Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities is an open access, peer-reviewed annual journal that publishes academic articles, book reviews, and interviews related to Tibet, as well as poetry, prose, art, and fiction.
The summer of 1988 was extremely hot. It was so hot that the small Tibetan refugee settlement of Kham Kathok surrounded by tropical mountains baked in the sun. Sweat trickled down our cheeks and even the air under the Usha ceiling fan was hot. The best thing we could do to cool off was to head down to the river that flowed along the valley between the mountains. Along with the other children, I would race towards the river, stripping off my clothes and diving into the wild and clean waters, leaving a trail of scattered clothes behind on the sandy bank.
But even hotter than the weather that summer was the new Bollywood film, Tarzan. I knew it was a booming success at the box office all over India because the movie soundtrack played continuously in towns and villages everywhere. Even the tiniest chai stalls blared the songs from Tarzan on their battered stereos in the bazaar.
My village had its share of the excitement too. The movie’s popularity was increased by the arrival of Chocho Dawa, our neighbour’s teenage cousin. He was from Kharapathar; a place tucked away somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas where he helped his parents tend their herd of horses and mules and earned money by hiring them out to transfer crates of apples for the local Indian apple orchard owners. He was of slender build, with strong arms from years of moving apple crates. His black hair hung down to his shoulders, and he smoked beedis. What was more was he was amazingly talented; to the delight of us children, he could sing all the songs from Tarzan. He would flash all the fingers on his hands in front of us and say, “Ten times!” his handsome eyes looking directly into our eyes. “I have seen Tarzan ten times!” nodding as he said it.
As evening approached, we gathered excitedly in the front yard of the house where Chocho Dawa was staying. There was a rickety wooden chair ready for him under an illuminated light bulb suspended from the eaves of the house. We kids took our places, sitting on the concrete ground, forming a semi-circle around the empty chair. By the time it was eight o’clock, a hush fell over the gathered audience. We heard the crickets in the nearby bushes and the rustling and fluttering of moths drawn to the light. Then, the impressive, silhouetted figure of Dawa appeared at the window of the house. After a moment, he disappeared once again, only to emerge from the doorway, which creaked open to announce the arrival of the great storyteller. He strode towards us children; everyone with eager excitement on our faces. All eyes were on him as the crowd parted naturally so that he could make his way to the chair that awaited him. He sat down and let his hands rest on his knees.
A friend sitting next to me rubbed his hands together in excitement and said with twinkling eyes, “Now he will tell us the Tarzan story again!”
Chocho Dawa wore a bandana, a strip of leather around his forehead, holding his ink-black hair back. He rummaged through the pockets of his shorts to pull out a small bundle of beedis and a matchbox. He took out a beedi and put it firmly between his lips. He struck a matchstick against the box. Instantly a fire was produced, which, with a curved hand to shield it against the breeze, he held to the beedi. For a brief moment, his features looked like those of a deity on an altar lit by flickering butter lamps. Then, with a sudden wave of his hand, the fire was blown out. He took a long drag and let out the long grey smoke through his nostrils and mouth, covering his face for a brief moment. After the third drag, he dropped the burning cigarette butt at his foot and smothered it under his flip-flop and once again his face disappeared behind the smoky veil as he exhaled.
His gaze roamed over us, then a smile broke across his face. With his glowing teeth, he clapped his hands together and asked, “Are you ready for the story?”
We screamed “Yes!” in unison and excitement. To which he responded by calling his younger cousin indoors.
“Yeah?” Gomchen’s voice came from inside the house, accompanied by his silhouette at the window.
“Press the play button now on the tape recorder.”
The shadow vanished from the window. A few of us jumped up to peep inside. The room was dimly lit, and the walls decorated with Tarzan posters. We could see a rectangular box on a table emitting an array of coloured lights, almost like a beaming rainbow. Gomchen pressed the play button.
‘Ji lay lay, Ji lay lay, ayo ayo, Ji lay lay…’
The song blasted out of the tape recorder. Dawa threw his hands in the air. He leapt up from his chair and started to move to the music. He jumped from side-to-side dancing as if in a trance. Kids moved back, away from him, to make space. His dancing shadow performed before us until he stopped abruptly, out of breath and panting heavily. He shouted between breaths.
The machine clunked to a stop inside the house, and the loud music ceased as abruptly as Dawa’s dance. He took his seat and wiped away the sweat trickling down his face with the back of his hand. The audience exploded with applause, but before the sound of clapping had finished, he began to tell the story.
“The hunters were camping in the jungle and having a party, drinking and dancing around a bonfire,” he said, putting on a serious expression.
“They were there in search of Tarzan. The heroine, Jane, ventured out alone towards the river nearby. Once at the edge of the river, she sat down on a boulder and listened to the sound of the river as it rushed by. When she looked across the river, there he was, standing on the opposite bank, the Ape Man. He wore only a loincloth; his hair was long and his body muscular. Both of them watched each other in amazement. Before she realised it, Tarzan had vanished, but she heard his call echo through the jungle. It stirred in her romantic temptations, and yet at the same time, it frightened her.”
Chocho Dawa placed his hand next to his mouth and called out to imitate Tarzan.
“E e e o o o o e e e e…E e e o o o o e e e…”
He threw his mop of hair from side to side with his leather bandana around his head. Then he started to demonstrate Tarzan’s ability to swing from branch to branch by moving his hands one after another in the space above his head. Eventually, he turned back to his attentive audience. He allowed for several seconds of silence while he looked into the night sky, which was getting darker and was now overcast with the gathering clouds.
“That’s how Tarzan and his woman met and fell in love.”
Raindrops started to fall. Chocho Dawa took a look at his watch. Then it started to pour. Some of the audience scattered with their hands over their heads into the night. He shouted over the noise of the downpour.
“The final part of the movie will be at the river tomorrow afternoon. I will see you all there.”
Despite the rain, the remaining audience stayed put. What happened next? How did the movie end? We wanted to know! Chocho Dawa looked at our eager faces, and he hesitated. Then we heard a rolling thunder in the distance. He waved his hands to send us away and retreated into the house.
The next day we gathered on the bank of the river. It looked murky and swollen—it had doubled in size overnight with the heavy rain. Chocho Dawa arrived with his assistant, Gomchen, tagging along. While we watched, he changed his clothes into his Tarzan gear.
After a moment, he was ready and standing at the edge of the swollen river in a loincloth and leather strip around his head.
After monitoring the river, he turned around and said,
“Sing the title song of the movie.”
We all sung the song together,
He dove into the flowing water and resurfaced, but the current was strong; he was being washed downstream. He thrashed his strong arms and swam through the murky water. Then he gripped onto a boulder with his head and shoulders above the water. He shouted towards his standing, frightened audience.
“This is how Tarzan fights off the crocodile to save his woman.”
He punched the surface of the river, splashing the water. But all of a sudden, he lost his grip and struggled before vanishing, reappearing and vanishing again. We could see his hands waving as he struggled to keep his head above water. There was nothing we could do except run along on the riverbank. After some time, our Tibetan Tarzan reappeared on the edge of the river some one hundred yards downstream. His knee was cut and bruised. He did not finish the story, and to this day I never learned how it ended. We all returned to the village with our Ape Man limping silently beside us.
N. Dhargyal is a British Tibetan living in Brighton, UK. He was one of the founding members of Tibetan Youth-UK and earned his BA (Hons) in Literature from The Open University. He is currently working on a short story collection tentatively titled The Rise of The Grassland Spirit. Some of his spoken words are available on The Soundcloud.
(Translated from the Tibetan by Lowell Cook)
Wangchen was my childhood friend. Except for a slightly bent nose, he was a handsome young man. After he disrobed, it seemed like he grew all the more manly.
To my mind, his one unique quality was that he always carried around five or six low-quality mobile phones. It took him forever to piss and we called him by the nickname, or rather the insult, “Yearlong Pisshead.”
He bragged to us that it took him over two hours to get off just once during sex. It was then that his friends, myself included, started admiring him slightly, while at the same time not knowing whether to believe him or not. Soon, we had no problem calling him a
‘pretty awesome guy.’
According to Wangchen, a guy named Lhagyal Bhum from Churul village was an even more awesome guy. He told us that there was a local spirit living in Grandpa Kunzang mountain and that it was for real. He said that Lhagyal Bhum had gone to the top of the mountain one spring day and that the spirit had started singing some sort of song when he stomped his feet about a few times.
When Wangchen was still a monk, he was called Tsultrim, meaning “discipline.” Yet discipline was exactly what he lacked. It’s likely that this had something to do with our calling him a ‘pretty awesome guy.’
Terribly depressed, Wangchen took his life one bitterly cold winter. The real situation was like this. He went to the cremation grounds in the middle of the night and popped over one hundred painkillers all at once. He got completely wasted and, in the end, passed out and froze over.
Later on, an official from the Public Security Bureau found a card on Wangchen’s body with this message written on it: “When I went for my gastrointestinal check-up at the Huaxi hospital in Chengdu, the doctor dosed me with pain meds. After I sobered up, no matter how much my wife or daughter reached out to me, I had this feeling that I didn’t want to wake up, that I just wanted to sleep. At the time, I couldn’t feel even the slightest pain during the check-up and, from then on, I was convinced that I could die just as if I were falling asleep.”
According to Wangchen’s girlfriend, Adrol, the real reason Wangchen took his life was because he had AIDS. A friend of mine named Dechen Gyurmé claimed that he didn’t know whether Wangchen had AIDS, but that Adrol definitely did. I had no idea how Dechen Gyurmé knew about Adrol’s AIDS. And all the hairs on my body suddenly stood on end.
(Originally published as “Bzi sman ril bu brgya lhag dus gcig tu zos” in Nga dang nga’i snying sdug ‘jigs med nor bu. Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2018, pp. 48-51.)
Sangdor is a poet from eastern Tibet. At a young age, he was recognized as being the reincarnation of a Buddhist master, but later renounced this title and his robes to devote himself entirely to writing. His poetry is known for breathing new life into classical forms by playfully mixing colloquialism with recently coined words and various dialects with traditional proverbs. He is a prolific author with some twenty titles to his name.
Lowell Cook is a reader, researcher, and translator of the entire breadth of Tibetan literature, from the ancient Dunhuang manuscripts to contemporary poetry. His aspiration is to be able to share some of the richness of Tibetan literature with the world. He completed his MA in Translation, Philology, and Textual Interpretation at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute in Nepal.
(Translated from the Chinese by Riga Shakya)
Early one morning, I was still dreaming when I was awakened by the voice of an old client. I remembered that it was a good dream, but after waking up, I couldn’t remember exactly what kind of good dream it had been. All I remembered was that it was a good dream. A little disappointed, I made not a single movement under the covers.
This old client of mine was called Phurbu Tsering. He had a lot of cash and a strong body odor.
I really didn’t want to get up. I glanced up at Phurbu Tsering from the bed and said nothing. The sun came in through a gap in the window, and the room warmed up. The sunlight allowed Phurbu Tsering’s strong body odor to diffuse into the air. The smell was already very pungent.
The stench emanating from his body woke me up completely.
Phurbu Tsering didn’t seem to realize this. He just said, “Load the goods.”
I walked over to open the window and looked out, “It’s my day off today.”
Phurbu Tsering seemed to have caught on at this time, and walked over to open another window. Looking out of the window, he said, “Just drop off the goods at the same old place. Just leave this morning and you’ll be back in the afternoon.”
“It’s my day off today.”
Phurbu Tsering smiled, “It’s an urgent delivery, it has to be today.”
I returned his smile, “I really want to take a day off today.”
“I’ll make it worth your while.”
I hesitated, “How much?”
“Five hundred,” Phurbu Tsering said without any hesitation.
No more hesitation. I put on my clothes and stepped outside with him.
After loading the goods, Phurbu Tsering said, “Your big truck looks like a big strong yak!”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Well, they’re not wrong.”
No more words were exchanged. I got behind the wheel and drove my big truck onto the highway. I saw Phurbu Tsering motionless in the rearview mirror. In a flash, my big truck was already among the sand dunes. It’s annoying when you can’t see anything out there in the wilderness. The truck was almost engulfed in a cloud of dust and sand rising from behind the rear wheels.
It was already afternoon, and the sun was very hot. Feeling a little sleepy, I yawned several times. The road stretched forever into the distance, and I couldn’t help closing my eyes and taking a nap. Driving out into the desert was common enough, but accidents were common too. Drivers who ran long distances might bring a young apprentice along with them. I used to bring a kid with me too. But that was many years ago. That kid was pretty good, he learned to drive very fast. Whenever I was about to fall asleep at the wheel, he’d taken over for me.
Suddenly I woke up. Opening my eyes, my hands were still on the steering wheel, and the big truck was still rolling straight down the highway. I was just a little afraid. It would be nice if my little apprentice was with me, I thought to myself. Didn’t make much sense thinking that way. He was a handsome bastard and I was pretty fond of him. So handsome that my daughter fell in love with him. They ran off together and never came back. My wife died young so I’d brought her up by myself, but in the end, she ran off with somebody else.
My mind was in disarray. I slammed my head hard against the steering wheel, steadied myself for a moment, and shook my head violently. My mind seemed to clear.
In order to maintain my newfound equilibrium, I held the steering wheel in my left hand and reached over to the passenger seat for a cigarette with my right hand. Grasping the cigarette case, I reached in. There was only one cigarette left inside. I took the cigarette out and slipped it between my lips.
I glanced over at the passenger seat and saw the lighter next to the empty cigarette case. Before reaching for the lighter, I shook the cigarette case to make sure it really was empty. Then I picked up the lighter.
I clicked it a few times before it finally ignited and lit the cigarette dangling from my mouth. I blew out a ring, and watched the smoke as it hung in the air in front of me, and then dissipate in the cab. I took a few more drags, sucking the smoke deep into my lungs. I was refreshed. The cigarette burned between my fingers, which were covered by some kind of sticky residue. Must have been motor oil. The end of the cigarette was catching up with my fingers. Pushing the butt forward, I took another drag and soon I had smoked the entire thing.
Staring grudgingly at the remains of my cigarette, I took a final drag. It was all filter.
I threw the butt out of the window. The lighter was still in my hand and I put it on the dash board.
Above the dashboard dangled a photo of a kind-faced Lama. This Lama was my root guru. He had been sitting cross-legged, motionless, in my heart. All these years without any accidents, all because my guru was sitting in my heart.
Staring straight at the photo my mind was free from anxiety. A smile appeared on my face. The afternoon weather seemed to be even hotter than before. The waves of heat permeating from the road before me formed a vacillating landscape. Fine particles of sweat dripped down from my forehead. I reached under the seat and my groping produced a rustling sound.
Finally, I found a plastic bottle. There is only a little water left. I opened the cap with my teeth and poured the water into my mouth. The water quickly slipped down my throat. I heard a crackling as if it was being burned.
The bottle was soon empty. I threw it out of the window. Through the rear-view mirror I watched the bottle float away in the desert as if it was anxious to sever its connection with me. Suddenly, the truck trembled violently. I turned around and slowed down while looking back in the mirror.
There was something rolling on the road behind me.
Braking suddenly, I continued to stare at the object through the rear-view mirror. It was motionless in the middle of the road. I opened the door and got out. I walked towards the object.
As I got closer, I saw that it was a sheep. I’d hit the sheep with the truck. It wasn’t moving.
I squatted down beside the sheep. The sheep’s eyes were half open, and blood flowed from the corners of its mouth. Immediately, my thoughts turned to my root guru. I closed my eyes and recited the six-syllable mantra a few times. Opening my eyes to look into the distance, there was nothing to see. I glanced at the sheep’s body again. Blood gushed out of its mouth and its halfopen eyes had lost their luster.
I stood up, walked to the middle of the road and looked around. There was nothing around me. I was surrounded by emptiness. Only waves of heat rising from the tarmac. I took out a scrap of newspaper from my pocket and tore a small rectangular piece. After drawing a packet of tobacco from my pocket, I poured the tobacco leaves onto the paper and began to roll carefully. I licked the edge with my tongue and the cigarette was ready. Whenever I ran out of cigarettes, I rolled my own. I held the cigarette to my mouth. Ready to take out the lighter, I reached down to my pocket, but I couldn’t find it. Remembering where I’d left it, I headed towards the big truck.
I opened the front door, took the lighter from the dashboard, pressed down and lit the cigarette. At that exact moment, I saw my root guru hanging above the steering wheel. He stared ahead, as if he was judging me. Feeling a little self-conscious, I quickly closed the door. I turned and smoked leaning against the cabin. After taking a few drags, I turned involuntarily towards the dead sheep. The dead sheep remained motionless. The six-syllable mantra came spontaneously to my lips. Then, I turned back to continue smoking. This tobacco gave me no stimulation, it was like smoking dried yak dung. I continued to smoke while looking at the wilderness ahead of me.
There was nothing out there in the wilderness. After I finished smoking, I threw the cigarette butt on the ground and stomped down hard on it.
Then I turned and walked towards the dead sheep. I reached the dead sheep, it didn’t make a single move. I stood and looked down at it. There was more blood flowing from the corner of its mouth, congealing into a large purple-black pattern on the road. The pattern was strangely familiar. I seemed to have seen it before, but I couldn’t remember when exactly. I squatted down and picked up the dead sheep in my arms, stood up and looked into the distance. There was nothing but distance. I walked towards the truck with the dead sheep in tow. I opened the back door and rolled the dead sheep onto the back seat. I slammed the door shut and opened the front one. I jumped into the driver’s seat and started the car. I turned the ignition but the engine just cranked. It eventually turned on but continued to produce a strange, sputtering sound.
After I sat down, I saw my root guru staring at me again. His eyes looked serious, which made me feel guilty. I quickly lowered my head and clasped my hands together, “You saw that I ran over that sheep, but please know that it was an accident.”
My root guru still bore the same expression.
“Well, you didn’t warn me! Just let me slam into a sheep and commit an unvirtuous action.”
My root guru’s expression seemed even more serious. I was feeling little overwhelmed. I looked back at the dead sheep in the back seat. The dead sheep was lying there peacefully.
When I looked back, my guru’s expression seemed to have changed, it was no longer so severe. I relaxed a little, shifted gear and started the engine.
The expression on my face must have been quite strange at that moment. I shut my mouth and hit the road. I saw my two eyes reflected in the rearview mirror—there was a little disappointment in them. The waves of heart permeated the vast desert ahead. There were more beads of sweat on my forehead. Sweat dripped down, irritating my eyes. I squinted and the landscape before me became blurred.
Suddenly I saw a little black shadow creeping on the road ahead. I was a little excited. I stepped off the accelerator and looked straight head of me. I couldn’t tell what it was. The waves of heat blurred the lines of the shadow.
I stepped on the accelerator and drove towards the shadow. As I got closer, the shadow began to become distinct. Finally, I saw that it was a donkey. I was disappointed. I looked at the donkey from the car window. Its eyes were cold, and it seemed almost too lazy to glance back at me. I blew the horn a few times but the donkey didn’t seem to hear anything, continuing to make its way along the road idly. I was very disappointed with this donkey. I looked back at the dead sheep in the seat behind it, and it was just the same, motionless. I turned around and pressed down hard on the pedal. I didn’t give a damn about this weird donkey.
The photo of my root guru dangled above the dashboard. “People are strange these days, never thought that donkeys were the same way.”
I saw my guru laughing. He must have agreed with me. I was feeling a little happier. In the rearview mirror, I saw the stubborn donkey in the distance. And then the donkey was gone. My heart was calmer. After a while, I suddenly thought that perhaps I hadn’t seen any donkey after all. That it was just a figment of my imagination. I didn’t think about it any further. There were so many strange things in this world. I looked away from the window. Through the car window, you could see farther and farther away, but everything was indistinct. Apart from the sand that is.
At sunset, I finally dropped off the goods. It was a big yard. There was a big dog in the yard. I sounded the horn a few times, the big dog barked, and then the boys came out to unload.
One of the guys I’d met before said, “What’s wrong with you? You look a little off.”
I smiled, “Nothing, just a little tired.”
He didn’t have anything more to say. I asked him for a cigarette and lit up. The lads were having a laugh as they unloaded the goods. After a while, my truck was unloaded, and the boys began to move the goods to the warehouse.
The guy who gave me a smoke came over and smiled, “That Dolma of yours was asking when you were coming.”
I smiled, “Really? Then I have to see her.”
The man laughed an ill-intentioned laugh. I asked him for a cigarette again, and he reached out and gave me a light. I started the car, but I wasn’t going to Dolma’s place. I drove the car out of the yard. The boys thought I was going to Dolma’s, and so they laughed with mirth. Dolma was my lover. We had been going together since my daughter ran away with my apprentice. I drove through the streets of the dusty town. Herdsmen riding motorcycles on the street roared past dangerously. I blew the horn countless times and finally reached the outskirts of the town. I slowed down in front of a meat stall in the market and stopped. A butcher was busy hanging up a skinned sheep carcass.
The butcher saw me stop and said, “How about buying some meat? Look, how good it is! Fresh, fresh lamb!”
I looked at the sheep hanging upside down and then at the intimidating face of the butcher. When the butcher saw me speechless, he put his knife in his mouth and started to busy himself. I looked at the dead sheep in the back seat. It lay on the seat, and more blood seeped from the corner of its mouth. I couldn’t stomach it, and turned my head back.
I looked at the sheep hanging upside down in the butcher’s stall. “How much for a whole one?”
The butcher thought that I was going to make a purchase, so he quickly removed the knife from his mouth and smiled. “You want the whole sheep? I’ll give you a good price then.”
“I’ll weigh it out.” The butcher picked up the weighing scale next to him and hung up the lamb.
After that, he picked up a greasy pen and scratched it on a piece of equally greasy paper.
The butcher stared at me, “Six hundred and sixty-four kuai.”
I looked at the greasy pen and paper in his hand and said nothing.
The butcher looked at what he had in his hand. “If you don’t agree, you name your price,” He said handing me the greasy pen and paper.
I couldn’t help laughing, and said, “That’s not what I meant, that’s not what I meant.”
The butcher turned the pen and paper in his hand and thought for a while, “Well, if you want to buy the whole sheep, I’ll give you a discount. Let’s make it a nice round price. Six hundred kuai.”
I looked at the butcher, “How much does it cost to buy a live sheep of this size?”
“It would cost 500 yuan. Do I look like I make a lot of money? Barely make any profit and I have a whole family to support. It’s not easy.”
I smiled, “I’ll pick it up on my way back. I have something to take care of at the monastery.”
The butcher looked a little unhappy. “I thought you were going to buy the damned thing!” He slipped the knife in his mouth, and began to busy himself, making sure not to look at me.
A little embarrassed, I drove away.
Soon, I arrived at the monastery. After circling around the main temple, I parked the truck not far from the monastery gate. I saw a beggar coming over.
I got out of the car. “Is there a monk in the temple right now?”
The beggar smiled and said nothing. I looked at the gate of the monastery, “I said, are there monks in the monastery?”
The beggar stopped smiling, “Of course, who else would be in the monastery besides the monks?”
I also smiled. “You make a lot of sense.”
The beggar said, “Then how about you give me some money. I need to get something to eat or I will starve to death.”
I stared at him. He looked like he really was hungry, and I gave him a five kuai bill from out of my pocket. The beggar didn’t even thank me, just ran off with the bill. I opened the back door and took the dead sheep out. I carried the dead sheep towards the monastery gate, blood dripping from the dead sheep’s mouth onto the ground.
The beggar came out of a nearby shop with some snacks in his hands. The beggar ate his snacks.
“You didn’t close the door.”
I looked back, the door was indeed open, and said, “Please close it for me.”
The beggar closed the car door. The dead sheep in my arms, I continued to walk towards the gate of the monastery.
The beggar ran after me and looked at the dead sheep I was holding inquisitively. “What have you got there?”
“A dead sheep. I hit it with my truck and it died.”
The beggar looked at my face, “Why were you so careless?”
I ignored him and carried on with the dead sheep. At the monastery gates, an old monk came out and met me head-on.
The old monk looked at the dead sheep in my arms. “What is this?”
“This is a dead sheep.”
The old monk recited the six-character mantra and said, “Why do you bring a dead sheep into the monastery?”
“I’m truck driver, and I hit this sheep on the road today.”
The old monk recited the six-character mantra again, “Om mani padme hum.” “The sheep just came out of nowhere.”
The old monk looked at me with such strange eyes I couldn’t guess what they meant. The beggar had stopped eating his food and looked at me curiously.
I was a little embarrassed. “I want a monk in a monastery to perform the last rites for this dead sheep.”
The old monk looked at my face in surprise. “What? Recite the last rites for a dead sheep?”
“This sheep must have committed some unvirtuous action to have to come to this end.”
I added, “I don’t want to shirk my responsibility. I hit the sheep. When I ran out to check on it, it was already dead.”
The beggar looked at my face quizzically. I was holding the dead sheep in arms ready to step through the monastery gate.
The old monk stepped forward and stopped me, “You can’t bring a dead sheep into the monastery!”
I looked at the old monk’s face, “What should I do then?”
“Just take it away!”
“I would really like a monk to read the rites for the sheep.”
The old monk looked at me without any surprise on his face. I looked at the dead sheep and said, “Look how pitiful it is!” The old monk looked at the dead sheep in my arms with pity.
“Master, please let me in.”
“You really can’t bring a dead sheep into the monastery.”
“What should I do then? Any suggestions?”
The old monk thought about it. He said, “Well, put the sheep on the ground over there, and I’ll say a prayer over it.”
I thought about it, “Okay, then hurry and read the mantra over it.”
The old monk asked me to put the dead sheep on the left side of the monastery gate. He sat cross-legged next to the dead sheep. The old monk took the black rosary beads from his wrist, touched them on the dead sheep’s carcass, and then closed his eyes and chanted the six-syllable verse.
The beggar and I listened together. We both watched the old monk chanting with his eyes closed.
“Isn’t this scripture supposed to be for dead people?”
I didn’t want to answer, but I couldn’t help but glare at the beggar. The old monk kept his eyes closed and continued chanting. The beggar and I looked at the dead sheep for a while, and then looked at the old monk who recited the mantra. The old monk finally finished his recitation. He opened his eyes and recited the six-character mantra one final time.
“Okay, the last rites have been performed and the sheep should be able to find its way.”
I took out five hundred kuai from my pocket and handed it to the old monk. “Please accept this.”
“Five hundred is too much.”
“No, that’s just right. You performed the last rites, please accept this.”
“It’s really too much. I’ll take just a hundred.”
“A butcher just told me the price of a live sheep is five hundred.”
The old monk gave me the strange look again.
“I don’t have any ulterior motives here. I just wanted the funerary rites to be performed accordingly. I don’t want to owe this sheep anything.”
The old monk continued to look at me with his peculiar eyes for a while, took a hundred kuai, and stuffed the rest back into my hand.
I was a little flustered, “Please just accept it, I really don’t mean to imply anything else.” The old monk was about to leave. I quickly grabbed him by the shoulder. “How about you use the remainder of the money to light some butter lamp offerings for this dead sheep.”
The old monk thought about it for a moment. He took the money from me and stashed it under his robes, “Okay, you can go now.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, “What about this dead sheep?”
“I don’t know…”
“What should I do with it?”
“Just take it home and eat it yourself. You’ve already seen to the rites.”
“I won’t eat it. I killed it, and I won’t eat its meat.”
“Then take it to the sky burial site and feed it to the vultures.”
“Is that alright?”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, you’ll generate more merit! I don’t think the vultures have eaten anything these last two days.”
At that moment, the beggar came over. “No need to go to so much trouble, just give me the dead sheep. It’s enough for me to eat for a month. You’ll generate some merit this way too.”
I looked at the beggar and I looked at the old monk.
“That works too, just give it to him.”
I thought about it. “I think it’s better to feed the vultures. I don’t want a person to eat the meat.” “Haven’t you already released its soul from suffering? What’s the difference between giving it to me and giving it to the vultures?”
“You are one person and there are many vultures, is that the same?”
“That does makes sense, give it to the vultures then”, the old monk said.
The beggar looked angry. He looked at me and he looked at the old monk.
I looked at the beggar’s face. “Well, I’ll give you a hundred kuai. You go and buy some meat for yourself.”
I took out a hundred kuai from my pocket and gave it to the beggar.
The beggar was very happy. “You truly are a generous person.” The old monk smiled.
I turned to the beggar. “Please help me carry this dead sheep to the sky burial ground.”
The beggar and I grabbed the sheep’s front and back legs and walked towards the sky burial site. When we looked back, the old monk was long gone. Arriving at the site, I saw several vultures crouched on the hills opposite, as if they had been waiting for our arrival. The beggar and I threw the dead sheep on the ground and took a few steps back to wait for the vultures to come down. It didn’t take long for the vultures to swoop down, surround the dead sheep, and begin to eat.
“This sheep is really a blessing”, the beggar said.
I didn’t speak, I just watched in fixation.
“In the future I will die, and my body will be offered to the vultures.”
I don’t know why, but I felt a little sad at this moment. I ignored the beggar. The dead sheep’s body was being torn apart by the vultures. The vultures danced around the dead sheep, as if they were enjoying a feast. The beggar and I stood aside pensively, murmuring the six-syllable mantra. The dead sheep soon disappeared in front of us. The vultures left unsated.
The beggar and I returned to the monastery gate. Several young monks were playing by my truck. Seeing me coming, they ran away. I got in and started the engine. I said goodbye to the beggar. He stood still, reluctant to part.
I drove to the meat stall. The butcher was still busy with the knife in his mouth. I stopped the truck and said to the butcher, “I want to buy that sheep now.”
“I sold half the sheep already, only half left”, the butcher said unattentively. He pointed at remaining half of the sheep carcass hanging there.
“Then I’ll take this half.”
The butcher looked unconvinced. “Do you really want to buy it?” “Yes, I really want it. Didn’t I just say I want to buy it?”
The butcher laughed, “Well, fair enough.”
He brought the half sheep carcass down. “Where do you want it?”
I pointed to the back seat. “Just put it over there.”
The butcher opened the back door of the truck and rested the sheep carcass on the back seat. “Why is there blood on your seat?”
I looked at the back seat and ignored him.
The butcher sniffed around the seat and said, “This is surely sheep’s blood. I can’t be wrong.” I continued to ignored him.
The butcher walked to the front window. “Well, that will be three hundred and thirty-two kuai.”
“Didn’t you say you’d give me a good price?”
“That was for the whole sheep. I can’t give you a better price on just half.”
“Well, it’s up to you.”
I took out the money, counted it once over and paid. The butcher was very happy. “I’ll give you a better price next time.”
I drove my big truck slowly through the streets of the town. After driving for a while, I turned into a narrow alley. At the end of the alley I stopped in front of a building that looked like a shop. It was almost dark. The surrounding street lights were on. The door of the shop was closed. I turned off the engine and jumped out of the car. I hefted half a sheep over my shoulder, walked over and knocked hard on the door of the shop.
The lights in the shop were on. My girl was in the shop and she loved eating lamb.
I knocked on the door and thought to myself, when she opens the door, she’ll be happy to see half a sheep over my shoulder.
No answer. I knocked hard on the door with my fist. She’d probably be happier if I had brought the whole damned sheep.
(The story can be read in the original Chinese language here: http://www.yuedu88.com/zhuangsileyizhiyang/59314.html)
Pema Tseden is a writer and a filmmaker. Author of more than 50 short stories and novels written in both Tibetan and Chinese, his work has won the Light Rain Tibetan Literature Prize and been translated into English, French, Japanese, and German. His films include Old Dog, Tharlo, The Search, and The Silent Holy Stones. His most recent film Jinpa (2018) was awarded the best screenplay in the Orizzonti program at the 75th Venice International Film Festival.
Riga Shakya translates contemporary and classical Tibetan literature. He is a Ph.D. candidate in late Imperial Chinese and Tibetan history at the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC) at Columbia University, where he is finishing a dissertation on the role of Tibetan life writing and poetry in Qing imperial expansion into Inner Asia in the 18th century. He is the founding editor of Waxing Moon: Journal for Tibetan and Himalayan Studies.
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 char, Gangs 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).
© 2021 Yeshe | A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities