Nepal’s Sherpas mourn Tengboche abbott

Nepal’s Sherpa community is mourning the passing at age 86 of their revered and beloved high lama, Nawang Tenzin Zangbu, the Rimpoche of Tengboche, a monastery at the lap of Mt Everest.

The Rimpoche presided over the monastery at Tengboche at 3,780m which is set amidst a stunning backdrop of Ama Dablam, and blessed hundreds of passing mountaineering expeditions to the world’s highest mountains. 

The monk had descended to Namche Bazar last week “because it was getting chilly up there”, and died quietly on Friday night, relatives said. 

People of the Solukhumbu district, some from as far away as Phaplu, streamed all weekend to pay their last respects to the Rimpoche at the monastery above Namche Bazar where his body lay amidst burning incense and chant of mantras. 

On Monday, the monk’s body was draped in yellow cloth and carried by Buddhist lamas, devotees and relatives along the trail to Tengboche, where as per Sherpa tradition, his body will lie for six more weeks.

“We are very saddened by his demise, the entire Khumbu valley is in mourning now,” said Tashi Lhamu Sherpa, the deputy chair of the Pasang Lhamu rural municipality.  “It is a big loss for our Sherpa community and the entire region.”

She added, “Let’s hope that his reincarnation will be found soon.”

After six weeks, the lamas of Tengboche will decide whether the body should be cremated, or buried with a small stupa to be built over it.

Final last rites will be performed on the 49th day when thousands of Sherpas from Khumbu, and beyond are expected to climb up to Tengboche monastery for the funeral.

Nawang Tenzin Zangbu was born in Namche Bazar in 1935, on exactly the same day as the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama. He was identified as the reincarnation of Lama Gulu, a revered monk in Nyingmapa lineage of Vajrayana Buddhism.

After spending many years at Rungbuk Monastery on the other side of Mt Everest in Tibet, studying Nyingmapa Buddhism and its customs, rituals, practices and values, among others, he returned to Tengboche Monastery in 1956. 

Ang Tshering Sherpa, who was born in Khumjung and is a former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), says: “Sherpas all over the world are mourning his death and performing puja in our houses and monasteries praying for his soul.”

Besides being a Rimpoche, Nawang Tenzin Zangbu also earned international reputation and respect for his life-long devotion to protecting the cultural and natural environment of the Sagarmatha National Park below Mt Everest, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Nawang Tenzin Zangbu after returning to Tengboche from Tibet in 1957.

Tshering Phenzo Sherpa, a son of the Rimpoche’s childhood mate Kanchha Sherpa, the only surviving member of Tenzing and Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition team, told Nepali Times: “His prayers for peace and well-being of all living beings has reached every household and every corner of the Khumbu region.”

The Rimpoche also led several tree plantation initiatives in and around Tengboche monastery to improve the greenery of Sagarmatha National Park. One of the most visible signs of his efforts are the thick forests where there used to the denuded slopes three decades ago.

It was under his initiative that the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee was set up in 1991, cleaning up the trekking trails and bringing down garbage from the slopes of Mt Everest

The Rimpoche was a special guest at the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) International Conference, held for the first time in Nepal, in November 2000.

Read also: The Tengboche Rimpoche