Author’s note: One hundred thousand Tibetans, including many high lamas, fled to India after an abortive 1959 uprising in Lhasa against the imposition of Red Chinese rule. This short story is based on a stay at the monastery of Ganden, now re-established in a refugee settlement in south India.
In the small kitchen behind the meditation room, the fire was going even in the late afternoon, heating milk and water for Tibetan tea in large dented aluminum pots set on the grill. The ventilator shaft above the flames was curved, and the smoke curled up to it lazily, discouraged by every small draft back into a tour of the low-ceilinged room. Walls and ceiling had long ago taken on a thick fur of soot, and the fading light that crept into the kitchen made little impression on the midnight walls. Even with his face turned partly toward the door, the young monk did not notice when the foreigner came into the room.
In the farthest corner, away from the fire, the foreigner settled down on his haunches, his long thin knees in the air, his back against the wall. He stared, as he always did, mercilessly, without any politeness, at the person who had claimed his interest.
It was the intensity of the stare that made Sherab aware of the man. With a start he looked up from the orange basin of half-washed cups and saucers on the floor. The man’s pale, long-jawed face under its raft of red hair, a furious question in the blue eyes, sent a shock through him.
“This one is a little crazy,” the guestmaster had confided the day before. “And he has no passport.”
He offered up himself: his body which was useless if it were not used to help others; his speech which had no point if he could not teach others the Way; his mind which was the root and heart of suffering if he could not see clearly the true empty nature of all things.
As well as he was able under the Westerner’s gaze, Sherab kept his face still. But he stood up, and in a motion unconsciously defensive, flipped the trailing end of his red linen shawl expertly over one shoulder.
“Chu tsapo?” he inquired, “Hot water?” The water for the kitchen came from a good artesian well, but the Western visitors seemed to regard it with suspicion. Another pot, full of hot water, simmered over the fire all day to keep their minds at rest.
The man shook his head.
Sherab stood perplexed.
“Cha? Would you like tea? I am make Tibeti tea now.” The troublesome man made no answer; he had covered his face with his hands. Sherab studied him indecisively, then searched along the line of battered aluminum utensils hung on the walls, past a neat row of flower-painted thermoses on the table. Some simple diversion might satisfy the foreigner and encourage him to leave.
The man’s sudden movement shifted his attention back. With horror the young monk realized that the foreigner had begun to weep. There was no sound. The man’s hands remained over his face. But his body was shuddering with the effort of suppression. Sherab watched him, feeling foolish.
At last he went to the man and squatted beside him, tucking his monk’s shirt back between his ankles. He put out his hand and lightly touched the unsteady shoulder.
“You are sick?” he asked softly. He knew the man was not sick. He struggled to remember other English words that would express sympathy better. The man had not answered.
Sherab looked uneasily at the open entrance to the kitchen. The last crash of cymbals and trumpets had died away. The prayers were over. The monks in the meditation hall would be expecting the tea. And Rinpoche was with them. He could not fail to bring tea to the household’s master, the most famous lama in all the monastery.
He began to rise but the madman clutched his hand.
“Please don’t go yet,” the man pleaded. Sherab was unsure of the meaning of the word “goyet” but “please” and the look in the eyes were clear. He stood, nonplussed, between this new responsibility and his old one.
Within the door frame of the kitchen a small head had appeared. The knowing, impish face of the boy-monk, Ngawang, was bright with questions. Before Sherab could explain his plight, however, the normally reliable little boy had flicked out of sight like a startled sparrow, back to the meditation hall.
Sherab knew he had to do something quickly.
“Please come,” he said. Pulling gently but persistently on the man’s arms he got him to rise and took him to the long bench under the window.
“You here,” he told him. “I make tea.” The man looked at him, his eyes vague with unhappiness, but Sherab turned away. Working as rapidly as he could without an outward display of tension, he cut a thick slice off the black brick of Assam tea that Ngawang’s father had brought for the Rinpoche and dropped it into the boiling water. He churned the hot milk in the butter churner until it frothed with air and then, more quickly than he would have liked, added it with butter to the boiling tea. He was struggling with the salt, trying to loosen it with the butt end of a knife, when he sensed that someone was at the door. He froze with his hand still buried in the long container. The senior monks of the household were going past. They had not waited for the tea.
Through the open door he could see the old Rinpoche being helped up the stairs to his room. The other monks were dispersing. No one had looked through the wide doorway to the kitchen, not even the three who were to help him with dinner. He didn’t move. What did this mean? The foreigner was watching him again closely.
Sudden as a grasshopper, Ngawang reappeared in the room. With childishly deft motions, he slapped two cups and saucers onto a small tray. He poured a large dipperful of butter tea into a flowered thermos, waited poised for instant motion while Sherab pinched salt into the steaming opening, and was gone.
As the little monk disappeared, the foreigner stood up decisively. On his feet he stood a head taller than Sherab and weighed a fourth again as much. Against his will, the 16-year-old monk felt a tremor of fear.
The man was talking now.
“He pretends he doesn’t know who I am but you know, don’t you?”
Sherab looked at him non-committally, struggling to make sense of the rapid words.
Restlessly, the man was circling the small room. He muttered as he went, slapping his open palm for emphasis against the sides of the pots. His words sounded like nonsense to Sherab.
“The Indian holy man knew me. And the dreams cannot lie. I am his teacher and he knows it. Why does he say he doesn’t know it?” The foreigner sounded vexed. He pounded the last pot with violence and turned to face Sherab.
“Is it because the policeman touched my head?” The man’s voice was suddenly plaintive. With hesitant fingers he reached up to explore his head, as if it were some precious relic.
“I am the one who was lost,” he said hopefully.
Sherab had understood at last but said nothing.
The man’s confident posture was slowly fading. He did not seem to notice that Sherab had not answered. Another thought claimed him and his expression curled into a scowl.
“The bitches won’t even talk to me. Those American bitches.” He circled the room once again.
“And the Rinpoche said, ‘Go out.’ He dared to say to me, ‘Go out!’ ” His voice was rising in frustration. “He’s the one who should go out!”
Silently Sherab watched him circle the room a third time. He could sense the rapid fluctuations of pride and sorrow and anger. And he flinched as the man began to curse the high lama. It was terrible karma this Westerner was sowing. It would bring him much pain.
Searching his memory, the monk strained for a simple teaching he would be able to say in English that might calm the man. Often enough he had observed the effects of pride in the monks around him. He himself had felt, briefly, symptoms of the illusion that gripped the Westerner. It was sweet to dream in secret that you were an unrecognized “tulku,” a highly evolved one who had taken birth only to teach others. You knew you were wrong, yet you yearned for the lama to acknowledge this quality in you. As a monk in the monastery you were quite safe. Sooner or later the lama would destroy your fantasy, as mercilessly as other people swat flies. He would scorn you, or he would mock you in public, or he might refuse to speak to you at all. It was a great humiliation. It hurt like fire. It cured you at once.
With sudden pity, the young monk realized that among Westerners who studied the Teaching very few had such a close spiritual friend.
Coming close to the man Sherab took him by the arm.
“You here please,” he said gently. He pushed him back to the bench and the rambling monologue ceased. Fresh tears filled the Westerner’s eyes. His moods changed as quickly as the spring wind in the mountains.
“I make tea,” Sherab reassured him.
Together they sipped the hot rich salt-laced tea from metal mugs. Sherab watched the madman discreetly. In the light of the kitchen lantern, the tension that pulled at his face seemed to have lessened. He looked tired.
“All beings have Buddha-nature,” Sherab offered at last. He placed the teaching lightly into the air between them, not looking at the Westerner, with a humility he hoped would not arouse the man to pride again.
“All beings hate me,” the man whispered. He looked crestfallen, worn out from struggling with the confusion he himself had spun and cherished.
Sherab stayed silent, sipping his tea, He knew that something very extraordinary was happening. Not one monk had come to help him with dinner. Not even the Rinpoche’s attendant had come to complain. In the dark outside, each in his separate room, he could sense the presence of others.
He remembered a verse from the teachings:
“When you meet a being of bad nature, pressed by violent sins and sufferings, do not turn away, but treat him as a precious treasure, rare to find.”
After he had given the man a small meal, he took him again by the arm.
“Now is sleep,” he said firmly.
The man looked at him wonderingly, already distracted by a new onrush of thoughts. But he did as he was told. Together, they marched out into the dark, past the well and the low shed where five water buffalo snorted softly at their passing. The stars across the south Indian sky were as distinct as flung embers. A sharp-edged new moon hung low above the horizon.
In his room the man undressed obediently and got into a worn sleeping bag. Sherab went out onto the long veranda and dragged in one of the straw-packed mattresses piled there. On this he sat cross-legged, several feet away from the bed. The Westerner was watching him with a childlike acceptance of all his actions.
“Sleep,” Sherab ordered. “I will stay.”
The man looked at the ceiling for a while, limp, as if, for the moment, all the energy of his self-preoccupation had spent itself. After a while Sherab saw that his eyes were closed.
Sitting straight on the prickly mattress, he closed his own eyes. He needed to think. He had never before tried to help a person through meditation on his own.
He had memorized many texts in recent years. He had said mantras for dying animals. He had sat with the younger boys through their fevers. But in the ceremonial meditations with the high lama, or in the crucible of the debating courts, he felt that he had failed to become more than the most indifferent student. At least the great lama had never praised him. Not once could he remember praise since coming here at the age of twelve.
With brief shame he pushed the unworthy thought from his mind.
Now he was alone with this stranger in great distress and he must try to help. In the weak light coming from the bulb on the porch, he could make out the man’s face. Even at rest it was flickering with emotion, as the mind within followed its dialogues down the tunnel of sleep.
Deliberately Sherab relaxed. His tense legs eased down onto the mat. He straightened his back. Breathing slowly, he let his heart open in sympathy and tried to imagine the experience of the obsession. Subtly at first, and then with increasing power, he began to feel it. A sense of great injustice came, far away from all others, loneliness. But like bright shocks of lightning came the moments of exaltation, rearing arrogance. It had become so sweet, so important for this Westerner to believe he was extraordinary. To give in now to the disbelief of others would be like death. Between despair and excitement the man’s mind arced back and forth, self-obsessed, trapped. The stress was breaking down the harmony of mind and body and odd physical sensations and mental images had come to add to his confusion, and his fascination. He had lost even the will to find his way back to the conventional truth and simple curiosity where he began.
Sadness for the man’s predicament and a sympathetic anxiety overwhelmed the young monk. Surely if he meant to practice the teachings, he must at least try to help.
He gathered his concentration, breathing slowly, letting his mind calm and deepen as it rode on the waves of breath — in, out, in, out. Then, with feeling, he prayed to the high lama to help him with his effort.
As he had been taught, he tried to visualize the lama in the form of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion. With startling suddenness, the image leapt into his mind, without effort, more clearly than it had ever come to him before. The wide calm eyes of the deity seemed actually to regard him from the center of the room. Its graceful limbs were shaped of white light. They radiated light throughout the room, bright rainbow colors that shimmered in a soft halo. Easily, Sherab could visualize the four hands of Chenrezig, holding on the left side a pure lotus, a crystal rosary on the other, and in the center, the great sparkling jewel that fulfills the wishes of all beings.
The clarity of the figure, the powerful sense that it was really there, sent a shiver of excitement through the young monk. But he caught himself. Without breaking concentration, he let cool awareness wash excitement away. He must not let his motivation become debased.
As his mind grew quiet, his concentration on the image deepened. In visualization, he made prostrations to it, and then made symbolic offerings of all beautiful things for which he himself had ever yearned. He offered flowers, fresh water, sweet smells. He offered light, food, sound, caress. He offered up himself: his body which was useless if it were not used to help others; his speech which had no point if he could not teach others the Way; his mind which was the root and heart of suffering if he could not see clearly the true empty nature of all things. And then he prayed to Chenrezig to grant him the real ability to help another by meditation.
In his visualization, that now seemed so real, a bright piercing light began to glow in the heart of the awakened being, shining right through the transparent body. He felt a stretching in his own heart, a sense of energy pouring through his chest. And then in a shower of light, the image of the buddha dissolved and poured into him, through him, around him. In the intensity of the experience he forgot himself completely. “Sherab” fell away like a dream.
All that was left was simple awareness that filled a vast expanse of infinite clarity.
With the clarity there was a low hum without source or direction, an all-pervasive gentleness. Its sound was OM MANI PEDME HUM. . . .
Very gradually he let himself conceive his own mind as that sound. Sound became light. In piercing focus, light became the letters of the mantra and the secret syllable of Chenrezig.
And out of that the mind of Sherab itself became Chenrezig.
For a long time he let consciousness rest there, feeling, without holding, the bliss of it, the marvel. He looked down at the translucent clarity of his body, the luminous, light-sculpted perfection of fingers, feet, flowing blue-green robes and white lotus. He sat in space as open as the dawn sky.
Then he focused inward. Chenrezig focused inward. He felt himself opening to care that extended throughout time and space, without limit. He let himself love, cherish every being in existence as tremulously as a mother loves her new child. Their faults did not matter. He loved them fiercely, as a general loves the city he goes out to defend. He loved each one particularly, watchfully, shrewdly, as a teacher loves a favorite pupil. And he saw them with delight, his precious peers, as the awakened beings they did not yet know they would become.
Remembering his purpose, Sherab visualized the Western man in front of him. He put him there as he looked, unkempt, his hair long and unruly, his face tight. About the man he caused his obsession to become visible as a foul, dense smoke. Repeating the mantra to himself, Sherab began a slow inhalation. With the breath he took in the smoke, pulling it deep into his own lungs as Chenrezig. When repulsion rose he was ready for it. He took the blackness even further in, and opened his defenses back out into a total concern with the Westerner. The black smoke at his heart was transformed. With the out-breath he exhaled light, an elixir of wisdom that gradually penetrated the figure in front of him. With each completed breath, the darkness around the Westerner cleared and his inner light grew. With all the strength of his concentration Sherab/Chenrezig pulled from him arrogance and self-pity and fear. Vividly, he imagined the man changing as the massive confusion settled and evaporated to nothing. He imagined his features relaxing into tenderness and bright interest. He imagined his body clearing to translucence. With effort that brought sweat to his body, Sherab poured into him, in a wave of spoken mantra and visualized light, all the joyful wisdom that he himself did not yet possess, Chenrezig’s wisdom.
When he was done, there were tears wet on his cheeks. His mind felt worn down and wavering with the effort. He knew he had not been skillful. But before he said the prayer of dedication, before he let go of a visualization grown unsteady, he rested in it one last time.
Two fully detailed figures of Chenrezig floated there, bright, facing each other, himself and the Westerner. He let the joy of it, the completion of it fill him. Then he let go.
Rapidly, he said the traditional prayer of ending. More rapidly still, and with little concentration left, he recited by rote the daily prayers the lama has given him as an obligation.
The foreigner slept, his face at last still.
Sherab closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall. He didn’t know how long he slept. When Ngawang’s low call woke him in the dark, it felt as if a long time had passed.
“Sherab, please come. Rinpoche has sent for you,” the little boy whispered.
Wakefulness came in a shock. Sherab scrambled to his feet and followed the boy unsteadily through the yard. His left foot had gone to sleep.
His heart pounding, he paused before the curtain covering the Rinpoche’s door. Then with a decisive motion, he flicked it aside and entered. He felt as self-conscious as the day he had arrived, four years ago. He only dared a single quick glance at the lama as he made the three ritual prostrations. The lama was not looking at him. He was looking at a rosary that moved steadily between thumb and forefinger in his lap.
“Sit down,” he said.
Sherab obeyed, too shaken to think of speaking first. He waited.
In a little while Ngawang came in backwards, his small bottom pushing out the curtain and keeping it behind him as he turned and entered with a tray of food. With an enormous yawn he set it down in front of Sherab. Sherab recoiled.
“Rinpoche!” he rebuked the boy, gesturing vehemently to the high lama who sat without anything in front of him. Ngawang was too sleepy even to remember protocol.
The Rinpoche swept his politeness back at him with a wave of the hand and went on saying the silent mantras.
Awkwardly, Sherab forced himself to eat some of the meal and drink a cup of tea. The old lama was too unpredictable and the night had been too grueling for him to feel any hunger.
“You have been with the Westerner,” the lama said matter-of-factly as soon as he had finished.
Sherab looked up, a faint eagerness creeping into his mind. He began carefully, “I tried to help him.”
“You have not helped him,” the lama said bluntly. “He will be the same tomorrow.”
The words came like a blow across his face and Sherab dropped his eyes sharply. With effort, he successfully checked the urge to cry, but he could not stop the inward rush of despair. What was the purpose? If such effort accomplished nothing at all. . . . It was a long time before he could bring himself to look at the lama again. When he did, he started nervously. The lama was studying him with total attention, his old eyes bright with humor.
“He has not benefited, but you, I think, have gained something.”
He went on passing the little bone beads between thumb and forefinger.
Sherab stared at him.
“You cannot help him. In the end only he can help himself. All you can do is show the way.”
There was another long silence. A buffalo bawled in the distance and a dog started barking. With surprise, Sherab realized that it was almost dawn.
The lama’s voice commanded his attention forward again.
“To show him the way you must know the way.” The aged voice was precise. “And you must know your disciple perfectly. You may go.”
Sherab stumbled to his feet and turned toward the door.
“Come here,” said the lama.
Bewildered, the young monk went to him. He bent over as the lama placed a white scarf of respectful greeting around his neck.
“There,” the lama said. He touched Sherab lightly on both sides of his head.
Feeling braver, Sherab glanced up into his eyes.
The look of love there stunned him. Warmed to the bottom of his heart, he backed away, hands held to his forehead in greatest respect. And fled.
It was late morning when the foreigner at last came out of his room. He had packed his bag and tied it together with a rope. He whistled as he rolled his sleeping bag on the covered porch. As he passed Sherab’s room he peeked through the open door and the whistle wavered. When he saw the young monk wasn’t there the whistle rose again. He went on.
In the garden he saw the old Rinpoche walking with a monk at his elbow. A deep furrow formed between his brows and he waited to pass until they had gone, muttering under his breath. Out in the monastery’s dusty central lane, he glared at the maroon-robed monks who passed him. But they were all going the other way. At the entrance gate he found himself alone. He stood silent, looking back, until the crying of a buffalo calf caught his attention. A genuine smile lit his face as he went to pet the young animal. He forgot himself. When it was quiet he half-lifted, half-shoved the young animal across a drainage ditch that blocked its way and pushed it toward the monastery. He was whistling again as he began the long walk to the bus station in the Indian village.
Behind him the Tibetan long horns groaned into life to mark the beginning of a morning ceremony at the refugee settlement. Hundreds of prayer flags, hung on ropes from the monastery’s golden peak, fluttered in a breeze that came from the distant sea.