The Himalaya mourn a saintly leader

The Tengboche Rinpoche was a constant source of saintly support, presiding through periods of prosperity and disaster

Tengboche Rinpoche arrives at Namche monastery for the Dumji festival during the summer of 2018. Photo: SUJOY DAS

In the midst of the galloping pandemic, we were recently blessed with a moment of reflective respite in the form of a beautiful date - 10102020 - rounded calm numbers to relish and harmonise in these troubled times. It was not long before sad news from the Khumbu reached the Valley. Just after midnight on this perfectly balanced date, the Tengboche Rinpoche passed away in Namche Bazar.  

Tengboche monastery triumphantly straddles a steep saddle overlooking Mount Sagarmatha, the heart of Sherpa heritage and religion. Its Rinpoche was born on the same day as His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1935 to a Sherpa family in Namche – named Passang Tenzin and later ordained Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu.

He was sent to study in Rongbuk monastery in Tibet, and aged five was recognised as the incarnation of Tengboche monastery’s founder in 1916, Lama Gulu. Throughout his long life, Rinpoche’s grave, quiet, compassionate demeanour was a familiar presence at all significant ceremonies, memorials and events in the Khumbu, honoured not only amongst Sherpas but by every expedition and mountaineer who would seek his mandatory blessing before attempting the high Himalayan summits.

Greatly respected by all who came into his orbit, Rinpoche’s gentle guiding hand and wise serious voice were behind conservation and development decisions affecting the region, to ensure that all viewpoints were considered and every outcome brought benefits to the natural environment and Sherpa culture.

For the government, he chaired the Panchayat lama and monastery management committees and for the Himalayan Trust he inaugurated the Khumjung School in 1961. Far reaching initiatives which today we take for granted, such as the gazetting of Sagarmatha National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site and the formation of the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, would not have got off the ground without his unobtrusive but steely support.

Rinpoche was a constant source of saintly succour and support, presiding through periods of trekking prosperity and favourable harvests, and during times of disaster including earthquakes, floods, avalanches and accidents that have caused much weeping and grief in Sherpa households and Khumbu kitchens.

Late night on 19 January 1989, his Tengboche monastery burned to the ground, blamed on an electrical fault from the new micro-hydro. Rinpoche turned to Sir Edmund Hillary and other friends to contribute to the monastery’s rebuild, presiding over the meticulous reconstruction of the Sherpa’s most significant Buddhist centre.

In the garden outside the Himalayan Trust office in Dilli Bazar, its Chairman Mr Pasang Dawa Sherpa and HH Tengboche Rinpoche who conducted the ten year ceremony remembering the death of Sir Edmund Hillary Photo: LISA CHOEGYAL

On the auspicious day of the reopening in 1993, I was invited to join the Himalayan Trust group attending the consecration ceremony. By this time Sir Ed was confined to travelling by helicopter from Kathmandu, having lost all tolerance to altitude and unable to stay long in the high places he loved.

With us were Nepal’s Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala as chief guest, and Himalayan Trust supporters including Richard Blum of the American Himalayan Foundation and the indomitable Elizabeth Hawley, a rare sight in the mountains. But Sir Ed was struggling with his health and bad weather threatened as we landed in the meadow in front of the newly restored gompa.

Sitting cross-legged on carpeted cushions in the enlarged prayer hall beneath the repainted murals, Rinpoche presided, monks chanted, incense wafted, drums pounded and hand bells chimed. Afterwards, colour-drenched dancers whirled in the stone flagged courtyard and conches signalled the close of the celebrations, but Ang Rita’s face was sombre with apprehension.

Thick clouds had descended and a heavy silence enveloped the ridge – we had no choice but to wait in the high thin air under limp prayer flags wreathed in mist. Ed was not the only person looking grey and gaunt when the two helicopters found a gap to dive through the weather, just long enough to pick us up whilst the rotors roared, frantic farewells were waved, and rhododendrons bowed in the fierce damp gusts.

Over the decades Rinpoche witnessed many cycles of Sagarmatha triumphs and catastrophes. In May 1996 my young sons ran ahead as I toiled up the Namche hill, to meet up with the retreating Everest expeditions. Their members were dazed and traumatised from the shattering events that resulted in eight people dead in one day including two experienced leaders, New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer.

Everyone along the trail was talking about the tragedy, and one lonely morning we offered lamps and katas at Tengboche monastery in the time-honoured custom. With the bleak cry of kites spiralling the thermals overhead, Guy Cotter strode towards us across the bridge below Pangboche, Rob’s Kiwi climbing colleague who had led the rescue. He was lean, drawn and exhausted in grief.

The drama had unfolded over several days, so intense that it became the subject of many books and films, Hollywood made a blockbuster movie, and those of us directly involved have the events seared into our memory. Whilst attempting the summit on 10 May 1996 an unexpected storm descended, stranding climbers high on the mountain. With Guy in base camp I coordinated the rescue by radio phone from Kathmandu with help from the American Embassy, but despite everyone’s best efforts we failed to get them all back down.

Some headway was made – valiant Sherpas saved members lost in the blizzard, America’s most experienced mountaineers abandoned their IMAX Everest film to help, and when the weather cleared the heroic helicopter captain Madan KC broke altitude records to pick up the worst injured climbers from above the Khumbu icefall. Later that day in the Kathmandu clinic, I held the telephone to Beck Weathers’ ear as the Texan surgeon, both frostbitten hands fully bandaged, told his wife in Dallas that he had miraculously survived having been “left for dead” - tears streamed down his ice-burned face.

Photographer Sujoy Das remembers a monsoon visit to the Dumji festival, the landscape shrouded in mist and dripping with rain. “I climbed to Namche gompa where monks were occupied making torma, exquisite flour and butter sculptures, as festival offerings. Sherpa families take turns to sponsor Dumji, and invite monks to officiate in the monasteries.

On my way back down the hill, amidst great local excitement, I passed the Rinpoche of Tengboche who had arrived by helicopter to preside over the services. The festivities honour the founder saint, Guru Padmasambhava, and are said to date back to the historic times of Lama Sangwa Dorjee and his two famous tantric brothers who established the original three gompas of Pangboche, Thame and Rimijung after the Khumbu beyul (holy refuge) was first discovered by Sherpa people migrating from eastern Tibet.”

On one particularly bizarre occasion in 2003, Rinpoche agreed to an unusual proposition. Sitting politely on carpets beneath a wall of thankas, I explained that some Germans wished to arrange a memorable birthday for their boss. The card would read ‘HH Rinpoche of Tengboche is pleased to welcome Dr Klaus Zumwinkel to stay in his monastery in the Everest region. This gift on the occasion of your sixtieth birthday is given by all employees of Deutsche Post World Net’.

The experience involved staying in monk's quarters and taking part in prayers and monastery activities for a week, with a personal monk interpreter deputed to help him navigate real monastery life. Despite sending a generous donation, I apologised that the boss never showed up to claim his birthday present. “Never mind!” twinkled Rinpoche.

Without his encompassing spiritual authority, this week the Khumbu is a different place. Every forlorn Sherpa home is conducting personal pujas. In the diamond light of autumn, Rinpoche’s loss echoes through the stone houses, the rushing rivers, the rock walls, the soaring white peaks and reforested hillsides that shelter red tragopans, iridescent impeyan pheasants, skittish musk deer and Himalayan tahr with lavish manes. A striking dawn cloud formation seems to salute his passing.

Mingma Norbu told me: “Early on Monday the local Sherpa people carried his body in procession to Tengboche after a solemn blessing from Deu Rinpoche at Namche gompa. Reaching at 1145am, monks from Thame and Thamo attended for his special welcome. Rinpoche’s body will remain in Tengboche for 49 days, after which he will be cremated according to our local tradition.”

Lisa Choegyal


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