Sherpa - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism, sometimes called Vajrayana, "The Thunderbolt Vehicle," is universally observed among the Sherpas. In past centuries, religion was organized on a village and clan level; since the turn of the present century, celibate monasticism, Imported from Tibet, has flourished in the Sherpa region. The Sherpa pantheon is vast, ranging from the great Buddhist divinities connected with the quest for enlightenment and salvation to local gods, spirits, and demons influencing health, luck, and day-to-day concerne. The former are the object of temple and monastic worship, the latter of exorcisms, commensal feasts, purification rites, and curing rites performed by married lamas and shamans.

Religious Practitioners . On the village level, married lamas who are also householders preside over community and life-cycle ceremonies. Monks and nuns take lifetime vows of celibacy and live in institutions isolated from daily life. Their interaction with the community is mainly limited to the reading of sacred texts at funerals and annual monastic rituals to which the public is invited. The monks' and nuns' pursuit of merit in turn brings merit to the entire Community. Sherpa monks and nuns are not supported by the state, as in Tibet, nor do they beg widely, as in Southeast Asian traditions, but rather support themselves from their own inheritance, through trade, or through donations by sponsors from wealthy households. Outstanding religious figures may be reincarnated, and the highest ecclesiastical offices at the Present time are held by reincarnations of earlier religious figures. In addition, shamans perform exorcisms and cures, though this is now less prevalent than previously.

Ceremonies. A spring first-fruits festival called Dumje and the great monastic masked dancing rituals, generically called Cham (in Tibetan, ' cham ; the specific Sherpa version, Mani Rimdu) and often held in fall or winter, are the major festivals. Individual households and villages sponsor exorcism, curing, and cleansing rites, often in connection with life-cycle events, especially funerals.

Arts. An indigenous style of choral singing and line dancing is favored; as elsewhere in the hills, dancing parties with beer are a preferred social activity for the young people. Many Sherpas have become masters of the Buddhist ecclesiastical arts, including religious painting or iconography. The monastic dance dramas feature elaborate costumery and choreography. The traditional religious orchestra includes the drum, cymbals, telescopic horns, oboelike flageolets, conch shells, trumpets made from human thighbones, and hand drums made from the tops of two human skulls placed back to back. Liturgical chanting is an art mastered by many laypeople as well as by monks and lamas.

Medicine. Indigenous cures include herbal medicines, shamanic exorcism, the reading of exorcism texts by lamas, and the use of amulets and medicines made or blessed by high religious figures. More recently, Western medicine has been widely sought.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals are the longest and most elaborate life-cycle ceremonies; the body is cremated, and the soul of the deceased is encouraged, through ritual action and instruction, to seek an advantageous rebirth. Rebirth is believed to occur forty-nine days after death; ideally the entire seven-week period is occupied with a rich cycle of ceremonies and the chanting of funerary texts from the Buddhist tradition. Although relatives and lamas do the best they can to Influence future rebirth in a favorable body, it is generally agreed that the main determining factor is the working of karma, the principle by which meritorious and nonmeritorious behaviors are appropriately rewarded or punished in countless future lives.

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