Ngawang Samten?
First of all I know Lama Zopa Rinpoche, he is my favorite Lama, he is for me like a father. When I was six years old my father passed away and since I met Lama Zopa Rinpoche, I feel like he is a father for me.
When I had a small restaurant in Boudhanath, you, Ani Tsultrim, came often for lunch. You told me about Lawudo and showed me some pictures. I was very impressed by this place. In the middle of August, just before you left for Singapore, you told me that you phoned Anila Ngawang Samten and found out that she is now alone. That Sangmo, the previous cook, had left and that it was very, very hard for her to manage all alone. You were very sad and concerned and you asked if I knew someone who could go to Lawudo and help Anila. I was so sad to hear about the difficulty of Anila and immediately I had the wish to come with you to Lawudo when you returned from Singapore.
A few months before, Lama Zopa Rinpoche had said to me that it would be good to become a nun and to live at the Kopan nunnery. My plan was to go in October to the Kopan nunnery, but now I changed my plan. Ven. Sarah (Thresher), a very good friend of mine, wrote the same day to Lama Zopa Rinpoche and he immediately answered that the Mo came out very good for me to go to Lawudo. So I am very happy that we came together by jeep and walking up to Lawudo for taking care of Anila, Ajan, Norbu, Nyima and the cows.
It’s the first time that I am in Lawudo. I was born in India. After my father passed away we moved to Nepal, to Junbesi, near Thubten Choeling Monastery in Solo Khumbu. We lived together with my grandparents. At that time the life was not easy. I had no education, I was only working, working, working. When I was 15 years old, I could go to school.
I have two sons. The elder son (20 years) has been living with his father and the younger one with me. Now the younger son (12 years) has become a monk and is at Kopan Monastery. He’s already been there for 6 months and is very happy. So now I am free and that’s why I could come to Lawudo.
I already had the plan to sell my restaurant and to become a nun. Many friends are calling me and asking: “Why did you go there? When do you come back?” But I like to be in a peaceful place, quiet and calm, and to focus on Dharma. I am happy to take care of Anila, Ajan and Lawudo. I am really very happy to be here and Anila is so loving to me and very grateful that I am here.
ALSO: A big THANK YOU to Sangmo, the previous cook:
This is an opportunity to thank from the depth of our heart to Sangmo, who offered service to Ani Ngawang Samten and Lawudo for most of the twelve previous years. She was an amazing help and support in the way she took care of the whole Lawudo family, the gompa and the retreaters and the cows, especially when Anila was away. A BIG, BIG THANK YOU! Now you are with your sister who just got a baby and your plans are to go to Thame to work in a lodge. We wish you all the best and hopefully we will see you again in Lawudo soon.
Contributed by Ven. Tsultrim
4. The Lawudo Chronicles
The aim of The Lawudo Chronicles (TLC) is to gather together stories and images from the Lawudo family, and from past visitors and students who have spent time at Lawudo, while we are still alive to share them. May these stories bring blessings, inspiration and benefit to many and fulfill Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s holy wishes for Lawudo. Please contact TLC at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to contribute a story.
NICK RIBUSH: MY FIRST TRIP TO LAWUDO, SUMMER 1973
I first got to Kopan in October, 1972, just in time for the third Kopan meditation course. I knew practically nothing about Tibetan Buddhism when I arrived; by the end, I knew quite a bit more, but not enough, so I decided to stay on. I’ve told the story of why I was there before, so no need to repeat it here. After that course my girlfriend Marie, now Yeshe Khadro, and I worked with Lama Zopa Rinpoche to revise the course textbook, The Wishfulfilling Golden Sun, and prepare Kopan for the fourth course, to be held March-April, 1973.
By mid-April the main activity at Kopan had shifted to getting the approximately thirty monks to Lawudo for the summer. Lawudo in summer was a big deal for several reasons. First, the logistics themselves were a bit of a challenge. The small monks had to be flown up to the small town of Lukla, from where they’d walk. The older monks had to walk the whole way, which took the best part of two weeks. Much of the food for the five-month stay also had to be flown up: rice, dal, flour, powdered milk, sugar and so forth. What you could get up in Lawudo was pretty much limited to potatoes and tsampa.
Second, the visits of the Lawudo Lama were always highly anticipated events. Of course, if Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s mother and sister were to have their way, he would reside there permanently, and I always felt that they blamed Lama Yeshe a little for Rinpoche’s not being there year-round. I could understand their view, but they really had no idea of how beneficial Rinpoche was beyond the small pond of Lawudo rescuing sentient beings from the vast ocean of samsara. And that was just then. They had no idea of what was to come. None of us did.
For me, the big deal was that Marie (a nurse) and I (a doctor) were going up for the summer, too. Our plan was to take a couple of trunks of medicines up and set up a clinic in the Lawudo gompa to give the locals a few months of rudimentary medical treatment. We would also teach the boys English. So, while the monks busied themselves buying provisions and sewing them into sacks or filling countless old biscuit tins with flour and rice, we did our own food shopping and organized the many medicines that our many friends who came to the fourth course had brought from Australia and generally got ready for the exciting summer ahead.
This also meant paying farewell visits to those of our Australian friends who were still there. One day I went down to Kathmandu and dropped in to the Thamel guesthouse where some of them were staying. Gil and Maz Richards were there, along with Dugald Sinclair and Steve Edwards. I found them bright yellow, sitting on their beds passing round a joint. They offered me a hit. I hesitated; these guys had hepatitis.
Attachment battled with logic and, as usual, won the debate. After all, I argued to myself, if they were yellow, it meant they were in the post-infection stage. They were suffering the ill effects of liver damage caused by the hepatitis-A virus, but the virus itself had gone from their systems. That was the theory. Also, these were my friends; they had come all this way at my behest. It was only right that I have a social smoke with them. Craving-desire, as Lama liked to call it, is really good at what it does. I took a few big hits, said goodbye and took off to the pharmacies on New Road, where I had set up deals with the pharmacists, whereby they let me exchange duplicate medicines for ones I didn’t have, as long as they finished ahead on the transaction.
GETTING TO LUKLA
Around this time, Lama Yeshe returned from Thubten Chöling Monastery, near Junbesi, where he had gone to pay a visit to Zina Rachevsky (who had helped the Lamas find and establish Kopan and whose friends had helped fund the building of the Lawudo Gompa). Zina had been in retreat there for the past year or so. This would be the last time Lama would see her, as she died there a few months later. The older monks had already set off on foot and the food was packed, ready to go. The only remaining hurdle was getting everybody and everything to Lukla.
As readers of the Lawudo newsletter will know, Lukla is a small Sherpa village perched on the side of a mountain about nine thousand feet above sea level, overlooking the Dudh Kosi (Milk River, so-called because its ceaseless churning over rocks keeps it permanently white). From Lukla, it’s a two-day walk up to the town of Namche Bazaar, which lies at an altitude of twelve thousand feet above sea level. Namche is at the junction of two valleys. The one that goes northeast up to the right takes you to Thangboche Monastery, the famous monastery on the way to Everest base camp, and then on up to the big mountain itself. The Dudh Kosi courses through the one that runs northeast to the left. Lawudo is a few hours’ walk up this one and Thami, where Rinpoche was born, about an hour further on.
The plan, then, was for the young monks to fly to Lukla and walk up to Lawudo. Most of them came from the area between Namche and Thami and some planned to visit their families for a couple of days before going on to the monastery, which lay at fourteen thousand feet, some three thousand feet above the Dudh Kosi, a silver ribbon way below. Helly Pelaez, who, in the meantime, three days after Suzanne Lee, an English woman who was also an alumna of the third course, had been ordained in Dharamsala by Geshe Rabten as the nun, Jampa Chökyi (now Jamyang Wangmo), would fly up with the boys. Marie, Gareth Sparham, Dick Robinson and Merideth Hassan, who had gotten together after the course, would go a few days later. The Lamas, all the stuff and I would go last.
The plane you got to Lukla was either the Canadian-made, twin-engine Twin Otter, which held about sixteen people and needed relatively good weather, or the Swiss-made, single engine Pilatus Porter, which held about six and could handle slightly less ideal conditions. In those days, most of the pilots were Swiss. A look at the Lukla airstrip immediately made the term “short take-off and landing” graphically clear. It was a tiny sliver of lawn on the side of a huge mountain and seeing it from the air the first time could induce the thought, “Please turn around and go back to Kathmandu.” Of course, the best part of its being on the side of a mountain was that you could land uphill and take off down, which considerably reduced the runway’s need for length. A crumpled Pilatus by the side of the strip, which remained there most of the ’70s, didn’t do much to inspire confidence either. My insurance was to be flying with the Lamas.
FLYING WITH THE LAMAS
The boys and the Injis gone, it remained for the Lamas, the food and me to go. Here was the other catch. At that time of year, you never knew if you’d get out or not. It depended on the weather, monsoon clouds were starting to gather, and if the mountain was swathed in fog, there was no way a plane could land. The bottom line was that the pilot should at least be able to see the sliver. However, the only way to find out if there’d be a flight was to go to the airport and wait for the weather report. Sometimes this came by radio, sometimes from other pilots returning after a successful trip, sometimes from other pilots returning from an unsuccessful trip, their little planes disgorging a grumbling group of disgruntled passengers. You took your chances; we took ours.
Since it was a lot closer to the airport than Kopan, we had stockpiled the provisions at Mummy Max’s old Rana mansion in Tinchuli. Early one late-May morning, Steve Malasky (Pearl), who usually drove the gray van the gompa had inherited from Ngawang Khedrub’s father, and I went down and loaded it up with the several hundred kilos’ worth of sacks and biscuit tins and headed for Tribhuvan. Mummy drove the Lamas direct from Kopan in her Jeep. We got to the airport and unloaded our mountain of stuff. We had two Pilatus Porters booked, one for the food, the other for whatever wouldn’t fit into the first, the Lamas and me. It did not look good. No planes had been able to go that day; Lukla was completely fogged in. But, you never knew; you had to wait. Lama knew, however. After an hour or so he decided we’d wait no longer and he, Rinpoche and Mummy went back to Kopan. Steve and I reloaded the van and took everything back to the mansion.
Talk about Groundhog Day. The following morning we replayed yesterday’s experience, with one notable exception. This time when it became clear that it was too cloudy to go, Lama decided that schlepping the stuff back and forth was a waste of energy and that we should leave it at the airport. As it was mainly my energy that was being wasted, I readily agreed, but then came the punch line. There was nowhere safe to store everything at the airport; someone would have to stay with it. That someone would be me. With that, they all turned around and left.
I surveyed the situation. There was a huge pile of food against the terminal wall and Nepalis everywhere, eager to get their hands on it. I wouldn’t be able to let it out of my sight. It was going to be a long twenty hours. I had one fallback. Before leaving Kopan, Harry Luke had kindly offered me his camera so that I could record the forthcoming adventure on film. At the last minute he handed me something else—a small piece of soft black hash. “Next full moon,” he said dreamily, “Sit out on the mountain, smoke this and think of me.” Stuff the full moon. This was an emergency. Anyway, there was enough to keep me entertained until the next day and still have some left over for full moon. As the crowd thinned and people got used to this strange white person sitting on the floor keeping an eye on this skandha of food, I was unobtrusively able to roll and smoke a joint or three as day moved into night and in the end, I was completely alone.
Bright and early the next day—a lot brighter and earlier than I felt—the Lamas and Mummy showed up again. This time we were in luck and able to go. Coolies loaded up first one plane, then the other and finally, the Lamas and I got in. We took off. I looked at Lama. He had this intense look of concentration on his face and his lips were moving silently faster than I’d ever seen. He was saying mantras, nineteen to the dozen. I relaxed. We were as good as there.
Sure enough, after an amazing flight along one valley, then another, huge mountains towering menacingly to either side, there it was, the Lukla strip. Despite Lama’s mantras, my heart was uncontrollably in my mouth. He’s not really going to touch down there? But he’d done it before and he did it again and we were on the ground. I recalled the words of an English boys’ magazine hero: “Ah, terra firma. The more firmer, the less terror.”
TREKKING WITH THE LAMAS
Lukla. What a scene. There was that crumpled plane, of course, a few grotty Sherpa huts and a sea of eager porters, all vying furiously to carry impossibly heavy loads up sheer mountains in severely oxygen-depleted air for basically nothing. I felt more fortunate than ever. Now a Lama Yeshe that I hadn’t seen before appeared. This was the one who bartered. He was pointing at this Sherpa and that, yelling some kind of mixture of Hindi, Nepali and Tibetan that probably most of them couldn’t understand either, but miraculously, within about ten minutes, all our stuff was strapped to people’s backs or in those baskets they carried by headband, and, after the Lamas finished the tea that was offered them, we were off to Lawudo.
The Sherpas knew exactly where they were going, so they barreled on ahead, while we strolled leisurely along the path. And what a breathtakingly beautiful walk it was. The first day was basically along the flat, rhododendron-covered mountains rising steeply to either side, the swirling waters of the Dudh Khosi, first to one side, then, as we crossed one of the several small, rickety bridges that spanned it, to the other. Everywhere, sometimes on a huge boulder in the middle of the churning stream, were rocks of all sizes with the ubiquitous mantra carved into them: om mani padme hum.
Lama Yeshe strode out briskly in front, Lama Zopa following a short distance behind, walking more slowly, meditatively, delicately, the same way he seemed to do everything. I tripped along happily just behind Rinpoche, stopping every now and then to put Harry’s camera through its paces, asking the Lamas to pause occasionally, on a bridge or beside a mani wall, while I snapped away. I savor the memory of that walk to this day. As simple as it was, it was a wonderful experience.
After a couple of hours, we stopped at a teashop for lunch and put away some pak, pronounced “puck” and to some, perhaps as tasty. I loved it. You put some tsampa in a bowl and slowly added delicious, buttery Tibetan tea, slowly working it with your fingers into the roast barley flour until it became stickier and stickier, then drier and drier until it formed a firm ball. My efforts at this in those days produced much merriment in the Lamas and probably still would. Tibetans are born into the art, if not the necessity, of making pak; Westerners rarely acquire the skill.
We continued on our way, sometimes catching up to our porters as they stopped for a smoke and a rest, passing them briefly, until they overtook us once more, racing along on their tight, wiry legs and huge, calloused bare feet, their splayed toes gripping the rocks like fingers as they sped over them until they were again out of sight.
An hour or so later, Rinpoche pointed out to me the cave of Gomchen Rinpoche, a well-known local meditator said to be the incarnation of the famous fifteenth century Tibetan scholar, poet, composer, doctor and saint, Tangtong Gyalpo, who invented iron bridges in Tibet. It was way up the mountain to the left, but all I could see were many multicolored prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
By late afternoon we had reached a place called Monjo, where we would stay the night. The people there seemed to know the Lamas well, and Rinpoche especially was treated as a highly honored guest, although typically, he played it down as much as he could and always deferred to Lama. Being with them, I, too, received special treatment, which I tried to play down the way Rinpoche did, but it was like a monkey trying to imitate a human.
I had eaten with the Lamas many times before, and it was an oft-repeated scene, almost a game. First of all, Rinpoche was really thin and had what looked like an anorexic’s approach to food. The less he ate, the more he appeared to like it. This seemed to drive Lama to distraction, and he’d fuss over Rinpoche like a mother over an intransigent child. “Kusho, chö-na,” he would bark, insisting that Rinpoche eat. “Nos, nos,” Rinpoche would mutter in assent, pushing food about his plate and taking only an occasional bite. Rinpoche would also take ages to offer his food before eating; many a nice hot meal was well cold by the time Rinpoche started eating. Lama would never wait, of course, and would sometimes have finished his meal before Rinpoche had even started his, punctuating his mouthfuls with muffled exhortations for Rinpoche to eat. Ever the dutiful disciple, I, in the meantime, could never start before my guru, but while Rinpoche was creating skies of merit with his protracted offering, I was creating the cause for countless rebirths in the hells or as a preta by getting alternately irritated by the wait or overcome by greed.
We were up early the next morning to find that our porters had already left. The honor system amazed me. We had what to the Sherpas would have been a fortune in supplies but we barely had to keep an eye on them. I guess if you ripped anybody off even once, everybody knew who you were and you’d never work in that town again. They also probably knew a little about karma.
It was two hours to the beginning of the steep path that took you up two thousand feet into Namche, another beautiful walk. As we wound our way along the flat, I heard a bit of a commotion coming towards us up ahead but couldn’t see anything. Suddenly, over a rise, came a bunch of disheveled Sherpas, ruddy-faced, reeking of alcohol, laughing and falling about. As soon as they saw the Lawudo Lama they fell silent and, looking extremely sheepish, bowed their heads low to receive his blessing as they passed. Rinpoche gave each of them a perfunctory tap on the head and they continued quietly on their way. Noticing his apparent look of disdain, I asked him, piously, “Rinpoche, they’re supposed to be Buddhists. Why do they drink like that?” “Oh, it’s just craving,” Rinpoche replied, and moved off ahead of me once more.
I stopped for a moment, my hand automatically going to my breast pocket, where I’d secreted what was left of Harry’s hash after its airport experience. “It’s just craving,” I thought to myself, and in a flash of wisdom, I took it out and flung it into the bushes. A pang of regret later and I’d caught up with Lama and Rinpoche and we continued on as if nothing had happened. Actually, not much had, but I had this feeling that for a moment, perhaps, I’d practiced a bit of Dharma.
We look forward to sharing the next instalment of Nick’s Lawudo Chronicles in our next newsletter.
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With every good wish from the LoveLawudo team: Ven Katy, Ven Khadro, Alison, Capucine, Lhamo, Nico and Violette. An international group of volunteers established in 2017 to offer support to Lawudo Gompa.