Diplomacy at 13,000 Feet

Posted by Lesley Beahm
May 27, 2011
Ambassador DeLisi Stands Beside a Mani Wall at Namche
Ambassador DeLisi and Mrs. DeLisi Are Welcomed By a Senior Sherpa
Members of the Pangboche Village Hold a Puja Ceremony

U.S. Ambassador to Nepal Scott H DeLisi, accompanied by a U.S. Embassy delegation, visited Pangboche Monastery, a recipient of the 2010 Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) grant of $83,500 provided through the U.S. Embassy to the Mountain Institute. The delegation traveled approximately 50 miles on foot and by horse to reach the Buddhist site, which is located in Sagarmatha National Park near Mount Everest Base Camp at an elevation of 13,000 feet. Following a very warm welcome by the lamas and the Pangboche community, the Ambassador participated in a puja (ritual ceremony) to initiate the main work of restoration of the ancient Monastery, which serves as the education center for the Sherpas of Nepal.

Pangboche Monastery (gompa), positioned at 13,000 feet above sea level between the holy mountains of Khumbila and Mount Everest, is believed to be one of the oldest centers of Sherpa learning and culture in the Khumbu region. It was established in the 16th century by Lama Sangwa Dorji who accompanied early groups of Sherpa migrants from Tibet and was a founder of Buddhist learning in the region. As the highest permanent settlement on the way to Everest, Pangboche serves as a vital center for the surrounding populations, particularly during the observance of annual cultural festivals.

However, like other centers in the region, Pangboche Monastery, which relies on donations from within the community and from outside visitors, has fallen into disrepair. The restoration of this particular monastery was deemed important by the AFCP committee in order to preserve repositories of traditional local culture, especially at a time when the economic and demographic effects of globalization and tourism are deeply influencing the younger generation in the Solu-Khumbu Sherpa community.

The puja ceremony at Pangboche Monastery, held in honor of the Ambassador's visit, was attended by members of Pangboche village. Lama Geshe, who customarily bestows blessings on climbers' en-route to Mount Everest, officiated a formal ceremony complete with a performance of Sherpa dancers and musicians.

Throughout the nine-day trek, Ambassador Delisi and his embassy team posted daily updates of their interactions and experiences on the Ambassador's official Facebook page and the embassy's Twitter account. The Ambassador, who currently has over 1,000 Facebook "friends," received a flood of enthusiastic, personalized comments regarding his adventurous updates.

Here's an excerpt from Ambassador DeLisi's personal travelogue:

Making our way through the receiving line we were greeted by the lamas and men wearing traditional masks, much like we saw at the lama dancing at Namo Buddha many months before. We were escorted to the upper level of the gompa where we were received by Lama Geshe, the senior lama and a wonderful man respected by all. Lama Geshe, at 79 years, remains a dynamic and fascinating personality. Born in Pangboche, his childhood and religious training was in Tibet and he received doctorate there as well. Forced from Tibet during the Chinese takeover he first went to Darjeeling and then Sikkim before returning to Nepal. After eight years at the gompa in Tengboche he came back to his birthplace and the Pangboche gompa, which at over 350 years is one of the oldest in Nepal. He has been a spiritual leader there for over 40 years and is respected, and even revered, throughout the region. Virtually all those hoping to summit Everest, as well as other climbers and trekkers setting forth beyond Pangboche (the last permanent settlement on the trail to Everest) seek him out for his blessing.

After offering our namaskars to Lama Geshe he invited us to sit with him as the upper level of the gompa filled with the men, women and children of Pangboche. We sipped cups of spiced tea and were offered khapse (fried dough twists) and cookies and candies as the program to celebrate the restoration began. The members of the committee spoke, men of the community played traditional instruments and chanted and danced and were followed by a group of women who also danced and sang as the children competed for the best seats to watch. For the village it was a special day and all sought to make the most of it. When it was my turn to speak I emphasized that we had come not by helicopter but on foot…like Sherpas…using our legs, our lungs and our hearts to traverse the miles. Our purpose in restoring the gompa was to help with the preservation of the unique Sherpa culture and we thought it important to walk to Pangboche experiencing that culture every step of the way and in every village we passed through. The gompa is central not only to religious practice but is the heart of the community and the culture. To be part of restoring it, and preserving the essence of the culture it embodies, was a joy for us all.

As the dances and speeches came to a close, what seemed to be a never-ending stream of women and men appeared, one after another, to offer khatas (blessing scarves) to the Lama and to every member of our party. Never have we been so showered with blessings. Khatas draped around our necks piled ever higher. Up to our ears…over our ears…ten, twenty…forty…fifty…and more. By the end we looked like Yetis! It was quite an experience. Lama Geshe couldn't stop grinning as he saw his American guests buried in blessing scarves!

Our next stop was the puja (worship) ceremony in the gompa's inner sanctuary. As Lama Geshe led the chanting, we watched and listened to the lamas beating the drums and blowing the horns while we were once again served tea, ceremonial liquor (a spoonful poured into our hand), popcorn, fruit, packages of cookies and candy bars, and other (unidentified) traditional foods. It was quite a ritual and, while we watched, they brought out the container holding the replica of a Yeti skull and hand -- the originals having been stolen from the monastery years before.

With Lama Geshe's blessing we left the Buddhist rite (which would continue for some time). The Lama chuckled as we departed, still draped in our countless khatas. Our Sherpa trekking guides helped us to remove and fold the majority of the khatas before we explored one of the gompa's upper rooms containing ceremonial masks, paintings, and other treasures -- many of which were hundreds of years old. It was such a wonderful experience and I think we were all thrilled to be part of what was a very special day.

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