Saturday, April 7, 2018

Living a Story in Himalayan Nepal

In rolls of fame the heroes shine,
Sprung from Tenzing's stalwart line,
Who daily death and cold contest
To guide the treks to Everest.

I've just flown into London and I'm about to catch my transfer to Chicago. Looking at my transfer ticket, I realize it's not a plane ticket but a bus ticket. Thunder Dome Bus Station is on the other side of the city, I have to take several taxis to get there. Each taxi driver quotes prices upwards of £300, and I have to tuck and roll out of the car doors to avoid getting ripped off. Finally I make it and grab the last seat on the triple-decker intercontinental minibus between a guy in superhero spandex and a vampire in a gorilla suit. What happened after that I can't recall because I slipped into another equally vivid dream. In reality, I was in Lobuche, a small Nepali settlement situated at 16,210ft (4,940 meters) above sea level and one day's hike from the base of Mt. Everest. Strange and lifelike dreams are common occurrences when sleeping at high altitudes on account of the low oxygen, and there's no more likely place to experience this phenomenon than Nepal, where just the average elevation is higher than the highest points of 141 of the world's countries. Here in the shadow of Everest, imposing peaks loom in every direction and from them plumes of wind-blown ice crystals unfurl like heraldic pennants proclaiming each summit's majesty. Beneath the rugged spires of rock and the treacherous ridges of ice, avalanches of cloud careen through jagged canyons before spilling out over the vast Khumbu Glacier. At night, the world's tallest mountains seem like humble hills when silhouetted against the vast canopy of blazing stars. A grave marker dedicated to an unsuccessful alpinist near the base of Everest seems to encapsulate the experience of ascending to this otherworldly realm with a simple exhortation - "live a story."

And yet Nepal, which hosts some of the most popular hikes on the planet, offers a surprising range of diverse climates and habitats to explore. The trek to Mt. Everest base camp traverses valleys of lush terraced rice farms before winding up over cloud-shrouded cliffs and knife-edge ridges to finally climb high into echo chambers of frozen waterfalls and snowy bluffs beneath the austere gaze of the world's highest peaks. Another well-known trail around Annapurna I, the deadliest of the 8,000m+ mountains to climb, begins in warm and humid jungles at just 840m above sea level before ascending through fields gushing with greenery to dense pine forests, arid canyons and icy lakes skirted by impassable and menacing curtains of snow and ice. Both hikes together cover 311 miles (501km) of foot trails, climb up to 18,208ft (5,550m) above sea level, take roughly 40 days to complete and pass through dozens of picturesque villages and settlements brimming with warm teahouses to welcome weary travelers.

The people that call these slopes and valleys home are all-around hard-working and generous hosts, many of whom have grown dependent upon tourism for their livelihood. Gracious hospitality is considered a core virtue, and "guests are god" is an oft-repeated mantra. The customary greeting is to press one's palms together in front of the chest and say "namaste" ("I greet the god within you"). The ethnic Sherpas that inhabit the areas near Mt. Everest belong to the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasizes mysticism and shamanistic practices. They believe spirits dwell in every rock and tree and conduct ceremonies and rituals to appease the deities and demons inhabiting their mountainous homeland. Mt. Everest is known as "Chomolungma" and worshiped as the "Mother of the World."

Established rituals build strong community ties, which are essential for surviving in rugged, high-altitude areas. Every year before the summer monsoon season, each village celebrates the Dumje Festival, where a few households take turns reaffirming their commitment to the community by providing all of the food and entertainment. The men of the village drink a local barley beer named chhaang during the festivities, as well as raksi, liquor made from millet. Strong family bonds and clear gender roles are also essential for communities where marriages are typically arranged. Men are charged with plowing the field and engaging in trade, while women are tasked with fetching water, collecting firewood and maintaining the house. It's not uncommon for young children as old as five or six to be fully responsible for their younger siblings.

Most people in rural villages care little for politics outside of those governing local affairs under the purview of family and religious elders, but during campaigning seasons for national elections large delegations march from village to village promoting their candidates. Villages all along the trails marked the occasion with an abundance of hammer and sickle flags, beneath which gatherings of men in dhaka topi (a national hat that resembles a garrison cap) assembled to listen and voice their grievances. Cowboy hats, which have been fashionable to wear ever since a 1905 British expedition to Tibet wore Stetsons, are also not uncommon. The ruling social-democratic party lost a lot of influence following their mismanagement of the 2015 earthquake relief and a gas blockage with India, and in 2017 a coalition of two communist parties swept the national elections for the first time. They were the first elections to be held since 1999 following a volatile eighteen years marked by a bloody civil war, a coup, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a truly horrific royal massacre by the crown prince.

Although roads are continually being constructed in the areas around the Annapurna mastiff, much to the detriment of the trails there, many rural villages are still only accessible on foot. This has given rise to a thriving porter culture. Trekkers frequently share the trails with locals in flip-flops carrying wicker baskets on their backs with the aid of a rope stretching over their forehead and a short yet heavy cane that doubles as a stool. Everything from wood to food to trekkers' packs to mattresses is piled up to the sky on their backs, a feat that requires incredible strength and endurance to manage. Mountaineering porters, the true heroes of Everest, have become so indispensable to anyone planning to summit one of the Himalayan peaks that the Sherpa people, with their knowledge of the terrain and ability to perform at high altitude, have become synonymous with the profession. The first people to summit the world's highest mountain were Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Since then, Sherpas have gone on to claim most of the world records associated with the mountain. Pack animals - namely mules at lower altitudes and yaks at higher - are typically used to carry the heaviest burdens, like rice and gas canisters. More exotic local species, such as musk deer and blue sheep, are also regular sights along the trails.

The long walk to Everest is almost as spiritual an experience as physical, so it's appropriate that the trails themselves should pay homage to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism that has held sway here since its introduction in the 8th century. The most visible of these tributes are the stupas painted with the eyes of the Buddha and prayer flags, which are called "lung ta" (wind horse) in Tibetan. Prayer flags come in five colors, which are associated with the five astrological elements (blue for space, white for water, red for fire, green for wood, yellow for metal). The horse in the center is associated with air and symbolized speed. He carries on his back the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and Sangha (the greater Buddhist community). In a religious context, this symbolizes the rapid transformation of negative forces into positive ones. On the corners of the flags are four animals: an eagle (fire), a dragon (water), a tiger (wood or air) and a lion (earth). The flags are said to aid those who see, touch or simply breath the air the flags come into contact with in resisting greed and ignorance and achieving Nirvana. Surrounding the lung ta are ancillary flags bearing mantas from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas, including Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism from India to the Himalayas. Prayer stones and wheels, the latter of which typically surround Buddhist monasteries, are also decorated with mantras and serve a similar purpose to the flags. Wind-powered and water-powered prayer wheels cleverly facilitate the effort of sending forth prayers and blessings to all sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are brightly colored inside and out and are adorned with vivid images and designs of religious significance. Here monks in maroon robes recite prayers and mantras daily to the sound of traditional instrument like conch shells and long tonqin horns, which generate a deep wail that sounds like the mountains themselves are lending their voices.

A common feature on the insides of the temples is a Bhavacakra, a visual representation of the Wheel of Life, which is depicted as a wheel of four concentric circles. The wheels depicts Samsara, or the cycle of rebirth, and the moon in the top left-hand corner of the image represents Nirvana, the ultimate goal and the only escape from endless reincarnations. In the very center of the wheel and at the center of Buddhist philosophy are three animals, which embody the three poisons or central character flaws of Buddhism - ignorance (represented by the pig), hatred and ill will (represented by the snake) and attachment and greed (represented by the bird). The animals are often depicted biting each other's tails so as to demonstrate how these three roots of suffering are all interconnected. The most important of the group is ignorance because it is from ignorance that anger and greed are derived. In particular, it is the ignorance of impermanence. When we realize that everything and everyone is temporary, we do not become attached to the things around us or become frustrated with them. The path to Nirvana involves accepting that all things are constantly changing, an idea symbolized by the fearsome figure, the embodiment impermanence itself, seen clutching the wheel. The second layer of the circle represents karma, the byproduct of the three poisons in action, and is separated into two halves. The light side with joyous people represents good karma, and the dark side with miserable people bad karma. Those with bad karma are reborn in the lower realms of the next circle, which depicts the six realms of suffering in Samsara. Although these six realms are divided into the lower realms of suffering and the upper realms of pleasure, they are infinitely inferior to the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is to escape the cycle of rebirth, and thus they are all deemed "hells." The zombie-like denizens of hungry ghost realm in the lower plain wander in desperate hunger and thirst but are unable to ever satisfy their needs. Those in the animal realm suffer the constant dangers and toils that accompany rebirth in animal form. And finally there are the torturous and fiery hell familiar in Western teachings, eighteen in all. The remaining realms of Samsara are the demi-god realm, the god realm and the human realm. Although the first two are characterized by boundless pleasure, the inhabitants are often so caught up in envy or pride that they forget that pleasure is a meaningless and temporary distraction and find themselves on the lower half of the circle in their next life. Humans, in turn, suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don't want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet it is only the human realm where the practice of Dharma and ultimate escape from the cycle of rebirth in Samsara is deemed possible because here there is neither constant pain nor enduring pleasure to distract them.

Many modern Buddhists prefer to interpret these different realms as metaphors than strictly as worlds. For example, moving up into the realm of the gods could be interpreted as being born into a wealthy and powerful family, whereas a hungry ghost might be someone born into a poverty-stricken family. This offers an explanation for the inequities of our stations at birth and for how practicing Dharma may be more difficult for some than for others. It also serves as the basis for the caste system in Nepali and Indian society. Yet for more traditional communities, the realms of the gods and the hungry ghosts are all too real. In some places, should the first-born son die young, it is customary to preserve his body in salt and bury it in the wall of the family's home to protect the residence from hungry ghosts. Doorways are also frequently built short because hungry ghosts, according to tradition, can't bent forward.

Ultimately, karma too is just a distraction, and while being a good person and helping others might seem like laudable pursuits, I was told in no uncertain terms that they are not the vehicle to Nirvana. This ultimate goal can only be achieved by lifting the veil of ignorance, recognizing everything as temporary and severing your attachments to the world. These feats, in turn, are accomplished through meditation, a strictly regimented lifestyle and withdrawal from human affairs. The latter idea can be effectively summed up in the Tibetan word "gompa." Although it is generally translated into English as "monastery," a more accurate translation would be "a remote and disconnected place."

One of the most interesting Tibetan Buddhist events in the vicinity of Mt. Everest is Mani Rimdu Festival at Tengboche Monastery. Days of quiet prayers to the Buddha of compassion, Chenzig, culminate in a colorful and communal celebration marked by dances and blessings. The masked Cham dances of Tengboche Monastery come from Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet and reenact the establishment of Buddhism in the Himalayas by the legendary Guru Rinpoche. The sixteen dances delight the crowd and convey Buddhist teachings in symbolic form - the conquering of demons symbolizes the overcoming of hatred, greed and ignorance through meditation on compassion and wisdom. In one dance deities and devils engage in complicated choreography to the buzz of ritual instruments, in another exorcisms are performed and evil influences and dispelled. In the middle of the day-long ceremony are two comedic interludes, during which masked performers draw from the crowd of tourists and chastise them in Sherpa, a derivative of the Tibetan language, to the delight of the locals. One of the fools carries trekking poles and wears a mask with a gigantic nose to poke fun at the Western tourists who flock to this region. The local Sherpa continue the festival in the courtyard of the monastery, where they sing and dance away all harm in the world until the early hours of the morning.

October-December, 2017

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