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Dear Love Lawudo friends,

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

We have two treasures to share in this bumper newsletter:

  • A Lawudo story from Elea Redel, dear friend to many of us, who passed away in January of this year. Elea shared this story at Institut Vajrayogini in July 2019 and we’re dedicating it to her swift and fortunate rebirth in a form where she can help and inspire even more people.

  • Judy Weitzner’s extraordinary and historic account of a very early visit to Solu Khumbu with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 1969. This was the first time that Rinpoche had returned to Lawudo since he left for Tibet as a young boy and the group included Zina Rachevsky and Max Mathews. Illustrated with rare archival photos from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive, it will be the first of three instalments.

In addition, we’re happy to confirm that the Omicron peak seems to have passed in Nepal. Earlier this month there were around 100 new reported cases per 24 hours, compared with more than 12,000 in January. As a result, all Covid-19 controls in Kathmandu Valley have been lifted. Fully vaccinated international travellers can enter the country simply by showing their vaccination record, and those who are unvaccinated or have only had one jab need to produce a negative RT_PCR test report not older than 72 hours. For the purpose of contact tracing, all travellers are required to fill out a form at the point of entry. These travel protocols supersede all previous rules, including the quarantine requirement.

The Lawudo Chronicles

Elea Redel

Taken from an interview with Elea conducted at Institut Vajrayogini, France on 7th July 2019. Translated from the French and edited by Simone Fry.

Introduction (from Simone)

When I was in Lawudo, sometimes Ani Ngawang Samten spoke about Elea. She spoke about a French lady who had once visited many years ago, but who was now in a wheelchair. Elea had given a small wooden bowl to Anila during her trip to Lawudo in the Spring of 1980. This small bowl had broken many years ago, but Anila kept it in a safe place, which she brought out from hiding every now and then for others to see. This to me reflects the fondness that Anila felt for Elea.

Ani Ngawang Samten

Anila came here after she’d been to Osel Ling. I had brought back some Japanese bowls from Japan and gave her one when I was in Lawudo in 1980. They weren’t very expensive, but I liked those bowls. She still remembers the bowl and kept it he he he! When she was here, I wanted to buy her another bowl because it was broken, so we went to the supermarket. While we were there, I asked her what she needed for her kitchen and she said she needed something for sharpening knives. But when she found out how expensive it was in Nepalese rupees, she didn’t want it, “Oh no no I don’t want, I don’t want, it’s too expensive!” I told her that it wasn’t that expensive for us, but she never wanted me to buy it. It’s incredible. After that I said to myself that I wouldn’t tell her the price.

It makes me think about the time when she went into Intermarché. When you arrive, the doors open on their own. She was like, “Oh, but what’s this?” She had never seen doors that opened on their own before and was afraid to try. She was completely blown away. That was a long time ago in France, here in Lavaur.

Anila is very friendly. She’s quite strong willed but is very friendly with the Westerners who visit Lawudo. Anyway, she was always like that with me.

First Trip to the Himalayas

I’d already been to the Himalayas in 1977, but I didn’t know about Lawudo at the time. I walked all the way from Kathmandu as there was no bus to Jumbesi. There was nothing. I went there before I knew Kopan, and before I knew Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. If I had heard of Lawudo, maybe I would have gone there, because I went to Namche Bazaar and then above near the glaciers, near Everest. I went to Thengboche, a Nyingmapa monastery, during the Mani Rimdu festival. I walked back down on foot and always stayed in the monasteries. There was a Tibetan Nyingmapa Lama from Boudhanath who had given me a recommendation letter. So my friend and I stayed in the Nyingmapa monasteries, often on the floor!

It’s funny, because I always wanted to visit Kopan. I had found a book about it in a hotel and thought that I should go and see those Lamas. I lived in Kathmandu and I don’t know why, but when I went to Boudhanath I never managed to go all the way up there. At the time, there weren’t all the houses that there are now. There was a village, but it was spread out. And, there were these little hills and often we went to “space out” on a hill, you see. Then, one day I said, “Right that’s enough, if can’t even go up there (it’s silly), I’m going to stop at the first monastery I see,” and the first big monastery I came to was Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s White Gompa. I went inside, but there was no one, so I climbed up some steps and saw a monk. He asked me if I was looking for anything and I said, “Yes, I’d like to know what the Buddha said.” I didn’t know it then, but I’d bumped into Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. He still remembered me twenty years later!

A Little Story: Lama’s advice

In May/June 1980 Lama Zopa Rinpoche went to Lawudo to do the Nyung Näs with the Sangha (from Kari Gompa) for Saka Dawa. It was then that I offered the bowl to Anila. I know Charok Lama was there and Merry didn’t have her cave yet. We ate a lot of potatoes. I had bought some cheese, as I knew it wouldn’t be easy in Lawudo. But my bag got lost, because this time I flew to Lukla. So, here’s a little story about that:

When I was at Kopan, Lama Yeshe was walking around the garden and he said to me, “What are you doing now?” And I told him I was going to Lawudo and he said, “Oh yes that’s good, you go by foot. It’s good, you can meditate while you walk. There’s a lot of space, it’s good for the mind.” But I told Lama I was tired and that I’d already done it once before. And he said to me, “It’s better to go by foot.” But I didn’t listen, and as I had a bit of money, I took the plane to Lukla. However, when I arrived at Lukla my rucksack didn’t arrive with me. I waited for a bit at Lukla and after a while they told me that they still hadn’t found it. But I was going to do Nyung näs. It was cold at night. I was wearing a chuba and only had my small handbag with me. So I used my return ticket to go back to Kathmandu.

After I got back to Kathmandu I went back to the house where I lived with my friends and decided that the next day, I would go to Nepal Airlines so they could give me another plane ticket. I also needed to get another rucksack with a sleeping bag and warm clothes. But they wouldn’t give me a new plane ticket. I ended up going to the director who wouldn’t give me another one either. He just gave me a hundred rupees so I could buy a toothbrush and towel. I had nothing. I’ve travelled a lot and that was the first time in my life that I had put all my money in a safe, at Kopan. I thought I wouldn’t need any money in the mountains. The following day a friend of mine came down from Kopan and told me that they had been robbed, and they’d broken into the safe! I had no more money! Nothing left at all except for what was on me and that was it. No money, no papers, nothing! So, I returned to Nepal Airlines and told them, “Ok that’s enough, you need to give me another ticket, so that I can at least go to Lawudo.” And then they saw in the newspaper that Kopan had been robbed. Finally, the director of Nepal Airlines said he would give me a new ticket because of that. I flew back up with another rucksack, and some things that someone had lent me, and finally arrived at Lawudo.

Lawudo at Last

Rinpoche was right in front of the Gompa in the middle of arranging the flowers on the altar for the Nyung Näs, as they were going to start the next day. “Did you have a good journey? Do you have a sleeping bag?” Rinpoche asked. I told Rinpoche that I did, because I’d been back to Kathmandu. Rinpoche added, “That’s one less karma.” What karma that would be, quite honestly I don’t know!

We did about eight Nyung Näs¹. I slept above the Gompa. During the daytime it was warm and at night it was very cold. I have a few images that come back to me. At one point I felt sick. I went outside and sat on the temple stairs and thought, “That’s it, I’m going to die here!” He he he! With the Nyung Näs and the altitude I felt very rough, my head was spinning. I was young, about 31 years old. During the breaks the nuns chanted Twenty One Taras while we went to lie down. We got up very early in the morning because we did four sessions a day. Oh yes, the sessions seemed to last a long time!

I can’t really remember who was there². It’s funny, 1980 is a long time ago, almost forty years! There were quite a few Westerners though. During that period everyone would meet in places like Bodhgaya, so I don’t know if they were at Lawudo as well. They were most probably there after a Kopan course. Amala was also there. She wasn’t exactly like her daughter, but the same kind of style. Amala was a real Sherpa. I liked her, she was cool.

That whole period, for us old ones, someone recently said, “we’ll never find that again.” Never. We could spend time with the Lamas - they weren’t busy like they are now. There were a lot of disciples, but not as many as now. If you wanted to go and speak with them and ask them questions, it was easier. Those were very different times. It was like a big family, and then little by little it got bigger. Now it’s not the same if you want to see Rinpoche. And Rinpoche is not how he used to be. He was skinny and Lama was still here.

The Cheese

After going back down three weeks later, I rested for a while and then went to check about my rucksack. They still hadn’t found it. But then one day, about two weeks later, a man came to where I was living and told me that that they had found it! It had been left in Jumbesi and was in a corner somewhere. Most probably a pilot went from Jumbesi to Kathmandu. They must have eventually heard the story about my bag and thought that it belonged to the “mademoiselle.” So, I got my bag back with everything inside it, including the piece of cheese, which had turned blue! I think that my bag stank so much that they started to ask themselves what was in it. There you go! That was my trip to Lawudo!

1: Elea’s memory of Lawudo was quite vague as was the exact year she went (80/81). But seen as she, Ven René and Jigme all said they did (seven/) eight nyung näs then it must have been in 1980. In 1981 Lama Yeshe was at Lawudo with Lama Zopa and both Ven René and Jigme said that they did two nyung näs as Lama Yeshe said to meditate on the Eight Verses of Mind Training instead of the middle nyung nä. Ven René wrote, “I went up there both years 1980 and 1981. In 1980 we did nyung nes with Rinpoche and the Thame nuns. I walked up with Ven Charles and Anne Marie from Kathmandu, with the first part on a bus…. We did 8 nyung nas, as it was said that if we do that many in this life we will not be born in the lower realm next life.”

2: This is what Elea said about who was there, “…. Denis was there I remember…. there was Denis, Philippe Penot…. I ask myself who was there and who wasn’t. Maybe René was there one year. He was a friend of mine. Have you asked René? Maybe Lama Yeshe was there too. It’s possible. Ask René. René and Charles must have been there. You should ask if René was there. Maybe Jigme too. Jigme was at Merry’s, because I spoke with her and she said, “Oh Jigme is coming.”

The Lawudo Chronicles

Judy Weitzner

Introduction

In the Fall of 1968, Chip Weitzner and I took off on a round the world adventure. For months prior to leaving I brought home stacks of books from the Richmond Library, compiling a list of all the intriguing spots in various countries around the globe. I listed the sites on index cards for each country we might visit and compiled a manilla file. Some stops were clear. We knew we would stop in Hong Kong to see Chip’s sister, Janet who was a China scholar. We had promised a Peace Corps friend that we would visit him in Nepal. When it came time to purchase a round the world ticket for $1258.00, I discovered that we were allowed as many stopovers as we wanted, as long as we went forward and did not zig or zag excessively. Basically, I put every place on the ticket that we might want to visit, north of the equator. The ticket was well over an inch thick, and shocked every airline and travel agent who handled it. We stayed a week or two at each destination. Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Bali, India,...and, then, NEPAL!! “You must see the Himalayas before you die” was a quote that drove me.

Nepal in 1968 had not been open to tourists for very long. Most who came were mountaineers who stayed in the Yak and Yeti hotel. We stayed at the Panorama Hotel, a hang out for anthropologists in Kathmandu taking a break from their field studies and for various government aid workers.

Early on, a Peace Corps friend took us out for lunch at the Peace Restaurant, across from the American Embassy. It was reputedly a safe restaurant to eat in, and by our standards was very inexpensive. Hanging on the wall was a map of the flags of the world. I studied it from afar while eating my lunch. I spied a unique looking flag, a kind of double pennant that featured the sun and the moon on the two parts. I had always been attracted to the symbology of the sun and moon, so I announced to my friends that I saw a flag I liked and wanted to go to that country. I walked up to the map to find out that it was Nepal’s flag. I said, “Well, I guess I am where I want to be, then.”

We stayed in Nepal from November 1968 until June 1969. We secured teaching jobs at the American International School, which was a means of support as well as a long visa. I taught 3rd grade and Chip taught PE. Max Mathews was the beautiful and creative 4th grade teacher as well as the proprietor of Max’s Gallery. We soon became friends, spending much of our weekend time together. She would send her driver and car - a red, mile-long 1932 Hudson - to pick us up after we settled in a small house out in the countryside. Her “penthouse apartment” on the upper two floors and roof of a downtown building was a salon of sorts. She had lived and taught in many exotic places, and friends of hers would drop in on their travels through Kathmandu.

It was at Max’s that we met Zina, a friend of hers from Greece. Zina, who I heard was a Russian princess, a fashion model and a Hollywood starlet, was now a Tibetan Buddhist nun and dressed in maroon robes. Her entourage consisted of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa who were her Buddhist teachers. She had met them in Darjeeling at a monastery. Zina and the Lamas joined our coterie. We planned parties, dinners, picnics and adventures together in Max’s Hudson. Then another old friend dropped in on Max. It was Lorenz Prinz, a German photographer who had returned to Nepal to complete a book of photos of the Himalayas. It was Prinz who made the arrangements and guided our preparations for our famous life-changing trek in the Himalayas which I write about here.

Preparations for the trip to Solu Khumbu

Lorenz Prinz had returned to Nepal to complete work on a book of photographs of the Himalayas. He had driven overland from Germany with his assistant in a VW van loaded with darkroom equipment. He rented a small house near where we lived out in the country and set up a dark room. He invited me to come and watch him work a few times and I found the alchemy of photography fascinating. Prinz always wore a jaunty beret. He confided that he had had two brain surgeries to remove tumors. Both times it was predicted that he would never walk again and both times he retaught himself how to crawl and then to walk. He was determined to finish the work on his book. Fortunately, he had experience trekking in the Himalayas so we joined forces and he guided us in our preparations for our trip. Max and Chip and I were going on our Spring break from teaching at Lincoln School, so we couldn't afford the time it would take to hike all the way up to the Everest Region. Prinz made arrangements for chartering the airplanes. Zina and the Lamas wanted to come too. Lama Zopa had not returned to his birthplace since he was taken to Tibet as a young child. He wanted to see his family and return to his village. Zina had invited her French filmmaker friends to meet them in the mountains and film Zopa’s return to his village.

One of my students at Lincoln School was the daughter of a Canadian consultant to the Royal Air Nepal airlines. The family would occasionally invite me to dinner. He was totally appalled at what he found in Nepal. He told me that even the pilots don't wear seat belts, there were no functioning control towers, and the airplanes weren't regularly serviced. He said he was amazed that there weren't frequent crashes given how they operated. I was quite sobered by this conversation. I then mentioned that Prinz had hired the King's airplane to fly us to Lukla. I was hoping he would say that the King's plane was serviced regularly and I shouldn't worry, but what he said was "That plane can't fly to Lukla. The Lukla landing strip is too short for it - only 900 feet - your plane needs 1200 feet. You need to have a STOL plane (Short Take-off and Landing). A contract group called Arizona Helicopters has them.” I told him that Prinz had tried and that there were no planes available for the flight up, but they could only come and pick us up. I was worried, but I rationalized the situation by thinking that they wouldn't send a plane to a place where it couldn't land. They know better. They wouldn't sacrifice the King’s airplane for some charter money.

In the days before we left, we all scrambled and scrounged for equipment and food. In those days you did it all yourself. There weren't even accurate trekking maps, much less jackets, sleeping bags and boots to fit big Western feet. We had schlepped big boots and down jackets in anticipation of trekking. Zina was in charge of equipping the Lamas. Even though Max wanted to come along, she seemed to pay little attention to what it entailed. Max needed to find some sort of outdoor clothing. She was an elegant dresser and I had never seen her in pants or “practical” shoes. Fortunately, Prinz had plenty of experience and guided us through the preparations.

Flight to Lukla

The morning of the flight Max made her appearance in a long brocade chuba (Tibetan dress), a silk blouse and beautiful flowers pinned in her hair. I couldn't believe that she intended to trek in that outfit. Yet Max was oblivious to my reservations about her outfit and lifted her skirt to show me that she had managed to purchase some Nepalese army boots. These were her gesture to mountain gear. Other than that, style always trumped functional clothing. Prinz and his assistant arrived with camera gear slung around their necks. Zina arrived with Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. They wore their robes: no sturdy shoes, no jackets, no hats, nothing else. I was upset with Zina for not taking better care of them, but they seemed content with what they had. I always seemed to be playing the role of the practical pig with my very interesting, but totally impractical friends.

While we waited for the pilot to arrive, the Nepalese were loading the plane with all kinds of things, nothing belonging to us. They were filling the aisles up with packages. When I saw them loading a child's tricycle, I knew that it wasn't ours. Prinz finally stopped them from putting any more cargo in the plane arguing that we were paying for the plane and it should be reserved for our stuff. Thank God he stopped them when he did, because I am sure we would have crashed with any more weight.

Finally, the pilot turned up. He was not the regular pilot. The regular pilot was sick, he explained. The replacement pilot had never flown this route before, but he was willing to give it a try. The problems with this flight were mounding up. Had I been a little more savvy, I would have proposed we cancel the whole idea, but we had all planned this for so long. I was thinking "Surely, they wouldn't have someone who didn't know the route fly us in a plane that couldn't land where we were going, that was also overloaded with cargo, would they?" Well, the answer to that question was..."They would!"

We boarded, some of us scrambling over the cargo in the aisle. We chose seats, which had no seat belts, just as the Canadian had predicted. We tied ourselves down with rope and bungee cords. (Good old bungee cords...I never travel without them. They have saved my bacon more than once). We took off, circling to gain altitude and marveling at the view of Bodhanath and the hilltop that would become known as Kopan from the air. The Lamas were seated in the rear seats. When I looked back at them, they were smiling, but I noticed both of them clicking away on their malas, and thought they might be nervous on their first airplane ride. The reverie of the aerial views of villages, temples and magnificent landscape was abruptly replaced with sheer terror as we hit TURBULENCE. This was not the rocking and rolling that we had experienced in big airplanes. Our plane was buffeted around so hard, it felt like it would break apart! Sometimes we would be blown sideways. I swear our wing was only feet away from the mountainsides. Sometimes we would drop downwards, lifting my heart to my throat. I was pretty sure this would be my last flight. Prinz's assistant fainted dead away ending up in the aisle. My worry about her took my attention away from our impending disaster for a short time and I was grateful for the distraction.

The pilot looked back at us occasionally after some near miss and rather than inspiring me with steely-eyed confidence he would shrug his shoulders and give us a “what me worry?” look, like what did you expect from someone who has not flown this route before? I looked back at the Lamas again, and prayed that they could keep us aloft with whatever power they had. Finally we started banking and circling around over a deep valley. I looked out and way, way down I saw there was a cleared field, a landing strip. It must be Lukla.

The problem was that we couldn't approach the strip directly as the plane was too big. We had to spiral around and down with mountains close to our wing tips. We were all terrified, and then sick and nauseous as we descended in circles and finally set down on the runway, hitting and bouncing. The problem was that if the plane undershot the runway, we would have crashed into a mountain. But, oh no, we had overshot the already too short runway, and we were racing toward the mountain at the other end. "Why didn't I listen to the Canadian?” I was thinking. “He was right, we can never stop in time". I braced myself for the crash into the mountain, when suddenly the pilot hung a U-turn throwing us all to the side of the plane. I was sure we would roll over, but, no, we were headed back down the runway, the way we had come. He brought the plane to a stop and we piled out as quickly as possible. Most of us just laid on the ground, hugging the earth, grateful to be alive.

The picture above is taken from the second instalment of this story, which describes the journey to Lawudo. To be continued in our next 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.