An old mother in a red sari was crying at the side of the trail. We followed her gaze, her distraught explanation, and saw a group of men and boys gathered around an isolated stand of bamboo. Up in the leaves, a gray faced monkey was rustling between branches, trying to avoid the pelting rocks but finding no escape. Shockingly ruthless, the men and boys were stoning it to death…and laughing.
When I get upset, my Nepali language skills crumble. I knew before I walked up to them that this was going to be a futile endeavor, but I didn’t hesitate for one simple reason: I couldn’t live with myself if I ignored it, walked on by, said nothing. My clients must have felt similarly because they were trying to persuade people who barely spoke their language. We kept staring into the bamboo, getting occasional glimpses of the cowering monkey as he dodged a stone–or as it thudded against him.
The monkey comes into the fields and eats the crops. I get it. It’s easy for me to say, “You don’t need to kill it,” but I’m not the one doing backbreaking subsistence agriculture. Moreover, the value of animal life is low here in the Hindu villages, and unlike an ox or a cow, the value of a monkey is nothing.
Part of why we were traveling to Tsum Valley is because it’s a very unique and spiritual place. In the remote high mountains, Buddhist philosophy prevails, and life is sacred. Tsum Valley is a spiritually protected area. Killing is not allowed–not of domesticated meat, not of pesky mountain goats eating the crops, not of the herds of Himalayan blue sheep near the Tibetan border. The Buddhists in Tsum have a religious tenacity that led them to petition the government years ago to officially ban killing in the valley. Government officers from lower Hindu areas were posted as staff in Tsum and began killing domesticated goats for food, but the local Buddhists believed this would damage the purity of the area. A village leader successfully petitioned the government, and from then on, meat had to be killed outside of the valley and then carried up. It may seem contradictory to allow meat but not allow the killing. For Buddhists, however, it is the taking of life which is the far greater sin.
Here we were, 3 hours into a 16-day trek, still in predominantly Hindu lowlands, still days away from Tsum, and finding ourselves confronted with foreign values: the idea that killing a monkey because he’s a nuisance is entirely okay. Not just killing, but slowly stoning it to death, which is far more gruesome than butchering with a knife, as occurs for domesticated animals. Are we imposing our values, our judgements, on these people in their own country by saying they shouldn’t be doing this? Absolutely. I’m aware of it. I’m willing to bend when we’re talking about the pros and cons of development, but faced with this frightened animal in the leaves–and most especially with its suffering–I’m standing my ground. Besides, some people in the community (like the women!) clearly don’t approve of this but feel powerless to stop it. As a foreigner, I have some sway. Nepalis are always watching what I wear, what I eat, the way I behave. Being a foreigner is something like being a celebrity, and I intend to use whatever influence I have.
Our most powerful asset, however, is not me with an outsider position and Nepali sentences faltering in my mouth. Our most powerful asset is our lama. Choedar is a soft-spoken and eloquent Buddhist monk with a warm presence. He is clearly disturbed by the attack on the monkey and is talking one-on-one with the younger men in their 20’s and 30’s, convincing them that they have some greater education and perspective, that they must set an example and convince the older men that this killing is not okay. A monk has immediate status and respect in this society, regardless of the fact that he is Tibetan Buddhist and they are Hindu or Gurung. The men give him their attention. He can’t be written off as a bizarre foreigner.
I don’t know how long we were there talking to the villagers. 20 minutes? 30 minutes? We still had hours of hiking before we reached camp. One by one, my clients had returned to the trail, sobered and sad, as Choedar and I remained. Finally we also had to leave, and we feared that as soon as we walked away, the men would resume their attack. I knew this had affected everyone, that we all had little hope for that monkey, and that it was partially my responsibility not to let this color the start of our trip. Still, my heart was heavy, and it took a while of silent hiking for me to rediscover my generally positive demeanor.
Our group lived a whole lifetime in 16 days. Once strangers, we were now all intimate friends. Once new to the trail, we were now seasoned multi-day hikers. Once unknown to this world and culture, we were now familiar. We had climbed mountains, ridden horses, danced and sang, worshipped and meditated. Ebullient and ready for a shower, we were about to pass through that same village, 3 hours from the end of our journey. What had faded far into memory surfaced again, and we all realized that today we would learn the outcome of this story.
Choedar and I stepped off the trail and went in search of that old mother in the red sari. We knew she would tell us the truth about what happened to the monkey. We found her son and his wife, who remembered us. They gave us the most moving news of our trip: the men had let the monkey go. After we left, people dispersed, and eventually the monkey came down from the bamboo, ran across the open ground, and headed back into the jungle.
I never thought we’d actually be successful in convincing these villagers to let the monkey go. Nepal is a place where people say “yes, okay” and then go right about doing as they please. I stopped not because I thought we could actually save the monkey but because I had to try. I had to try. I’m convinced it wasn’t me that swayed the village men; it was Choedar. I stayed behind and persisted, and that also gave Choedar the space and time to stay and persist. He might have done so anyways, but he was supported in that. It was his chiding that reached the hearts of young and old. It was his teaching that will stay with them. Sometimes our role in shaping the world is subtle, is simply enough to be present and help others do their work. I’m okay with that.
Let this be life’s lesson to me (and you). Sometimes you really can’t anticipate the impact of your actions. Do what you know in your heart is right, and let the world take its course. You might be surprised at your own power…and maybe part of your power is to support change.