Alumna of the issue: Augusta Thomson ’06

By Philippe Heitzmann ’15

Augusta Thomson ’06 returned to the Circle last Friday for a chapel talk that focused on her trek this summer from Nepal to Tibet. Using a digital board conveniently placed in the aisle of the Sixth Form section (a significant technological advance in the history of St John’s Chapel), she described the sacred pilgrimage of the Buddhist and Hindu traditions with images and video clips. The trip consisted of circling Mount Kailash, the most sacred place for Buddhist and Hindus, three times. Along the way, she met hundreds of pilgrims also circumambulating the mountain in order to cleanse their sins. Ms Thomson now attends Oxford University where she is completing her third-year of Sacred Studies. The footage and information she compiled during her trip will serve her to write her undergraduate dissertation when she gets back to Oxford.

After she graduated from Groton in 2006, Ms Thomson took a gap year to organize herself for college. She spent six months working at the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center (TNMC), in California, where she essentially classified and helped preserve the institution’s collection of ancient Tibetan texts. She was allowed to study the different texts at the center, which fueled her interest in the study of religious Tibetan traditions. After this period, she attended St Hugh’s College in Oxford, where she is now completing her fourth year as an undergraduate at the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies (OCBS).

Towards the end of her chapel talk, Ms Thomson played a video of some of the footage she collected with the team she led around the mountain. We were transported for an instant from our dull Friday morning to witness pilgrims kneeling to Mountain Kailash in an attempt to be forgiven their sins, or colorfully clothed travelers playing a typical Tibetan flute. The purpose of her expedition was to document the relationship between the spiritual devotion of the pilgrims and the material culture of their different traditions and how common religious experiences can connect so many people and communities together.

Although many of the people at Mt. Kailash affiliated themselves with different faiths and came from remote regions of India and Nepal to take part in the ritual cleansing of sins, the fact they came from different backrounds both geographically and religiously did not stop them from bonding. Ms Thomson told us during her chapel talk that she had men approach her to offer to carry her equipment. She saw Buddhist monks help Chinese tourists who were unprepared for the high altitude of the mountain cope with the fatigue by offering to carry their loads. Pilgrims who were strangers to each other congregated around bonfires at campsites during evenings to relate stories of the day. Ms Thomson concluded that Mount Kailash knit connections between people because all shared and strived for a common goal.

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