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March 2003:

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Mar. 31

Messages and questions for the team

Lama with Gary    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsBuddhist lama blesses disabled Everest climbers
In emotional ceremony, he marvels at effort, offers encouragement

By LEE HANCOCK / The Dallas Morning News

PANGBOCHE, Nepal – The old lama regarded the Americans and Sherpas crowded into the courtyard of his gompa, some in wheelchairs, one with a missing leg, others with weak limbs or bad hearing.

Laughing kindly as he spoke to them through a translator, the 71-year-old village Buddhist leader marveled at how far the group had come and at what they're doing.

"Not everyone can come to Everest, these kinds of people, but American people are even wondering, how brave are you?" Lama Geshe told them. "No hand, without leg, but you still want to do something."

Many in the group said it was among the most emotional moments of their trek to the world's highest mountain. The Texas-based group, which includes nine Americans and two Nepali Sherpas with conditions ranging from lost limbs to paralysis, is journeying to Everest in hopes of shattering stereotypes about the limits of people with disabilities.

The team went to the village Buddhist temple Saturday morning for a ritual enacted by most climbers headed to Mount Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to the summit 50 years ago.

The Sherpa people who live in the Khumbu region surrounding Everest are Tibetan Buddhists who believe that those aspiring to climb the mountain must pay respects by receiving blessings and making offerings in Buddhist ceremonies known as pujas.

Everest, which they call Chomolungma, or "mother goddess of the world," is considered the abode of a once-fierce goddess Myolungsama, who became a source of endless sustenance after being converted to Buddhism.

Gary S. lights butter lamps       Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsPrayer ceremony

The group attended a puja Thursday at Tengboche Monastery, the major center of Tibetan Buddhism in the Khumbu region and a regular stopping point. In the monastery's elaborately painted prayer hall, the group listened to monks chanting afternoon prayers. Gary Scott, one of four people who will try to climb to the summit, lighted butter lamps before a great, gilded Buddha.

One by one, team members then took katas, or ceremonial scarves, to a senior monk, who blessed and then placed them on each person's neck.

On Friday, after the group hiked to Phangboche, one climber went to visit the village lama for a blessing and advice on his upcoming summit attempt.

Lama Geshe received Mr. Scott, of Colorado Springs, Colo., and three other American visitors in the tearoom of his family's lodge, where he sat beside a wall decorated with Everest summit photos of Western climbers he had blessed.

After the group offered katas and received sacred red strings tied by the lama around their necks, the lama's daughter offered them sugary "milk tea" in matching Santa Claus Christmas cups.

As his daughter translated, the lama chatted about Everest, and Mr. Scott's desire to climb it. He gave Mr. Scott a packet filled with special powders and sacred rice to protect him and his teammates, and he wrote out a message in Tibetan on a card and told Mr. Scott to hold it up to the mountain to show respect and seek its deity's permission on the day he tries to reach its summit.

Encouraging words

Buddhist Stupa      Photo by Gary GullerThe next morning, most of the Team Everest 03 Challenge Trek group climbed up the hill from their campsite to a village gompa, a tall, brightly painted structure with large prayer wheels on each side, an inner stone courtyard and a dark, ancient prayer room.

Lama Geshe came down from his family's lodge and had a visitor bring him a seat in the courtyard where the group had gathered. He told the trekkers that they were like all other beings, despite their disabilities, and could accomplish anything.

"Some have lost their hand. Some have lost their leg. Some have problems," he said through a translator. "They all look to be kind, look to be healthy, look to be happy."

Because of physical problems, "you feel that you are unable to act like others," he added. "Feel like I am strong, like I can do everything that others can do.

"American has got two eyes, two ears. French people has got two eyes, two ears. Nepali people has got two eyes, two ears. Even animal has got two eyes, two ears. But the soul is the same for everybody," he said. "We're all the same, all beings. One. Even strong, even not strong, even rich, poor – we are all the same."

He then cracked the group up when he offered, "Don't worry, be happy."

He moved some to tears when he chanted and then blessed their offerings of kata scarves.

He smiled in delight when one climber on the summit team, Chris Watkins of Thunder Bay, Ontario, presented him with a tiny halogen flashlight.

"Your eye will be stronger now to reach the top," Lama Geshe said.

At the end, he chanted, rang bells and sounded a small drum, rocking back and forth.

Vince Bousselaire, a Golden, Colo., minister who is the third of the climbers in team co-leader Gary Guller's summit group, asked to reciprocate with a Christian blessing for the lama, his people and his land.

Lama with Vince    Photo by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning NewsThe lama agreed, and Mr. Bousselaire offered a short prayer.

"The Christians, Buddhists, Hindus is the same religion. I really heartily thank you when you bless me," the lama said.

Before leaving, the Sherpas and many of the group members bowed their heads to the lama, and he firmly pushed his forehead on theirs in a final blessing.

Christine Kane, a teacher at the Texas State School for the Deaf, said the lama's compassion and words were "probably the most moving thing I've ever seen.

"Without knowing us, he was able to say exactly the right things that we needed to hear," she said. "It's about that time in the trip where we've been out for a long while. It's cold every day. We're walking far. He gave us a kind of renewal."

Slide show by Erich Schlegel / The Dallas Morning News

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities is dedicated to ensuring that people with disabilities enjoy equal opportunities to live, work, play, and participate fully in the community of their choice. CTD has consistently delivered important results for persons with disabilities for the past 24 years, and needs your support to fight the discrimination that faces individuals with disabilities in almost every aspect of their lives.

Contact Dennis Borel at (512) 478-3366 or dborel@cotwd.org for a media kit, sponsorship opportunities and to learn more about TE '03 and the advocacy work of CTD.

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