Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Three Cups of Tea.. a journey toward peace and spiritual encounter

If you've seen the Brad Pitt movie Seven Years in Tibet you will recall the story of one man's spiritual odyssey in the high himalayan mountains, in the land of the Dalai Lama and in the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. It's a stirring adventure story among a peace loving people who will face the militant challenge of China in our own day. Everyone loves a Buddhist goes the saying. Who loves the Muslim?

That's really the story of the book Three Cups of Tea, which begins in 1993 when high up in the Himalayan mountains American mountain climber Greg Mortenson stumbles lost and near death into a remote village after a failed attempt to climb K2, the world's most dangerous peak. The people of a desperately poor village in Pakistan's Karakoram Himalaya took in Greg Mortenson and nursed him back to health over the course of 6 weeks. These were simple Muslims in a land that is now considered among the most violent and dangerous places in the world for Americans to venture. It's the epicenter in some views of world-wide terrorism and the cultivation of militant Islam. But Mortenson was extended a life-saving hospitality that would transform his life and send him on a grand adventure more challenging and worthwhile than any climb he had made into the Himalayan mountains. Hospitality can be just that life changing!

As Mortenson came to appreciate the villagers of Korphe who rescued him, he came to an understanding of them as a people who had hopes and dreams for their children like people all over the world. They hungered for a better life for their sons and daughters, after seeing that the government of Pakistan failed repeatedly in its promises to build schools. No books, no supplies, no school building, no teachers. Mortenson surveyed the situation and made a rash promise. He would return from America and build a school for the children of Korphe. One school only! From that small step a movement developed that led to the foundation of an organization known as the Central Asia Institute (CAI), with Mortenson as its executive. But from that day in 1993 to today's unfolding mission by CAI there's an adventure story worth telling that rivals and exceed Pitt's Tibetan movie.

Along the way, Greg Mortenson came to love the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan and the children of those countries. The subtitle of the book Three Cups of Tea spells out the mission of CAI: "One Man's Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations...One School at a Time".

Along this voyage of discovery, Mortenson found surprising and often unlikely allies and supporters both in the United States and in Pakistan and Afghanistan. His central learning was this: "If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls."
Mortenson has pursued his vision and the growing strategy of CAI in a land that most Amerians fear. It isn't the land of gentle Buddhism. It's the land of Islam, which many Americans unfairly caricature as largely centered on violence.

Mortenson doesn't downplay the intent of terrorist organizations, but he offers us this perspective. "'I've learned," observes Mortenson, "that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." That's a difficult principle for many Americans to embrace during this long struggle with terrorism, when most of our responses as a nation have been fear based. Mortenson's mission is clear and I find compelling, when he argues that the war on terrorism will be won with books, not bombs. The real enemy is ignorance.

My favorite passage in Three Cups of Tea occurs after Mortenson has returned to the village of Korphe, after an amazing and most unlikely success in raising the funds to build a school. That is a remarkable achievement in itself. But when Mortenson returns to head up the building effort you learn his spiritual journey has just begun. In his obsessive goal to build the school, Mortenson drives the village members so hard, that he loses sight of the larger need they have to celebrate this achievement in a land where life unfolds slowly and at a different pace than he is accustomed to. After all, these people measure time in years and centuries, not just in hours and minutes.

Haji Ali, the villager chief and elder, who has played such a significant role in Mortenson's life from the day he stumbled into Korphe, takes this American aside after the frustration of the villagers has grown unbearable. "If you want to thrive in Baltistan (their region)," says Haji Ali to Mortenso, "you must respect our ways."

"The first time you share tea with a Balti; you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die," Haji Ali says to his young American friend.

"Dr. Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time," said Haji Ali


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