Welcome to the Losar 2021 issue of the Lawudo newsletter, bringing you news and stories from the highest and most remote retreat centre in the FPMT. We wish you peace and happiness for the Year of the Gold Ox.
Following on from Charok Lama Rinpoche’s article in our November issue, Merry Colony has kindly shared an amazing illustrated story that she wrote about Rinpoche’s return to Lawudo for Losar 2013. We’ve also got an encouraging update on the Covid-19 situation in the Solu Khumbu, latest news from Lawudo, and a poignant short article from John Carroll, who visited in the 1990s.
Our next newsletter is scheduled for Saka Dawa and will have a Nyung Nay theme. Please pass the word on to anyone you know who might find this of interest.
Covid-19 in Solo Khumbu - An Update
With thanks to Frances Howland
On October 16th 2020 the 86 year-old Tengboche Rinpoche passed away in Namche Bazaar. Many Sherpas from Kathmandu travelled to Khumbu for the 49 days of rituals and shortly afterwards news of some people dying of respiratory illness in Khumbu appeared. Medics arrived by helicopter on October 23rd to take swab samples of contact traced locals after a 65-year-old man who was helicoptered to Kathmandu tested positive and subsequently died. Following this, the Khumbu rural municipality decided to shut down the Everest region for outsiders.
However since October the number of cases in Nepal has dramatically reduced. The first tranche of vaccines has just arrived, and health and other frontline workers have begun to be vaccinated. On January 30th, the Kathmandu Post reported that “the local administration in Nepal’s Everest region has opened the doors once again to tourists by removing all Covid-related restrictions, in a fresh attempt to woo back trekkers to its popular trails. Sightseers visiting the Everest region are no longer required to submit a negative PCR test report or go into quarantine.”
Losar at Lawudo and other news
The Himalayan people of Nepal celebrate two Losars: the Sonam Losar (Meritorious New Year), which signifies good weather for crops and a better life for the animals, and then in the following month the Gyalpo Losar (King’s New Year). Sonam Losar took place on 6 January this year. It’s a very joyous time of year, filled with much laughter.
Both Losars are celebrated in much the same way. In the morning the Lawudo family get up early in their finest clothes and make offerings of kataks, tea, kaptse and fruits to the thrones in the gompa and cave, at the local spring, and to each of the family and visitors who are present. Breakfast consists of Chang-gul, a delicious porridge made from tsampa, chang, dried fruits and dried cheese. Ashang la and Tsultrim Norbu spend much of the day making prayers. Ngawang Samten usually invites the locals at Gyalpo Losar and offers a big lunch to thank them for their help and work during the previous year, but that won’t happen in 2021 due to Covid-19.
During these past quiet months the cave has been re-decorated, a new entrance gate has been installed, and two big greenhouses are under construction, which will enable the Lawudo family to grow vegetables all year round. This will be especially useful as a food supplement in the winter. We hope to share photos in the next newsletter.
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.
A huge thank you to Merry and John for their contributions in this issue, and to all those who have supported the project so far. May these stories bring blessings, inspiration and benefit to many and fulfill Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s holy wishes for Lawudo. Please contact TLC at email@example.com if you would like to contribute a story.
Adapted from an article written by Merry Colony at Drepung Monastery, S. India, March 7, 2013. All images copyright Merry Colony
Cherok Lama’s attendant Nima Tashi had asked me a few times over the years if I would put together a biography of Kusho Mangden, the previous incarnation of Cherok Lama, but circumstances had always made it impossible to get started. When he asked again in the winter of 2012, the timing finally seemed right and I agreed.
The general plan was to interview disciples and family members of Kusho Mangden in order to paste together a portrait of his life and works. Most of the interviews would be conducted in Kathmandu where the majority of Sherpas, the people of the Solo Kumbu region, spend their winters. There would then be a few people to talk to in Kumbu itself, the high mountain area in the Everest region of NE Nepal where Kusho Mangden had spent most of his life and where his incarnation had been reborn.
The conclusion of the trip would be to take the then 20 year-old Cherok Lama back to his Kumbu home. For me this was a trip I had been waiting years for. I had been very close to Kusho Mangden and had brought the young incarnate down from his mountain home when he was just four years old to start his career as a young monk at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu. A year earlier, at the age of just three, he had expressed clearly and repeatedly to me, and others, his wish to go to Kopan, then to Sera, and then to the West to teach Westerners. True to his word and his vision he was now a Sera Je monk and had even begun his teaching career giving dharma talks in Singapore, Malaysia and America. Now at that critical juncture of his life, at the passage from boyhood to adulthood, it seemed the perfect moment to return to the homeland which he had lost all memory of. The significance of the trip thrilled me.
Rinpoche (Cherok Lama), however, clearly had some reservations. A few weeks prior to our scheduled departure I had a health issue to which Rinpoche responded, “maybe we should do the trip another time”. I told Rinpoche that if he wanted to delay we could, but that my ailment should not be the reason. Clearly he had resistance and all I could do was wait and see if the trip would materialize or not.
There was also the unspoken question of how Rinpoche’s previous life family might react to his return. Kusho Mangden was a Nyingmapa Lama whose lineage had been passed from father to son for five generations and, as such, it was not the family tradition to identify incarnations. When Cherok Lama was recognized as Kusho Mangden’s incarnation at the age of 2 by the great Trulshik Rinpoche it had caused quite a stir with his previous life family who didn’t really have a place for the incarnation in their worldview or their home. For this reason his previous life daughter and grandson had not accepted the incarnation and this would be the first time since childhood that he was in the vicinity of his previous life family home. No one in our “homecoming” party knew who would come out to meet Rinpoche or what their reactions might be. I suspected these questions were weighing on Rinpoche’s mind.
Finally the date was set. We would fly on Feb 8th (2013), in time to make it to Lawudo by Losar on Feb 11th. We would be a group of 12. The day came and we met at the airport at 6AM. By 8AM all the chaos of boarding a flight to Lukla with cargo was done and we were in flight. I had told Rinpoche to take a left side window seat and to be sure and look out the cockpit window when the plane banked right and turned its nose down to the airstrip, but despite my encouragements Rinpoche seemed totally uninterested in the world renowned dramatic landing at Lukla. Once out of the plane he told me he had been sleeping. I wondered if we were making a huge mistake, pushing him into something that he really didn’t care anything about.
FROM LUKLA TO NAMCHE
Disembarking at Lukla is always a bit of a shock. Despite it having been cold in Kathmandu, Lukla was a lot colder and I could see Rinpoche react immediately, pulling his big red ski jacket tighter to his chest. One of my greatest fears had been that he would be miserable with the cold and that his thin body would not be able to stay warm. I winced when I saw him pull his hood on over his wool hat.
While Sangye and Nima Tashi arranged porters we all huddled in the Sherpa Coffee Shop with tea and Rara noodles until the moment of no return when each of us hoisted on our respective backpacks and set off. Once through town and onto the trail the cold morning air turned warm and Rinpoche bounded ahead holding hands with his monk friend Jigme. I exhaled a little and thought things might be OK after all. When we passed by the great naga tree outside of town I made a prayer that whatever was about to happen would be auspicious, for the Sherpas and for Rinpoche’s life.
It was hard to read Rinpoche that first day out. Each time I would point something out or tell a story I was met with a distinct reaction of disinterest. Yet just when I would start to get uncomfortable, thinking he was unhappy or cold or bored, I would find him waiting for me on the trail ahead with a smile. And so the first day passed, a constant fluctuation between worry and relief, anxiety and reassurance.
On day two we hit the Namche hill early, a steady 1000 ft climb that can seem never-ending. I had warned Rinpoche of it, but when I didn’t see him for the entire slog up I figured he must be doing OK. When we finally met up on the last 50 meters before our lodge, panting and with a look of exhausted irritation he turned to me and said very firmly, “this is the first and last time I’m doing this”. With that he ducked into the lodge and promptly fell asleep. Again fear overtook me. I thought, not only is he going to hate this trip, but he will hate me for taking him.
FROM NAMCHE TO LAWUDO
The next morning was clear and blue and the start of a radical change. The owners of the lodge had been Kusho Mangden’s disciples and they arrived with their various relatives to offer a kata to Rinpoche and receive a blessing. Rinpoche didn’t look all that comfortable and yet took it in his stride, giving each a perfunctory pat on the head and a Namgyalma protection amulet as a gift. These were to be the first of many more blessings to come and the beginning of a visible transformation in Rinpoche: from a boy reluctant to show up to a young Lama accepting his responsibility to help the people he had left behind at his death 21 years earlier. I watched the metamorphosis take place right before my eyes.
The next hours were pure delight. Climbing up and out of Namche we entered the upper Kumbu valley and I could see Rinpoche’s whole demeanor lighten when he saw the expanse of white peaks up ahead. I told him we were now entering the valley of the realized ones, the home of both Kusho Mangden and the Lawudo Lama (Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s previous incarnation) and for the first time since we left Kathmandu Rinpoche appeared somewhat interested in what I was saying. He posed for pictures and seemed to have a smile on his face that I had not seen until then.
As we walked together along the luxurious one-hour level path immediately before the Lawudo hill, Rinpoche opened up about some of his feelings. He told me that he didn’t know what to say when the people came wanting blessings. He said he didn’t know how to help them when they spoke of their ailments and that he was giving a lot of thought to how he could help. I reminded him of what he had told me just a month earlier, “when karma and faith meet interesting things happen”. I told him this was going to be happening now with many people. Their faith in Rinpoche and the karma to meet with him again were now coming together and all he had to do was make a heartfelt prayer to benefit them. Rinpoche retorted with all kinds of reasons why it was hard to help, but I held my ground saying he could do it. After much debate he looked at me and said, “I accept in this life to try”. I couldn’t help but hug him and knew then and there that all would be perfect. The people were expressing their faith and Rinpoche was responding with his commitment to them. I felt exceedingly proud of the little big man walking next to me.
At the next village of Samshing more people came out and I could see Rinpoche had relaxed. He seemed more genuine with his blessings and more appreciative of the people’s devotion. How remarkable is this boy I thought, who in the course of just a few hours was maturing right before my eyes. I started to feel profoundly happy that we were making the trip and to get very excited about what was up ahead.
ARRIVAL AT LAWUDO
Climbing the Lawudo hill was storybook. The higher we went the more energy Rinpoche gained. At one point someone showed up with a pony and Rinpoche jumped on as if he’d done it so many times before; accepting the offerings of the people, following the protocol of the Lama returning home. He sat tall, the visuals spectacular. The sky was radiant blue, Kumbila mountain shining in the sun as a backdrop to Rinpoche’s glowing form atop the white pony. Everyone was laughing. Nearing Mende, Rinpoche got off, saying he didn’t want to hurt the pony, and he walked on from there. Coming up over the lip at the Mende stupa more villagers were lined up with katas. There was no more trace of disinterest or lack of engagement. Rinpoche was a pro. He greeted them all as friends, stroked their faces, listened to their woes and requests, and gave them all blessing strings.
We were almost at Lawudo now and Rinpoche’s gait picked up still more. Then the music started. Horns, cymbals, drums. I looked up and could see a row of people looking down from the Lawudo wall. I got goose bumps. Rinpoche was practically running now and, desperately trying to keep ahead so I could take pictures, I pleaded with him to slow down. He said simply and emphatically that this was my “time to purify”. I ran ahead gasping deeply for much needed oxygen and yet filled with a joy and excitement that carried me on despite the lack of air.
I managed to get to the Mani stone outside the Lawudo entrance just seconds before Rinpoche, to catch the scene awaiting him, welcoming him back to the home he had left 16 years earlier. Two sherpas flanked the entrance on either side holding offerings, Nawang Samden in the center waiting with kata, Norbu on drum, Tenzin on cymbals, Thami monks blowing conches and many others in their finest losar attire holding katas, incense and platters of food and fruit. Rinpoche breezed up the last bit of hill smiling bright. As he was whisked into the gompa for the formalities it was as if the whole mountainside were singing. I could hear the music and feel the pulse of energy, but the faces were all a blur, my tears of joy obscuring the view.
I really should have stayed
By John Carroll
In June 1992 I walked into the Khumbu from Jiri at the beginning of the monsoon. It was very quiet on the trail and I did not see any other trekkers for days. When I made it to Lawudo on a day walk from Namche, Ngawang Samten suggested I stay the night. Anila also suggested she might not live long. Thinking 'how could Rinpoche's sister not live a long life', I suggested she would live for a long time to come. Ngawang Samten seemed to think about something and then smiled.
Being young and dumb I did not stay and I have regretted it ever since. At lunch Norbu told stories of helping monks who had come over the Nangpa La from Tibet. I really should have stayed!
I said goodbye, left and wandered around the hillside for a while. As I headed back down to the trail, I saw Anila walking down to Mende with a thermos. I ran down the hill and called out to ask if I could take her photo. She shook her head in that grandmotherly way at the antics of the young and so I got my photo. I gave a framed copy to Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche when he visited Australia in 1993. He held the photo to his stomach. I still wonder what that meant.
In 1996 my wife Juliana and I walked in from Jiri on a trek to Gokyo Ri. We visited Lawudo from Namche for an afternoon and Ngawang Samten served us her herbal tea, tsampa and chapati. The herbal tea seemed to be a similar mixture to Lawudo incense. I went inside the Gompa and Norbu followed me in. Norbu named the pictures and statues on the altar and I thought to myself, 'why is he doing this as I know the images'. Immediately I made this thought, Norbu put his arms around my shoulders. I nearly cried. Norbu is a yogi!
After our trek to Gokyo Ri, I again walked to Lawudo from Namche with two chaps we met at various places along the way. Thus I have visited Lawudo three times, but I am still yet to stay the night. I look forward to that possibility very soon...now that I am older and perhaps a little less dumb. I pray that Anila and Norbu live long long healthy lives and that I can spend one at least one evening in their company.
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With every good wish from the LoveLawudo team: Ven Katy, Ven Khadro, Ven Künkhyen, Alison, Capucine, Lhamo and Violette. An international group of volunteers established in 2017 to offer support to Lawudo Gompa.