Tengboche abbott’s last wish

The Tengboche Monastery's gate wore a deserted look last week because of the Covid-19 crisis brought trekking nearly to a halt.

Anxiety caused by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of a tourism-dependent economy appears to have deeply worried the head monk of Tengboche Monastery below Mt Everest who died on 10 October at age 86.

Nawang Tenzin Zangbu cared about the spiritual and material welfare of his people, and ever since he became the Rinpoche, he had worked tirelessly to make tourism a key element in lifting living standards of the Sherpa people, and help pay for conservation and clean-up of the Everest region.

His death comes at an unfortunate time for the Khumbu, as the pandemic overwhelms Nepal’s fragile health system and affects business from trekking and climbing for most of 2020, causing great economic hardship to porters, guides, hotels and others dependent in the Everest region.

"This year he had too much to think about for the people, and this stress may have resulted in his early death," Pemba Gyanzen Sherpa, the Gerku (custodian) of Tengboche Monastery told us. He believes stress about the impact of the pandemic on the local population of the Khumbu may have played a role in hastening the Rinpoche's demise.

"On the day he died, the Rinpoche called me. He said that he was worried about this virus and wanted to protect all the people in Khumbu," said Pemba. 

The two then drew up plans for assembling and distributing protective buti amulets to all the people living in Khumbu. These pouches containing herbs and other material are believed to ward off illness and protect the wearer from ill fortune.

Two days before he died, the Rinpoche had come down to Namche from Tengboche and was not feeling well. Upon reaching, he requested to have a shower. His caregiver feared that a shower would worsen his health, and so replied that it was not possible as there was no change of clothes.

The Rinpoche had difficulty breathing, and Pemba recalls that they tried giving him oxygen, but he pushed away the tube. He then made an action with his hands, immediately after which he passed away.

The Rinpoche was born to a Sherpa family in Namche on the same day as the Dalai Lama in 1935, and was recognised at age five as the incarnation of Lama Gulu who founded Tengboche Monastery in 1916. He was sent to Tibet to study Buddhism, and returned to 

the Khumbu in 1956 to head the Tengboche gumba – three years after the first ascent of Mt Everest. 

After he died on 10 October, the Rinpoche’s body was brought back to Tengboche where he will lie in state for 49 days while prayer vigils are held for his timely reincarnation. After that the monks will determine whether to cremate the body or preserve it in a stupa near the Monastery.

The Rinpoche had been a quiet but steady presence in the Khumbu. Besides presiding over religious ceremonies for the Sherpa people, he oversaw important initiatives like the formation of the Sagarmatha National Park. 

Later on in life, he became increasingly concerned about the garbage along the Everest Trail and on the mountains left by expeditions and helped set up the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee. He also spoke of his worry about how the people of the mountains had to bear the brunt of climate warming through no fault of their own.

Ever since he was selected to be the high lama and right up to his death, he would wake up at 3am to read advanced Buddhist texts. Pemba recalled how he and other monks requested him to discontinue this practice, and sleep a little longer to preserve his deteriorating health. However, the Rinpoche replied that it was too late to change his habits, and he would continue getting up early till his dying day.

October-November is also the time for the annual Mani Rimdu festival in Tengboche to commemorate the death of the Lama Gulu. Now in its 103rd year, Mani Rimdu has been held every year, and it appears it will not be cancelled this year despite the pandemic nor the death of the Rinpoche.

"The Rinpoche always celebrated the festival and would never have wanted us to miss it for any reason,” said Pemba. “Even when he was ill, we always did the Dorche Semba prayers, and the dances for the festival."

The monks at Tengboche these days are busy, some of them praying through the night for the Rinpoche's timely reincarnation. Others are rehearsing a dance performance and completing the Dorche Semba ahead of the festival. Moreover, the Monastery is also raising funds and working out the logistics to fulfil the Rinpoche's dying wish of distributing the buti to all the people of Khumbu.

“Foreseeing the possibility of his death, the Rinpoche made plans so his demise world not affect the local population of Khumbu,” explained Ang Nima Sherpa of Khumjung, adding that the Rinpoche’s duties would be handled by the Defuk Rinpoche of the nearby monastery of Pangboche.

Meanwhile, details of the successor Rinpoche will appear to Sakya Trichen the high lama’s close friend and the 41st head of the Sakya order of Tibetan Buddhism. After he provides a name, teams of monks will have to go and search for the family selected.

The reincarnated Rinpoche will then have to pass a test, including remembering incidents from the lives of the earlier Tengboche Rinpoche. Upon completion of the test, he will be sent for training at different monasteries, after which the Rinpoche's position at Tengboche will be occupied once again.