Sherpas, Zopa Rinpoche and the Lawudo Lama
“The Sherpas (Tibetan:shar pa, from shar “east” + pa “people”) are an ethnic group who live in the high mountain region of the eastern Himalayas. According to the Sherpas themselves, however, sherpa actually refers to all Tibetans, i.e., all “people from the east.” About 3,000 of the more than 10,000 Sherpas in Nepal reside in the Solu Khumbu valley, the entryway to Mount Everest from the southwest. However, some live farther west in the high Rolwaling Valley and in the Langtang-Helambu region directly north of Kathmandu. Sherpas have their own language, which resembles a dialect of Tibetan. Most Sherpas are Tibetan Buddhists of the Nyingma sect.
The term sherpa is also used to refer to local mountain people, men and also women, who work as guides and porters for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. They are highly regarded as elite mountaineers and experts in their local geography. Historically Sherpas were traders; even today, yak trains carry various goods and food items across the Nangpa La pass to Tibet, returning with salt and wool.
The Sherpas grow or raise most of their food by herding yaks and planting potatoes. Yaks provide wool for clothing, leather for shoes, dung for fuel and fertilizer, milk, butter, cheese and meat. Potatoes, which grow at altitudes up to 14,000 feet, provide the Sherpas with their dietary staple: the main food eaten is Sherpa stew, shakpa, a meat- and potato-based stew with some vegetables mixed in. The typical Nepali fare of rice with lentils, called dhal bhaat, is also a common meal among Sherpas. Tea is the drink of choice, served in big thermoses, with plenty of milk and either sugar or salt and butter already added. Each household brews its own chang, which is a thick, rice- or barley-based beer.
Sherpa hospitality is legendary. Trekkers hiking along the paths into the mountains can stop for tea, or a meal, or an overnight stay at any Sherpa’s house, even the poorest, and be welcomed openly with kindness; no one is ever turned away from the door.
Every twelve years the Sherpa people of Solu Khumbu traveled from their mountain homes down to Kathmandu for a traditional pilgrimage tour of the holy Buddhist sites there. In the early spring of 1969 Zopa Rinpoche’s mother and other family members embarked on this pilgrimage, traveling to Kathmandu together with their friends and neighbors. But Zopa Rinpoche’s relatives had an even more compelling reason to head to Kathmandu that spring. They intended to beg Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the incarnation of the previous Lawudo Lama who had died in March 1945, to come back home to Solu Khumbu.
Dawa Chötar, the little boy who would eventually be ordained as Thubten Zopa, was born in the small town of Thangmé, just below the village of Lawudo, on 3 December 1945. His father had died when he was only two, leaving his impoverished mother with four children to raise, one of whom had died at the age of nine. He had an older brother, Sangye, and an older sister, Ngawang Samten. They dressed in rags and had little to eat. When he was barely able to walk, Dawa Chötar began trying to make his way up the mountain to Lawudo, a two-hour trek across a river and straight up the mountainside. He insisted that the cave up there was his home. He played at giving initiations and could name, apparently from memory, all the benefactors of the Lawudo Lama.
The Lawudo Lama had been a married salt trader with a son and a daughter. Married lamas are common in the Nyingma tradition, to which he belonged. He had decided to spend his life in retreat in a cave once used to store radishes. As he was digging it out, he discovered a beautiful space marked with sacred signs. But just as he was about to move into the cave, he was struck with paralysis. Later, he declared his disease a special blessing because it meant he could meditate undisturbed, having been rendered useless for anything else. So for thirteen years he sat in meditation on a stone seat in this cave, his hair left uncut and dressed always in an old white fur coat and a pair of big round earrings. It is said that during his cremation rainbow clouds filled the sky, flower-shaped snowflakes fell, and the air was filled with music.
Three years later a two-year old boy from one of the poorest families in the area began insisting he was the Lawudo Lama’s reincarnation. His relatives were embarrassed, but one night the late Lama’s daughter, Karzang, secretly visited the boy’s home with articles that had belonged to her father. Little Dawa Chötar identified them immediately. He was then subjected to public examinations; he passed every test and was officially recognized. When he was four years old, an uncle took him to Rolwaling Monastery, which was two days’ hard walk from Thangmé. The boy, now called Ang Gyältsen, spent seven years there, before his uncles took him to Tibet, where he was ordained at Domo Geshe Rinpoche’s Dungkar Monastery in Phag-ri. Not long after that, it was 1959 and he had to escape to India.”