Maurice describes our encounter with the monks of Tengboche and the impact of Buddhism on Snow Leopard conservation
Sonam Sherpa sits opposite me. He’s 29 years old, has alert eyes, wears a red trekking jacket, nike shoes and Columbia brand trekking socks. He fingers a cell phone absentmindedly. He is what you would describe as a modern day monk.
Buddhism is the religion of the Nepalese and Tibetan (or do we say Chinese now?) slice of the Himalayas. The calming presence of the men in flowing red robes or fake North Face jackets is felt everywhere. Every settlement we have visited in the Solukhumbu thus far has had a monastery.
The monasteries are not hard to spot – you simply have to look for the most unlikely place one would place a building. They are often situated in isolated spots, usually up against the flanks of a mountain above the rest of the village. They are located in places where silence is absolute and where they seem to have a direct line to the gods. The colourful buildings, often a stark contrast from the drab white’s and greens, cast a watchful eye over the villages.
The monks have changed, Sonam readily admits. With increased access to the wider world the traditional robes have been swapped for trekking brand jackets (and who can blame, a robe is hardly going to keep out the bitter cold of the higher altitudes). The monks have cell phones and are allowed to watch TV on Fridays and Saturdays (World Wrestling Federation is a favourite…interesting ?) and they use facebook. Much has changed.
What hasnt changed is their devotion and sacrifice. They spend most of their days in meditation or learning Tibetan, which is not their native tongue but since all the scriptures are in Tibetan they have little choice. Sonam has been a monk at Tengboche Monastery since he was 18 – he is happy with his choice, so far, but there is one thing that bothers him. Monks cannot marry. He admits he is undecided about what he should do. I tell him about my girlfriend and he advises me to get married. ASAP. ‘You are getting too old!’.
Our conversation turns to Tibet, the Chinese neighbours and his Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sonam longs to visit Tibet one day…one day when the persecution is gone. There is no religious freedom in Tibet. Monks from Tengboche Monastery who have tried to visit Tibet have obtained their Visa through the correct political channels at the Chines Embassy in Kathmandu, travelled to the border and and at the sight of their red robes have been refused entry. Tragic.
Sonam claims the Dalai Lama will never visit Tengboche Monastery, nor Nepal for that matter, because the Nepali’s have too close ties with the Chinese –‘ he will never come.’ A free Tibet is in all the hearts of the monks he reveals but none really believe in it any longer.
‘One day’ we agree without conviction.
Sonam takes us into the monastery for the grand tour of one of their most holy places. Its a stunning array of cimbals, trumpets, reds, yellows and giant statues of Buddha himself. I have to run in after Niki who has wandered in with her shoes still on before she gets struck down by lightning. Then its back outside.
The sound of horns above our heads fills the air calling the faithful to prayers. We watch the monks in the distance return from their volleyball game at 4000m without any of them gasping for breath. I’m envious. Sonam stands – he must go. Our conversation in broken english comes to an end.
Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life in the Himalayas and its impact on Snow Leopard conservation is evident. More times than we can count, in response to questions regarding their attitudes to Snow Leopards, we have heard the phrase, ‘we are buddhists, we do not kill’ or ‘It has the right to live, just like us’. Though some of the sharper characters do make the point that regardless of their religious beliefs, if it came down to it, they couldnt kill the Snow Leopard anyway, ‘Its impossible to kill, we cannot even see it, how are we going to kill it – there is no point.’
This might be the silver lining of Snow Leopard conservation in this stretch of the Himalaya. In spite of the conflict between the Snow Leopard and the people who inhabit these stunning valleys this endangered species has been cast a lifeline by a people who do not believe in killing (retaliation or otherwise) and instead worship it as a God. It could be worse.
One Nepali woman said, ‘The Snow Leopard only kills when it is angry with us, we must burn incense to appease it.’
Another said , ‘We believe that when the Snow Leopard kills our livestock, it takes away all our bad luck from our family – so its ok.’
These deeply spiritual peace loving people of the Himalaya live side by side with the Snow Leopard. They are as much a victim of this fragile coexistence as the Snow Leopard. The question is thus, for how much longer can these people afford to shoulder this burden alone.