The Sherpa is the Guru
Updated: Oct 3
As my best friend and I made preparations to go to Nepal and India last year, we would have long conversations about the countries, what it would be like there, what we were aiming to attain or achieve in going, and about the cultures and the people we would meet.
In these discussions, we often talked about gurus. Since we were heading to India for Yoga Teacher Training, in addition to our vacation adventures, it was a topic of much consideration. What is a guru? Do I have to have one? Is my guru automatically the person I learned yoga from? What is the Indian cultural relationship to the guru? Did Anandji, the founder and guru at Sattva Yoga Academy have to be my guru? We had so many questions.
I remember as a child, seeing cartoons with a guru portrayed as a skinny, cross-legged guy with a turban on his head, balanced on the peak of a mountain. I remember this image being associated with wisdom, and the hard work required to attain that wisdom -- essentially, in order to get the answer to your question, you must climb the mountain, and hope the guru gives you an answer. It conjured feelings of laboriousness and impossibility. It made me feel like many of the answers to my questions were completely out of reach.
As I got older, I came to realize that this image in my head is far from the truth of what it is to be a guru. Especially the peak of the mountain part. Don't get me wrong, there are gurus in the mountains, and many of them choose to live for a time in a cave high in the mountains as a part of their personal path, but they are not just sitting up there waiting for us to arrive and ask them silly questions. The hard work and answers being out of reach, on the other hand, completely depended on my approach, and that just required some relearning.
The more I thought about it though, the more I questioned. I am a bit rebellious by nature and I often buck authority, so questioning comes as naturally as breathing to me. I found myself wondering, who says he gets to be a guru? What are the qualifications required to call one's self "guru". Why is the guy on the mountain top, who only had to climb up there once and sit down the guru, instead of the Sherpa who climbs the mountain over and over carrying supplies and other people's things? If anyone was doing the harder work, and had the wisdom and experience of the mountains, it was certainly the Sherpa.
One evening as my bestie and I were discussing this, we coined the phrase, "The Sherpa is the Guru", and talked about having t-shirts made. It was partially in jest, but also a cute point in the direction of truth. Little did I know just how much I would see that hard work, that Sherpa service, in action in Nepal. Little did I know how very true it was, on so many levels.
About five years before we visited Nepal, there had been a devastating earthquake that razed temples, homes and businesses to the ground. In 2019, they were still rebuilding, by hand, brick by brick. We drove past some sites where it looked as if it happened yesterday, as they sifted through rubble, shoveling it into baskets strapped on their heads. Our trekking guide told us that he and his family had just finished rebuilding his family home, and he was excited to help his family move into it. He invited us to come to his small rural town to meet them. I wish we could have. Our time there did not allow for it.
Everywhere we went in Nepal, people were working hard. Not hard by American standards -- with a union and a smoke break every 15 minutes -- hard, like an underfed, eighty year old woman lifting a basket full of bricks onto her head, hard. Hard, like a ten year old boy lugging my backpack that I could hardly manage myself, up three flights of stairs by himself to my air conditioned room, hard. Their work ethic is survival. It is what drives them. It is their normal.
Westerners have money, and Nepal relies on tourism to keep them financially afloat. So the Nepali people do whatever it takes to make sure we keep coming and bringing our money. From having shops open 12, 13, 14 hours a day in case we want to buy some prayer flags or incense, to carrying all our heavy things up Everest, they are not only doing the hard work of surviving the conditions of the landscape and the poverty of their country, but they are also doing the hard work for us too.
Amidst all this, they are a kind, beautiful and deeply spiritual people. They truly serve, and there is wisdom in their service. There is kindness and connection in their eyes and their hearts. There is mastery of hard work without hesitation or complaint. There is so much to be learned just being in the presence of these every day gurus. So, yes, I did discover what a guru is. It is someone who teaches you in a way that changes your perspective, your perception, and your life.
From Sujal, the hotel manager, and Binod, our server at the Kathmandu Boutique Hotel, to Krishna our driver, and Milan our trekking guide, each and every person we interacted with provided wisdom, a lesson. Sometimes the lesson was in humility. Sometimes it was a lesson in reverence and devotion. Each person was, in their own way, a guru.
One of the most amazing lessons I learned in Nepal was from the children, and the dedication of their parents to getting them an education. The number one priority of the people of Nepal is to ensure an education for the children -- all the children. They understand that in order to better their country, its economy, and their lives, education is key. Everywhere we went, we saw uniformed children in large groups walking to or from school, or a father popping his son onto the back of his motorcycle early in the morning to take him to school as mom waves goodbye from a balcony where she was hanging the wash out in the morning sun. Every action supported this goal. Every struggle was for a greater good, not only for their child, but all the children and the country as a whole.
Everywhere I looked, every story I heard, every person I spoke with taught me a lesson about how to be a better version of myself. I learned devotion. I learned service. I learned hard work without complaint. I learned gratitude for all I have. I learned that if I want one day to be a guru, I must choose to walk the path, regardless of difficulty. This applies to the yogis too. Their path is no less difficult and requires no less devotion and dedication. Some showed examples of physical struggle, and some examples of spiritual struggle. Both are valid, both have us grow to be better, and both are critical as aspects of personal balance, learning and wisdom.
I learned, very distinctly, that the Sherpa truly is the guru.
I did not get to meet any of the Sherpa people, as I was not that close to Everest while in Nepal, but I do have friends who have climbed Everest that can attest to the strength and the fortitude of these amazing people.
Click here to watch this short, beautiful film about Apa Sherpa. To help the children of Nepal get their education, so that more is available to them than just the difficult and often short life of being a Sherpa, please consider donating to www.ApaSherpaFoundation.org