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.”
As the final ceremony wrapped up, Nima wearily removed her hat. She had quit her job at a bus company to tend to the monks, brewing vats of butter tea in the basement and even cleaning the toilets. Her devotion was to her mother as much as the faith, she said, explaining that her Nepalese peers felt similar commitment to their parents: “We feel like we owe them our life, because they’ve done so much for us in our life.”
After nearly 40 days bound to the monks, the moment was bittersweet, she said. Not that there was time for nostalgia. “First thing I’m going to do tomorrow,” she said, standing in her floor-length traditional gown, “is wake up and look for a job.”
An email was received at SherpaKyidug.org inspired by this New York Times article. Email has been forwarded to Nima (and thru her to Ai Dayangji). Wanted to share this with all with some information deleted (with Xs).
Congratulations to Ai Dayangji and Nima, and Good Luck with all your future endeavors.
Name : Michael XXXXX
Email Address : michael.XXXXX@XXXhotel.com
Subject : Ms. Nima Sherpa and the Kangyur
Message : Greetings,
I work for XXX Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Myself and some co-workers read the New York Times story about the Kangyur reading arranged my Ms. Dayangji Sherpa with help from her daughter Nima. We were inspired by the selfless beauty of this act. At the end of the article, it quoted Ms. Nima Sherpa, saying that she would need to find a job. We would love to offer her a position at XXX Hotel. There is no doubt she will be a valuable presence wherever she is employed.
If you can pass this message along to her and my email, my colleagues and I would appreciate it.
XXXXXXX XXX HOTEL
X W XXTH ST
I have Great admiration for this Lady and her devotion and her faith in Dharma deserves an applause. I think Sherpa society can learn a thing or two from her and perhaps contemplate in vesting some interest in Dharma and Karma where as the mentality is more veering towards vesting their interest in material possessions. I see some filthy rich Sherpas but their leaning towards Dharma is ZERO!!!