• December 3, 2013

Notes From the Road: The Mantra

Aaron Huey

In the Khumbu you cannot avoid ceremony. Even if you wanted to the air is full of prayers and sacred smoke that goes into your lungs and cleans you out without permission. You are blessed just for having walked there.

Each morning with the sunrise, columns of smoke rise from small rock altars behind every home, then fan out to merge with each other and the low hanging clouds. The smoke is from the holy incense that grows in the valley, sweet and pungent juniper. Today the blessings are for climbers leaving for expeditions.

But I’m not leaving for ours just yet. Today I am walking with friends.

I walk with Karma Tsering Sherpa, who recites day and night to himself (almost inaudibly, but still incessantly) the six syllables that he hopes will release himself and all other living beings from the cycle of suffering that is birth, death, and rebirth.

“Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum, Om Mani Padme Hum” … You get the idea.

But I’ll break it down for you even more because, to the people of the Khumbu, each syllable is its own powerful prayer.

They say:
“OM” – for release from the realm of gods (that is to say, the realm of ego and pride).
“MA” – for release from the realm of the jealous gods, who are consumed by jealousy and the need for entertainment.
“NI” – for release from the human realm, characterized by passion and desire.
“PAD” – for release from the animal realm of ignorance and prejudice.
“ME” – for release from the realm of hungry ghosts consumed by greed and possessiveness.
And, “HUM” (sometimes “HUNG”) – for release from the hell realm of hatred and aggression.

And so, asked for or not, Karma prays for us and recites the mantra thousands of times a day, counting each on a long string of beads, like all the elders of the valley do.

Before I had ever met Karma, I had seen the words carved into thousands of Mani stones and prayer wheels along the trail to Everest Base Camp. Sometimes it is even written on paper and put inside the prayer wheel so that it is emanated as many times per spin of the wheel as there are notes written inside—thus a single spin can be a thousand mantras.

The mantras fly above our heads as well. From the first days of my first trip we walked beneath colorful flags covered in the prayers every time we reached a pass or high point. They are inescapable visual exclamation points for photographers in this region, and I find them holding up compositions for me again and again.

At our Base Camp at Ama Dablam (and every other we have encountered) the expedition team has strung these flags from the top of a rock altar to the far edges of the camp, crossing the tents of the climbers. They are erected during the pujas that happen before each climbing party begins their journey up the mountain (even the beer and whiskey that sit beneath the altar get blessed!) The cloth prayers, which wave countless times each day in the wind, are believed to spread goodwill and compassion to all of their surroundings with each flutter. The windier the better! More prayers for all!

And so, believers and non-believers alike are blessed again and again, just for having walked or slept in these places. No one and no thing can escape the mantras.

Passing through the village of Pangboche we received a blessing, as many of the climbers do, from Lama Geshe, who performs a fairly elaborate ritual involving magic necklaces, the throwing of rice, and even a gentle head-butt for for good measure, before handing us a business card on our way out. But this business card reads a little differently than most. It says:

Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hung Hri
Give Up all intentions to harm others from your heart
And do your best to Benefit them all.
If each and everyone feels the Universal Responsibility to do so,
We will all enjoy the feast of PEACE! – Lama Geshe

I like that! THE FEAST OF PEACE! Maybe that’s why so many people come here. Less things, less distraction, less speed (except on summit day!), less harmful intentions. I see and feel that peace here.

On my last day in the village of Phortse, Karma comes to meet me. He places a golden kata (scarf) around my neck and gives me a hug. Karma is smiling as he always does, and laughing. Always laughing. Perfect peace in his eyes. Like he has already been released by his mantras. The scarf he gives me is a symbol of love, friendship, and blessings. Another prayer, just in case I haven’t gotten enough in the wind.

See you soon old friend, and keep the prayers coming, I’ll need them!

Photographer Aaron Huey recently returned from an assignment for National Geographic in the Himalaya. We’ll be reporting on his adventures as he discovers the joys and pains of high altitude photography while surrounded by snow and ice. You can see all of Aaron’s Notes From the Road here. You can also follow his journey on Instagram (@argonautphoto).

There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. littledarling
    March 12, 2014

    Sometime, when we are tired of everything in our lifetime and we wanna come somewhere over the rainbow for a little of peace should be here-Nepal.

  2. sharon minkler
    January 5, 2014

    love knowing what the mantras mean. love the whole article

  3. icain
    December 20, 2013

    Proof that heart shows through photos

  4. Adriana Anfusso
    December 16, 2013

    Moving story and beautifully told. It touched my heart. Excellent pictures. The best way to know fellow people that live in such different ways. And the prayer in the visiting card is a jewel. Thank you so much Aaron!

  5. fandy rasyid
    December 13, 2013

    great advanture, I asked permission to write this article on my website. cirebonan.org

  6. Raj
    December 13, 2013

    As being a Nepali I would like to thank you somuch for sharing this wonderful moment and wonderful snap you do in our country.
    With this pic. many people from all over the world know more about Nepal.
    Thanks from nepal

    Good vibration from Nepal

  7. rajani jani
    December 10, 2013

    Thanx! I am enlightened by d meaning of d Mantra.

  8. Annemieke Jansen
    December 10, 2013

    Thank you for those beautiful pictures. OM MANI PADME HUM _()_

  9. Ang
    December 10, 2013

    Great sharing, i can’t be there yet but i love to be there one day!

  10. Petra Schned
    December 8, 2013

    …i’ve been in Nepal trekking for 6 months 1986!

  11. puruahotam
    December 6, 2013

    Beautiful pictures.thanks for visiting our country

  12. Wangyal Dingo
    December 6, 2013

    Try to visit Manang Village in Nepal next time.. This place is like heaven.. Gud luck.. Cheers:-)

  13. serena
    December 6, 2013

    May you be blessed with each step!

  14. Kunchog tsering
    December 6, 2013

    Its awesome and I recon that it is your journey of treasures for mind.

  15. Linda
    December 5, 2013

    I have walked in Tibet and Nepal Found joy and Peace coupled with heartache. Your words and pictures evoke wonderful memories. To the young soul who said it was tourist hell may you find peace on your journey . 5 Star accommodation it isn’t wondrous and beautiful and returning to my spiritual home it was

  16. Jyothi
    December 4, 2013

    I like Mustang more than Khumbu .It’s really wonder of the world.

  17. Dana
    December 4, 2013

    Beautiful story – may the Feast of Peace fill your heart! Thank you for sharing this journey with us!

  18. Donna mannings
    December 4, 2013

    I have always wanted to travel to this place. Tibet I feel should be one of the seven wonders off the world. Looking at your beautiful pictures just make me want to go more. This place is truly spiritual and I know by going here it makes abig difference in. your lives

  19. pallab
    December 4, 2013

    simplicity , simplified…

  20. Kiran
    December 4, 2013

    I have returned from Nepal and Tibet. Be warned the places are not as spiritual as you’d like to believe, more like tourist HELL and death traps.

  21. Max Mencarelli
    December 4, 2013

    Wonderful pictures and words. Here, in my usual day of usual work, your reportage gave me a breath of fresh air.

  22. Raeleta
    December 4, 2013

    Thank you for living and sharing your calling as an example and inspiration for others.

  23. Alicia Sáenz
    December 4, 2013

    Preciosas fotografías,con tu información se aprende día a día y aprecia uno más lo hermoso de nuestro planeta. Gracias

  24. nexus nirajan
    December 4, 2013

    breathetaking pictures,mirror of Nepal…splendid beauty..

  25. shantos subedee
    December 4, 2013

    it would be much better had you informed about nepal also where khumbu region lies.

  26. Sarah Leen
    December 4, 2013

    Beautiful work Aaron and such inspirational words. Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  27. rajesh sharma
    December 4, 2013

    beautiful work / congrats

  28. Catalina
    December 4, 2013


  29. Nikki
    December 4, 2013

    I love reading your posts. Will you still be there in 2 weeks? Ill be there for 11 days from 22nd dec to 1 jan.

  30. Sampoornam
    December 4, 2013

    I am reading ‘The Tibetian book of living and dying’. Om Ma Ni Pad Me Hum…. is creating ripples in me.

  31. Shukra Tamang
    December 4, 2013

    Amazing photos !

  32. zika
    December 4, 2013

    Consistent and logical…Prayers and fasting, the two wings of the soul… God bless you all!!!

  33. Sandra
    December 4, 2013

    Well expressed and great photos capturing the essence thank you I enjoyed the journey.

  34. Nitin
    December 4, 2013

    Beautiful images Aaron.Thanks for bringing these super pictures.I wonder if i can do this kind of things.Amazing man.

  35. mahesh raia
    December 4, 2013

    Thank you for promoting our nation.

  36. Shishir Kulkarni
    December 4, 2013

    Thank you for uploading beautiful photographs

  37. Hélène Neuville
    December 4, 2013

    wonderful narrative, great pics. Thank you so much for sharing!

  38. Vijay
    December 4, 2013

    you left out the literal meaning of the words mani padme hum -> the pearl inside the lotus

  39. Aditi
    December 4, 2013

    Which profession allows you to travel?
    let me know!

    and beautifully explained. good clicks 🙂

  40. ruthie williams
    December 4, 2013

    Makes my heart sing reading of such adventures.

  41. Pritha puri
    December 3, 2013

    Your notes reflect the serenity of the place… Absolutely beautiful!

  42. Shree Gurung
    December 3, 2013

    Dear Aaron Huey, Thank you for capturing amazing photos and thank you for visiting our nation. Would have been even better if you had included “info about Nepal” in your article as most of the people do not know where Khumbu or Himalaya lies. Best regards.

  43. Kalpagopal
    December 3, 2013

    How wonderful! You have opened my eyes! Peace!peace!peace!

  44. quirino faraglia
    December 3, 2013

    just great ….

  45. Mayank Dewan
    December 3, 2013

    So simple, yet so beautiful.

  46. charly amd
    December 3, 2013

    great pics… congratulations….

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