Cover Image

Larger ImageView Larger

E-BOOK

Tibetan Diary

From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal

Geoff Childs (Author)

READ AN EXCERPT

Adobe PDF E-Book
ISBN: 9780520937840
$29.95
ePUB Format
ISBN: 9780520937840
$29.95
Other Formats Available:

Please note: UC Press e-books must be purchased separately from our print books, and require the use of Adobe Digital Editions. If you do not already have Adobe Digital Editions installed on your computer, please download and install the software. To complete your e-book order, please click on the e-book checkout button. A charge will appear on your credit card from Ingram Digital Group.

In this rich and deeply personal account of life in the highlands of Nepal, Geoff Childs chronicles the daily existence of a range of people, from venerated lamas to humble householders. Offering insights into the complex dynamics of the ethnically Tibetan enclave of Nubri, Childs provides a vivid and compelling portrait of the ebb and flow of life and death, of communal harmony and discord, and of personal conflicts and social resolutions. Part ethnography, part travelogue, and part biography, Tibetan Diary is a one-of-a-kind book that conveys the tangled intricacies of a Tibetan society.

Childs's immensely readable and informative narrative incorporates contemporary observations as well as vignettes culled from first-person testaments including oral histories and autobiographies. Examining the tensions between cultural ideals and individual aspirations, he explores certain junctures in the course of life: how the desire to attain religious knowledge or to secure a caretaker in old age contrasts with social expectations and familial obligation, for example. The result is a vivid and unparalleled view of the quest for both spiritual meaning and mundane survival that typifies life in an unpredictable Himalayan environment.
List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
Prologue
1. Raising the Curtain
2. The Lay of the Land
3. Life Begets Death, Death Begets Life: The Life Course Begins
4. Adolescent Discord: Family Needs versus Spiritual Deeds
5. Growing Through Travel: The Pilgrimage for Knowledge and Prestige
6. The Merits of Matrimony: Commencing the Householder Life
7. High Peaks and Deep Valleys: The Imponderable Nature of Everyday Life
8. Anticipating the End of the Life Course: The Anxieties of Old Age
9. Parting Breaths: Death Is But a Transition
10. Transcending Death: Rising Corpses and Reincarnations
Appendix
Notes
Glossary
Bibliography
Index
Geoff Childs is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington University.
“The richly descriptive text more than stands on its own as an accessible, engaging introduction to everyday life in a Buddhist community in the Himalayas, as well as to the life of an anthropologist.”.”—Journal Royal Anthro Inst
"An immensely engaging work that contributes much to our understanding of the social-religious culture of Tibetan village life at the local level, providing a rich and deeply personal account of the ebb and flow of life and death, of communal harmony and discord, of personal conflicts and social resolutions. The author shows that the Himalayan enclaves of Nubri and Kutang are genuinely human communities with their own complications and contradictions."—Bryan J. Cuevas, author of The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead

"An immensely readable and genuinely moving account of Tibetan lives and religion. Childs provides mutually illuminating narratives of the present and past that reveal an intimate portrayal of a Tibetan community in the Nepalese highlands."—David Germano, University of Virginia

"A splendid book that displays a remarkable ability to combine a critical understanding of the difficulties of Tibetan life with a great sensitivity to its humane atmosphere and its cultural complexities. This rich anthropological study is also a good read that conveys valuable insights through an entertaining and at times moving narrative. In short, a must read for all those who love Tibetans and their culture, as well as a most welcome addition to the developing field of Tibetan anthropology."—Georges Dreyfus, Professor of Religion, Williams College, author of The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk
Chapter One

Raising the Curtain
Attire yourself to be acceptable in another man's world,
Nourish yourself to be acceptable in your own.

Tibetan Proverb1

The Journey

As usual, the porters lagged behind. Weighted down by large packs bulging with reference books, reams of paper, and other "necessities" for my field research, they made slow and ponderous progress on the mountain trail. The footpath was often precarious, narrow and steep, with sections washed away in landslides caused by the frequent monsoon deluges. It was day nine on the trek from Kathmandu, the day that would bring me to my new home in the ethnically Tibetan village of Sama, a remote Himalayan settlement in northern Nepal's Nubri Valley—a place I had never visited and where I knew not a soul.

In contrast to the physical exertion expended by the two hardy porters, my own burden was more psychological, induced by nagging doubts of an uncertain future. I was an anthropologist entering the field for the first time, embarking on a rite of passage from graduate student to practitioner of the discipline. Until now, the sluggish pace of the trek had afforded a welcome postponement of the inevitable hardships to come, a reprieve from the unavoidable questions that lay ahead. How would I be accepted by the people of Nubri? Would I be embraced or shunned? Would I be able to handle the physical and emotional trials and tribulations that surely awaited me? More to the point, what was I getting myself into?

Eventually I crested a ridge. Stretching before me was a wide plain situated more than two miles above sea level and surrounded by lofty snow-clad peaks. At 26,760 feet, Mt. Manaslu, known to the valley's inhabitants by the Tibetan name Pungyen (Ornamented Heap), commanded the entire scene. A translucent plume of smoke arose from a distant hollow, marking the village of Sama. The moment of truth had arrived.

On reaching the fields bordering the village, I came across a coarse stone wall that served to separate the herds of ravenous bovines from the villagers' life-sustaining crops. I decided to wait for my guide, Karma, who was also my companion and confidant. He knew everybody here; I was a complete stranger. I slung my pack to the ground, happy to be relieved of the encumbrance for the moment, but also knowing that this would be the final respite before having to explain my presence to these isolated mountain people.

While I stood reflecting on my impending entrance to the village, an old man trudged into view. He carried a bamboo basket and a hand-axe, crude implements needed to cut and gather fuel for his hearth. His shoulders were stooped, and his face was creased and wrinkled by years of exposure to the high-altitude sun and perhaps by sufferings that I could only imagine. Ragged, home-spun woolen clothing indicated that he was poor, poorer than anybody I had ever known. Yet there was still a spring to his step and a jauntiness in the way his head swayed back and forth as he hummed a sacred mantra.

The old man spotted me and approached, obviously perplexed by my presence. Although tourists had been coming through the village since 1992, and mountain climbers before them, it was now late August, the monsoon season, when Sama was undisturbed by foreign intrusions. Besides, Westerners were always preceded by an army of Sherpas and porters as if to proclaim their self-importance. I was alone.

"Elder brother, are you well?" I called out in greeting. Immediately the man's face lit up as he heard Tibetan words formed by a foreigner's tongue. A broad smile revealed gaping holes where his teeth used to be. "I am well. Are you going to cross the pass?" he inquired, under the assumption that I was a transient trekker seeking high-altitude adventure. "No," I informed him, "I plan to stay here for a few months." He looked startled. This was a curious prospect to ponder, without precedence indeed, since no foreigner had ever spent more than a few days in the village.2 Slowly his smile returned as he grasped the situation. "In that case you can stay with me. I have my own house and live alone." I thanked him for the offer, yet assumed this invitation to be no more than a social courtesy. Meanwhile, the withered old man with the stooped gait turned and strolled away to ascend a trail that wound through thorny shrubs to the forested hills above.

Karma arrived with the porters and immediately took me on a whirlwind tour of the village, introducing me to all the movers and shakers of the community. During the barrage of rapid conversation in a dialect that was still unfamiliar, I managed to discern that Karma was arranging for me to stay with the family of a high-ranking married lama. The next morning at the crack of dawn Karma abruptly left to return to his family in Kathmandu. Despite being surrounded by people, I had never felt more alone in my life.

At first the arrangement of living with the lama seemed perfectly suitable, one rationale being that my relationship as his guest would bestow social status by association, a certain legitimacy to my presence in the village that is essential for successful research. However, practical realities rapidly intruded in a most sobering manner. Houses in Nubri are single-room structures wherein privacy is nonexistent. This particular lama seemed more adept at perpetuating his descent lineage than at teaching his progeny fundamental social graces. He had numerous children and a wife stressed by the logistics of keeping the kids in line while providing for a continuous flow of visitors who came seeking audiences with her husband. My days were transformed into a continual struggle to keep research notes from being tattered and scattered by the grubby hands of toddlers. Constant vigilance was needed to thwart children from dispersing my underwear through the house and village, and to prevent my manual typewriter from becoming a keyboard for juvenile amusement. Indeed, the academic rite of passage called fieldwork was quickly transformed into an aggravating series of skirmishes with the children of my host.

The offer of the old man whom I met when first entering Sama kept creeping back to mind. I began to make excuses to visit him, and found his company to be most pleasant. His humble abode and warm hearth offered welcome breathing space from the din of battle in the lama's quarters. Sacrificing proximity to the learned lama was a small price to pay for assuring peace of mind, body, and possessions. I moved in with Tashi Dondrup.

Life with Tashi

Tashi is the illegitimate son of an impoverished mother and of a father who denied all paternal responsibility. He grew up poor and worked his entire life just to keep a roof over his head and food in his stomach. Lacking land and cattle, the critical assets of this rural economy that are generally bestowed through paternal inheritance, he could never marry and raise his own family. Despite such an unfavorable past, Tashi managed to cultivate a sharp intellect and immense capacity for generosity. In addition, he is elderly and respected by his fellow villagers, not because of wealth or any position of prestige that he happened to be born into, but because of his friendly demeanor, solid work ethic, and raucous sense of humor. People enjoy his company.

Tashi became my most important social link in Sama. He was more than a mere friend or companion, for he guided me through the myriad social gaffes and blunders that I was destined to perpetrate in this traditional society. Most important, he became my fictive yet ever so real brother. Rather than referring to each other by our given names, he called me "little brother" (nuwo) and I called him "elder brother" (ajo).

Once the villagers accepted my presence and heard that Tashi and I called each other by familiar kinship terms, we naturally became the butt of local jibes. Our male neighbors wondered aloud, "How could two able men, guys who call themselves brothers, live as celibate bachelors in their own home?" Friends chided us to take a common wife, an accepted practice for brothers in Sama and in scores of other Tibetan communities where fraternal polyandry is customary. As part of the sexual innuendo so common when men congregate, elderly spinsters were suggested as potential spouses who could bring a semblance of marital bliss to our bachelor quarters. We were content, however, to be alone.

Becoming the target of jokes was gratifying, since it implied a degree of familiarity with fellow villagers—people far too polite and reserved to ridicule a stranger to his face. Yet the villagers' acceptance came by no means automatically. It had to be earned. At first people had no clue what I was doing in their midst, which of course led to rampant speculation about precisely who I was and for whom I was working. The fact that anthropologists tend to poke their noses into all aspects of life and ask scores of inane questions, all the while frantically scribbling cryptic notes in an indecipherable script, only fueled the villagers' suspicions. They began to talk about me.

Within a few weeks of my arrival a funeral procession took place in Sama. In my ignorant naiveté, I envisioned tagging along and interviewing the lamas performing the last rites in order to better grasp local conceptions about life and death. Tashi was mortified at this suggestion and reprimanded me with a reminder of how gossip can act as a social regulator within the community. "Don't you dare follow that funeral procession to the cremation grounds!" he admonished. In response I reasoned, "But Tashi, how else can I learn about the customs here?" "Ask the lamas anything you want, but don't follow them to the burning place. If you do, people will wonder why you are obsessed with death. They will talk about you," he warned.

Tibetans believe that gossip can have negative repercussions. At the individual level, becoming the subject of gossip can trigger physical, mental, or economic misfortunes, while at the societal level the unabated spread of gossip can upset social cohesion. Tibetans even have ritual texts at their disposal that are designed to thwart the negative effects of gossip.3 In my case, social survival in Sama meant that my instincts as an academic voyeur needed to be tempered by a bit more sensitivity. Tashi was there to steer me clear of conflicts and to assure that I refrained from activities that would make me the target of malicious talk. (For the record, he did not always succeed.)

Suspicion that I worked for the Nepali government was a major impediment during the early weeks of fieldwork. Nubri is inhabited by Buddhist highlanders living at the geographical, social, and economic fringe of a Hindu state. Their opinions of outsiders were overwhelmingly prejudiced by negative experiences with government officials, usually high-caste Brahmins and Chetris. Wariness that I was somehow linked to the government did not help matters at all. It took the fortuitous, albeit inadvertent, assistance of an itinerant government official to dispel such a notion.

This government peon, a man whose level of arrogance was inversely proportionate to his menial position, came strutting into the village one day. At the time I was observing a ritual at the gomba (village temple), where most of the male members of Sama had congregated for the day. The official spied me in the crowd (indeed, I did stick out) and jumped to the conclusion that I was an illegal alien who must be dealt with using the full force of his petty rank. Nubri is a restricted area and I was the first outsider to receive permission to live there for an extended period. Naturally I asserted the legitimacy of my credentials and offered to show him the permits that had been issued in the capital and approved by the local police. Yet the numbskull refused to be swayed by facts, or perhaps he was holding out for a bribe. A harsh exchange of words nearly turned to blows as we argued heatedly in a crude admixture of Nepali and English, neither of which local villagers understood well.

As if on cue, the ritual within the temple ended and a throng of lamas and monks spilled outside and formed a circle about us two combatants. One man blurted out, "Hey Gyemi [Foreigner], what's the fighting all about?"4 I turned to the gathering and explained the nature of our disagreement, at which point an elderly monk stepped forward and enveloped me in his red robes. "Don't worry," he said, "we'll pretend you are a monk and hide you in the temple!" His suggestion was greeted with a burst of laughter from the crowd. Men began to jeer, and finally the official skulked away in defeat. The fight was proof positive that I was not in cahoots with the government. To this day I thank my good fortune for sending an obstinate official to the village just when a social breakthrough was sorely needed.

Later that day my adversary crept sheepishly into my makeshift office at the gomba to extend an olive branch. He turned out to be a nice man, perhaps one who could have become a friend under different circumstances. In his defense, he had been warned by higher officials to be on the lookout for illegal aliens in the valley. Foreign travelers are always seeking ways to enter the most remote and hence most romanticized areas of Nepal. He had just been doing his duty, albeit with minimal tact and far too much zeal.

We chatted for a bit, avoiding any mention of the previous confrontation. He then asked me about my motivations for wanting to live among and study the lifestyle of bhotay, a derogatory Nepali term for Buddhist highlanders of Tibetan extraction.5 To high-caste Hindus, Tibetans occupy the lowest rungs of the social order, and the government official was truly perplexed. "Why," he asked, "do you want to study these bhotay? Look at the food they eat. They are so dirty, and they smell bad," he said, pinching his nose to emphasize the point.

He had a valid point from the perspective of a lowlander, and in fact from the perspective of anybody who values the occasional scrub. The Tibetans of Sama do exude a very distinct odor, for their bodies are saturated with the combined smells of smoke from the hearth; yak butter, which oils their hair; sweat from their daily toils; and the bovines with which they are in constant contact. People very rarely bathe, in part because of the cold weather and in part because there is no cultural prohibition against having a veneer of grime coating the skin. The perplexed official could not understand why a foreigner would ever volunteer to live with these Tibetans, learn their language, eat their coarse food, and allow his personal hygiene to plummet so drastically. To him these people were the antithesis of civilization, whereas I was supposed to represent all that was modern, progressive, and socially desirable, according to the development discourse that had enveloped Nepali society. He no doubt considered me, with my soiled jeans, tobacco-stained teeth, and tangled locks of hair, as somehow disparate from the squeaky-clean foreigners who came through Nepal in droves, sporting spandex trekking pants and Gore-Tex parkas.

My degeneration from cleanliness did not happen overnight, but was an inevitable result of prolonged existence in a place where showers do not exist and clothing is scrubbed by hand on rocks beside a frigid stream. Tashi and I washed our hair each Saturday morning without fail, yet the rest of the body gradually acquired a layer of filth that would be removed only on my return to the temperate lowlands. Washing clothing was an especially disagreeable task, so I became content to wear an outfit that had a liberal coating of dirt and soot with a discernable tinge of yak droppings.

Eventually the vermin moved in. During my early weeks in Sama I routinely walked through the village each morning, calling out greetings or jokes to my neighbors. To those whom I saw picking lice from each other's hair I would customarily shout, "Save a few for me!" This joke boomeranged when people noticed me battling the first colonies of critters that had germinated within the seams of my underclothing. The women clucked their tongues and shook their heads in sympathy, whereas the men with characteristic lack of subtlety grasped their bellies and stumbled about in fits of mirth.

Providing levity in the village was far preferable to being the object of suspicion. I quickly learned to pick lice from my body and perform the emphatically non-Buddhist act of crushing them on a stone. Through tenacious effort and enhanced dexterity I eventually mastered the art of capturing the ever-elusive fleas from the lining of my sleeping bag. Even the occasional rat running across my legs at night ceased to be a matter for concern. A capacity to adapt to adversity is a prerequisite for an anthropologist. The less I obsessed with a diminishing standard of hygiene, the more I could focus on the work at hand.

While undergoing the travails of adapting to village life, I found myself bonding to Tashi Dondrup like a brother, and he to me. He took great pleasure in watching my progress, and boasted to fellow villagers that here was a foreigner who was willing to put up with vermin and eat the local food without much complaint. Knowing that I would be there for a while, we devised a system for dividing labor within our humble household. He insisted on doing all the cooking, so I took it upon myself to be the dish washer, food purchaser, and water fetcher. The latter caused poor Tashi some embarrassment, since it is typical in Nepal for locals to do the manual labor for foreign visitors. Each time I passed through the village bearing a large plastic jug filled with water from the cold stream nearby, villagers would derisively call out, "Hey Gyemi, are you now Tashi's servant?"

Matters relating to physical chores reached a crisis point one day when I announced my intention to accompany Tashi on a wood-gathering mission. He doggedly resisted my attempt to tag along, but finally was swayed by the reasoning that I needed to see where villagers got their fuel supply. As we made our way toward the forest, groups of people harvesting barley in the fields laughed when they saw me with a bamboo basket slung, with self-conscious bravado, over my shoulder. Correctly surmising that I was unaccustomed to bearing heavy burdens without the aid of a modern backpack, some men shouted out, "Better come back with a full load!"

We climbed high, eventually reaching a stack of wood sheltered beneath an overhanging rock. After a brief rest we loaded as many logs as possible from Tashi's precut stash into our baskets. I then sat down, balanced the basket against my back, and fixed the long leather strap against my forehead. With knees wobbling and Tashi pushing from behind, I struggled to attain an upright position. So far so good, but merely standing with a basket supported on one's back is far easier than traversing a steep and grassy slope. With mislaid confidence I took a tentative step forward, which shifted the weight in the basket. The abrupt and radical challenge to equilibrium sent me tumbling down the steep slope amid a cascade of airborne logs. Tashi was mortified. He rushed to my side saying, "Forget it, forget it, and don't try this again!" I, on the other hand, was in need of some redemption—a resurrection of vanquished pride—and thus, through trial and error, eventually got the knack of carrying the basket. The crowning moment came when I swaggered through the village bearing a man-sized consignment of firewood. After that experience, however, rather than telling me he was off to gather wood, Tashi always devised a less than convincing ruse that he was visiting the neighbors (with axe in hand and basket over shoulder?) and slipped away without me. He did everything in his power to ensure that no misfortunes came my way.

And so the days in Sama began to slip by without much drama. Although the life of the anthropologist has been romanticized as a continuous series of adventures, the reality is more along the lines of coping with tedium while fending off ever-encroaching bouts with insanity. In the midst of the physical and psychological stress one must persist in systematically recording an unending stream of trivial observations and tidbits of data about everything from household economics to protector deities.

Devising a daily routine was essential. Most days began with a leisurely breakfast of roasted barley flour and butter tea followed by a stroll to my "office," an uninhabited house on gomba property. The gomba is situated on elevated ground about fifteen minutes' walking distance from the village. It is a quiet place inhabited by nuns, a few monks, and several elderly householders who have retired to this place of relative solitude. My office was unoccupied, for the nun who usually lived there had recently passed away. Gomba homes are built in rows, so I shared common courtyard walls with others. To the west lived Ani Kunsang, an ancient nun who walked with a stoop. Her face was shrunken from years of exposure to the withering sun, and her voice was enfeebled by age. Each day she puttered about gathering small sticks and other scraps of wood that could be used to heat her humble abode and cook her meager fare. When the sun shone she sat in her courtyard spinning a prayer wheel and chanting mantras in a nearly inaudible voice. I liked Ani Kunsang, in part because she appreciated my desire for solitude during the working mornings. Although we rarely conversed, we shared a special bond of understanding.

Usually the only sounds on gomba property are the soft murmurings of prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the squawking of ever-present ravens. Each day the ravens, unperturbed by the clatter of my typewriter, seemed to mock me with their incessant clamor. Like the smell of butter lamps in the temple and the sight of Pungyen towering high above, the sound of ravens is indelibly stamped in my mind as a reminder of life in the Tibetan village of Sama.

Who's Who

The characters in this book all live or lived in a high valley that runs parallel to the Tibetan border in Nepal's Gorkha District. The upper part of the valley is called Nubri and is settled by people of Tibetan stock, while the lower section of the valley is named Kutang and is inhabited by a hybrid population of Tibetans and Ghales (a people who are linguistically and culturally related to Tibetans, yet quite distinct). Despite their many differences, Nubri and Kutang are inextricably linked through intensive economic, religious, and social interactions.

The main characters you will soon encounter include Pema Dondrup (1668-1744) and Pema Wangdu (1697-?), two men whose exploits are recorded in biographies written in their native villages of Kutang. Unlike most Tibetan biographies, which deal primarily with religious training, spiritual advancement, sermons to disciples, and esoteric insights, the biographies of Pema Dondrup and Pema Wangdu contain a wealth of information about daily existence and the social context in which their struggles for spiritual insight transpired.6 Even though they lived long ago in a world that was profoundly different from today's world, their stories illustrate some of the tensions inherent in the choice of forsaking domestic sociability for a solitary existence in the pursuit of enlightenment. And even though both lamas passed away centuries ago, reminders of their presence are everywhere. Scattered across the physical landscape are sacred sites where Pema Dondrup and Pema Wangdu encountered deities, caves where they meditated, and stones inscribed with their images.

The other characters in this book live in the present. You have already met my intrepid companion Tashi Dondrup, who by the way was born in 1929, the Year of the Snake. In addition you will read stories narrated by Tashi's contemporaries and fellow villagers from Sama, prominent men such as the married lamas Tashi Dorje, Rigzen Dorje, and Tsewang Gyatso and the celibate cleric Lopon Zangpo. Not only were these remarkable men invaluable sources of knowledge, they also were close companions to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for putting up with my ceaseless inquiries. Allow me to introduce them.

The venerable Tashi Dorje is one of the most highly respected men in all of Nubri. Born in 1919 as the younger of Sama's head lama's two sons, he was destined by the rule of primogeniture to be second in command to his brother in the spiritual hierarchy of the village. When his elder brother, the head lama, died at a young age, Tashi Dorje presided over religious affairs as regent for two decades until his brother's son and rightful successor came of age. Tashi Dorje now lives in Kathmandu at a monastery headed by his grandson, a reincarnate lama. Most of his days are spent in his living quarters, an immaculate room containing a sofa that doubles as his bed, several shelves packed with books, and a small alcove housing statues of the Buddha to whom he makes daily offerings. His face, weathered with age, is always graced with a kindly, grandfatherly smile. Despite having attained the ripe old age of eighty, Tashi Dorje possesses a mind that is still remarkably nimble, his voice is clear as the mountain air, and his memory of past events unfailing.

Rigzen Dorje, born in 1918, is Tashi Dorje's cousin. The two journeyed together on many occasions to seek teachings from some of Tibet's most prominent lamas. In his prime, Rigzen Dorje was a bold and contentious man, ready to seize initiatives and unwilling to let others stand in his way. These days he is mellowed by age and failing health, and as a result his political prestige has waned to the point of being inconsequential. In matters of religion, however, Rigzen Dorje is much sought after. He is one of the few lamas in the village who understands the art of divination, so when people fall ill he is called upon to determine which malignant force in the spirit world has caused the malady. Now nearly completely deaf and chronically ill, the elderly lama is far less active, to the detriment of his fellow villagers. Nevertheless, Rigzen Dorje still possesses the agility of someone half his age and retains a sense of humor that transcends cultural boundaries. One time the two of us walked up to Nubri together from the steamy lowlands. As we strolled through the inundated rice paddies of a village the local inhabitants were astonished to see a foreigner conversing with this dignified Tibetan lama in the latter's vernacular. They inquired, "Old man, who is this white person with whom you speak?" A sly grin, partly veiled by his wispy mustache, broke across his gaunt face. "This is my son-in-law. He is married to my daughter," replied Rigzen Dorje while jabbing me in the ribs with his bony elbow. The slack jaws and incredulous looks of the locals exposed their gullibility. We still joke about this incident today.

Tsewang Gyatso, born in 1938, is known simply as Lama Gyatso. Reputed to be particularly skillful at performing rituals and scrupulously fair in political and economic matters, he wields much authority in the village. Since his home adjoins the house that Tashi Dondrup and I shared, we were considered to be kyimse, a term reserved for those special neighbors one calls on for help in times of crisis or when additional workers are needed for labor-intensive tasks. Lama Gyatso proved to be an invaluable ally, sticking up for me whenever I inadvertently made a social blunder or political gaffe. One striking feature of his personality is his aptitude for role changing, shifting with agility from jovial friend to solemn lama whose voice of authority commands respect.

The man known as Lopon Zangpo is a reclusive monk whose expertise in religion is unparalleled. Born in 1929, the same year as Tashi Dondrup, he was sent by his parents to Dagkar Taso Monastery in Tibet; there he became the most capable disciple of the monastery's abbot.7 When the monastery was destroyed by marauding Red Guards in the early 1960s, Lopon Zangpo returned to Nubri where he established a series of training centers for monks. Although he rarely ventures outside the valley, Lopon Zangpo is renowned throughout the Tibetan world for his sharp intellect and devotion to the Buddhist teachings. These days, at age seventy, he spends most of his time reading, meditating, and performing rituals of the Dagkar Taso tradition in his private chapel in the company of his son and spiritual successor.

These are the main characters you will read about in the pages ahead. Before turning to their stories, however, I must say a few words about the landscape, history, and society of the Nubri Valley.

Chapter One Backnotes

1. The proverbs that serve as epigraphs to each chapter, as well as some that appear in the text, are taken from Lhamo Pemba's 1996 compilation of Tibetan oral verses. In one case (chapter 2) I changed Tibet to Nubri to give the proverb a more localized essence..

2. I was not the first scholar to visit Nubri. Those who preceded me on brief visits that were later described in academic accounts include an Indian pundit working as a spy in 1861 for the British in India (Montgomerie 1868); a team of Japanese ethnographers led by Jiro Kawakita in 1952-53 (Kawakita 1957); the British scholar David Snellgrove, who passed through the area in 1956 (Snellgrove 1989); the French scholars J. F. Dobremez and Corneille Jest, who made a brief visit in 1971 (Dobremez and Jest 1976); and the eminent British scholar Michael Aris, who recorded many remarkable details about the area after a mere eight-day visit in 1973 (Aris 1975). In addition, German scholars Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Klaus-Dieter Mathes spent time in the region during the 1990s while photographing manuscripts as part of the Nepal-German Manuscript preservation project. Although relatively unknown, Nubri was not ethnographic terra incognita prior to my arrival.

3. See Kapstein 1997.

4. Gyemi (outsider, foreigner) is a term applied to Westerners by people of Nubri. Because the term is similar in sound and perhaps in etymology to the Tibetan Gyemi (rgya-mi), meaning "Chinese," some foreigners have mistakenly thought they were being called Chinese by the inhabitants of Nubri (e.g., Snellgrove 1989). For a while I was known simply as Gyemi to the locals. These days they usually call me "Jeb" (since Tibetan does not have the f sound).

5. See Ramble 1993a and 1997 regarding the term bhotay and some of its social ramifications. On ethnicity among Tibetan highlanders of Nepal, see Tsering Shakya 1993; Ramble 1993b, 1997; and Mumford 1998.

6. The sacred biographies (namtar) were uncovered by Michael Aris in 1973 (see Aris 1975 for a description of how he located them). In 1979 Aris published a reproduction of the originals under the title Autobiographies of Three Spiritual Masters of Kutang; The three biographies in that collection that I have used for this book are listed in the bibliography under Pema Dondrup 1979, Pema Wangdu 1979, and Pema Lhundrup 1979.

Tibetans have a long tradition of writing spiritual biographies of great Buddhist masters, many of which are now translated into English. Some of the better translations into English include the autobiography of Shabkar (Ricard 1994) and the biographies of four lamas from Dolpo, Nepal (Snellgrove 1992); these represent just a sampling of the numerous biographies that now exist in translation. For a more academic study of two remarkable individuals' lives, see Aris 1988, on Pemalingpa and the Sixth Dalai Lama. For a description of "secret autobiographies," see Gyatso 1999.

7. Dagkar Taso (White Cliff Horse's Tooth) is situated just north of the current border of Nepal, between the towns of Kyirong and Dzongga. The site was originally a meditation cave used by the famous eleventh-century Tibetan yogi Milarepa. Dagkar Taso later became an important monastery for transmitting Buddhism into the highlands of Nepal.

See Lhalungpa's 1997 translation of Milarepa's biography for a description of the yogi's time spent at Dagkar Taso; see Chang 1977 and Lama Kunga Rinpoche and Cutillo 1995 for translations of spiritual verses composed by Milarepa while at Dagkar Taso.

Join UC Press


Members receive 20-40% discounts on book purchases. Find out more