Lama Geshe Dies

Today I learned that much revered Lama Geshe, 87, of Pangboche passed away.

For almost anyone who has climbed in the Khumbu Region of Nepal, and many trekkers, you know this wonderful man. He lived in the Himalayan Sherpa village of Pangaboch, 13,074’/3,985 m, with his wife. Their home is about three days walk from Everest Base Camp and two days from Lukla. They raised their son and daughter in their simple home that had a perfect view of Ama Dablam

Lama Geshe received his Buddhist doctorate in Tibet as a young man. He was living the simple life of a Buddhist Monk when China invaded Tibet in the 1950’s. To continue his studies, practice his religion and save his life, he fled back to his home in Pangboche. He was one of the highest-ranking Lamas in the region, said to be third in line to HH The Dalai Lama; but I don’t think he cared about such things.

2010 Stroke

In September 2010, he had a massive stroke in his home. He was flown to Kathmandu for emergency surgery but few held out hope for the then 78-year-old Lama. His operation went well but he developed infections. He spent six months with his daughter in Kathmandu recovering but desperately wanted to return to his simple home high in the Himalaya. He wanted to see his wife, his friends, he wanted to return to the life that was his. Despite the odds, he did exactly that. In speaking with his son that year, I learned he wanted to return to bless the climbers again that spring season. He loved the climbing community and they loved him. The climbing community came to his financial aid with donations help cover some of his medical expenses. His family was extremely grateful.

A Warm, Kind and Gentle Man

If you do not know Lama Geshe then this is what makes him so special – his smile, his gentle touch, his soft laugh, his aura that made you feel as if the world was in good hands. His hands were always warm no matter how cold the room was. You simply felt better no matter your woes by just being near him.

If you go climbing any mountain in the area with Sherpas, they will insist on receiving a blessing from Lama Geshe. There is quite a ceremony to the blessing and it’s common to have to wait for an hour or more if he is currently blessing a team. You wait outside in the small grass yard, surrounded by a stone wall. Perhaps a yak walks by, bells clanging in the background along with the soft flutter of prayer flags overhead.

A Special Blessing

If his daughter is home, she serves as organizer ushering people out, then the next team in. His wife brings in hot tea or coffee-milk along with simple biscuits on a metal tray. It is a large room by Sherpa standards with benches lined up against the walls. Lama Geshe sits behind a small desk, his back to a wall of windows allowing the sun to shine directly into the otherwise dark room. Usually, one of the senior Sherpas, often a monk himself, will take the lead and introduce the team and what mountain they are climbing. The Sherpas know Lama Geshe well as do many of the foreign guides and repeat visitors to the area.

The puja begins with Lama Geshi quietly praying – a soft chant born hundreds of years earlier high on the Tibetan Steps. He uses a bird feather to wave at the smoke rising from a single piece of incense. He will spread water droplets from time to time and ring a bell. All of this has meanings deeply rooted in the Buddhist culture.

As guests, we sit quietly. Some will go deep into their own mind, others hang on each sound and movement both entertaining and perplexed by what the old Lama is doing. The Sherpas sit quietly, hands in lap. But pictures are allowed and the quiet is often interrupted by the sound of a shutter. Lama Geshi often looks over and just smiles, understanding the modern world.

One by one the guests are called up to sit in a chair before the Lama. First he takes a thin yellow or red string (a sungdi) and places it around your neck. Then you give the silk scarf (a kata) to his daughter with an offering in it. He says a brief prayer and the scarf is placed back around your neck. For many, he offers a gentle head bump to “seal the deal” while holding your hands, palms up. You move back to the bench and sit quietly while he does the same ceremony with all the other climbers and Sherpa.

The Lama continues to chant prayers for safety and permission to climb the mountain while tossing rice into the air. The entire ceremony last about 20 minutes. It is common for him to bless over 500, maybe 1,000 climbers, trekkers and Sherpa during April and May and again in September and October

Throughout this entire blessing, he would look you straight in the eye. The meaning is clear. I was always touched by this ceremony. In the quiet moments, I reflected on why I was there and what this moment and experience meant to me.

Some people walk away with tears in their eyes, others with huge smiles and some with no expression at all, struggling to understand.

Life Lessons

I enjoyed this report from climber Scott Willimas with a 2014 Explordus team.

Saturday, 12 April 2014 Today was a rest day in Pangboche. The highlight of the day was a visit to see the Lama Geshe … He wrapped katas around each of us, tied a colored string around our necks and blessed rice for each of us to carry with us. In the event of danger, we are to cast the rice towards the hazzard. Shane asked for an extra portion.

The Lama Geshe then talked about some of the basic tenets of his studies. Because he speaks only Tibetan, his son-in-law (himself a lama), translated for us. He encouraged us all to seek happiness within ourselves, not from external belongings. He related a story about water falling over a rock. Although the water calls to the passerby to come and quench their thirst, the person must act to go to the water. The water will not come to them. He also offered up the following wish: “Give up from your heart all intentions to harm others. And do your best to benefit them all. If each and everyone feels the Universal Responsibility to do so, we will all enjoy the feast of Peace.”

As before, I left the Lama Geshe’s presence contemplating his thoughts.

Simple truths from a complex man. Yes, sometimes climbing mountains is more than climbing.

I will deeply miss this man whom I’ve known since 1996. Visiting his home and family has always been a highlight. After my 2011 Everest summit, along with teammate Mirjam Riser, we visited Lama Geshe again. He was thrilled to see us because, as he told us through an interpreter, everyone sees him going in and no one stops to let him know what happened on the way out! He was thrilled we had a summit and were safe. I left his home that day full of energy and happiness.

Lama Geshe had a full life. He touched tens of thousands of people in a deep, spiritual way. He made a difference in people ‘s lives through just being a simple Buddhist Monk. Climbing in the Khumbu will never be the same.

He will be missed.

Om mani peme hung

Memories are Everything


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One thought on “Lama Geshe Dies

  1. Alan…. what a wonderful tribute… some of your most thoughtful ?

    Do you know if the Sherpa will expect a reincarnation for him?

    Don Hoffman

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