Anthropologic park or Kingdom of God?
Many tourists sojourn to the Tengboche monastery, located at 12,700 feet in the Khumbu. Westerners seek enlightenment in the monastery by participating – for a donation – in what they perceive to be timeless practices in an ancient place. It is an exotic vacation destination for the lost. It is also neither timeless nor ancient.
The monastery was originally built in 1916. In 1988 an American foundation funded the construction of a very small hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to it. Less than a year later a fire caused by a space heater burned the monastery to the ground. With aid from the West, it was rebuilt larger than before.
In the early part of the 20th century, Sherpas were tending toward Hindu practices. That trend was reversed by the foundation of the monasteries. The monasteries changed the local religion. During the last 90 years, ritual animal sacrifices to gain wealth have been eliminated, shamanism has mostly disappeared, and the more violent elements of annual festivals have been toned down. While the large Tengboche monastery is flourishing thanks to foreign donations, many smaller monasteries off the popular trekking trails are not faring well.
Some long-time observers feel that Sherpas have used their religious rites on expeditions, as staged performances in response to westerners’ desire to experience the exoticness of Tibetan Buddhism and exert moral control. An example is the puja, which is a ceremony Sherpas use to ask permission and protection from the mountain gods. During mountaineering expeditions 50 years ago, Sherpas would usually hold pujas in small and private ways. Pujas held in base camps have grown larger and now westerners are invited to attend. They involve building a stone altar, hanging prayer flags, and tossing rice as part of seeking favor from the god of the particular mountain to be climbed.
Other long-time visitors to the Khumbu region believe Sherpa culture is declining and there has been a rise in individualism and competitiveness as Sherpas pursue business relating to tourism. However, there does not seem to have been any change in the consistent accounts of Sherpas’ kindness and heroism while they have supported expeditions and treks over the last 50 years.
Change in the region is undeniable. In years past tourists might seek a traditional meal as a guest in a Sherpa home. Today, tourists can log onto the Web and sip cappuccino.
Is the Khumbu to remain an anthropologic reserve for the entertainment of western tourists? Are Sherpas confined to mountain guiding and potato farming? Tourists to the Khumbu may be more resistant to the Truth of Christ than the residents.
During my trip to Nepal in 2000, I wrote prayerfully to God in my journal: “Please send reinforcements.” And so here we are. May His light shine in the darkness of Nepal.
Jim Doenges, a staff member of Climbing For Christ, will be our Mission: Nepal expedition leader. This story originally appeared in our magazine The Climbing Way (Volume 9, Winter 2007-2008).