Flying to a strange country with strange customs to make a fresh yet uncertain start

The Nepalis, waiting for Refuge to be given.

No one really knows how many Nepalese refugees from Bhutan are living in Erie, PA, a hardscrabble, post-industrial town on the Great Lakes.  Some say 700, others 2,000.  What is not in dispute is that the community has been successful there and that more are on the way.

Nepal is a masala of different ethnic groups, Sherpas from the Himalaya Mountains near Tibet (the Nepali word for mountain is  Himalaya), the Khas people of the Kathmandu valley, and the Gurungs, famous in the West as the fierce Ghurkas, among them.

Nepal is a religious mixture, too, with most Nepalese practicing some form of Hinduism, and some a syncretic form of Hinduism and Buddhism.

But what is now Nepal was the birthplace some 2,500 years ago of Siddhartha Gautama, a well-born gentlemen who became a refugee of sorts in his own land, and who is known to us as Buddha Shakyamuni.

It’s estimated that perhaps ten percent of the Nepalese people practice Buddhism, and it’s fair to assume that that same proportion applies to the Erie community, as well.  Yet for many of these refugees, who lived for years in camps and before that in remote mountain villages, Buddhism was more a cultural fact than an active practice in the same way that Westerners who do little more than open gifts on December 25 can call themselves Christians.

That didn’t stop a small but dedicated stream of Nepalese from arriving at the door of the Erie Karma Thegsum Choling’s shrine room in the basement room that was the kindergarten of a deconsecrated Lutheran Church.

Few had more than a handful of words in English.  When a ride was available, two arrived wearing lama’s robes.  Some of the younger Nepalese can read the Tibetan script, and they would faithfully arrive at 8:30 a.m. for the Chenrezik sadhana.   “When we left [the camps]”,  one lamented,  “we left everything behind.  No books, no prayers.  We thought that we would have to be Christians in America.”

In a way, the small community of mostly middle-aged Western practitioners acted as custodians of a culture these eager strangers thought was forever gone.  So when members of the Nepalese community asked for a khenpo to come to Erie to offer refuge and to help celebrate the Nepalese observation of Saga Dawa Duchen, there was only one possible answer.

Jim Hamiton and Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin en route; photo, Urgyen Nyima

Jim Hamilton, the founder and president of Erie KTC, spent hours on the phone arranging schedules with KTC Coordinator Sandy Hu, and with EKTC’s Judy Meyn and Maryann Smith who volunteered to house the dignitaries from KTD.  Hamilton then spent marathon hours in a rented vehicle, making the seven-hour trip to KTD to ferry the delegation to Erie and back.

There were perhaps 75 Nepalese crowding the shrine room on Saturday, May 5, when Khenpo Ugyen Tenzin arrived.  Several of them cried.  Many of the Westerners did, too.

Attended by Urgyen Nyima, KTD’s language wizard, and translator Karma Phurpha, Khenpo Ugyen gave a short talk, apparently the first contact many of the Nepalese had ever had with the dharma.   “We lived in the country”,  one said.   “Someone dies, a lama comes, but in the village, no gompa.”

So, it is no surprise that many of those present had never taken refuge, nor that 66 Nepalese did so that day.  The oldest was a woman who was said to be 94.  The youngest was carried to Khenpo Ugyen’s puja table.

Sixty-six persons who had endured unimaginable hardships, the loss of home, country and all possessions, leaving family members behind, flying to a strange country with strange customs and an unintelligible language to make a fresh yet uncertain start.

66 persons took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha.

The next morning Khenpo Ugyen was a guest of honor at a huge Saka Dawa celebration in a public school auditorium in a distressed part of town.

But the sun shone all day and the mood was buoyant.  Gratitude was in the air.

The dedication prayer that closes many Kagyu sadhana practices has a reference to  the unwavering aspiration of the sangha.   This surely was what was being celebrated on that glorious weekend.

— John Chacona

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Unless otherwise indicated, photos by John Chacona

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