A Lesson from the Tangboche Monastery

Apr 5, 2011
Outside Magazine


I am here to climb Mt. Everest but the trek to Everest is always a highlight. Unlike my previous times, we are taking our time with acclimatization days built into the schedule allowing for plenty of opportunity to see the Khumbu in a relaxed manner. Also, I am finding this pace to be very conducive to preparing for the task ahead.

We left Namche in a gentle snowfall that followed us all the way to Tengboche Monastery and to our teahouse at Deboche. The section of the trek involves a fairly steep downhill to the river and a corresponding uphill climb to the Monastery. In bright sun, it can be oppressive but we enjoyed cool temperatures with low clouds plus a continuous snowfall that blanketed the pine trees but not the trail. It was like a perfect Christmas card.

Arriving at the Rivendale Teahouse, only a few years old, we settled into our double rooms waiting for our porters to arrive with our bags. This is when packing a spare shirt in my backpack pays off. Several other teams were there so were exchanged pleasantries and schedules before a nice dinner and bed.

However, all this was just the preliminaries to a very special day today. After breakfast, we made our way back up the muddy trail to the Tengbouche Monastery. This is the largest Monastery in the Khumbu and the home of the Rimboche. Today is also home to 45 monks but has had twice that many in years past.

It was closed but one of our Sherpas found a monk washing clothes and he opened the doors to let us have a closer look inside. The walls are all hand painted by Tibetans Monks specializing in monasteries and the wood carvings are exquisite. The large room has a u-shaped low bench where the monks sit for their daily prayers. It is very cold inside with little natural sunlight entering the heavily latticed widows. Of course a huge Buddha oversaw all the activities.

We arranged to return at 3:00 to observe their daily afternoon prayer.


As we entered the Monastery, we took off our shoes and lined up to sit against the cold wall. I was glad I wore my down jacket. The monks sat side by side wrapped in heavy crimson robes, looking alike with their closely cropped hair and focused expressions. We were greeted with a friendly smile helping us feel welcome in their home.

The prayers resemble chanting in a low monotone of words indistinguishable to my ears. Two monks siting aside huge drums usually providing the only break with a resounding womb followed by hand cymbals. The youngest monk poured hot milk tea to the other monks. This continued for an hour.

As I sat listening to these prayers, my wandered to stories that were recently shared with me.

This is an excerpt posted on our Facebook Wall of Memories from Kate:

“The disease took the Grandma I knew long before the end of her life. Her smile was gone. She didn’t know her family anymore. For her especially, I can’t think of anything more cruel. I’ve often reflected how hard it must have been for my Mom to be one of her care givers, wondering if this might someday be her. I haven’t been able to ask Mom about it because I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

I worry because there just isn’t enough known about this horrific disease. I wonder of course if my Mom will get it. I wonder if I will someday too. The most crushing part of this disease was watching Grandma’s memories disappear one by one. I’ve always imagined that part of the reason you live your life fully is so you have something to play back, relish, learn from, and pass along later in life. It certainly isn’t fair to be robbed of that, and of course the disease doesn’t care how wonderful Grandma was.

You know, everyone talks about how Alzheimer’s robs those who have it of their memories and likely few things are worse than that. But it also robs the memories of those around the disease. It robbed me of my memories of a Grandma without Alzheimer’s. Some of my memories of Grandma’s smile are now tinged with the memories of her sadness when she realized what was happening. Some of my memories of her fortitude are now mingled with her frailty at the end.”

And from Ellen, she told of her mother’s passing just last week after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Rita told me of the 6 month anniversary of her mother’s passing and how much she still missed her. And of course I thought of my own mom, Ida. Every day someone goes through these same end of life experiences just as others start their Alzheimer’s struggle.

The monks sipped their hot milk tea as they sat crossed legged. They pursed their lives through the generosity of others.

As we left the dark and cold, the clouds had moved in creating a tapestry of light and shadows against the high snow covered mountains. But we could see Everest high to the North with the signature plume flowing west of the summit. The walk back down the muddy trail seemed a bit easer this time, not sure why.

As I see the sacrifices of the monks, the sacrifices of caregivers and the struggles of life; looking to climb at the highest mountain in the world does not seem that hard; yet it is. Life can be difficult and rewarding. Today, I shared in the reward of a special place.

Climb On!

Memories are Everything

Tengboche  Yaks

Arnette is a speaker, mountaineer and Alzheimer's Advocate. He is climbing the 7 Summits throughout 2011. He has summited Vinson and Aconcagua already and leaves for Everest in late March. All to raise $1 million for Alzheimer's research. You can read more on his site.

Photos Courtesy AlanArnette.com

Filed To: Climbing

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