Friday, April 25, 2014

Buddhist/Bon Sherpas of Mt. Everest (audio)

Amber Larson, Dhr. Seven, CC Liu, Wisdom Quarterly; David Leveille (The World,
The mighty Himavanta/Himalayas (Raimond Klavins/
Buddhist and Bon family members of the Nepali mountain-guides lost in the Mt. Everest avalanche wait for the bodies of loved ones to arrive at Sherpa Monastery in Kathmandu on April 19, 2014. The avalanche was the deadliest in eight years (Navesh Chitraka/Reuters).

Pasang Y. Sherpa (Penn)
The avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas last week may be a turning point in the history of Mt. Everest (Sagarmatha) expeditions -- a time to reflect on the Western climbing culture and on the risks faced by the mountain's unsung heroes that make that culture possible, the Sherpas.
The World asked Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, an anthropologist and lecturer at Penn State Univ., to answer some questions about Sherpa culture. She didn't have any immediate family or relatives killed in the avalanche but says the tragic accident "is something that is really sad for every Sherpa." We've lightly edited the interview for clarity.

When you have Sherpa in your name, what does that indicate?
Beyond Everest in Bhutan (
It indicates that we belong to this ethnic group called Sherpas.

The term Sherpa is often used synonymously with expedition workers, or porters, because historically those were the jobs that Sherpas did. But it kind of takes our attention away from who Sherpas really are and does not differentiate the ethnic group from the job.
Buddhist Himalayas from K2 to Bhutan
Sherpas currently live in different parts of the world, but the largest communities are in Nepal and the Everest region. And there are large communities of Sherpas living in [metropolitan] Kathmandu and New York City. 

Why are Sherpas so skilled at mountaineering?
We have been living in the mountains for a very long time, and that's where we come from, so we know the area. We know how to live and survive and adapt. But we need to understand that Sherpas do not climb mountains for a hobby or as a sport. They do so to earn money for themselves and their families so the families can have a better life.
Buddhist novices of India behind the Himalayas, Ladakh (SylvainBrajeul/
How do Sherpas generally view the Himalayan mountains?
The devas' resort (
 The mountains are not just [inanimate] objects in front of them. The mountains are places where deities [devas and other shapeshifting creatures visible to shamans and mystics] reside.

So we go to the mountains and we actually pray [do puja to honor them] and make sure the mountain [or the being associated with the mountain] is not upset, and we make sure the mountains are happy to allow Sherpas, or anyone, to climb.

Sagarmatha Zone, Nepal
Every time one of the expeditions goes up, the Sherpas do a pujah -- a ritual to appease the deity and to make sure everyone's happy and it's okay for them to climb. But this time, because so many lost their lives, this was seen as a sign by the Sherpas that their god[s are] not happy. They thought it was a good reason to stop climbing [and risking their lives] this year. 

Does the worst accident in the history of Everest expeditions mark a turning point for Sherpas?
My friends and I are hoping this will be a turning point. The cycle of people feeling pressured to go to the mountain, then getting injured or dying, then the families grieving -- I think this cycle has to end. We think this incident should be a turning point for everyone. And for the expedition workers, in particular. More
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