A Personal Account of a Visit to Tsum
Tsum - the blessed valley
The trip to Tsum was really, really wonderful. Tsum just felt like home. I know that sounds strange and probably many people talk like that, just blah blah. For me, arriving in Tsum and jumping out of the helicopter was like coming home.
This was a very powerful experience for me. And it was so incredible to see all the places I had talked about to various people in preparation for the project over this past year.
The Tsum valley is truly beautiful, a long valley, with the pathways lined with stupas and mani walls, the mountains dotted with the holy places of Milarepa and Guru Rinpoche, and the caves of yogis and yoginis who have achieved realizations in this valley for many hundreds of years.
The atmosphere is imbued with spiritual energy: the wish for Dharma practice comes nearly naturally, effortlessly - an amazing and transforming experience.
For the first few days we were staying at Rachen Nunnery, which is right in the center of the valley. We were very fortunate with the weather - not too cold, not too hot. Nighttimes a warm sleeping bag was in order. What it would be like in winter is hard to imagine.
The nuns at Rachen Gompa are so sweet; there are many young ones, and a very impressive group of older nuns that have done retreat and have a lot of knowledge. We attended a guru puja at Rachen Nunnery with all the nuns. The puja lasted for seven hours and I have to admit we all started to squirm on our seats a bit, while the nuns were sitting unperturbed, beautifully concentrating on the prayers. There was much laughter afterwards as we staggered out of the gompa with stiff legs.
From Rachen Nunnery we made a number of excursions in the valley, walking every day. It was sometimes quite tiring, with getting used to the altitude and the unaccustomed exercise. I am not fit at all, your proverbial couch potato. However the inspiring environment made up for all of it. Gelek Gyatso stayed in the lama room at Rachen, decorated with very beautifully painted murals, whereas the rest of the group stayed in the guest rooms.
Although living conditions are very tough at Rachen and Mu, one of the delightful things that the nuns and also the monks have created for themselves are the beautiful little private courtyards which provide shelter from the constant wind and trap the warmth of the sun, making it the perfect place for growing some flowers and vegetables, a welcome addition for their otherwise simple meals. Going from the courtyard to the outside area was like going under a cold shower - out comes the coat and the hat.
We visited Mu Gompa, a very a long walk of 7 hours for us, (the local Tsumpas do it in 4 hours). Mu Gompa was absolutely fantastic - everything you dream of when you image a remote monastery in a rugged valley. The monastery is built on a steep slope of a mountain. Again, it felt very familiar, specially the little house above the monastery where we stayed. Geshe Chokley, the resident teacher of both Rachen Nunnery and Mu Gompa, and the monks at Mu took excellent care of us.
We offered toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap to all the Sangha, and Frances and Chodak gave everyone a hygiene talk, which had everyone in stitches.
On the last two days we went for the longest and most beautiful walk along the mountain ridge far above the villages visiting all of Geshe Lama Konchog's holy places. It was really very moving to know this is where Geshe-la had meditated, where he did his practices, to see his cave, the small little house where he did his main retreat. The house was not in good repair, but a beautiful wild red climbing rose was in full bloom covering the house and garden.
During the ten days of our stay, we did a health survey of people at the monastery, nunnery and in various villages. Frances Howland, a nurse who works in Kathmandu, accompanied us. She organized the survey and held a clinic each day in the nunnery courtyard with Ven. Chodak, the head master of the school at Kopan, interpreting for her.
Interviewing people for the health survey was a real eye-opener to all of us about the poor conditions that people live in - there were always many people coming to see Frances; wherever we stopped there was a bunch of people already waiting as they had heard we were on the way. It made our progress very slow, but Frances could help many people even with thelimited medicine that we had brought with us.
We saw quite a few babies whose mothers had died in childbirth; there were even two sets of twins whose mother had died, leaving the father all alone to take care of them. Not an easy task.
Many people had eye problems, mainly from working in smoky kitchens. Many old people were blind from cataracts. There was really nothing we could do for them as they needed surgery. Cataracts are very common due to the high ultraviolet light exposure. Being blind or of poor eyesight is pretty terrible there as it means you can't go anywhere by yourself.
Gelek Gyatso Rinpoche suggested that organizing an eye camp would be very helpful for the local people. After approaching a leading eye hospital in Kathmandu, we now have a commitment from them to do an eye camp with cataract removal and lens implant early next year. Already more than 60 people have been identified as recipient for the lens implants.
Tsum remains an impression not just in the memory, but in the heart. From Kopan I look at Himal Ganesh, the snow mountain behind which the Tsum valley is hidden, and I am instantly transported back there, the smell of the wild garlic that the nuns collected, the constant roar of the wind, the hermitage clinging to the side of the mountain like a bird's nest, and the smile of people living there.
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