Sunday, July 29, 2012

Woman of modest means gives her life's savings for a Buddhist scripture reading in New York

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Proverbs 14:12

I find it interesting and amusing that the clergy of Eastern religions, who supposedly eschew materialism, seem to charge a lot for their services (presumably, they're free to do so beacuse money doesn't mean anything to them). As reported by Sarah Maslin Nir of The New York Times, July 16, 2012:

Dayangji Sherpa lives with her 25-year-old daughter, Nima, in a one-bedroom apartment in Woodside, Queens, where they sleep in the same bed to save money. But on Sunday, they stood on a dais before an altar of glittering gold Buddhas while some of the highest-ranked Buddhist monks from around the region bowed their heads to the women and showered them with benedictions. It was the culmination of a rare ceremony where every single text of their Buddhist canon is read from morning until night by monks, who are fed, housed and paid by a sponsor until all 108 books are read.

It took more than a month. And it cost more than $50,000 — the elder Ms. Sherpa’s life savings.

Completing the Kangyur, the Tibetan-language version of the sacred Buddhist texts, is done as a form of prayer for peace for all sentient beings, several monks explained. For nearly 40 days, ending last week, about a dozen monks called from around the region read eight hours a day, aloud and simultaneously, seated cross-legged in a converted brick church in Elmhurst.

There had never been such a reading in New York, according to Urgen Sherpa, 41, a former general secretary of Sherpa Kyidug, which represents Sherpas in the United States, including an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 in New York. (Mr. Sherpa is not related to Ms. Sherpa: many Sherpas, who are an ethnic group from high in the Himalayas in eastern Nepal, use the surname.) Kangyur readings are rarely commissioned even in Nepal, Mr. Sherpa said, because of the high cost.

Ms. Sherpa, 54, a home health aide, estimates she paid about $111 per monk per day. It included twice-daily meals of Nepalese and Tibetan comfort food at Himalayan Yak restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue and an attendant to provide an endless supply of traditional salted butter tea. Other members of the community also made donations.

“People can do this, but nobody does it,” Ms. Sherpa said. “I’m not rich. I wanted a do a good thing.”

In a fur hat, her long braid laced with pink thread, Ms. Sherpa doled out envelopes of money to each monk on Sunday, her daughter following behind her. As trumpets sounded and cymbals clashed, she limped across the dais on her artificial leg: When she was 8, her leg was amputated after it was crushed by an avalanche while she tended yaks near Kunde, her village. At 22, her family disowned her when she eloped with a man from a lower caste. When she was five months pregnant with Nima, the couple split up; Ms. Sherpa raised her daughter alone, eventually immigrating to the United States about a decade ago.

Even in a religion that rejects materialism, her modest means made the ceremony noteworthy, said Sherry Ortner, an anthropology professor at the University of California Los Angeles and an author on Sherpa culture.

Ms. Sherpa’s father and grandfather, who owned a successful teahouse near the Mount Everest base camp, each sponsored such a reading in the past. Ms. Ortner said that in Tibet and Nepal, such events are typically paid for by the wealthy. That a person of lesser means is sponsoring the Kangyur in the United States suggests that in the diaspora those old hierarchies are shifting. “The status system is changed,” she said.

Spending her savings was an act of faith, said Mr. Sherpa of the community association. Buddhism rejects materialism as one of the Three Poisons that lead to suffering. “She is giving away some materials,” he said. “That means a destroying of one of the poisons: greed, attachment.”

Pema Sherpa, a nanny, makes $700 a week and has supported one of the monks for the past two years and will continue to do so indefinitely, providing him a room in her house and $600 a month. She explained Dayangji Sherpa’s generosity: “What do you need in life? You have food, shelter, what else do you want? This is karma.”

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