Black Yak

by Akyab Dargye

(Translated by Holly Gayley and Tsewang Dorjee)


In areas of eastern Tibet, where nomads have taken vows not to sell their livestock for slaughter, what should they do if a family member falls ill? This is a recent dilemma resulting from an ethical reform movement promulgated by leaders at Larung Buddhist Academy in Serta, Sichuan Province since at least 2010. In mass vow ceremonies at local monasteries in the area, nomads have been asked to forsake selling yaks for slaughter and vices like gambling, drinking, smoking, wearing fur, visiting prostitutes, and fighting with weapons. Although the movement has tapered off in recent years, one of the main tensions has been how well the Buddhist ideal of non-violence fits with the practicalities of a nomadic way of life. Livestock have traditionally served as the family wealth in pastoral areas, both as a means of livelihood and the life savings of a family to draw upon when misfortune strikes.

This dilemma is taken up in “Black Yak” (G.yag rog rog),  a Tibetan short story about a herdsman with an ailing wife, who sneaks out under the cover of night to sell his prized yak to the slaughterhouse at the county seat. There are several reasons for his stealth, according to Tsewang Dorjee: the economic cost since some monasteries levy fines for transgressing vows, the social cost and threat of being ostracized by the local community, and the religious cost given the stain of non-virtue and the loss of ritual services that monasteries usually provide to the laity. In depicting this dilemma, “Black Yak” takes a different tack to probing the merits of ethical reform from the online debate in the Tibetan blogosphere that erupted in November 2012 and raged for more than a year. Instead, its author Akyab Dargye (A skyabs dar rgyas) offers a poignant and understated account illustrating the economic toll of ethical reform on the nomads themselves.

[Introduction by Holly Gayley]


Dusk. It’s getting dark, actually. Look, just a little moonlight. A chilly wind blows, biting cold. Clusters of stars appear, murmuring with anguish.

Gendun forcibly leads the black yak out from the cattle pen. Outside the pen, Gendun makes a call to the Chinese merchant. Without a bit of sympathy, the telephone says, “I’m sorry, your phone is out of money.” No money, a pitiable message.

He remembers that his phone has been out of money for several days. This is becoming routine now, and he’s getting used to it.

From youth, Gendun and the black yak grew up together amid the flowers and rain, the snow and the biting wind. Now, for his means of subsistence, he has to bring the black yak to be slaughtered. Compassion arises in Gendun’s mind. Tears well up. He sighs deeply.

However, Gendun has no other way to earn a livelihood. He has no skills, no education, no aptitudes, and no other source of income. He grew up with cattle, and he has grown old with cattle. In the moonlight, Gendun tiptoes away, leading the black yak until he arrives in front of the slaughterhouse at the county seat.

Near the slaughterhouse gate, there are Muslim merchants wearing white caps and Chinese merchants in leather jackets. For a while now, they have been waiting for nomads like Gendun who sell their livestock secretly.

In actuality, the black yak that Gendun brought has a stout body, strong and healthy. But a Muslim merchant with a white cap approaches from the bonfire near the gate of the slaughterhouse. Putting his pale, fat hand on the black yak and giving it a shake, he says,   

“Aro, old herdsman, the yak has no fat. How much do you want?”

“Don’t say that. This yak is stout like a wild yak. Even if you looked among a hundred yaks, it would be hard to find one like this,” Gendun speaks without any hesitation.

A Chinese merchant, puffing on a Zhonghua cigarette, puts his hand on the back of the black yak and says, “Honestly, I’ll give you around 2,000 yuan.”

“Impossible! Impossible!” Gendun says, shocked. He never thought that the merchant would offer such a low price.

Gendun thinks about how much money he needs now—with his wife in the hospital and the people in his village preparing for the new year.

“Oh, my merchant friend, don’t joke! How much can you really give me for this yak?”

“2,200 yuan,” says the Muslim merchant.

Gendun pulls down his sleeve to make a private deal and faces the Muslim merchant earnestly: “Okay then, give me your price.”

Instead the Chinese merchant wearing a black leather jacket extends his hand into Gendun’s sleeve. Gendun says: “I want 5,000 yuan. I need to go back home, so I am giving you my best price.”

“No. But I’ll give you 2,300 yuan. Will you sell?”

“No, definitely not!” Gendun shakes his head back and forth like a damuru.

Earlier in the year, before the snow started falling, one day Gendun had gone for help to the village head and borrowed some money at a high interest rate. With that money, he had paid the Chinese merchant in the black leather jacket more than 1,000 yuan for a leg of meat in order to help his wife recover her health.

Now as Gendun hears the words of the Chinese merchant in the black leather jacket, and sees his satisfied expression, he can’t believe his ears: “Atsi! Now you’ll only give 2,000 yuan for a stout yak like this.”

“Uncle herdsman, it seems like you don’t want to sell your yak.” Saying this, the Muslim merchant walks away to warm his hands over the bonfire.

“If you won’t sell, there’s nothing I can do either.” The Chinese merchant in the black leather jacket lights another cigarette and goes over to the bonfire.

This is the way that merchants treat nomads outside the gate of the slaughterhouse. Now, by the bonfire red with leaping flames, the men involved in the slaughter business enjoy themselves gambling the night away.

Gendun remembers the day he bought that leg of meat. His wife was parched, her face withered with an expression of despair. Feeling sorry, he had purchased the meat. Then, returning home, Gendun’s motorcycle ran out of gas, and he had no money to refill the tank. Pushing the motorcycle, he walked the remaining five kilometers. That night it was raining hard. He got completely drenched, and arrived shivering and so exhausted that he didn’t want anything to eat before going to bed.

Squatting near the slaughterhouse gate, Gendun recalls these events, while the bonfire by the slaughterhouse gate flickers red. It’s already four in the morning.

Where has the moonlight gone? Gendun hears the sound of dogs barking carried by the wind. His wristwatch seems to be ticking fast. Really fast.

As time passes, Gendun can no longer sit still. He feels restless, under pressure. The strong, chilly wind makes his hands, feet and face grow numb with cold. Gendun shivers and feels hopeless.

Gendun walks over to the bonfire and looks at the merchants. But they won’t speak to him. They speak a Chinese dialect that Gendun doesn’t know and just keep gambling.

How can Gendun keep silent in this way? How dare he wait quietly? As soon as he thinks of the slaughter deal, he starts to tremble. His hands grow numb, and he is filled with sadness.

Poor nomads like Gendun have to deliver their livestock to those in the butchering business secretly at night. Unfortunately, the Muslim merchants in their white caps and the Chinese merchants in their leather jackets know the customary practices of Tibetan society. They already know that at daybreak Gendun would not return home with the yak.

After all, Gendun must be terrified of punishment, apprehensive about gossip, and nervous about the sin. The chilly wind blows back and forth. It’s very dark. Nearly daybreak.

The merchants are quite clever. They are making good money these days off of the anxieties of those who have to do business secretly at night like Gendun and who are out of time. On the other hand, the buyers are not in a rush. Definitely not.

With no other choice left, Gendun taps on the shoulder of the Chinese merchant in the black leather jacket. Puffing on his Zhonghua cigarette, the merchant says: “What? Will you sell the yak?”

“Yes. Can you increase the price by one hundred yuan, for my sake?”

“Sure, the two of us are old friends.”


“Ha ha! No problem. We should do business again!”

“Ya ya! I’ll look for you in the future.”

It’s now pitch black. Where has Gendun drifted in the darkness?



(First published in the Tibetan language in the journal Light Rain [Sbrang char] in 2013 and republished on literary website Butter Lamp [Mchod me] in 2015.)

Akyab Dargye is a fiction writer who graduated from Minzu University of China in 2009 and has served as a government official in Serta County, Sichuan Province. He has written numerous short stories in Tibetan literary journals including Sbrang charGangs ljongs nyi gzhon, and Kha btags dkar po, and published the novel, Traveler (Lam ’gro ba), with Sichuan Minzu Press (2015).

Holly Gayley is a scholar and translator of Buddhist literature in contemporary Tibet and an Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is the author of several articles on ethical reform spearheaded by cleric-scholars at Larung Gar and, most recently, editor of the anthology Voices from Larung Gar: Shaping Tibetan Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century (2021).

Tsewang Dorjee is a Professor at Qinghai Nationalities University in Xining, Qinghai Province, who teaches and researches Tibetan language and literature with a specialization in Tibetan grammar. He is the author of A Treatise on Tibetan Grammar (Bod kyi sgra rig pa’i bstan bcos, 2009) and several articles on Thonmi’s Counsel (Thon mi’i zhal lung).