Sherpas: Religion and the Printed Word

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The Sherpa, who inhabit the regions surrounding Mount Everest, are well-known in the West as a rugged mountain population, adhering to the religious traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The origins of the Buddha's religion among the Sherpas are lost in tribal and clan legend. The Sherpas, however, are a young people - their legendary past occurred a mere three or four centuries ago. It is only with the ancestors of the early nineteenth century that the historical record becomes clearer and Sherpa Buddhism acquires some of the features it has retained to the present day.

The Sherpas seem to have long been adherents of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, the "ancient school" which extends back to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet during the eighth century A.D. While the Nyingmapas are united by a common history and much shared doctrine, theirs is for the most part a heterogeneous and even somewhat anarchic sect: each regional tradition adheres to the rites revealed by a given Nyingmapa visionary; with the passage of the centuries hundreds of such visionaries have appeared in Tibet.

Sherpa Buddhism adopted its modern form when, shortly before 1850, a number of Sherpa village priests travelled to Tibet to study with the great Trakar Choki Wangchuk, a figure well-known from the Tibetan historical and biographical literature of the period. Choki Wangchuk instructed them in a number of ritual and meditational cycles which have remained popular throughout the villages of Solu-Khumbu, the Sherpa homeland whose northern boundaries are marked by Mount Everest. The liturgies for these rites are often profound and beautiful, as their titles suggest, e.g., "The Union of All that is Precious," "The Spontaneous Freedom of an Enlightened Intention," "The Celestial Doctrine of the Land of Bliss." Their performance is marked by sumptuous offerings, melodious chanting, and joy.

These traditions are the products of a literate and erudite religious culture. Their spread in Solu-Khumbu required the simultaneous spread of literacy in the classical Tibetan language and of the skills needed to reproduce and proliferate the written word - the manufacture of ink and paper, calligraphy, and finally, printing. In the last decades of the nineteenth century these developments were encouraged by the growth of the Sherpa agricultural economy and a resultant increase in Sherpa involvement in the India-Tibet trade. Some Sherpa were full-time traders. As business became more profitable, piety demanded patronage of the religious culture, symbolized first and foremost by the written scripture.

The first Sherpa woodblocks for printing books in Nepal were carved in south-central Solu in the village of Gole, probably during the 1890s. The workmanship is crude and suggests that the workmen had had no formal training in the art of block-carving, but were attempting to imitate Tibetan xylographs using ordinary woodworking skills. The first rough efforts, however, soon gave way to the importation of sophisticated wooden-engraving techniques from Tibet, and by the second or third decade of the present century Sherpa craftsmanship rivaled that of the Tibetan communities to the north of Solu-Khumbu, though the exceedingly fine work of central and of far eastern Tibet remained to be mastered.

At that time the Sherpa clergy consisted of laymen who gathered in village shrines on festival days and other important occasions. There were no monasteries, though some Sherpas had received monastic ordination in Tibet and had founded small hermitages for themselves near their original homes. The importance of the laity in the community religious life guaranteed fairly high literacy rates among the village men - in this the Sherpas have much in common with Nyingmapa communities throughout the Tibetan periphery. Some Tibetan tribes extended the role of lay-religionist to women as well.

The success of the Sherpa business community in the early years of this century provided the conditions required for the growth of monasticism in Solu-Khumbu. The businessmen had travelled widely in Tibet and wished to establish something of the splendor of the great Tibetan pilgrimage sites at home. They could now afford to patronize extensive building and artistic projects. After all, what greater merit is there for a Buddhist layman than to insure the prosperity of his religion?

By the mid-thirties three major monasteries had been founded, and several village temples were refurbished so as to house a permanent staff of ordained monks. Thousands of volumes printed in Tibet were imported to fill the newly built libraries and to serve as textbooks for the education of young novices. Sherpa Buddhism, after only three generations of indigenous development since the days of Trakar Choki Wangchuk, began to reaffirm its links with traditions in Tibet.

Among the Sherpa monks who received their early education in the Solu-Khumbu monasteries during the thirties and forties, there were some whose intelligence and curiosity demanded more than the local centers could provide. Many Sherpas had previously visited Tibet as pilgrims, but now for the first time there were young Sherpas eager to enroll in the great Tibetan monastic universities and to become fully proficient in the arts and sciences of Tibet. Seeking to spread their learning when they returned to Solu-Khumbu, several of them trained young Sherpa scribes and printers in the most refined Tibetan calligraphic and block-printing skills. These they perfected to such an extent that after the Chinese military take-over of Tibet in 1959, Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal found that they could turn to Sherpa craftsmen for xylographic work often superior to that of refugees.

The developments here surveyed may be illustrated in the life of Lama Sangye Tenzin of Serlo Gumba, Nepal. Born in 1924 to a family of pious laymen, he became a monk at an early age and by the time he was nineteen had mastered all that was taught at Chiwong and Tengboche, two of the three major monasteries referred to above. He then spent four years in southern Tibet before moving to Lhasa, where he first heard of the college at Sechen in the far eastern district of Derge. It took nine months of arduous travel on foot to get there, but the effort was appreciated and he was warmly received as Sechen's first Nepalese student. He distinguished himself as a scholar and eventually rose to the rank of khenpo, "preceptor," which is, among the Nyingmapa, roughly equivalent to our Doctor of Theology.

After the eastern Tibetan populations rebelled against increasingly oppressive Chinese policy in 1956, Sangye Tenzin was advised by his teachers to return to Solu-Khumbu. There he founded his own college, where he has taught young Sherpas the elements of most branches of Tibetan learning, and has established a printery run by his own students. The quality of the woodblocks produced under his guidance is presently unsurpassed in the Tibetan-speaking world. Recently his students have also begun to make use of the photo-offset facilities in Kathmandu and Delhi to reproduce calligraphic work inexpensively.

In sum, then, the story of Sherpa Buddhism is that of a people living on the periphery of a great civilization who gradually adopted the traditions of that civilization and made them their own. This, however, does not explain the tenuous condition of Sherpa Buddhism and its literary culture at the present time.

The year 1959 marked the end of Tibetan civilization as it had existed for much of the preceding millennium. The fifties were already a time of cultural change for the Sherpas: The reestablishment of the Shah dynasty as the actual rulers of Nepal in 1951 paved the way for the hill tribes to assert their Nepalese identity and to participate equally in national life.

The Sherpas were internationally acclaimed for their mountaineering feats. Through the efforts of Sir Edmund Hillary, Western education had begun in Solu-Khumbu. Thus, the Sherpas were already redefining certain aspects of their cultural identity when Tibet was taken over militarily by the Chinese. The effects on life and culture in Solu-Khumbu were immediate and profound.

The wordly wealth and prestige that formerly accrued to the Sherpas who had traded in Tibet were now out of reach. Mountain-climbing and tourism became new sources of lucrative employment, but unlike the old traders, those who were working in these fields had no regular involvement with Tibetan civilization and so were little inclined to patronize it. Moreover, the termination of the Tibet trade and the influx of refugees severely damaged the local economy. Literacy in Nepalese and English were sought after,

During the sixties and seventies, an appallingly rapid cultural deterioration occurred in some communities. Villages that a generation ago could boast at least rudimentary skills in written Tibetan among the entire male population now had only one or two old men who could read the language of their religion. Monasteries, temples, and libraries fell into disrepair. Precious collections of printing-blocks began to rot. With little support for the exercise of traditional artistry, skilled craftsmen now had to earn their livelihood by producing tourist art, e.g., woodblock prints of Spiderman for the Kathmandu marketplace.

In Khumbu, the most heavily-touristed of the Sherpa districts, the situation has recently shown signs of improvement. Tengboche monastery, on the trail to Mount Everest, has, through the efforts of its industrious abbot and many local and foreign friends, reasserted its position as a living center of Sherpa Buddhism. Further to the south, however, in Solu and its surrounding districts, valuable shrines, libraries and printeries stand in desperate need of restoration. The Tsibri Parma, for example, the most important collection of Tibetan printing blocks anywhere in Nepal, is rotting away for simple want of a proper storage facility, which would probably cost no more than $1500 to construct. Sangye Tenzin's library, containing books thought to be unique, requires support for the republication of rare texts that may otherwise be lost. The block collections of Chiwong, Mendopake, Cole and other temples are all in poor condition. These examples can be multiplied tenfold.

It is to be hoped that once the present period of intense cultural change has passed the Sherpas will find a balance between their old traditions and their current national and international roles; for, in the final analysis, the survival of Sherpa culture depends on the Sherpas themselves. Some foreign support can be beneficial, however, if applied to locally designed projects and institutions which stand in real need of immediate assistance. Negligence in these cases will only leave the next generation with a poorer legacy, and all too little from which to rebuild.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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