Interview with Tulku Ngawang Lapsum
Members of the Bridges 99 team interviewed the Rinpoche Ngawang Lapsum, abbot of Beding Monastery, in November, 1999. The following are notes from those interviews.
About the Tulku
Bridges: Rinpoche, please tell us something about yourself.
Rinpoche: First I should say that I am a student at the Ngagyur Nyingma Institute in Mysore, India. At present I can only come home to Rolwaling during school vacations. After three more years of study I will return to take full responsibility for this monastery in Beding.
About my background, I have been recognized as a tulku, an avatar or reincarnate lama. In my previous life I was the lama of Thame gompa. When I was younger I could remember many details of this previous life, but as I have gotten older, these memories have faded. At the age of three, I was "discovered." A senior lama from Thame monastery came to Beding and took me with him back to Thame to see if I might be the deceased lama's reincarnation. They tested me very thoroughly, and I had to out the lama's possessions from a group of items on a table. So I was recognized as a tulku. Soon afterwards, my father died. This often happens in such cases: the occurrence of a tulku brings misfortune on the family in this life. However it is an important blessing nonetheless. My mother is 78, and my two brothers and one sister are all in good health.
Bridges: Is life at the Institute different for a tulku?
Rinpoche: Well, in fact there are many tulkus in my classes. Everybody knows who we are and who we are reincarnations of, because the application form requests information about our past lives. Is life different for us? Yes, we don't have to study history so much, since we already know it. [laughs]
History of Rolwaling
Bridges: What can you tell us about the history of Rolwaling?
Rinpoche: Not so much, unfortunately. There was a book in this monastery about the origin and history of Rolwaling Valley, but we lost it about forty years ago when it was borrowed and not returned. Perhaps it is in Paktin monastery. According to our traditions, Karmapa created Rolwaling in the 16th century. There is a book about Guru Rinpoche's life which tells how he made a "peace land" from Simigaon to Thame. The people needed such "peace valleys" because there was a lack of food. Nowadays there are many kinds of food in Rolwaling that were introduced later on. For instance, sugar was brought in 30 years ago from Barangnabat. Ramjum Dorge also visited Rolwaling, and his hand and knee prints can be found between Beding and Na.
Spiritual life in Rolwaling
Bridges: We have heard that religion is very strong in Rolwaling. Are there special deities and special beliefs?
Rinpoche: Yes, there are many special deities. On Mt. Gauri Shankar alone there are five gods: Alhao (a goddess), Maha Kala, Haia Kiua, Gauri, and Shankar. Gauri Shankar protects our people from danger. For instance, before an expedition, Rolwaling climbers pray using the Gauri Shankar prayer book. Also Gauri Shankar and Makula protect every house.
Bridges: How do the deities impact everyday life?
Rinpoche: Actually, the gods influence everything. We share our space with them, and we have to respect their wishes. For example, it is disrespectful to throw garbage into the fireplace because whatever is cooked or burnt goes directly to the gods. If it is garbage, the gods will get angry.
Sherpas are also careful about spirits in deciding where to put buildings. Before building a house, we have to determine whether a spot is auspicious. For that, we use the Tsipeh, which is a book of religious divination on many topics. There are also simple rules, such as that a house must face downhill because demons live in the caves uphill. Also, doors must be small to prevent dead bodies from coming inside... the dead body is very stiff and cannot bend down to get in. Tourists seem to have the same problem, don't they? [laughs]
When somebody dies, the body is burnt and there is a celebration for the soul of the body. But the funeral also be performed at the proper place, and for this we use the Tsi.
Bridges: What about sacred monuments and places?
Rinpoche: Like other Sherpas, we in Rolwaling believe that we can increase good karma in our world by building and maintaining stupas, mani walls, and prayer flags.
Stupas especially protect a place from natural hazards. To find a good place for a stupa, we first take mud from the area to the lama of Tushi who prays and analyzes the location using the Tsipeh. After that they go to the chosen area, make a circle on the ground and dig a hole. Again they read the Tsi and decide finally whether it is an auspicious place. If a location is bad from the gods' point of view but really good from the local people's point of view, it is possible to turn a bad place into a good one by praying.
Inside the stupa there are religious books, copper and silver containers with offerings for the goods, and bones of dead lamas.
Mani walls can be placed wherever there is enough room to walk around it. We walk around clockwise. There is a sect called Pembu [Bön] whose adherents go around mani walls counterclockwise. They also give special meaning to the swastika, which for us is just a decoration. The Pembu Lama lives in Jumla. Sherpas believe that if they walk around a mani wall, or a stupa, in the wrong direction, it will bring bad karma.
Prayer flags are also important for the propagation of good karma. The flag pole is not so important... we use different kinds of wood, and in Kathmandu, where wood is hard to find, people often use iron. The flags [tarchok] are cloths with prayers block-printed on five different color backgrounds. These have religious meaning, and also represent the five elements of the universe: green represents water, yellow is earth, red is fire, white is wind, and blue is the sky. The order in which the colors are displayed depends on the year in which a person is born.
Bridges: What objects from the natural environment have religious significance?
Rinpoche: In many rituals, Sherpas burn incense. In general, Buddhist incense is different from Hindu incense. There is a book about how to make Buddhist incense. We don't think the incense made in Kathmandu is good -- it is too commercial. Most often we burn juniper, which the gods like because of its nice smell. There are some herbs which can be used to make medicinal incense. Some of these can be burnt only in special places... if such incense is burnt in the wrong place, the gods will be offended.
Some precious stones have a special meaning, but not all. For instance, turquoise is good for the liver.
Bridges: How does the yeti fit in? Does it exist? Is it part of the natural world or part some kind of deity?
Rinpoche: The yeti is a sentient being, like other animals. Tibetan books mention tremo instead of yeti, but they are the same. Three years ago, during the winter, a yeti ate a yak and captured a woman. He released her, but 15 days after the encounter she died. Her house is empty two days later, it tried to go inside a lama's house and wasn't able, so it destroyed the stairs.
Last year, in a cave above Na, a lama saw a yeti. It was yellow, with no tail... like a monkey. It walked upright. The lama didn't die because he had spent many days praying to the gods. But there isn't any special prayer to avoid the bad luck brought by meeting a yeti.
At the same cave, may years ago, somebody cooked meat and ate it. A yeti went to the cave and knocked on the door. It couldn't get in. A week later that person died.
Bridges: What can you tell us about the other wildlife in this valley?
Rinpoche: There is a white lion, the serken [snow leopard?] in Rolwaling and Khumbu; it comes to Beding once in a while, but only attacks animals, not humans.
The place where now you find Tsho Rolpa used to be a grazing area. Sherpas believe that a god lives in the lake, but nothing exact is known about that. Personally, I don't think the lake will burst, because the far side is quite deep.
There are some medicinal herbs that grow in Rolwaling. However, people are not allowed to pick them because digging destroys soil and causes erosion.
Bridges: Do you have any special projects for Rolwaling?
Rinpoche: At the monastery in Beding there are now two or three lamas and two trawas [regular monks]. The monks are permitted to marry, but it is better if they don't. After they marry, they must live in their own homes, not at the monastery. A long time ago, there were many students, but nowadays are the students are in Kopan [in Kathmandu]. One of my main goals is to build a large monastery school in Beding, suitable for around 100 people. For that we need not just money and labor to build the school, but also sponsors to support the students and to bring good teachers.
A school for monks is not the entire solution to our cultural problems. Most people in Rolwaling can't read or write Tibetan. This is very bad. I think we should be teaching Tibetan language at school. That's how it is in Thame and Khumjung, where children can study Tibetan until fifth grade. If children only learn Nepali and English, there will be a loss of identity and unity.
Bridges: What role should tourism play in the future of your valley?
Rinpoche:The development and promotion of tourism is essential to the future of Rolwaling. I am sure that tourism will have a positive impact, by improving economic opportunities. The current requirement of a trekking peak permit is an obstacle as it prevents independent trekking.
Tourism of course will alter the local culture, but this is not a problem: everyone must recognize and distinguish his own culture and identity. Sherpa culture is a major attraction for tourists, and it is strong enough to survive the impact of tourism.
As the presence of outside ideas and values spreads throughout the Sherpa homeland, it is important to reinforce the structures and traditions of Buddhism. For this I have three major items on my agenda:
- strengthen the tradition of religious festivals at the monastery
- revitalize the Na monastery, and build a new stupa there
- establish a monastery school in Beding to train monks from all districts of Nepal
I hope that your group [Bridges] can assist in these projects, especially by raising money. I strongly agree with your suggestion that tourists help to build the stupa at Na; we have a big shortage of manpower, and of course the participation of guests would be welcome anyway.