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Dear Love Lawudo friends,

Greetings on the holy day of Saka Dawa! Please enjoy this opportunity to re-connect with the highest and most remote retreat centre in the FPMT.

This newsletter is in two parts:

  • Latest news from Lawudo following a visit in April/May of this year.

  • The second instalment of Judy Weitzner’s extraordinary and historic account of a very early visit to Solu Khumbu in 1969 with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Latest news from Lawudo - a photo story

Photos © Alison Murdoch.

Lawudo is open again! We’re glad to announce that all its residents have avoided Covid-19 and from early Spring have been welcoming a steady stream of visitors. Last month Love Lawudo team member Alison Murdoch had the enormous good fortune to make a three-week visit. Here’s a round up of recent news:

THE LAWUDO FAMILY

Venerables Ashang, Nyima Tashi and Anila

The current residents of Lawudo consist of Anila Ngawang Samten, (who celebrated her 80th birthday on 3rd May 2022), Ven Ashang (Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s 98-year old uncle), Ven Tsultrim Norbu (one of the early Kopan monks), Nyima (who mainly takes care of the cows) and Sangmo, who does an amazing job of cooking, cleaning and washing for everyone. Lawudo is also home to four adult cows, one youngster, and a baby cow that was born on 14th May.

WATER!

Polytunnel

For the past three years, Lawudo has enjoyed its first reliable running water system, bringing to an end the backbreaking daily task of carrying water containers up the narrow path from Genukpa. The new water source is a spring located at 4500m altitude on the mountain above and the complex and costly feat of engineering was organized by director Sangay Sherpa. It supplies 39 households in the valley – a total of 130 people and 205 animals - making a huge contribution to health, nutrition and quality of life. There is now a tap and sink in the Lawudo kitchen, a washing area for clothes, a tiled bathroom, two irrigated poly tunnels providing daily vegetables for residents and visitors, and regular water for the cows.

NYUNG NAYS

Many past visitors will have powerful memories of the Nyung Nas that are traditionally hosted by Lawudo Gompa during Saka Dawa – whether the wake-up call of the long horns just before dawn, the sound of drums and conch shells, or the buzz of Sherpa women cooking sociably together in the kitchen. During the pandemic these were relocated to the Thamo Nunnery, but for Saka Dawa 2022, a group of Thamo nuns will be joining Switzerland’s Ven Tsultrim for two Nyung Nas at Lawudo again.

PRAYER FLAGS

On 4 May, Ven Nyima Tashi led a team of local Sherpas and enthusiastic but unskilled Lawudo visitors in replacing the tall prayer flag in the courtyard and erecting four new flag posts between the gompa and prayer wheel house. Two of the Sherpas also scaled the front of the gompa to replace all the banners on the façade. It was a photographer’s dream: a rainbow of newly blessed silk fabrics rippling in a light breeze against the clear blue sky.

RECENT BUILDING PROJECTS

The Lawudo Lama’s stupa

Over the past ten years an enormous amount of building work has been successfully carried out at Lawudo, despite all the challenges and costs of securing the necessary materials and labour at such a high altitude. Many structures were damaged by the earthquake of 2015 and subsequently had to be strengthened or rebuilt, including a complete renovation of the Lawudo Lama’s stupa. There is now a new house, kitchen and toilet around the cave courtyard, ready for Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s next visit, and many of the retreat huts have been upgraded. Work has also been skillfully carried out at the cave to make it better ventilated and more spacious, yet without losing any of its magical atmosphere.

FUTURE BUILDING PROJECTS

In the middle of May, a few days of clear skies allowed a series of helicopters to deliver the building materials for a Kalachakra shrine building that will be located above the cave, next to Lama’s retreat house. It was impressive to watch how the pilots skillfully maneuvered the huge wooden boards, metal frames and glazed windows which hung on long ropes below their tiny helicopters onto the landing field at Mende. During the following week, nearly everyone was recruited to help carry the building parts up the steep mountainside to Lawudo – although some were too heavy for Western visitors to even lift off the ground.

PROJECTS IN THE VALLEY

Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s birthplace, Thame

In addition to the extraordinary replica of the Boudha stupa in the valley that leads from Thame to Tibet, which was organized by Kopan’s Ven Tenpa Choden, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s birthplace in Thame has been upgraded into an inspiring pilgrimage site and a prayer wheel house is nearly completed next door. Rinpoche has also provided sponsorship for the centuries-old monastery at Thame and to initiatives such as the cascade of giant prayer wheels at Namche Bazaar.

The Lawudo Chronicles

Judy Weitzner, 1969, Part 2

(for Part 1, see Newsletter #11. Some of Judy’s story can also be found in Big Love, the biography of Lama Yeshe published by the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive)

Photo © Judy Weitzner.

Some Sherpas approached us wanting jobs as porters and Prinz hired some of them to carry our gear for the trek. They loaded our things into large baskets which they carried on their backs supported by a strap around their forehead. We regrouped at a tea house in Lukla and then began a really pleasant, fairly flat walk up a beautiful valley. I was lulled into thinking that trekking wasn't so tough after all and that I had been over-worried about preparations.

We spent the night in a Sherpa home, a cousin of our guide, Ang Dorje. I had to crouch to get through the very low doorway. I was ushered inside and offered a seat along the wall. Slowly patterns of white dots began dancing before my eyes. At first I couldn’t figure out whether it was a visual hallucination, but as my eyes became used to the dark I could see that they were drawn on the black walls and shelves. Next I began to make out the glint of handmade metal pots arranged in order of size. As they came into view I marveled at their beauty and craftsmanship. In Kathmandu they sold ugly aluminum pots. These Sherpa pots were amazing. There was a hearth in the corner where the woman of the house presided over the fire and the cooking. The few shafts of light revealed a smoke filled room. I looked up above the fire for a chimney. There was none--just a small opening. All the rafters were thick with black soot which had a dark iridescence when it caught the light. It must have taken decades to build this thick layer. I thought to myself, “In Nepal, they haven’t invented the chimney, yet”.

Later, when Prinz arrived, he failed to duck low enough as he entered, and hit his head on the overhead beam. He was reeling at the blow. When I went to help, he explained the problem was that when he had had brain surgery for a tumor on his brain before coming to Nepal, the doctors had not replaced the section of skull that had been removed. His beret disguised the fact that there was only skin and no skull . He had taken a direct blow to the brain. I was worried about him, but he was stoic and determined to go on. Really, there was no other choice.

That evening, we sat around the fire with the family. I was already beginning to fall in love with the kind and generous Sherpas. Usually, there was someone sitting and spinning wool. Someone else might be weaving on a loom in the corner, or outside in the sunshine. In the US I had been a part of the counter culture which valued self-sufficiency and hand-crafted items. Many of my friends were “back to the land hippies”, experimenting with gardening, carpentry and alternative forms of society. We wanted to rely less on manufactured goods. We wanted to live in communities rather than the isolated nuclear family model of the previous generation. Sherpa society seemed to be living our ideal. I was smitten.

For dinner, our cook prepared some of the food we had brought along. Our Sherpa mother, (Ama) cooked a huge pot of small potatoes. I watched in fascination as the family pinched the cooked potatoes, removing the skin with one gesture and popped the whole peeled potato into their mouths. They shared some potatoes with us and I tried, in vain, to master their technique. I got nowhere and had to painstakingly peel my potatoes in little strips. To this day, I think of the Sherpas when I cook potatoes and wish I knew their magic peeling mudra.

I thought that this was the perfect time to offer my gift. I had heard about the problem of goiters in the mountains. I also knew that salt was a valuable commodity and Sherpas had been involved in the salt trade with Tibet. The American commissary stocked packages of miniature Leslie salt shakers--iodized, of course. I had purchased several to offer to our hosts along the way. Thinking the family would enjoy the salt on their potatoes. I showed them how to twist the lid and sprinkle the salt out. Once they saw that it was salt, they opened the top to the pouring spout, held the shaker above their open mouths, poured, and swallowed the contents in one gulp. Apparently, they really liked salt, but not exactly as a condiment.

The next morning I saw a beautiful woman with a huge goiter. “Why couldn’t USAID do something practical that would change peoples lives for a small investment in iodized salt,” I thought. Next I saw an elderly woman lying on the ground at the side of the path. She was too weak to sit up and was obviously quite ill. Nonetheless, she put her hands together in a namaste greeting and flashed a big smile. I summoned our guide to translate. I said that I was concerned about her and I thought she should go to the hospital. She protested that she couldn’t walk and she didn’t want to go. Besides, she needed to look after her grandchildren. Apparently, someone would carry her outside each morning so she could watch the kids. I told her family that I would hire someone to carry her to the hospital, but she said “no” to that, too. I reluctantly left her behind, but reflected on the fact that despite her extreme disability, she had a valued job to do and that it mattered more to her than the possibility of getting medical help. She was supremely calm and content with things as they were.

The next Himalayan moment came when it was time to cross the river on what the Sherpas would call a bridge. What I saw were some ropes suspended across the river with some boards cradled along the center. There were gaps between some of the boards. I walked a few steps out and discovered that my footsteps caused an undulating rhythm which combined with the swaying made calculating where I put my foot down very challenging. One misstep, and it was a long way down to the river. I rejected offers of help because I knew I didn’t want anyone else on the “bridge” with me. When someone else was walking on the boards, they set up their own unpredictable undulation, making it even more difficult to gauge and direct my next step. The Sherpas noticed my trepidation and told me that when Sir Edmund Hillary built bridges, they stayed in place, but when Sherpas built bridges (here they made a swooping gesture) they washed down the river. Their light-hearted humor only made things worse for me. Holding the waist high rope as I went, I made it across. I failed to inquire whether I had crossed a Sherpa bridge or a Hillary bridge,

We meandered along the river on an easy trail for quite awhile. We were strung quite far apart down the trail. That day, I began to realize that one of the secrets to trekking was to walk at my own pace - not trying to keep up or slow down to walk with someone else. Establishing a rhythm of breathing and walking and paying attention made all the difference.

Max and I were together, moving at the same speed. Suddenly the trail seemed to come to a dead end right at the base of a mountain. There was a pathway heading upward quite steeply, but I couldn't imagine that it was our trail. I assured Max that we did not have to climb, while I looked around for the proper route, but couldn't find it. We decided to wait until the Sherpas came along to show us the way. When they came, they pointed upward at the very steep trail. Yes, that was the trail and we were going to have to walk up it. I had completely convinced myself and Max that the upward trail couldn't possibly be the right one. We had no choice but to start climbing. Not only was it “up”, it was 2,000 feet up, taking us to over 11,000 feet.

Without trekking guides or maps, we had no idea we were ascending so quickly, without acclimatizing. Later on much more was known about altitude sickness.

Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa helped us along. Whenever we needed a boost, Lama seemed to make an appearance to help. Several times when he offered a hand, I wondered, “How did he get in front of us? I thought for sure he was behind.”

I was nearing utter exhaustion when I came upon a Sherpa serving the Lamas hot tea at the side of the trail. He had hiked down from Lama Zopa’s village to greet him. We all sat around and had tea on the side of the mountain. Slowly, I was getting the picture that Lama Zopa was an important person and that the Sherpas were very happy that he was coming to visit. I heard them relay the message up the trail. “Lama’s coming. Lama’s coming” They took the trouble to walk for a day to give the Lamas tea. . I had thought that we were bringing the Lamas along on our trek, but I was beginning to realize that we were beneficiaries of being in their company. Another thing was becoming clear to me, the Sherpas had their own method of tracking people in the mountains. When you met someone on the trail they would ask “where are you going” and “where are you coming from.” Lama Zopa’s arrival had already been telegraphed to his village by this word of mouth method.

When we reached Namche Bazaar, Max and I just sat down on the trail overlooking the famous market town of the Himalayas. I was envying the big birds who were effortlessly gliding on the updrafts. I wanted to trade places with them and soar rather than trudge along. I was tired and crabby. I needed to muster the energy to walk to the guesthouse where we would spend the night. It had turned cold and I was bundled up in my down jacket, but still freezing. Lama Yeshe came along and sat down next to us, admiring the view. Lama held my cold hands in his, trying to warm them up. Suddenly, I was jarred out of my self-pity and noticed what was going on. Here I was, dressed in layers and down and still cold. Lama had his sleeveless shirt and light robes, yet he was warm as toast and trying to take care of me. I asked him, "Lama, how can you do this? How is it that you are warm and I am cold even in my down jacket?" He said, "Oh, it is easy dear. In Tibet we learn this meditation. It keeps us warm. And it is very necessary in cold weather!" Having been plagued by the cold my whole life, I thought, whatever it is, I want to learn it. (Later, when I read Lama Govinda’s “Way of the White Clouds” I would understand that he was talking about Tumo meditation. He did teach it in the last teaching I would receive from him at Vajrapani when he taught "The Six Yogas of Naropa".)

The next thing that happened is really hard to believe, but, I swear it happened. Lama was carrying a canteen with cold tea. (Each night, we would fill our canteens with the leftover tea from the evening before to drink during the day.) He asked if I would like something to drink. I said, “yes, I would, but not tea”. “What would you like, dear?”, he asked. I grumpily replied, "a Coca-cola" At the time there was no Coke in Nepal and there was no way he could have even known what I was talking about. The remark was meant as a joke for Max. He poured some liquid out of the canteen and gave it to Max. Max said, ”Look, Judy, it’s CocaCola. Taste it.” I held it up and looked. It was carbonated. Bubbles were moving up the side of the cup. I tasted it. It was Coke. We all laughed and laughed and I completely forgot about my exhaustion and my bad mood. It was there on that mountainside that I realized that Lama Yeshe was totally amazing and powerful.

The final part of Judy’s story will be published in the next Love Lawudo newsletter.

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May Lawudo flourish and bring peace and happiness to the world.

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.