Flowers and Dreams: Literary Realism and Renunciation in a Lhasa Nightclub

Erin Burke


Abstract: Tsering Yangkyi (tshe ring dbyangs skyid) is a well-known contemporary writer living in Lhasa who has been publishing short stories and novellas since the 1980s. Like some of her other writing, her novel Me tog dang rmi lam (Flowers and Dreams), takes up contemporary issues of women’s lives in Tibet, including education opportunities and health care, but goes further into the dangers vulnerable women face when they do not have those opportunities. This article examines the religious themes and images in the novel that follows four women’s paths from village life to a difficult existence in Lhasa working as hostesses at a night club. Whereas the novel is written in a realist style with respect to the dialogue and depictions of the characters’ environment, extended metaphors for impermanence and no-self as well as the form of narration evoke elements of a Buddhist worldview. I argue that a formative reading of the novel, as theorized by Joshua Landy, suggests that these literary aspects of the work train the reader to see the world as Tibetan Buddhist preliminary exercises do (i.e., as impermanent and rife with suffering), while also foregrounding the very aspects of cyclic existence that make that worldview so difficult to cultivate.


Keywords: Tsering Yangkyi, women, Lhasa, Buddhism, impermanence


In January 2023 a group of scholars gathered to discuss modern Tibetan women writers and their literature at a symposium called Charting the Uncharted World of Tibetan Women Writers Today: An Ongoing Conversation, held at INALCO in Paris. Christopher Peacock gave a presentation there on the novel Metok dang Milam (T. Me tog dang rmi lam, literally Flowers and Dreams) by Tsering Yangkyi (b. 1962), of which he had just published a translation under the title Flowers of Lhasa. The main characters of the novel are four women who come to the capital city from country villages and end up working as hostesses at a night club, a job that not only requires drinking, smoking, flirting, and dancing with men, but also prostitution.

This conference was the third to focus on Tibetan women writers in the last two years. Published conference notes and articles that were workshopped or inspired by those gatherings have contextualized the paucity of women’s voices in classical Tibetan literature and the early decades of the development of modern Tibetan literature.[i] However, the flourishing of Tibetan women’s writing in recent decades provided the substance of discussions at these gatherings. Prominent among the topics discussed were the social realities of Tibetan women and how this growing body of women’s writing is opening windows to their subjectivities and bringing topics that were previously seen as taboo or unworthy of literary attention to light—sex, motherhood and childbirth, women’s education, and domestic abuse among them.

In addition to many of these topics, Tsering Yangkyi foregrounds prostitution and social marginalization in Metok dang Milam, writing in a realist style that paints a stark picture of particular slices of contemporary life in Lhasa. The four women are all village girls who came to Lhasa for economic opportunity, but we also see glimpses of the lives of urbane professional women and teenagers growing up with modern city lifestyles. The author does not shield us from the cruelty and spitefulness these women endure. The dialogue is often coarse and cruel, and the narrator describes the physical effects of sexual violence plainly and sometimes in detail. The novel depicts a Lhasa with a modern hospital, retail stores that sell Chinese fashions, and women who work in offices and play mahjong in their spare time. The narrator also describes parts of the city in detail. The narrow alley where the girls live is so crowded with people selling their wares on the street that a bicycle can barely go down it, and the sellers blast dissonant recordings of the newest pop songs. This cacophony is far removed from the image evoked by Lhasa’s name, “City of the Gods.”[ii] The religious life that is depicted in the novel is not idealized—pilgrims and devotees push and shove to complete their circumambulations efficiently on Saka Dawa and idly socialize while they walk the Barkhor in the evenings.

It is the case that religious beliefs and practice do not feature prominently in the lives of the four women, who live in a world subject to men’s desire and violence in turns. With such unseemly subject matter and a setting that foregrounds the underworld of Lhasa over its majestic religious reputation, one could read this novel as a realist tale concerned squarely with social structures and their consequences—the development of capitalism and disruptions to village life, the exploitation of vulnerable women, and the alienation that results from the loss of traditional lifeways and family structures. The religious ideas and practices that the women and auxiliary characters do engage with are unremarkable aspects of daily life. While scholarship on the role of religion in modern literature has primarily focused on the views expressed by characters in narratives, the formal aspects of the narrative produce a tension between what the characters say and feel and what the reader experiences, or what the text is doing. Because these elements contradict what the characters themselves say and allude to traditional Buddhist narratives, the overall effect of the novel is not only a social commentary. If we consider religion in the novel as expressed as worldview rather than as individually held beliefs and consider how the nature of Buddhist cosmological claims require one to not only accept truths about the workings of cyclic existence but also the possibility of rejecting them, we can see the novel engaging Buddhist concepts of selfhood and cyclic existence.

In this paper, I argue that the novel’s extended metaphors for impermanence and elements of its narration train the reader to view the world of the novel in ways that resonate with the experience of cyclic existence that preliminary practices (sngon ‘gro) and Buddhist seek to inculcate in a practitioner. My argument adopts Joshua Landy’s theorization of formative fictions that train rather than teach and how to read them. Metok dang Milam engages aspects of a Buddhist worldview not by presenting them to the reader through the characters’ dialogue or narrative assertion but stimulate and train the reader’s capacity to view the world through that lens.

In Tibetan studies scholarship, ordinary lay people’s relationship with Buddhism has been largely examined through ritual or material culture, while contemplative practice and doctrinal or philosophical topics are primarily the purview of professional religious figures.[iii] This is due, in part, to the nature of classical Tibetan texts, which deemed exemplary figures worthy of Tibetan literary expression and gave scarce insight into the thoughts of ordinary people. In these narratives, although a saint or lama may undergo hardships in the mundane world, these usually spur that figure’s commitment to renunciation or obstruct their contemplative accomplishments and ultimately serve to ennoble their successes on the bodhisattva path.[iv]

The two main women protagonists of Metok dang Milam are not exemplary figures in this sense, but when they reflect on and respond to their experiences, they do so with nominal references to a Buddhist worldview. They cite karmic causation for their troubles and reflect on their black and white deeds, and so forth. They also make offerings and give prayers before sacred images at difficult times, thus resembling the typical characterization of ordinary people’s religious participation. Consumed by the immediate demands of their daily lives and firmly situated in the realm of mundane concerns, far from being exemplary models of renunciation or accomplishment, they show no explicit signs of concern for religious commitment.

However, the absence of religious accomplishment or even practice on the part of the characters does not entail the absence of a religious dimension of the text. The novel culminates in an encounter between Yangdzom, the last of the four to become a hostess at the Rose, and a devoted nun performing full-body prostrations toward the Potala, producing a heightened ambiguity that echoes with religious significance. This scene is the culmination of formal aspects of the text that allude to Buddhist preliminary teachings and the narrative elements present in stories of the Buddha’s renunciation and subsequent enlightenment. This twist on the typical tale of a Buddhist exemplar is not a depiction of a modern protagonist inserted into a traditional religious tale but serves to work on the reader in ways that diverge from traditional tales of liberation (nam thar) or avadāna stories.

With the development of new genres of modern Tibetan literature (gsar rtsom), the opportunity for ordinary lay people to engage with Buddhist topics through literary expression is much greater than in Tibetan literature appearing before the beginnings of this new literature in the twentieth century. Just as people adapt material culture in innumerable ways and participate in ritual practice out of multiple (often simultaneous) motivations, religious concepts, tropes, and principles are subject to imaginative reworkings and innovations.[v] The narrative timeline and extended metaphors for youth and impermanence, hope and illusion, foreshadowed in the title, cultivate anticipation of suffering and loss, while the plot alludes to model tales of renunciation, reimagined with an imperfect protagonist at its center. 

The use of ambiguity at the end of the novel leaves the reader to imagine consequences under the influence of those literary devices. As Yangdzom, the central character, herself experiences the tension between the realities of cyclic existence (love, hate, greed) and the choice to turn away from it, the novel is working on that same capacity in the reader. I argue that when read with attention to what the novel does—in addition to what is says—Metok dang Milam engages the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and no-self in sustained and sophisticated ways that resonate with Buddhist canonical narratives and Tibetan autobiography while also broadening the scope of their expression to focus on the subject position of ordinary members of society.


How Should We Read Modern Tibetan Stories?

Scholars of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism are paying increasing attention to modern Tibetan short stories and novels, particularly to the genre’s capacity to reflect and critique both traditional and contemporary political and social conditions. Given the overwhelming influence of Buddhism on Tibetan society through the twentieth century, in the antithesis between traditional and modern, religion typically belongs to the former. In the case of Tibet, the traditional is coterminous with religion in many respects. Despite the conservative characteristics of classical Tibetan language and literary genres, authors in the Tibetan classical literary sphere produced innovative works that expanded and challenged Buddhist tradition in Tibet. For the most part, and with notable exceptions however,[vi] they did so while upholding certain social hierarchies and normative Buddhist parameters.[vii] Educational reforms and modern publishing have opened a literary space for lay people who are culturally Buddhist but not necessarily (1) institutionally or interpersonally committed to upholding Buddhist ethics or doctrine, or (2) trained in Buddhist textual genres, and they are now expanding the scope of Tibetan literature with respect to content, style, and genre. These new genres and styles of narration also raise new interpretive questions.

Much modern Tibetan literature clearly does take an active position on social phenomena, including religion. Stories that feature religious professionals, ritual interventions, and supernatural events have been the object of analysis with regard to the position of modern narrative vis-a-vis religion. A number of these depict the struggle between rational and religious views of the world. Robin’s classification of orientations to religion in modern Tibetan short stories written in the last two decades of the twentieth century is based on this tension between the traditional and the modern. This classification of radical criticism, selective rationalism, and neutral to positive appraisal is primarily based on the views expressed by characters in the story (149 ff.). In a similar vein, Gayley (2020) has compared how characters in stories written by two different Bhutanese writers apply the concept of karma in their lives and how they characterize its mechanisms and influence. The two stories were written eleven years apart, and Gayley suggests that if the characters’ attitudes toward karma are indicative of the views of the times the stories were written, they shed light on changes in religious ideas over time. Charles Ramble has even argued that one novel by Tashi Palden, Phal pa’i khyim tshang gi skyid sdug, can be read as “fictionalised ethnography” that reflects social status distinctions in a specific community (163). He compares the novel to those of Dickens, Hardy, and Austen, whose novels depicted the social relations of a particular time in great detail. There are various aspects of the text that lend itself to this reading, including specificity of setting, familial genealogies, and detailed descriptions of everyday life.

It is tempting to read any story written in a realist style as reflecting the social reality of the time—or times—during which the narrative is set. This is particularly true of novels like Tashi Palden’s which depicts a whole family and takes place over generations, effectively depicting an entire world. Metok dang Milam does not provide comprehensive details in this way, but vignettes of brief interactions between individuals and reflections on their personal significance to the character from a third-person omniscient narrator. Though we get glimpses into each of the girl’s family backgrounds, Tsering Yangkyi presents these as atmospheric memories that foreground emotion, rather than stark realistic descriptions of village and city life. Nor are the relationships between the girls and their bosses and clients depicted in detail through extended scenes of social interaction or dialogue. They are fleeting poignant exchanges. This is not to say that the story does not convey how vulnerable poor, single women in Lhasa are to both the desires of men and their violence, as well as the jealousy and greed of women with more financial and cultural capital than they. This social state is not, however, unique to the specific social context and time period. Many of these behaviors would not be out of place in Tibetan literature[viii] of past time periods and less urban locations.

While Tsering Yangkyi’s novel is a realistic depiction of life in Lhasa, it is also dominated by extended metaphors and conveyed through a non-linear narrative structure. These show the reader—and invite the reader to anticipate—certain outcomes for the characters, in effect training one how to read and envision the lives of the characters. What transpires over the course of the novel is not a complicated plot, but a series of hardships that come to seem inevitable, as well as horrifying. The repetition of tragic outcomes expressed in stock phrases and analogies—characterizations of the women’s work, the difficulty village girls face moving to the city, the ruthlessness of men—suggest that something more than the semantic content of a message is being conveyed.

The message that society is hard on these women is clear from the first chapter, but the novel is also doing something, in addition to saying something—or even several things. It is an example of what Landy calls “formative fictions” that train the reader, rather than teaching or conveying a message. These are narratives that cultivate a capacity in their readers. He argues that although these types of fictions have semantic meaning, they have what he calls a pragmatic content that rewards the reader with repeated reading (200).[ix] One of Landy’s case studies are the parables that are embedded in the Gospel of Mark. He argues that the meanings of the parables are actually not very complex or difficult concepts to grasp on their own.[x] Rather, they train one to think and communicate through figurative language, a more divine language than direct communication. Thus, Landy argues, as a religious text, the goal depicted in the gospels is to be a “son of god,” and because “to move away from literal language to figurative language is, therefore, to move away from the body and to the spirit. It is to see the world from God’s point of view” (190). The semantic meaning of the parables does not detract from this effect, but a reader with some capacity for figurative expression will benefit from the formative aspect of the text, while others with no capacity will take away the semantic meaning.

Metok dang Milam can be read as one such formative text. Extended metaphors of flowers and dreams that run through the novel as well as its non-linear structure train the reader’s capacity to view the world suffused with impermanence that produces a cycle of suffering. The non-linear narration structure provides the reader with the knowledge of the women’s suffering, foreshadowing the inevitable loss of innocence, beauty, familial love and stability, and finally hope. The extended metaphors for the loss of youth and the illusory nature of waking life emphasize and further entrench the reader in a Buddhist worldview of samsara. The plot of the text, meanwhile, emphasizes the social vulnerability of these women and the lack of resources they have to change their circumstances.


A Non-Linear Narrative Structure

The novel contains seven chapters that each focus on one of the women or significant figures in their lives. The two protagonists are Drolkar and Yangdzom, who are from the same village but do not arrive in Lhasa together. The other two women, Magnolia and Cassia are Drolkar’s roommates. Magnolia is from Chamdo, and Cassia is a Chinese woman from Sichuan. The timeline of the action in the novel’s present covers at least seven years, but the present in which each chapter is set does not follow a linear progression. Within each chapter, the narrator also shifts from reporting the character’s present to recounting past events in their lives, including relatively recent events at the Rose and experiences from adolescence. No dates are given and the reader reckons the overall timeline of the story by piecing together years of employment and years that someone has been missing, given from different characters’ perspectives. The cycle of loss—loss of youth, of happiness, of dreams— is repeated throughout the novel, and stories of loss are often nested within each other in individual chapters.

The first four chapters tell Drolkar’s story in a way that disorients the reader and foreshadows her own fate and that of her village friend, Yangdzom. The narration moves from the moment Drolkar loses her innocence, to a time following her death seen through the eyes of her brother and parents, back to the heyday of her life at the Rose, then back to her childhood, and finally to her descendent into illness and death. The first chapter introduces Drolkar before she begins her employment at the Rose. The first character we meet, though, is not one of the four women, but Butri, a middle-aged woman who is struggling to keep a failing restaurant afloat. The narrator describes how she used to do a thriving business when she was young and beautiful and could entertain the local men with the popular songs of the day, but now that her youth and beauty have faded, it is only a few old dice players who barely keep her in business. Karma Dorjé, a powerful and rich businessman, reluctantly agrees to visit her restaurant when Butri sees him at the market and promises him a beautiful young village girl as entertainment. After making this arrangement, Butri badgers the young Drolkar to show up with vague insinuations about a job prospect. Drolkar shows up largely out of the obligation she feels toward someone from her own village.

When Drolkar arrives she is shocked and disgusted to find that Butri expects her to play hostess to the important guest and his friend in a private room above the little restaurant. Butri and the two men drink beer after beer as Drolkar becomes more and more uncomfortable and finally demands to be let out of the room. It becomes clear that Butri has no intention of allowing her to go. When Butri and the other man leave the room, Karma Dorjé forces Drolkar to drink alcohol for the first time and then rapes her. The next morning, when Drolkar confronts her, Butri explains that she was also assaulted by the father of the family she worked for when she first arrived in the city. She tries to convince Drolkar that the only thing village girls can do is to “sell” (tshong) their youth, echoing what Karma Dorjé said to Drolkar in an attempt to convince her to drink and entertain him the previous night. Butri wants Drolkar to continue to entertain in this way at her restaurant until the two of them save enough money to start another business.

The first chapter ends with Drolkar storming out of Butri’s place, and we learn at the beginning of the second chapter from the narrator that her family has not heard from her in years. Her brother has graduated and taken a job in Lhasa, where he spends his free time looking for her. When his parents come to visit from their village for Saga Dawa, the result of a divination they request from a man on the Lingkhor indicates that she is gone forever. In terms of the structure of the chapter sequence, this brief chapter suggests that Drolkar is either dead or in the very least has fallen into a dangerous situation. So, it comes as a surprise in chapter three when Yangdzom, a friend from Drolkar’s village who has also come to Lhasa for work, runs into her in the market. The reader has the knowledge of Drolkar’s assault and the result of the divination in the forefront of their mind. Yangdzom, however, sees a fashionably dressed successful city woman. At this point the timeline is difficult to follow—how many years has passed since Drolkar’s assault? An offhand comment from the narrator in chapter two that a girl named Yangdzom also disappeared from Drolkar’s village foreshadows Yangdzom’s fate.

In the move from the first to the second chapters tragic irony heightens the sadness of Drolkar’s family because the reader knows that Drolkar was raped, whereas her brother and parents do not. In the move to the third chapter, though, the cycles are difficult to ignore. The first chapter already provided the reader with two models of a village girl’s innocence lost. Like Butri, Yangdzom is working as a maid for a wealthy Lhasa family. In her case, the father has excellent character, but the mother is spiteful and jealous. When the mother accuses her of stealing, Yangdzom flees the house before anyone is awake, leaving without her five years of wages and with nowhere to go. Although Yangdzom was not assaulted by her boss in the manner Butri was, the reader also knows that Yangdzom disappeared, and thus expects other danger to follow.

Yangdzom calls Drolkar, who immediately comes to her assistance. The façade of Drolkar’s success quickly fades, though, when they go back to the cramped apartment she shares with the two other women, and Yangdzom accompanies her to the Rose that evening. Yangdzom spends that evening in the dressing room of the Rose, and she is shocked by the nature of Drolkar’s work. The cycle of loss—of youth, of happiness, of dreams—is repeated throughout this chapter. The narrator begins the story of Yangdzom’s youth after she first experiences her boss’s anger. The reader anticipates her employment to end poorly based on the foreshadowing from the previous chapter, and at the first taste of that descent, the narrator pauses to provide another tragic story of loss. Yangdzom’s parents were happy together, and the playful and loving scenes between the parents and child that the narrator relays are difficult to read, given what the reader knows of her disappearance. Just before Losar, her father is struck by a car and killed, and her mother dies shortly after. With no one to take care of her, the village head sets up a job as a maid for a family in Lhasa. She is thirteen.

Even things that appear auspicious at the outset contribute to sorrowful ends. Her father’s success allows his family to prosper enough to buy a new television—something that others in the village presumably cannot afford—but it is on this errand that he is struck by a car and killed. Yangdzom’s employment opportunity saves her grandparents from economic strain and provides her with what seems to be a good employer who cares about her.[xi] These cycles train the reader to anticipate the suffering that will follow even happiness or opportunity. The uncertainty of the timeline and time’s passing plunges the reader into these cycles with little perspective on forward temporal progression. The extended metaphors that course through the novel build on this effect by foregrounding the impermanence of relationships and emotions and the instability of selfhood and identity.[xii]


Extended Metaphors

The title of the novel points to the two extended metaphors that inflect the actions and statements of the characters themselves and the narration. They are two forces that act on the women in the novel, two different ways of indicating the impermanence of life and the self. Flowers signify youth and innocence, as well as the ephemeral quality of both, while dreams point to the aspirations of characters, as well as how quickly they dissolve.

Youth in the novel is something to be lost, stolen, or sold, and the reader is introduced to all three circumstances in the first chapter. The author of the preface describes the novel as “a story in which flowers, like dreams, are wonderous, and dreams, like flowers, bloom beautifully and fall sorrowfully (Tsering Yangkyi, preface 4).[xiii] Before Drolkar is drawn into Butri’s scheme, the narrator explains that Butri’s loss of beauty is the reason for her failing business:


When Butri had first opened the restaurant, she was in the prime of her youth: fresh-faced, slim, and beautiful. She could sing, she could dance, she drank toasts with her customers, and she could hold her own when it came to the drinking too…Before long, all the drinking had taken its toll on her slender and graceful figure, and she had become a true tavern landlady. Then, when the customers came, they would mutter amongst themselves: ‘It’s that ugly old mug again. She looks worse every time I see her. If we can’t see any new faces around here, might as well go somewhere else to drink’.[xiv] (Peacock 10)


Butri is aware of this and goes back to her village to look for young girls to work in the restaurant, without success.

Although Drolkar is still beautiful, the narrator says the morning after she is raped that “Karma Dorjé stole the flower of Drolkar’s youth” (Peacock 23).[xv] The reader will then learn, along with Drolkar, that Butri also had her “youth” stolen by her employer. She repeats the cycle by offering Drolkar up to the businessman and justifies this with her own experience.

As she begs Drolkar not to leave, she reasons with her: “We have to sell our youth to survive, what other choice do we have…”[xvi] (Peacock 26). Even after youth is plucked from a woman by sexual violence, the very beauty that engendered trauma is now the thing that will keep her trapped in a shameful and violent situation.[xvii] Later in the novel, this metaphor is reinforced by the stage names they are given as hostesses at the Rose, which I return to below. Drolkar is Dahlia, Magnolia and Cassia, whose real names are revealed late in the novel, are Dzomkyi and Xiao Li, and Yangdzom becomes Azalea.[xviii]

As flowers are used to signify youthful beauty as well as its demise, dreams have layered meanings as well. The obvious connotation of dreams in this context is the financial aspiration the characters have when they move to Lhasa. The women all have dreams of financial success, or mere stability, before they become hostesses at the Rose. As hostesses, they dream of being taken away from that work by men who promise them apartments and money. Azalea and Magnolia both have brief moments of hope when men take a particular liking to them and make promises that they inevitably fail to keep. Their jobs have made them social outcastes, a state that seems to permanently prevent them from realizing their dreams. Dahlia is working to help her brother fulfill his dream of graduating from college and getting a professional job. She is waiting until his graduation to leave her work at the Rose, a day that the reader knows she will never see.

The literal meaning of a dream—a vision during sleep that abruptly fades upon waking—is just as relevant and has specific cultural and religious implications in a Tibetan context. The objects and actions of a dream seem real while one is sleeping, but they are in fact illusions. This is one classical analogy for the illusory nature and emptiness of cyclic existence.[xix] In the novel, it is selfhood, or identity that is characterized by this quality of dreams.

The narrator likens the characters’ experiences of sexual violence and changes a woman’s sense of self to dreams. In the first chapter, Drolkar’s experience is twice likened to a dream, first when Butri gives her a can of beer to pour for the guests: “All of a sudden, Drölkar had turned into a serving girl without quite knowing how—she wasn’t sure if this was a dream or reality” (Peacock 16).[xx] Yangdzom later has a similar thought after putting on modern clothes that belonged to her boss’s teenage daughter.[xxi] Then, when Drolkar leaves Butri’s restaurant the morning after she is raped,


The snowy white alleys were still the same as the day before, but the girl walking through them was no longer the pure and innocent Drölkar of yesterday. […] Every time the dreamlike events of the night before came to her mind, her body trembled and her pounding little heart almost split into pieces.[xxii] (Peacock 27)


And Yangdzom experiences a similar disorientation after seeing the inside of the Rose and the nature of her friend’s work for the first time. The narrator says she lay, “wide awake, like an animal on the prowl, replaying the tumultuous events of that dreamlike day in her head” (Peacock 93).[xxiii] At this point Yangdzom cannot image herself in Drolkar’s position as Dahlia, who was drunk and smelling of cigarettes when they left the Rose, but the reader anticipates that that is exactly what awaits her.

In addition to the characters’ own comments, the narrator foregrounds the question of identity through the use of the women’s work names. Although these are essentially stage names that enhance the women as objects of fantasy for their male clients, the girls come to take them on as identities, referring to each other by them even at home and in public. The way the characters themselves use them to refer to each other and the narrator’s selective use of them work with the non-linear narrative style, effecting disorientation with respect to identity as well as timeframe.

The narrator refers to Drolkar and Yangdzom by their original names in the first two chapters of the book. It is only when Yangdzom first visits the Rose that she (or the reader) hears Drolkar referred to as “Dahlia” (Peacock 92). Although Drolkar initially tells Yangdzom that everyone at the club calls her Dahlia, the three roommates refer to each other by these flower names at home as well. Drolkar becomes so removed from her real name that when she finally goes to the hospital after being ill for weeks, she does not respond when the doctor calls her name three times: “Drolkar! Drolkar! Drolkar!” (Peacock 129). While we meet Drolkar and her roommates well after they have taken on their new identities, the reader sees the change happen over time in Yangdzom’s narrative arc. When Drolkar first takes her in, Yangdzom is alarmed by the flower names and the lifestyle they represent. She makes excuses that they are confusing and says she will just call them all “Achak” (Peacock 94).[xxiv] In dialogue, Yangdzom never refers to her friend as “Dahlia,” even after she herself becomes one of the “flowers,” and Drolkar does the same for her.

The narrator, however, refers to the women by their flower names consistently enough to make the notable exceptions significant. There are two short chapters devoted to Cassia and Magnolia that reveal the events of their pasts prior to working at the Rose and particularly bad experiences they endure as hostesses. In each of these, the narrator refers to them by their given names throughout the chapter, up to point of their employment as hostesses. Their real names, Xiao Li (Tsering Yangkyi 218, Peacock 149) and Dzomkyi (Tsering Yangkyi 231, Peacock 157) are the first words of each chapter. The chapters follow Yangdzom’s transformation into Azalea and Dahlia’s diagnosis, so the abrupt shift causes a brief moment of disorientation. Up to this point, Cassia and Magnolia have been women who, as much as might be possible and despite the unpleasant aspects of the work, enjoy the benefits of being flowers at the Rose. These chapters disrupt that understanding of who they are, and bring new aspects of their personhood into play. They are not only prostitutes, but daughters and students. Dzomkyi almost became a mother, but took over-the-counter medicine advertised as an abortifacient and ended up in the hospital. They have hopes of returning to their families, of changing identities once again.  

In Dahlia’s case, however, the narrator immediately shifts from “Drolkar” to “Dahlia” after Yangdzom learns about their names. Unlike the narration in the chapters devoted to Magnolia and Cassia, the narrator uses the name “Dahlia” even when relaying the events of her past. This remains the case through the rest of the novel, the narrator referring to her as Dahlia as she dies and even after her death. Yangdzom, though, returns in rare flashes after she becomes Azalea. The narrator even refers to her by both names in the same scene in two cases, one of which I will address below.

At the end of the chapter recounting her arc from village girl to hostess, a well-dressed man comes into the Rose and asks for the best hostess they have. Magnolia is occupied, so the boss tells Azalea to take him as her client for the night. At this point, the narrator shifts between referring to her as Azalea and Yangdzom. The man reserves an expensive room, and “Yangdzom” invites him inside. When he stretches out on the couch, though, it is “Azalea” he looks over.[xxv]  The narrator explains that this is the kind of client the women prefer. They do not come in terribly drunk and do not request “special services” (dmigs bsal gyi re ba yang mi ‘don pa). He begins acting strangely, though, and Azalea knows something is wrong. She makes excuses to avoid drinking with him and plays dumb when he asks about going to the hotel next door. The man turns out to be one of several policemen orchestrating an undercover raid on the club. The novel plays with the fluidity of identity throughout in this way. As the narrator primarily refers to the women by their flower names, the dialogue between Drolkar and Yangdzom always brings their identities as innocent young village girls to mind.

It is not unusual for one’s sense of self and social roles to change over a lifetime. In the scene with the policeman, one could read this discrepancy as signaling the difference between a naive Yangdzom who thinks she has lucked out with a client who will treat her well and a tough, street-smart Azalea who knows how to anticipate danger. Similarly, when Dahlia does not respond to the doctor who calls her Drolkar, this sets the scene for an awkward exchange with the doctor, who does not immediately recognize her as a prostitute, advising her to abstain from intercourse with her husband. She repeats the phrase she and her roommates use to explain their life in Lhasa, that they are women by day and evil spirits (‘dre) by night.[xxvi]

The message here reflects the social condition of this side of life in Lhasa that Tsering Yangkyi depicts in the novel. Once a woman enters this illegal world of prostitution, once her body is defiled, she becomes someone else in the eyes of society, and eventually to herself. To return to Landy’s theory of formative fictions, this “semantic” aspect of the text—what it says— exists along with the “pragmatic”—what it does. The fickle quality of social identity is a justifiable reading of the novel’s treatment of the “flowers.”[xxvii] Yet, the connotation of the metaphors for youth and dreams and their association with samsara in Tibetan Buddhist literature work on the reader’s capacity for grasping the Buddhist assertion that there is no permanent, individual self. Character development in Drolkar’s case is more a progression of dissolution, rather than a depiction of change from one state to another.


Virtanen has argued that two of Tsering Yangkyi’s earlier novellas, Ri tse’i sprin dkar (“The White Clouds of the Mountain Peaks”) and Ston lo ser po (“The Yellow Leaves of Autumn”) can be read as examples of female development stories (Bildung). These two stories feature female protagonists who train to become doctors, though the protagonist of Ston lo ser po does not realize her goal. Virtanen is attentive to areas where a Tibetan example of a development story might diverge from the western definition and characteristics, particularly with respect to the Tibetan Buddhist view of selfhood. While the hallmark of the Bildung genre is a protagonist who develops an independent, whole self—a tale of the movement from “‘nothingness’ to selfhood”[xxviii]—Virtanen counters, “In Tibetan Buddhism, the existence of an independent self is denied at the ultimate level” (143). She leaves this issue an open question, concluding that the protagonists of the novellas in question progress through developmental phases of education and so forth. In the case of Metok dang Milam, though, the novel seems to probe the implications of such a religious view of the self. As Virtanen clarifies, the Tibetan Buddhist doctrines of the self do allow that there is a conventional self that people experience in everyday life. The Tibetan Buddhist concept no-self is a metaphysical claim that is also a commentary on the very experience of self in the world. Realizing that the experience a person has of an independent self with a permanent essence is an illusion is a necessary component of liberation.

While Tibetan Buddhist doctrine thus denies the existence of a permanent independent self, “the ultimate level” is one that by definition is not the level upon which ordinary people in the world experience conventional selfhood. This is not to say that the tenet of no-self is not influential in Tibetan Buddhist culture, but its relation to an analysis of “modern secular works of fiction in which the goals of characters are related to everyday worldly life”(Virtanen 131) —as opposed to texts that recount spiritual development leading to liberation from samsara—is not immediately clear. One possibility is for a work of literature to critique such truths themselves, or their efficacy in mundane life, as Robin argues of the texts that fall in her “radical criticism” and even the “selective rationalism” categories (“Oracles and Demons” 149–158). Another possibility would be to depict the tension between types of goals, as Virtanen points out. Literature that depicts characters pursuing a model of an exemplary life based on goals “related to everyday worldly life” are not necessarily critical of a religious life or religious truths, but can they have a relationship to those truths? This emphasis on goal is particularly salient in the Buddhist case given how doctrines of impermanence, selfhood, and cyclic existence relate to types of dispositions and commitments.


When Is a Story “Buddhist”?

When we think of religion and narrative in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, we are primed to expect a story of miraculous or transformative experiences or an individual’s traversing of the Buddhist path. Biographies and autobiographies, with few exceptions,[xxix] tell the stories of saints, lineages, tantric adepts, monastic scholars, and the like. They recount the individual’s progression along the Buddhist path, which, though hardships generally arise, ends in significant religious accomplishments or enlightenment experiences. Traditional stories that are not considered Buddhist included romances, amusing folk tales, and epics, as well as popular songs with narrative content.[xxx]

One step in an interpretative approach that asks how ordinary people might engage normative Buddhist claims is to consider the subject position of ordinary people—as opposed to the subject position of enlightened beings or religious professionals.[xxxi] How are doctrinal Buddhist cosmological concepts operative in their experiences of the world from inside a culture suffused with Buddhist values, institutions, and language?

As is any generalization about religions and the people who practice them, conflating doctrinal Buddhist truths with lived realities in Buddhist culture is fraught. They are clearly operative in the culture in certain ways, but they describe states of being and knowledge that ordinary people living mundane lives have not, by the lights of these truths themselves, fully realized. This is different from noting the difference between prescriptive and descriptive qualities and characteristics of religious communities. Being liberated from the afflictions that keep one trapped in samsara, which include clinging to a sense of self as well as to objects and emotions, is not only a matter of adhering to prescribed beliefs and behaviors. It is a state that is obscured by the conditions of being a person in samsara, and arriving at it requires a change in how the world itself and everything in it is perceived.

This can be a gradual or an instantaneous change, but it is a transformative upheaval. In the schools of gradual thought, developing an aversion to cyclic existence is a necessary step along the path.[xxxii] So, we cannot expect to find that members of Buddhist societies embody these doctrines in a literal way, for example in denouncing the reality of an individual self or objects in the world. This does not mean, however, that we should not find that truths regarding the nature of the self and the world influence and are inflected in some literature written by authors immersed in Tibetan Buddhist culture, regardless of their level of religious education and contemplative achievement.

In his comprehensive study of Tibetan Buddhist societies, Geoffrey Samuel has given an influential model for thinking about different types of religious involvement in the Tibetan Buddhist world, a tri-partite schema of bodhi, karma, and pragmatic orientations.[xxxiii] The first orientation aims to achieve enlightenment or cultivate the compassion of a bodhisattva who vows to help others attain liberation. The second indicates practitioners who are concerned with securing a good rebirth for themselves and others. The pragmatic orientation refers to “folk religion,” and the aim to secure results in this life, including appeals to local deities and any number of rituals intended to heal sickness, resolve psycho-spiritual dilemmas, ensure a good harvest, harm enemies and so forth. Samuel acknowledges that all three orientations can be present in one practice, and even that individuals can act on different orientations at different times.

While as an anthropological model Samuel’s classifications are meant to describe human behavior and thus are not hierarchical per se, Tibetan Buddhist teachings do make distinctions between practitioners that are based on their abilities. Samuel’s model resembles distinctions that appear in Buddhist doctrinal texts, particularly texts that outline the stages of entering and progressing along the Buddhist path. The texts which outline the stages of the path (lam rim), address themselves to three types of practitioners, labelled lowest, middling, and great. The first of these texts is said to have been brought to Tibet by Atisa, and they are now present in all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In describing how one enters and follows the path, effectively becoming a Buddhist practitioner, these texts categorize stages of orientation to the world that lead a practitioner to enter the path, as well as levels of accomplishment in practices along it.

The lesser practitioners are concerned with their karma and understand its consequences for future rebirths, thus acting ethically and purifying themselves. The intermediate level of practitioner understands the nature of suffering and seeks to escape cyclic existence. The highest level of practitioner, though, understands the suffering inherent in samsara and commits to the bodhisattva path that will liberate themselves and others.[xxxiv]

This is a classification system that describes the attitudes and commitments of types of people, but it does not provide a narrative of how people move from one level to another, particularly the top tier. Autobiographies of exemplary teachers and saints are one kind of such a narrative. Milarepa, one of (if not the) most well-known and beloved saints in Tibetan Buddhist history, had a very dramatic entrance onto the path. Others have a vision or an experience of connection about a particular teacher. Typically, karma and previous life identities explain extraordinary signs at birth or unusual sensitivities to suffering and impermanence in youth.[xxxv]

The main point is that such a conversion or commitment is seen as preceded by many lives of virtuous activity. The avadānas include tales of such individuals who encountered the Buddha in his past lives, and their generous or compassionate behavior toward the Bodhisattva is given as the reason for their current exemplary character or ability. There is also a generalized recourse to karma. A person who is in a position to pursue knowledge and to find a good teacher is experiencing the fruition of their meritorious actions in previous lives. Nonetheless, Lam rim texts begin with preliminaries that turn the mind from samsara. These thoughts that turn the mind from samsara foreground the reasons that attaining a better rebirth will not ultimately alleviate one’s suffering. Thus, one might say that the difference between the lesser and middling practitioners is the nature of their worldview. The latter see the world as something to be freed from, not something to exist in.

The characters in Metok dang Milam have not developed the four thoughts that turn the mind from samsara,[xxxvi] and they do not enjoy the freedoms and advantages of a human birth that lam rim texts specify as the first step to preliminary practice. They are ensnared in the distractions and unvirtuous actions of “a conflicting lifestyle” (Patrul 22). In each case, a string of misfortunes has ended in their employment at the Rose doing work that is shameful and dangerous because they need money to support themselves and their families. In Magnolia’s case, her undeniable beauty attracted a line-up of unsavory men, beginning with a high school boyfriend who abandoned her when she became pregnant. After her abortion she was ostracized by her family and friends, so she traveled to Lhasa, where a series of unwanted sexual advances debilitated her motivation to find acceptable work. When we meet her, she is fully integrated into the environment of the Rose, so much so that she is the most sought-after hostess. She spends her money freely on things that bring her pleasure without thought for the future.

After Xiao Li’s father goes to look for work in Shanghai, her stepmother criticizes her for not contributing financially and pushes her to leave home to look for a job. After she moves to Lhasa, her stepmother greedily insists she send more money home, so she leaves a salon job to work at the Rose, searching for higher pay. She herself is described as someone who eats other people’s food, uses other people’s things, and hoards her earnings. For this reason she is given the name of the cassia flower because its Tibetan name is tok lha (ltogs lha), literally “hungry god” (Tsering Yangkyi 154). Both of these women return to their home villages at the end of the novel. Cassia takes the small fortune she saved and plans to open a shop. Magnolia reunites with her mother, who forgives her.

Yangdzom’s fate and identity, however, are left ambiguous at the end of the novel. After Dahlia is admitted to the hospital, Azalea encounters two women from her past that foreground the malleability of identity for both the character and the reader. First, she takes a walk near the Potala and sees Butri wearing nuns’ robes and sweeping the steps with a bag for alms. Anger wells up in her. Yangdzom is shocked and questions Butri’s motives for renunciation—all of this pain she caused, and now she repents. Is it possible that a change that drastic could be genuine? In the end, Azalea makes a generous offering in Butri’s alms bag, even as she wonders why she does, when she will certainly need money for Drolkar’s surgery (Peacock 178–179, Tsering Yangkyi 265–267).

Just as Azalea seems to ask herself if the ideal is really convincing—that one could repent for her sins and somehow change—Azalea claims outright that it is not when she runs into her old employer at the hospital shortly after. Drolma, the mother of the family Yangdzom served for five years, has fallen on hard times, and her husband Nyendak does not leave the house and requires medicine. Their daughter, Tenzin Lhadzé, who stormed out of the house during the fight that precipitated Yangdzom’s departure, never returned. The once wealthy and vibrant couple is now prematurely aged, devastated over the loss of both of the young women. Drolma apologizes for how she behaved back then and insists that Yangdzom return to live with them until Azalea (so-called by the narrator) tells her, “People like us will never be able to escape the clutches of city people, or people with money. And don’t tell Mr. Nyendrak that you saw me. I’m not that Yangdzom anymore” (Peacock 188, Tsering Yangkyi 278).[xxxvii]

Again, one could read the scene with Butri as a rumination on the mundane question, can anyone ever really change? And Azalea’s reply to Drolma is certainly a scathing take on social power dynamics. In the context of the extended metaphors and cycles of suffering, however, the novel also alludes to classical models of Buddhist renunciation, namely the life of the Buddha and other bodhisattva tales. Rather than reproduce and affirm the normative Buddhist message of the possibility of liberation, though, the story embodies the tragedy of a life that acknowledges that goal, reflects on it, but is too mired in the very trap that the worldview describes.


A Twist on a Classic Narrative

In classical Buddhist narratives, a life worth narrating was a life of renunciation and liberation. There are a number of models for such a narrative, foremost among them being the life of the Buddha. Modeling the lives of Buddhist teachers and saints after the Buddha’s life is also quite common, and Mdo mkhar Zhabs drung Tshe ring dbang rgyal modeled his work, The Tale of the Incomparable Prince (Gzhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud, 18th c.) on both the Ramayana and the accounts of the Buddha’s life in the avadānas, particularly the Viśvāntara Jataka.[xxxviii] The first half of the novel is a romance epic that depicts the three aspects of mundane life, while the second half is a story of renunciation and eventual liberation (Newman 417). Newman, who also translated the novel, concludes that the author adhered to requirements of genre but sought to produce a work that entertains, citing the Tsering Wangyal’s own strategy of using poetry to “sweeten the taste of what otherwise be didactic works” (418).

Collins has argued in a collection of essays on the Vessantara story that even didactic works—the Pali imaginaire in this case—should be read as “not only recommending and extolling certain virtues and values but also thinking critically about them” (1). He makes a distinction between Buddhism “as a ‘religion'” that “must in the end offer a resolution of the tragedies and suffering of human existence,” and its texts which “as literature, as works of art, can accept and even celebrate the fact that conflicts between transcendental and everyday values can become themselves tragic” (1). How much more so must this hold for works written outside of the literary conventions of traditionally sanctioned texts? The conflict for the women is not only between the need for financial stability and ethical concerns. There is also in the novel the conflict between the Buddhist ideal of how one should see the mundane world, i.e., as a cycle of suffering, and the capacity a person bound by its conditions has to cultivate that view.

The characters in Metok dang Milam are not modeling the typical version of the Buddha’s path to liberation. They have not lived a life sheltered from the four sights of old age, sickness, and death, and their encounters with these sights have not been transformative, leading them to seek liberation. Unlike the decrepit old man the Buddha sees in stories of his life, old age in the novel is telescoped by the wilted flower of youth, embodied by Butri in the first chapter and the description of how she has lost her once profitable youth.

The women directly encounter sickness as Dahlia’s illness progresses. They experience fear for their own health and the extended series of progressive decay inflicted on the body:


Things were deteriorating by the day: her whole body was burning up, she became thinner and thinner until she was nothing but skin and bones, her complexion grew increasingly sickly, and dark rashes had emerged on her skin. Worst of all, not only could she smell a putrid odor drifting up from her groin, the people around her could smell it too. (Peacock 143)


Eventually clients and other employees at the Rose cannot overlook Dahlia’s condition, and she has to stop working. Witnessing the effects of the illness, Magnolia and Cassia decide to leave Lhasa, choosing a mundane form of liberation from the Rose and its lifestyle.

Yangdzom has a very early encounter with death as a child when she and mother identify her father’s corpse at a morgue in Lhasa, and her mother dies shortly after. These three sights are for the reader more so than the characters, who do not experience them as warnings. The reader experiences these in the context of an aesthetic experience heightened by foreshadowing and metaphor, and anticipates that that death is imminent, having seen into the future of Drolkar’s family in the second chapter. Finally, at the end of the novel, after Drolkar’s death, when Yangdzom is left with no companions, money, or dreams—in both the senses of aspirations and fantasies—she sees a devoted nun, performing full-body prostrations toward the Potala. In a traditional tale of renunciation, this fourth sight would point the way to liberation from the first three. Of course, it seems to say, Azalea has a way out.

But this is not the only thing she sees. Sitting outside a noodle shop, she watches an exchange between a prostitute standing in the doorway of a nearby restaurant and a man who is walking by on the street. The girl propositions him, but he is with a friend and, embarrassed, rebukes her rudely. When she implies that he has enjoyed her services before, he hurls even more insults at her. She is struggling with the permanence of identity and the impermanence of life, and the possibility of overcoming both. Butri modeled one possibility, and Drolma offered her a way out of her financial circumstance. It is here that the narrator refers to her by her real name one last time:


Dahlia’s image appeared crystal-clear before Yangdzom at that moment. She remembered what Dahlia had said in those brief moments of lucidity at the height of her agony, tears of remorse flowing down her cheeks: “I have nothing left but resentment and regret for my past. This illness is the only thing that life has left me with.” Then she thought of what the doctor had said: “Whatever you end up doing with your life, I think it’s best if you give up this sort of work.” All these words echoed painfully in her head as though they were fighting one other. (Peacock 204)[xxxix]


It is at that point that the old nun goes by in the road along with a cart bearing an image of Guru Rinpoché. Azalea follows the nun until she stops her prostrations and turns to look at Azalea intensely. Azalea has a strong reaction of faith that is described in a way typical to Buddhist texts in general and lam rim texts specifically: her hair stands on end.[xl] She also spontaneously recalls a modern popular song: “I have come on pilgrimage with a pure heart, I have come on pilgrimage after enduring hardships, it is not that the gods are without miraculous powers, it is that I do not have single-pointed faith.”[xli]

In the end, the novel ends in ambiguity. The nun continues to prostrate until she is out of sight. The reader does not know what Azalea will do next. When Yangdzom sees Butri wearing nuns’ robes, she questions Butri’s sincerity, and then resigns herself to her identity as Azalea at Drolma’s insistent offers of help. The nun prostrating along the road provokes a different reaction, which is momentarily affective, if not transformative. The song that comes to her mind is sung by someone who does not disbelieve in the possibility of liberation, but also questions the singers’ own faith. Now, positioned between the nun, a symbol of renunciation and faith in the possibility of liberation from suffering, and the prostitute, a symbol for Yangdzom of the permanence of social ostracization, she holds both worldviews in her thoughts—the view of someone trapped in how samsara appears, and the view that explains what samsara really is. And although Yangdzom is firmly inside of the influence of the patina of permanence her social fate wears, the reader has something like a Buddha’s-eye view of a cycle of impermanence and suffering.



I have argued that Buddhist metaphors and tropes of impermanence, no-self, and cyclic existence form the structure of the novel and animate its plot, training the reader’s capacity, in Landy’s sense, to accept these characterizations of the world as valid. I have also shown that while the characters themselves for the most part have not developed this capacity in a robust way, their perspectives are nonetheless influenced by them. The narrator concludes the short chapter on Cassia, after she describes a particularly violent encounter with a customer:


All of this had left with them with the strong feeling that no matter how pretty their faces, no matter how nice the clothes they draped over their bodies, they would always have to suffer the scorn and abuse of others. They lamented their miserable karma, but their sorrow and their sense of aversion towards this life (zhen pa log pa) could do nothing to alter their fate (las dbang). (Peacock 156)[xlii]


The language the author uses evokes the Buddhist view of the world but can also be read as mundane reflections on life in the world. In keeping with the format that highlights cycles of suffering and sets the reader up to anticipate them, together with the pervasive metaphors for impermanence, the reader might understand “aversion towards this life” to refer to the position one should take toward samsara in the Buddhist view. But the more straightforward reading is that the women have an aversion to the lifestyle they lead and feel trapped in it.

Tragic irony is operating on two levels here. It can be read as a social critique—while the reader can see that capitalism and modern social structures provide the conditions for their struggles as marginalized individuals with no economic or social capital, the women fail to see their misfortunes as injustices and remain complacent. A reader equipped with the capacity to accept the possibilities of renunciation and liberation, on the other hand, will see that possibility for Yangdzom, though the character herself is not sure.

I have used literary theory grounded in European and American thought in this analysis, and I have done so from the perspective of a religious studies scholar, using examples of religious practice in Tibet and classical Tibetan Buddhist literature as comparison. The fact that scholars have responded with such a variety of literary approaches and interpretive frameworks to modern Tibetan creative writing is a testament to the flourishing literary imagination of Tibet. To obtain a rich understanding of modern Tibetan imaginative literature, though, we will need to bring contemporary Tibetan literary theory into our analyses. However, little Tibetan language literary theory and criticism has been translated into English. Translating these works will be a first step in sharing a more complete picture of Tibetan literary practices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Still, creative literature written by laypeople opens up the field of what Tibetan Buddhism looks like and what kinds of subjectivities and expressions are influential in Tibetan culture. While Metok dang Milam alludes to well-known Buddhist narratives about the nature of impermanence and suffering, it does not reproduce the injunction to renunciation those canonical texts aim to impress on the reader. The novel works on the reader’s capacity to develop a view of the world in which renunciation is possible, while also presenting the difficulties of that task in stark contrast. Unlike Kisāgotamī, the mother who asked the Buddha to revive her dead son,[xliii] Yangdzom may not become a nun, despite having been made to confront the suffering that seems to come to all women again and again, and maybe neither will the reader. But the suffering, as well as the possibility, will stay with her long after the story is over.  



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[i] The Tibetan Women Writers’ Symposium was held at the University of Virginia in April 2022, and The Second Lotsawa Translation Workshop: Celebrating Buddhist Women’s Voices in the Tibetan Tradition was held at Northwestern University in October 2022. Notes on the former (Monet 2022) as well as a keynote address given by Lama Jabb (2022) were published in the first issue of The Journal of Tibetan Literature. Joshua Shelton’s conference notes on the latter are forthcoming in the second issue of the same.

[ii] lha ldan grong khyer (Tsering Yangkyi 86 Peacock 64). This gloss on the meaning of the name of the capital – lha sa – is used several times ironically when the characters are suffering due to an aspect of city life. The narrator uses this gloss when the man who will soon rape her is pouring beer down Yangdzom’s throat (Peacock 101 Tsering Yangkyi 144).

[iii] The former participate in rituals that will increase their own or others’ merit and engage religious professionals for healings and blessings with little knowledge to the doctrinal principles that underlie them. Of course, the monastic and religious elite also participate in these rituals.

[iv] Schweiger has explored this in terms of Tibetan histories (“History” 73) and in (“Hagiography”) suggests that modern literature can be a forum for exploring how modern life aspirations that do not align with traditional exemplary life models (nam thar) and provides a translation of the short story Bla ma bsten pa, “Following a Spiritual Teacher,” by Tshe ring gnam mgon, originally published in 1995 in Bod kyi rtsom rig sgyu rtsal.

[v] Examples of material innovations include solar powered prayer wheels, online empowerments, and mechanical clickers that keep track of prostrations. This is not to say that Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, monastic education, narrative, and ethics have remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The new Khenmo program at Larung Gar is a modern example, and there are countless examples from the centuries of Tibetan religious history, beginning perhaps with the later spread and continuing through the Fifth Dalai Lama’s initiatives, and the Rimé movement, to offer only a few examples.

[vi] Gedun Choepel and the Sixth Dalai Lama are frequently cited examples.

[vii] See Kapstein (“Indian Literary Identity”) on developments in kavya; and (“Tulku’s Miserable Lot”) on the significance of a lay writer (Dondrup Gyal) being perceived as critiquing the Tulku institution.

[viii] Jacoby writes at length about the mistreatment the Sera Khandro suffered at the hands of women and men alike described in her autobiography, and Nangsa Öbum (ca. 11-12th c.) was famously the recipient of such abuse as well.

[ix] Mrozik employs another pragmatic theory of literature in her reading of the Vessantara jataka, which she argues produces an affect of astonishment in the reader.

[x] Landy gives the examples of the Parable of the Sower and one of its authoritative interpretations, “that certain people are blocked by their mental constitution from perceiving and accepting the truth,” a message he claims the listeners would readily understand (185).

[xi] Nyendak, the father, tells her to eat what she needs because people in the city will not insist on serving you food as is the custom in the village. He also advises her to read in her spare time, as she was a good student before having to leave school for this job.

[xii] I use selfhood and identity interchangeably in this paper, though they have very different connotations both in the philosophical sense and in everyday usage. I contend that identity is an entreé into the concept of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self for ordinary people—Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike.

[xiii]My translation. The author of the preface, Khang skyid bsod bstan, is a poet and a former student of the author.  me tog ni rmi lam lta bu’i ngo mtshar zhig red la/ rmi lam yang me tog lta bu’i mdzes sdug gis bzhad cing skyo snang gis lhung ba’i gtam rgyud red/ 

[xiv] bu khrid kyis bod zad khang btsugs ma thag pa’i skabs mo’i bzhin las lang tsho’i mdangs rgyas shing/ gzugs po ldem cing ‘khyug la/ rkang bro glu gzhas la mkhas pa/ chang mgron por btegs thub pa ma zad rang nyid kyang chang ‘thung bzo dod la ‘thung shed kyang che/ […] mi ring bar mo’i phra la ldem pa’i gzugs po de chang sha rgyas nas ming dang mtshungs pa’i a ma chang ma bag gro zhig chags/ mtshams der sku mgron tshos bod zas khang du yong ste skad chung ngus “yang bskyar gdong pa rnying pa de red/ da ni lta gin lta gin mdog nyes nas nyes su ‘gro gi ‘dug (Tsering Yangkyi 6)

[xv] kha ba stug po babs pa’i mtshan mo der karma rdo rjes ya nga snying rje med par sgrol dkar gyi me tog lta bu’i lang tsho bcom/ (Tsering Yangkyi 26).

[xvi] “‘tsho ba’i ched du nga tshos lang tsho ‘tshong rgyu las gzhan gyi ma rtsa ga re yod….” (Tsering Yangkyi 32)

[xvii] I must point out that I do not personally consider a woman’s beauty and vulnerability an excuse for a man raping her. This is, however, the implication that the women in the novel make and a belief the men who rape them hold. Similarly, I am not suggesting that sex work is shameful in general. Within the context of the novel, this is the perception of the society and the women themselves, and the term “prostitute” reflects that context.

[xviii] I am using the names from Peacock’s translation here to help emphasize their distance from their given names. The flowers do not all have common names in English, although the flower name of the nightclub, “rgya se mtshan mo’i spro skyid khang,” does refer to the flower known as the rose in English. Yangdzom’s name is “ba lu’i me tog,” which is a type of rhododendron. Drolkar is “pad kha’i me tog,” the golden flower of the rapeseed plant. Dzomkyi is “ug chos me tog,” which is a kind of trumpet flower in the genus Incarvillea, according to the rang byung ye she dictionary, and is listed in Tibetan medical texts. I was unable to locate the flower referred to by the name given to Xiao Li, “ltogs pa’i lha.” Dahlia tells Magnolia that there is a pink flower that blooms on the mountains before any of the other flowers, so it is called “the hungry god” (Tsering Yangkyi 226). 

[xix] An example of this analogy from Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher combines the impermanence of samara with its dreamlike nature: “In this present life, what little advantages of power, wealth, good health and other things we enjoy might fool us for a few years, months, or days. But once the effect of whatever good actions caused these happy states is exhausted, whether we want to or not, we will have to undergo poverty and misery or the unbearable sufferings of the lower realms.

            What is the meaning of this kind of happiness? It is like a dream that just stops in the middle when you wake up. Those who, as the result of some slight positive action, seem to be happy and comfortable at the moment, will not be able to hold on to that state for an instant longer once the effect of that action runs out.” (62–63).

[xx] glo bur du ga yin ‘di yin med par rang nyid khrung zhu mar gyur pa de ni rmi lam yin nam mngon sum yin pa rang gis kyang gsal po mi shes pas […] (Tsering Yangkyi 15)

[xxi] She touched her hands to her cheeks – this was no dream, it was reality. She covered her face, too embarrassed to keep looking. Will I be a city girl from now on? She climbed into bed, but her mind was racing. She spent her first night in the city sleeplessly, her head filled with thoughts of the past and fantasies of the future (Peacock 44).

[xxii] srang lam skya thal thal de ni kha sang gi srang lam de rang yin/ ‘on te bu mo sgrol dkar kha sang yong sa’i srang lam de brgyud de ‘gro skabs kha sang gi dvangs gtsang lhad med kyi bu mo de min/ […] mdang nub kyi rmi lam lta bu’i ngang tshul de yid la ‘khor theng rer mo’i gzugs po ‘dar sig sig byed pa dang/ rdig rdig tu g.yugs pa’i dmar chung snying dum bur gas la nye/ (Tsering Yangkyi 32)

[xxiii] g.yang ‘dzoms ni ri dvags thang la bab ma thag pa dang gnyis su med pas gnyid kyi g.ya’ tsam med par rmi lam lta bu’i nyin gcig gi zang zing gi rnam pa de dag la dran gso byed kyin bsdad/ (Tsering Yangkyi 131)

[xxiv] A cag is a term of address used for sisters and female relatives older than the speaker and can also be used more generally for women older than the speaker. Yangdzom also addresses the mother of the family she worker for as “Achak Drolma.”

[xxv] g.yang ‘dzoms kyis kho khang chung nang gdan ‘dren zhus/ khos kyang hra hpha steng rgyus mnga’ che mdog gis bsdad de sngon la ba lu’i me tog gi gdong la nan pos blta ba las skad cha cang ma bshad/

[xxvi] (Tsering Yangkyi lha min ‘dre min 132; “em rje lags/ nga tsho nyin mo mi yin yang/ mtshan la ‘dre dang khyad med pas nga tsho’i gras gyon pa dang/ byug rdzas la nyin mtshan gyi dbye ba yod” Tsering Yangkyi 216). The doctor is one rare exception of compassion shown to the women by “society.”

[xxvii] On this topic, though, McGranahan has written about the application of impermanence to extreme social ostracism, or “social death.”

[xxviii] Virtanen is quoting Esther Kleinbord Labovitz, The Myth of the Heroine: The Female Bildungsroman in the Twentieth Century. 1986/1988 p. 248.

[xxix]See Galli and Erhard for exceptions to these norms, and also Hartley on the autobiography of Dokhar Shabdrung Wangyal who also wrote The Tale of the Incomparable Prince (Gzhon nu zla med kyi gtam rgyud.

[xxx] The Gesar epic is an example of such a narrative that has been adapted to Buddhist purposes in such a way that it seems to straddle the secular and the religious. See Mikles.

[xxxi] By religious professionals, I mean not only monastics but also hereditary lamas, non-celibate tantric practitioners who perform rituals and/or have committed to contemplative practices, and other individuals whose lives are significantly shaped by religious visions, such as ‘das log. I acknowledge that the form and extent of education in Buddhist scholastic and contemplative traditions would vary widely among these types of “professionals.”

[xxxii] David Jackson’s chapter “The bsTan rim (“Stages of the Doctrine”) and Similar Graded Expositions of the Bodhisattva’s Path” in Cabezón and Jackson. Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher is a popularly known version of the preliminaries in the Nyingthik tradition.

[xxxiii] Samuel’s distinction between “clerical” and “shamanic” aspects of Buddhism is based on an anthropological analysis of social structures and is attentive to the diverse social forms present in Tibet. The tripartite religious orientation model derived from Spiro also recognizes the complex landscape of religious traditions in Tibet. However, it does reproduce normative Buddhist categories that support economic power structures as well as religious studies categories rooted in field’s colonial and imperial origins.

[xxxiv] The two higher levels in the lam rim teachings generally refer to the lesser and greater vehicles, and these are conflated in Samuel’s “bodhi” orientation. His pragmatic orientation is not present in the lam rim texts because it is not a necessary step to liberation, whereas accepting the mechanism of karma is. In practice, all three levels of practitioner in the lam rim classification may be implicated in the rituals and behaviors designated as “pragmatic” in Samuel’s model.

[xxxv] For example, see Jacoby on Sera Khandro’s early experiences of religious inspiration and Schaeffer on Orgyen Chokyi.

[xxxvi] blo ldog rnam bzhi are the freedoms and advantages of human life, the impermanence of life, the defects of samsara (suffering in various forms), and the mechanism of karma.

[xxxvii] gang ltar nga tsho grong khyer ba dang dngul yod pa tsho’i sder mo’i nang nas thar thabs yog ma red/ da dung a chag lags/ khyed kyis rgan snyan grags lags la nga thug pa’i skor gsungs ma gnang/ nga de snga’i g.yang ‘dzoms de ma red/

Just prior to this, the narrator described how Azalea was the only woman at the Rose who signed her real name to collect her earnings, believing she should protect the name she received from her parents even if she did not protect the body they gave her. At the hospital, she has just signed “Yangdzom” on the consent form for Drolkar’s surgery when she runs into Drolma. (Tsering Yankyi 272–273).

[xxxviii] Newman (intro) 1996, The protagonist, Prince Kumaradvitiya’s excessive generosity and the scenes where his community tries to persuade him not to go into the forest more closely resemble the Viśvāntara/Vessantara jataka tales of the bodhisattva.

[xxxix] mtshams der g.yang ‘dzoms kyi mig mdun du slar yang bad kha’i me tog gi gzugs brnyan lham mer gsal/ pad kha’i me tog na zugche zhing skabs rer bygal ba las gsos skabs “da cha nga’i ‘das pa’i dus la ‘khang ra dang ‘gyod sems las med/ nad ‘di ni nga’i las ka des nga la bzhag pa’i shul rdzas gcig pu de red” ces ‘gyod sems kyi mchi ma lhung lhung ‘bab kyin bshad pa de dran pa dang/ rna lam du “las ka ga re byed byed bzhag ste/ yin gcig las ka ‘di ‘dra zhig byed dgos don ga re yod” ces pa’i em rje bu mo de’i skad cha de yang nas yang de thos shing brag cha ‘thab pa lta bu byung bas mo’i rna la zug rngu drag po btang/ (Tsering Yangkyi 304).

[xl] Jigme Lingpa writes of faith: “The root of every good is faith itself, and this is unpredictable in beings’ minds. On meeting with a teacher or on reading in the texts, It floods the mind, the hairs upon one’s flesh stand up” (130). This appears in the section on refuge, which is in the teachings for practitioners of “great scope,” Padmakara’s translation for the highest level of practitioner.

[xli] “lhad med brtse sems bcangs te/ gnas ‘jal zhu bar yong yod/ lam ngan khyad du bsad de gnas ‘jal bzhu bar yong yod/ lam ngan khyad du bsad de gnas ‘jal bzhu bar yong yod/ lha la rdzu ‘phrul med pa min/ rtse gcig dad pa med pa’i rkyen gyi yin/ (Tsering Yangkyi 306, my translation).

[xlii] I inserted the Tibetan terms here.

[xliii] This story appears in the Therīgāthā. When Kisāgotamī makes this request, the Buddha asks her to retrieve a mustard seed from a family that has not experienced death. Of course, she cannot find one, learns the lesson of impermanence and becomes a nun. A translation can be found at



Erin Burke is a PhD candidate in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia. Her dissertation is on the relationship between religion and modern Tibetan literature.