Much has been written and said about the Sherpas of Khumbu. There has been every kind of work-academic, touristy guidebook, oversized coffee table glossy and the ubiquitous dharma book. There's a different flavour though, to Fireside Chat with Tengboche Rinpoche: Stories and Customs of the Sherpas.
It does have this fireside appeal to it, with its orange cover. You almost feel the Tengboche Rinpoche's presence, telling stories of Sherpas, Mt Everest, Sherpa Buddhism and the famousTengboche monastery, as you sat around and sipped tea.
The Abbot of the Tengboche Monastery explains that he "wanted to make a book about the Sherpa's heritage" for visitors coming to Khumbu to see Chomolongma. But also for Sherpas themselves, since their way of life is changing so rapidly. And it effectively tells stories in true oral tradition.
Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu, the Abbot of Tengboche Monastery, has met trekkers and climbers in Khumbu for decades, and anticipates their questions. In this book, he shares his special perspective on the stories, the myths and lives of Sherpas. He illuminates the Sherpa world and their origins: the 'people from the east'. He tells the story of Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, and how he founded the Khumbu Valley and established it as a spiritual sanctuary. The Rinpoche then delves into Sherpa religion, explaining, "The purpose of religion is to perfect our minds. Our own minds cause happiness and unhappiness." His pithy explanation of Buddhism provides a basic foundation for newcomers and renewed inspiration to followers.
He follows the annual cycle of prayers for the crops, the animals, a new house, marriage, living and dying. The ceremonies are primarily religious, but the celebrations, like all good celebrations, also unite the community and strengthen bonds within and between villages. The Rinpoche tells the story of Lama Sangwa Dorje of Pangboche village who started the Dumje festival to celebrate the anniversary of Guru Rinpoche's birth. It now also commemorates Lama Sangwa Dorje's enlightenment. Eight families take their turn each year to sponsor the Dumje, feeding the entire village. The Rinpoche explains: "Dumje-type prayers are done in Tibet, but the feeding is only done in Khumbu, where it is possible because the communities here are small."
Focusing on everyday life, Rinpoche portrays Sherpa occupations, food, architecture, dress and jewellery. In describing monk's clothing, he explains the importance of religious objects like prayer flags and holds that these "help create harmony between our actions, body and mind".
After setting the scene in Khumbu and the local culture, Rinpoche Talks about the Tengboche Monastery "which has been the heart of Sherpa culture since 1916". It was partially rebuilt after the 1934 earthquake, and then totally rebuilt after a fire in 1991. In the reconstruction, the Rinpoche established a school in the monastery for higher Buddhist education to maintain Sherpa culture in this changing world. The book culminates with a description of the annual Mani Rimdu festival with its colourful masked dances celebrating Phakpa Chenrizig, the god of compassion.
Jim Fisher, an anthropologist who did his field work on Sherpas in the 1960's, returned again in the 70's and 80's to look at the impact of decades of tourism. Fisher found that the respect and admiration the tourists bestow upon Sherpas-for their culture, their prowess as climbers, and simply as personable individuals-has actually reinforced and strengthened Sherpa traditions and culture.
This book was first published in 1985 through the Sherpa Cultural Centre project. This updated fourth edition is a product of the long friendship and collaboration between the Tengboche Rinpoche and Frances Klatzel, the editor. It is a short, informative, and personal book, creatively illustrated on every page with a fine collection of over 60 black and white photos (including some 1950's photos from Christoph von F?rer-Haimendorf's collection) and a dozen sketches. Though there is a general map of Nepal, I wish the book included a local map of the Khumbu area, highlighting places mentioned in the text.
Stories and Customs of the Sherpas is a privileged insight into the Tengboche Rinpoche's perspective on Sherpa heritage. Treat yourself and your friends to a fireside chat with the Abbot of Tengboche Gompa.
Fireside Chat with Tengboche Rinpoche: Stories and Customs of the Sherpas; as told by Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu, Abbot of Tengboche Monastery
Edited by Frances Klatzel, Mera Publications 2000