I ran into my cousin Gyatso in a bar next to my work unit. Without chatting much he invited me to join a trip to Terdrom Hot Spring next day. The place is exactly where I like to be most, and immediately a scene of the steamy spring hidden away in the mountain, shining brightly under the moonlight, appeared in my mind. I accepted right away.
Terdrom Hot Spring is in Meldro Gongkar County, about 150 kilometers to the east of Lhasa. More precisely, it is in a winding valley. But, not far from the county, the road which turns off to the left is either dusty or littered with small rocks. Some sections are even flooded with water, making it more like a dry river bed in summer and frozen over in winter. So it is quite usual to take five to six hours and even longer to get there.
Despite the hazards of the road there is a heavy flow of people and traffic year-round, constantly arriving because there are several famous sites deep in the mountains. For instance, there is Drigung Thil Monastery, the ancestral monastery of the Drigung Kagyud, one of the important Kagyud lineages, and Drigung Thil sky burial site. Tibetans regard this as very important, believing that if one is brought here after death for sky burial the soul will enter Buddha Amitabha’s Pure Land faster. In other words, the Drigung Thil sky burial site is like a convenient ladder linking the two worlds.
Terdrom Hot Spring is near to these sites. Famous for its health benefits, as with other springs it can also cure this or that kind of ailment; especially, it is said, the healing power is greater during spring and autumn. But, more importantly, the hot spring has its religious significance. It is said that more than 1,200 years ago, Padmasambhava, the founder of Vajrayana Buddhism, honorifically called Guru Rinpoche, stayed in the area for years of retreat and meditation. He once hurled his dorje toward a mountain cliff, splitting it into two, which not only released the snowmelt to the farming land below, but at the same time shook the earth beneath, sending masses of bubbles to the surface which formed the spring. Needless to say how pleasant it is to bathe in the warm spring, not to mention the medical benefits to be gained.
In olden days not everyone was able to bathe. Rocks were piled up to divide the spring into the upper and lower pools, although the waters underneath were actually connected. Traditionally the upper spring was reserved for high lamas — particularly the most respected lamas from Drigung Thil. The lower one was for the nobles among the laity, while those at the bottom of the social ladder did not have this blessing. No one can say at what point in time the spring became so open that everyone could bathe in it. Was it after “the great liberation of a million serfs”? Anyway, it’s a good thing. However, the social status and family background of people coming to the spring is not that pure; all kinds of people are there. Can the quality of the water or, so to say, can its medical powers be affected? Moreover why, while the water in the upper part has to pass through the lower part to reach the river, was it stipulated that men be in the upper part and women in the lower part? Does this suggest that men are cleaner than women? People say that Tibetans have a belief that water becomes purified as soon as it flows one step away. Can that be possible? Anyway, the way of bathing makes me somewhat uncomfortable unless I go alone when there is no one there at all.
I had been to Terdrom twice. The first time was in early summer of 1995. The medium-sized bus that I took was so slow that I could even keep writing during the ride. At that time, both the women’s side of the spring and the men’s side were open to the sky, like in the old saying “total exposure under the bright sun”, it would be just too easy if anyone wanted to peep at the naked bodies of others. Also there were snakes, the kind that are very long and thin, slowly slithering over the rocks. No question, whoever saw them for the first time would be very scared. Fortunately I was already told by somebody that the snakes at Terdrom are harmless.
The second time I went to Terdrom was two years ago in the spring. It was still snowing. I remember that as soon as I got close to the spring two naked foreign women emerged from the steamy water. Within a very short while their bodies were covered with snowflakes that quickly melted. They were giggling. The scene was unforgettable.
During these two trips I stayed in one of the nuns’ huts. Oh, I have forgotten to mention there’s a nunnery which belongs to the Drigung Kagyud lineage but also follows Nyingma practices. Actually, red huts spread everywhere on the mountain slope next to the hot spring. The nuns living in those huts are much prettier than nuns in other places, apparently due to the nourishment of the spring. The hut I stayed in was of course built in Tibetan style and not far from the hot spring. While it is very convenient for going bathing, don’t expect to get a good night’s sleep there. There are too many dogs in Terdrom. Though they don’t bite, they’re always running after you which is annoying enough. During the daytime they are fairly quiet but at night the barking is incessant and everywhere, endless. Plus there’s the sound of footsteps and the noise of chitter-chatter made by those who still want to go bathing when it’s late. Oh dear, night seems to be much livelier than daytime.
Yet, I admit that I am one of those who like to bathe in the hot spring when it is late. I do mind the water flowing down from the men’s side of the spring. Sometimes at night, no, I mean when it gets really late, you can be alone, immersed in the spring’s warm water for hours on end. Under the moonlight the spring is so clean that you can clearly see the bottom and count the stones and small pebbles. Looking up at the sky through the foggy air like smoke scattering, the yellow moon and the silver stars are incomparably beautiful. When even the barking dogs are subdued, and there’s only the sound of the water flowing, all this makes one so happy that one can do nothing but heave a sigh. Talking about this, Terdrom Hot Spring is absolutely one of my favourites among the many scenic places I have been to.
The next day was Saturday. Having decided to leave at ten I had to wait until close to twelve. I could only laugh inwardly; no wonder, naturally Tibetans have no sense of time. I remember W often said Tibetans are a race lacking any concept of number management. Before I used to feel like arguing with him, yet there’s lots of evidence proving it’s so.
In the Sangtana, besides my cousin Gyatso there were four other young Tibetan men around his age. Three of them were wearing beautiful pagtsak, one of the traditional Tibetan garments, a lambskin lining covered with woollen cloth, high collar and side opening, adorned with brocade. In ancient times pagtsak was for older people to keep themselves warm. It has recently become fashionable in Lhasa for young Tibetan men and women. Of course the colours and quality can be varied, and they are not cheap. A good pagtsak costs more than US$125.
It was not only their dress that was similar but also their upbringing. Born in the 1970s, they were all sent to inland China to study at Tibetan high schools and returned to work in Lhasa after graduating from universities or junior colleges. They have either resigned from their government posts and become businessmen, or tried to remain in their offices while investing in private business on the side. Every one of them looks eager to compete in the commercial world. All of them come from well-to-do families, their parents mostly being born to families of “liberated serfs”. They love the Party, the Party treats them well and generously, so in the being of their children is an air of superiority. Moreover, due to the very effective social network they form they are different from other Tibetan youngsters.
For instance, Tsewang used to be a cashier in a bank. Among his relatives, so and so is the director of this or that bureau, and another is some sort of official. Moreover, he was a classmate of the son of Secretary Ragdi, the most powerful Tibetan in the TAR. And then there was Dhargyay, wearing a pair of small spectacles, the son of some high-ranking official, his partner in running hotels, bars and other commercial businesses. They have just opened a new tourism company and named it Terdrom. Nobody knows how they focused on the place.
Although Terdrom is famous for its hot spring, so far it has no paved road, electricity, or telephone connection. Even though Meldro Gungkar County is aware of the commercial value of the name brand, and the auspicious location of Terdrom, its infrastructure work cannot reach as far as this area. Much infrastructural work in Tibet goes like that; it stops at county level. So Tsewang and his people must have their own selfish plans. They have so far invested US$100,000 to $130,000 to lease most of the land around the hot spring to build a hotel, set up a telephone link, and even have plans for road construction and a mini power plant. Compared with the size of the land they have acquired, and their lease-holding of forty years, what they have spent is very little. Also, the entire process has been carried out with the green light of the government. A convenient door must have been opened to them. For all the officials working in Tibet, the name Secretary Ragdi is apparently like thunder rolling in the ears. After all, is there anything the son of Secretary Ragdi cannot do in Tibet?
Therefore this trip to Terdrom was the idea of Tsewang who, being the second boss, wanted to let Gyatso make an on-the-spot investigation so as to hire him later as a management consultant. Gyatso had worked for years in a big hotel in Lhasa. He used to be assistant to the hotel’s general manager, and a manager himself of some entertainment department. I don’t know what he is now. Both his Chinese and English are better than his Tibetan.
As for the other two, Pasang, who works in some TAR bureau, also belongs to this special circle. But Sherab looks different, he seems rather careless about his clothes and appearance, and there is an air of a commoner about him. His talk was always laced with words like “kunchok” (I swear before the Three Jewels) and “yeshe” (I swear to Shakyamuni or Dalai Lama), and when talking about lamas and monasteries he seemed to know more than the others. I previously thought he must believe in Buddhism, but Gyatso told me that he worked in the Public Security Bureau and was a head agent at one of the customs stations along the border. In the beginning I thought the reason Gyatso had invited me along was purely because of the hot spring. Among my many cousins in Lhasa I get along better with him, and though he’s tall I still find him child-like. I later realized what he really wanted was for me to write something about the developing Terdrom Hot Spring; no, I mean, the Terdrom Tourism Company. He wouldn’t have thought I would write something like this. Gyatso once said to me, “Aja” (sister), “you like to write about Tibet, you should write about young Tibetans like us. We are the masters of Tibet’s future.” Originally I didn’t pay much attention. However, after this short trip to Terdrom I had deep feelings and was very sad.
It’s sort of amusing that we had to hang about for a while in the city. Following the habit of Lhasa people to drink sweet tea every day, these guys also needed to have a couple of cups. So, we drove the car to Revolution tea house on the old street of Barkhor.
Four people packed in the back seat was apparently too much of a crowd. Fortunately, Gyatso and I are very slim; the space that we two occupied was no more than a single seat for a fat person. But the police didn’t think so. Noticing several people climbing out of a small car, the policeman gestured to us in a very serious manner. “Stupid,” Dhargyay mumbled and ambled over. Everyone else in the group also put on their “no big deal” expressions. Wrapped in his long coat, the policeman looked like an iron tower. His complexion was very dark red. It was hard to tell whether he was a Tibetan or a Han. He saluted and said something to Dhargyay. As soon as he stopped Dhargyay, who previously stood erect, began to bow his back. Tsewang and the other two rushed over and surrounded the policeman. I felt nervous. But Gyatso said that they could handle it and everything would be alright. He was right, they all had unctuous smiles and even helped direct traffic to let the policeman drive the car away.
“No big deal, let’s go and have tea. Dhargyay will get everything settled,” Tsewang yelled loudly and walked towards Revolution.
Revolution is an established brand among the tea shops in Lhasa. Yet it can’t be that old, just by its name it is easy to know in which era it came into existence. Although it might not have as long a history as Lugtsang (Sheep Pen) or Gamchung (Little Box) it is popular among Lhasa people. In a way sweet tea shops in Lhasa are all the same — dark, dirty, rickety long tables and benches, flies buzzing around in summer, and beggars moving in and out in winter. Yet, they are also the centres for gathering and spreading all kinds of gossip. Amid such rumours, true or false, or even absurd, a cup of sweet tea costing two or three dimes seems particularly delicious. Moreover, when the Chinese term for Revolution, “geming“, is pronounced with a heavy Tibetan accent, it sounds especially attractive. So the “Revolution” has its second branch.
Everyone in Lhasa is addicted to this kind of British-flavour tea, mixing black tea with sugar and milk (now often replaced by concentrated milk powder). Traditionally women were not allowed to enter these tea houses or they would be seen as loose. However, at this time, when old customs and traditions have been swept away, anything that male Tibetan cadres can do can be done by female Tibetan cadres, let alone going to Revolution. Usually sweet tea shops open early in the morning to serve the elderly on their way to do circumambulation, the rest of the day they are full of people of different ages and professions. Tibetans from most of the work units do the same, spending as much of their time there as in their offices.
Near to us several young men and women were talking freely and loudly. Listening carefully, I heard they were speaking in Chinese, trying to make their pronunciation correct and occasionally throwing some Tibetan words into their conversation. Looking scornfully, either Pasang or Sherab, one of the two, said they must be students from nearby Tibet University. We ordered a three-pound thermos of sweet tea and a bowl of noodles for each of us. This kind of thick chopstick-looking noodle cooked in beef stock is commonly called “Tibetan noodle”; maybe its name is because the noodle is handmade by Tibetans rather than Han Chinese or Muslims. A short while later Dhargyay returned, throwing his car key on the table he said, “He had the guts to accuse me of violating chapter XYZ of the traffic regulations. As soon as I found their captain he couldn’t say a word.”
It was one thirty in the afternoon. The sun was bright. Finally, we were on our way.
As soon as our car reached the Lhasa Bridge Pasang, in the front seat, pulled out a grenade-shaped firecracker, yelling excitedly, “Let’s fire it!” Tsewang immediately stopped him: “Don’t you see the soldiers are watching the bridge? It’d be surprising if we don’t get arrested. Let’s do it after we’ve passed the bridge.”
No sooner had we passed the bridge than grenades began to explode. All along the road there were dumping grounds piled with plastic bags, oil depots, villages, small stores, concealed military camps, farms, ruins on the hills, re-painted monasteries and rows of tiled county buildings. Of course, none of these was the target of the explosions. It was only people along the road, like farmers in their horse-drawn carts or on tractors, passengers in buses parked at the roadside, small groups of contract workers (whenever Sherab saw Sichuanese-looking Han he would shout, “Blow them up”), wandering monks in their red robes, children with runny noses and so on, who were scared by the explosions right next to them and screamed and ran away. Then there were also pigs, dogs, cows, sheep and horses. None of these animals was missed.
The cheerful laughter that was much louder than the explosive sound of the firecrackers reverberated all along the road. Pasang pulled the strings of the firecrackers and threw them out of the car window, more like throwing grenades. The others, overjoyed, turned their heads to look. Although I knew that the grenades weren’t real, they were crackers, and understood that the boys (actually they are too old to be called boys) were obsessive in their mischief-making, I still somehow felt uncomfortable and was more worried thinking what if the firecrackers failed to go out of the window and exploded in the car.
As I have already said, the road from the county to Terdrom is really difficult to travel, so naturally our Sangtana wouldn’t be able to make it. They had already arranged everything; as soon as we got to Meldro Gongkar County we changed to a Toyota SUV which belongs to the county tax bureau. I heaved a sigh of relief because the grenades were finally finished. But unexpectedly, as we were changing vehicles, Dhargyay proudly produced a small-bore rifle from the Sangtana’s trunk. “What are you doing with a gun?” I asked. “Hunting, of course,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Maybe because my question sounded superfluous, someone else added, “Let’s knock down some of those cackling chickens.” I could feel my heart sinking.
And so the trip, saturated with the smell of gunpowder, no, the smell of killing, started. This, as well as travelling to Terdrom with fellow Tibetans of their kind, was far from my expectations. At first impression they were well-mannered, clean-cut, energetic, sounding good in both Tibetan and Chinese, unlike those Tibetans who can’t stop repeating “wocao” (f…), they substituted with “wakao“. In addition they were my cousin Gyatso’s friends. To be honest, I wasn’t disgusted with them at all.
Yet I soon began to feel disgusted with them; not only disgusted, but also troubled. That was when, passing a mountain slope covered with lots of bushes, a target of killing finally appeared. It was a rabbit, a goofy-looking rabbit exposing itself in a big open space as though it was calling them to kill it. Dhargyay braked the SUV and stepped out with his rifle. He didn’t even try to move carefully or muffle the noise of his steps. Instead he lifted up the rifle and shot at one of the rabbit’s hind legs. But the word “Don’t” that I shouted was too late, too weak, and was at once drowned by the cheers erupting everywhere inside the car.
I couldn’t bear this reality. Even couldn’t tolerate Dhargyay running after the rabbit with a gun. How was it possible for the rabbit to escape? With an injured leg, before getting too far the rabbit was killed by Dhargyay with several more shots. I couldn’t see the horrible scene of the rabbit lying in the bushes, struggling, but I could clearly see the cruelty and cold-bloodedness of the killer who was not at all repentant. The cruelty and cold-bloodedness were reflected in his eyes masked by glasses, in his gait that was closing in step-by-step, in the way the others deliriously rushed over to pick up the dead rabbit. That was a sentient being, a being that lived freely in its own land a few minutes ago, suddenly shot dead, just like that.
It was not only disturbing, but painful to witness a sentient being getting killed. I, with Buddhism as my faith, have long accepted the teachings of loving all sentient beings and taking them as ones relatives; these sentient beings don’t only refer to humans but also all sentient beings including those that fly in the sky, those that run on the ground, those that swim in the water. As with this rabbit; many of its previous lives could possibly have been connected with me, it might have been my parent or sibling, in short, there must have been some karmic connection or else why have our paths crossed? But I let it be killed right in front of my eyes and didn’t try to save it! I couldn’t believe that I simply uttered the word “Don’t”. How could I be a Buddhist? I was clearly an accomplice!
I was absolutely silent and furious for the rest of the journey until our car was stopped by two nuns carrying foodstuff and meat. Dhargyay, oh, it was Dhargyay again, got out of the car with a very warm smile and helped to load the stuff into the car, so it became much easier for the nuns to walk to the hot spring. Thinking that he had been very nice to the nuns, which really made him seem more like a Tibetan, I forgave him and the others too. Our friendship resumed, but I had to force myself to stop thinking of the blood-covered rabbit which they had thrown behind the back seat. Later I discovered a totally different reality.
We finally reached the hot spring at Terdrom, but I no longer felt the joy of my previous visits. It was close to seven in the evening. The sun hadn’t yet completely set. Standing on the road, gazing down to where it disappeared in the distance, the reflection from tin roofs that shone like a sword dazzled the eyes. Pointing to the tin roofs, Tsewang said that was where they’d built their hotel. He sounded very proud, but I felt very sorry for the loss, how discordant it was using this kind of roof. Tsewang said, “But it’s practical, it rains a lot in summer, the Tibetan style would soon get leaky.” “Perhaps” I said, “but the colour is really ugly”.
The nuns’ huts were still like rubies spreading halfway up the hill, comforting the eyes which had been hurt by the metal reflection of those tin roofs that didn’t belong to this world.
Descending along the mountainside, the hot spring beneath its drifts of steamy air was surrounded by cliffs covered with prayer flags and rows of buildings being used as hotels. The hot spring was no longer sitting in the open; more than half of it had been ringed by an unpainted wooden structure — intended to stop voyeurs peeping — which was also uniquely delightful. More importantly, it leaves the sky open to people in the hot spring day and night, which in any case is a good modification.
There are now two kinds of hotel in Terdrom. Two rows of concrete buildings under the tin roofs are apparently what Tsewang and his friends have newly-built. A line of Tibetan-style old houses next to the hot spring belong to the nunnery. What was so interesting was that the newly-built hotel remains closed, no one stays there, but at the gate of the old crooked Tibetan house, which looked like some archaeological site, sat several foreigners in their pagtsa. I guessed the reason for their choice must have been the price difference for the two hotels. But what attracts people depends more on whether there is some kind of taste or some kind of feeling.
So Tsewang, looking helpless as well as jealous, said: “These nuns are stubborn. Many times I discussed with them and suggested they raise their prices. No wonder people prefer to stay in their hotel when we charge over US$7 and they charge around US$1. They are stupid. Don’t they realize the profit from all of their rooms is no more than the profit of only two of ours? Anyway, ours is going to be full when the tourist season comes. They should just sell us their rooms so they don’t have to busy themselves for nothing.”
“But why don’t they?” I asked.
“Because they are afraid we might take advantage of them. So what?” Tsewang answered. “In the past all the land belonged to the nunnery. Later, when the hot spring opened to the public, the county government first built a guest house here, having promised to compensate the nunnery. But not a single dime was given to them in the end. Since then the nunnery has been very tough to deal with. They’d rather be satisfied with their small profit and don’t believe in making more.”
“As a matter of fact, we are going to take advantage of them.” Dhargyay smiled and continued, “They want to make a profit out of such a tiny place, how come? No big deal. They can refuse to give us their property now. Gradually, we are going to be the city eating up the villages; we are going to round up the whole gang.”
These conversations took place while we were sitting in the nuns’ hotel room having tea. Since there was no business in these guys’ new hotel, the manager had locked the rooms and given himself a holiday to visit his family. That night we had to stay in the nunnery’s hotel. Seeing these guys chatting and laughing with the nuns, I really thought they were being nice to them. The three nuns were quite young and bashful, covering their faces with their hands when they laughed they kept pouring the hot butter tea into cups and fed each of us a bowl of instant noodles. How could they ever suspect what these guys’ plans were? As soon as they began to speak in Chinese the nuns looked flabbergasted, they understood nothing.
The meat we bought from the county had been stewed. With bread and chilli sauce it tasted delicious. Meanwhile, the moon had climbed high. It was time for the hot spring.
Next to the hot spring the flames of two candles were softly shining through the steam. A warmth that hadn’t been felt for so long immediately dispelled the chills that wrapped tightly around me. Under the moonlight the bubbling water was even warmer, cosier. Not knowing how to swim, I stepped on the pebbles that were a little bit rough and slippery, moving slowly. The spring was very clean, warm, and full of powers of magnanimity and tolerance to all — it could seemingly embrace all sentient beings of the three worlds.
There were several nuns already in the water, singing softly and melodiously. Listening carefully, I realized they were dharma chants praising Guru Rinpoche, although they sounded very like ballads or love songs.
Later an old woman came who looked as though she was from a nomadic area. Most of the nomad women’s figures — usually wrapped in baggy and heavy robes made from sheepskin — are incredibly beautiful. So was the old woman’s youthful beauty revealed as her body moved.
After a while they left and all advised me not to stay in the water too long: “It’ll make your heart race”.
I felt myself again, immersed alone in the warm water and once again looking at the sky through the steam that was like smoke, diffusing slowly, the yellow moon and the silver stars blurred behind a veil of steam, incomparably beautiful; the only things that reached the ears were the fading sound of dogs barking and the slapping of water flowing away. All these things made one so happy one could only breathe a deep sigh. How perfect it would be if he, the foreigner, the one who was far away, could be here himself.
I stayed alone for the night in a room with six beds and without a door latch. On every bed there was either dust or lumps of clay that had fallen from the ceiling or wall. I had my sleeping bag with me; from years of travelling experience I know how to make myself at home.
I woke as the first light of dawn appeared. I went again to soak myself in the hot spring where there was nobody yet and then I decided to climb the mountain behind the nunnery with my camera. All of a sudden I caught sight of Dhargyay passing in front of a stupa carrying his rifle. “What? He even wants to take life in such a place?” I suddenly felt very unhappy. In Tibet, wherever there is a monastery there is a haven for animals. I had been to a remote monastery where the fish could even jump up from the river to take tsampa from the palms of lamas. In contrast Terdrom seemed to have become the hunters’ playground.
Above the main temple are the nuns’ red huts; beyond them, the caves of the hermits. A khandroma in her seventies lives there. It is said that she is the embodiment of Yeshe Tsogyal, a consort of Guru Rinpoche. Every time I visited she was in retreat; it seemed as though I just did not have the right karmic connection to see her. I was alone, lying on a grassy hillside as I had done five years before, staring at piles of white stones carved with mantras and watching nuns in red carrying water from the river. Every scene was as before right at this moment, blurring the concept of time. Time in Tibet seems very different from other places. It can be bent, just like wire forming circles by connecting the ends; it is also like curd dropped on the floor, flowing slowly. I even felt that my own mentality was almost unchanged. Seemingly unchanged.
I went back to the nunnery. There I ran into Tsewang and my cousin Gyatso. For me monasteries are just like my home. As soon as I stepped into the prayer hall I could name the things that I am emotionally close to such as the mandala of Guru Rinpoche, his twenty-five disciples who have omnipotent magic power, eight of his different manifestations. Sungma, Yidam, Khandroma. I couldn’t help saying to Tsewang, “Since you want to do business at Guru Rinpoche’s meditation place you should respect the sacred site so you are protected by him.” My motivation was to put a halt to their hunting there.
With his eyes stretched wide he said, “I should worship more.” He went on: “I have been to monasteries before. Now, because of Terdrom, I have to come to the nunnery often!” I thought in my heart, “I know what you come to the nunnery for. Such utilitarian faith is for nothing other than quick rewards.”
The nunnery is small and simple. There are many monasteries of this kind in Tibet; they are purely spiritual refuges for the local people, supported by the populace and lay families of monks and nuns. Of course, there is also a tradition of self-sufficiency, but there is barely enough for food and clothing. Life in the nunneries is even harder. Therefore, you can imagine how important the hot spring is for them. It should be totally legitimate for the nunnery to sell entrance tickets to the hot spring to improve the nuns’ standard of living. Yet it seems likely that these nuns will soon lose even that single row of hotel rooms.
We left Terdrom hot spring in the afternoon. Now the rifle was being carried, nonchalantly, by Pasang. Their eyes were searching both sides of the car for fear of missing any target.
I deliberately began to tell Buddhist stories on karma and its results. I mentioned the husband of one of my paternal aunts who was driven by hunger to kill many marmot, deer and foxes. He later contracted cancer. A tulku, who was a stranger to them, did a divination and said his cancer was the karmic result of him taking lives. Only by freeing animals from captivity might he live longer. So his family bought many fish every day and then freed them into the river. Two years later he finally died.
Tibetans usually quote these kinds of stories as admonishments. Yes, religious commitments, religious disciplines, religious regulations that suggest the religious abstinences one must obey. The Dalai Lama says: “Once a commitment takes root in the mind, the person knows how to restrain himself as soon as any negative ideas begin to arise.” In the lives of the Tibetans — I mean in the lives of real Tibetans — there are many commitments. Among these commitments the most important one is not taking life. From the perspective of cultivating the human mind, taking life is closely interrelated with terrible results. “You reap what you sow.” There are interconnected chains of karma and results. The foundations of Buddhism are based on its respect and sympathy towards all sentient beings — including respect and sympathy for ones own life, that is the path leading to the perfection of each individual’s life.
The commitment not to take life makes one realize it is not just human life that is precious; in other words, when human beings don’t consider the lives of those vulnerable creatures as being equally precious as their own, don’t respect the significance of others’ lives, then they themselves become the ones who neglect their own lives. Such a kind of commitment is actually rather wonderful. It makes you respectful, humble, and grateful towards beings â€“ and the universe that sustains those beings. On the contrary, to ignore such a commandment means that one has no self-restraint, as well as no respectfulness, humility, gratitude, all one has is arrogance and aggression, disdain and destructiveness, hatred and ruination. An author said, “Ruination of life is the game of fascism.”
I had no intention to set myself up as a moralizer or a preacher. In telling stories of karmic consequences I was also admonishing myself. I was deeply aware of my weakness. I was very much a bystander when the rabbit was killed the previous day. As mentioned earlier, I had once been an accomplice but no longer wanted to be. That moment already burdened me psychologically.
But that was no use, not at all. It was apparent that in their hearts there was only personal desire which leads to ones pleasure taking priority. If killing could satisfy desire and bring happiness, then have everything killed. The whole bodies and minds of these guys were saturated with the desire to kill. One rabbit was just not enough. Another rabbit amid the grass and a small wild chicken faced the same fate. A pigeon resting in the open, where the farmers were drying their barley, triggered another killing. The poor creature fell over after a faint gunshot. I couldn’t continue my story which was yet to be finished. It seemed that my stories could only make sense to those Tibetans who have the roots of religion in their minds. To Tibetans like these guys, who have been, who knows, Westernized, Sinicized, or suddenly modernized, my stories were just useless.
Not far away, several black, erect birds were stepping gracefully around in a swamp. “Black-necked Cranes,” Dhargyay shouted out loudly. The desire to kill erupted again. I also shouted, “No, don’t kill this.” I could even hear the strange tone in my voice. Dhargyay, stupefied, stopped braking the car, and said, “Of course. I’ll be thrown in jail if I kill them.” The car kept moving. I wanted very much to ask him, “You leave them only because you are afraid of jail?” In the meantime, I also wanted to ask myself, “Why have I simply uttered, ’Don’t kill this,’ do I mean ‘that’ can be killed?” I seemed to have heard the sound of those cranes. That sound, described in a word, is the cry of the crane.
All of a sudden our car got a flat tyre. A sandstorm started; the sand immediately blanked out the entire road and sky. Watching them getting disturbed I somehow felt pleasure at their misfortune and couldn’t help bursting out, “See, this is the karmic result of your hunting.” My cousin Gyatso tugged at me, hinting that I should stop. Actually he, with his gunshots, made known that he was on their side, though all his shots missed.
It took us a while to get back to the road. Shortly we reached Meldro Gungkar. As we were changing cars those dead animals were pulled out of the SUV and dropped on the ground. Two rabbits, one pigeon, and one chicken, each covered with blood and gunshot wounds. They were beautiful just a few hours ago, energetically hopping in the grass and flying. But now they were all lying on the icy ground, stiffened and motionless. Some might say, “What’s the big deal killing a few rabbits, pigeons or chickens? Don’t be surprised and make a fuss about a trifle.” But how couldn’t that be a big deal? Aren’t they lives? They are the ones that have been shot, yet couldn’t it be our sympathy that has been shot by them?
I could no longer bear the scene. I suddenly became very angry. Originally I was carefree, I had joined this trip to Terdrom with great joy. But these guys were just too inhuman, they obstinately created intolerable burdens by means of their killing. If I don’t stop them it is against the principles of my being a Buddhist; if I do it, will make them dislike me. Yet, why haven’t I told them to stop their ruthless killing? Is it because I couldn’t, or I dare not, or simply because I didn’t know how to stop them? Thinking this way I became angry with myself, and more so with them. What gave them the right to be so overbearing? What gave them the right to make me witness — even participate in — their game of killing?
It would have been alright if they had stopped then. But they allowed themselves to go completely out of control rather than restraining their behaviour. The excitement of killing, the flaming excitement of killing, dominated their facial expressions. On our way from Meldro Gungkar back to Lhasa, on one side were winter meadows flooded with water and in the further distance was lines of rivers. Flocks of yellow ducks were slowly floating on those swamps. It was only yesterday that they were saying these yellow ducks were very emotional. If one of a pair is killed the remaining one keeps circling around its partner’s dead body until it too is exhausted and dies. But meanwhile they all jump out of the car, yelling and targeting one of these yellow ducks.
Enough was enough. I could no longer tolerate it. I opened the car door in a huff, pulled out my backpack, and headed off alone. The sandstorm started again, covering the entire sky of Tibet, like smoke rising from all directions suggesting a deep meaning that cannot be fathomed.
Finally my entire face was soaked in tears. How could I be in the company of guys like these who view themselves as the masters of Tibet’s future? This land is their own home, but they don’t even love and care for it. Why is it so satisfying to divest it of all life?
Tibetans, how can you be like that? You have no right to violate the commitment not to kill in your own land. Don’t you know what you are hunting is your own soul?
They finally stopped. There was no more killing of the innocent. Very quietly they got back into the car, looking extremely unhappy. My cousin Gyatso rushed to me: “OK, we have stopped. Let’s get in the car, let’s go back to Lhasa.” Seeing him being embarrassed, my heart softened. Alright, let’s go, go back to Lhasa with the dead rabbits, pigeon and chicken, to Lhasa, where they can be cooked. In the midst of the smell of butter that has been diluted by red lanterns and green wine, in the midst of the sound of prayers that have been drowned out by dancing and singing, Lhasa is no longer the land of happiness and purity, the land of prosperity and sanctity. Who knows who its future will depend on? Where, exactly, is the hope of its future?
Alright, let’s go back to Lhasa. “… crying, but not begging for anything, not yelling, not angry, maybe unclear whether crying, maybe in a dream just like breathing,” … just like the spring water in Terdrom under the moonlight. “… spring, animals say, every night the spring cries when the sun goes down.