Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Award Winning Short Story: Trading Faith With A Tibetan Monk

Togden (left)
First Place Award Adult Division "Everybody's Different" Unity in Diversity Short Story Contest 2000-2001 sponsored by the Epilepsy Foundation

“Not so very cold here,” he said, still in shirt sleeve’s and appearing very comfortable in mid-October. It had been raining all day and I was bundled knees to neck.

“Yes,” I answered, “not like the Himalayas.” I thought about Mount Everest because it was my only reference for ‘the Himalayas’, about the climbers they had found after the disastrous 1996 expedition. Everest was so cold that the rescuers couldn’t even bury the corpses. The most they could hope for was that the later snows would respectfully cover their bodies. I suspected that even in Wisconsin winters, I could never know cold the way he knew cold—Himalayan cold.

I had come to Spring Green to take my friend Togden, a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, to see the Dalai Lama who was holding public forums. I would take a vow of non-violence, simplicity, and respect for the oneness of all life with His Holiness, himself. And Togden would be at the side of his Master and later in audience with the Tibetan equivalent of the Pope. I was breathless because as an escort, I was bestowed the privilege and honor of observing.

The day before the vows and audience, Togden and I sat on the patio of Global View, a small Asian artifact shop tucked into the rolling hills of Spring Green across the driveway from Mahayana Dharma Center, a small Buddhist Temple. “East meets West," I quipped, “in the rolling hills of Spring Green, Wisconsin.”

Togden had led meditation that morning. He and two other Tibetan Monks guided a handful of people through morning rituals of meditation and chanting. The Dharma Center was a splendid sacred space, the tapestries ornate and symbolic, the incense pungent, the brass offering bowls gleaming in the candlelight. The altar was crowded with Buddha, mala beads, pictures of the Dalai Lama, the homeland.

Togden was small of stature, his dark brown eyes penetrating, his skin light ochre-brown. He looked at once holy, studious, vulnerable in his magenta and saffron robe, his tiny feet tucked into sandals. There is something different about Asian men. They stand and sit straight and proud yet their demeanor is humble. Asian holy men move like music—harmonic, smooth, sensitive, not stiff and formal like Westerners. Their bodies are a perfect blend of yin and yang. They have integrated their anima and when walking, lead with their whole bodies, not their head and neck like Americans do. Truly intuitive, humble Tibetan Monks vow to serve, and they seem to know what you want or need almost before you do. They are instinctive when it comes to attending to your comfort. All creatures are sacred to them, deserving of comfort, care. They blend heart and mind effortlessly. Buddha mind, Buddha heart. They don’t leap into action paternally and patronizingly (yang) to fix your problems with the attitude of ‘let me lead you through this.’ They want to know you with a curiosity and innocence that puts you immediately at ease. They seem to relish conversation while radiating warmth in human interaction. Tibetan Monks travel the world in their robes carrying only small pouches hanging at their sides that hold a passport and all their belongings.

I asked a thousand questions. Where was he from? At what age had he entered the monastery? What was his homeland like? The people? He answered politely, seemed pleased that I was interested. Originally from Nepal, he entered the monastery at about age seven. His people were Sherpas. A simple people, they lived beneath the mountains and raised sheep. “Tibet much different than America. Tibetan people not have things; very simple life. Tourists come here to import shop, buy things. Is funny, very strange. This is not way of Tibetans. Tibetans practice non-attachment; especially monks from monastery, this is way of life. Many thing clutter life. Clutter mind. What Americans do with all this things?”

I laughed. “They collect them, put them on display in their homes. I know, this must seem very odd to you and all the monks here.”

“Yes, this is many unusual to me. Attachment to things a strange path of life, how do you call this? Togden many confused.”

“I guess you could call it the American way. It is a philosophy that behaves as though he who has a lot of money and more things is successful and deemed superior to others. I know, it is counterproductive to a level plane, to the oneness of beings. Try to not let us Americanize you too much,” I laughed, “how will you keep from getting contaminated, tainted?”

“We take vows of simplicity and simple faith. Simple way of life. We vow everyone and everything important. All life. Not think one superior to other. We treat all life same, with many respect. We not live with attachment to anything.”

“It seems like a wonderful way to live. Simplicity. No commercialism,” I thought out loud. “But Togden, I already see signs of Western contamination,” I laughed, “you seemed to attach yourself pretty well to the Diet Coke I brought; I noticed you and Kelsung drank the whole carton.”

The grin that flashed covered his whole face, and his eyes sparkled black with mischief. “But Barbara, I not collect Diet Coke; I drink with non-attachment.”

As we walked together, East meeting West, time evaporated along with the rain; the sun emerged from the clouds. His eyes scanned the terrain—hilly, green, the Autumn leaves burning in the sunlight. In contrast, cloudiness covered his face, but only for an instant. That fleeting moment spoke volumes. We had been talking about his homeland and I knew he couldn’t return. None of the religious could; Tibet now belonged to China after the invasion of the nineteen fifties. None of them had a home—people without a country. Togden was a man without a home. China had raided and raped Tibet. The Chinese had killed thousands, burned temples, executed monks Mafia-style as they prayed—tried to assassinate a whole culture. “East meets East,” I thought, “in cultural and religious genocide.” I wanted to reach out to him, comfort him, say something soothing. But I didn’t know if it was culturally acceptable to hug a monk. So I hugged him with my mind.

“Togden, please don’t think it impossible. Anything is possible; remember Tiananmen Square? Remember the cold war? Russia? The Berlin Wall? I can tell you from experience that it’s not the Chinese people any more than it was the Russian people. It’s the government. The Russian government too, suppressed religion in that country. Churches were closed and boarded up. But people know how to behave morally even when their governments don’t. It’s only a matter of time. More and more Chinese youth are being educated. I went to college with a Chinese woman who was a little girl during the Cultural Revolution in China. She remembers, and she is embarrassed by her own country. Now with computers and the global network of the Internet, it’s getting harder and harder to hide, to keep what you’re doing secret. And there was the movie—‘Seven Years in Tibet’; it was very popular. How did you like the movie?”

Lama Gnawang from the same Dharma Center had played a part in the movie. Togden grinned. “Ah, yes, Brad Pitt; very popular,” he said still grinning. “Hollywood. Lama Gnawang think very artificial this movie; not truly Buddhist. Like actors playing to cameras. It did not seem real to us.”

He knew very well how real and secure my position was, how shaky his own. He knew that America had a piece of paper, the Constitution, that no matter who was in power, it ensured that a democratic government would continue. No militant radical could seize power, control the army, occupy a small defenseless country. We took a moral stand on things like bigger more powerful countries invading small countries, didn’t we? Our constitution and values about freedom and democracy were eminently ethical, weren’t they? Our country valued, was founded on, religious freedom, wasn’t it? Weren’t we the global police? It struck me how proud we are without reason or evidence, how nationalistic, how arrogant. I look at him bleakly and apologized for China’s ‘most favored trade’ status. I explained how we believed that we couldn’t afford to be an enemy with China. That nothing changes if you stay enemies. As if he didn’t know all this already. As if it didn’t sting. “Maybe Hong Kong will make a difference. It’s too visible, too affluent. Maybe the modernization, education and economics of Hong Kong will influence Chinese thought. It’s too visible to withstand blatant oppression. And more and more, the young Chinese are becoming educated. Moscow reminds me of Hong Kong; there are parallels. It’s just a matter of time. I hope it is during our lifetime, Togden. In my life span, I went from crying myself to sleep because the adults had made these bombs to destroy others with, to watching the Berlin Wall crumble. I have faith. You of all people, must have it too,” I said before I could censor that ugly Americanism.

I knew how strategic Tibet was to the Chinese. They used the land where monasteries once stood to dump their nuclear waste. I didn’t feel too comfortable with nuclear materials sitting near the top of Everest, the highest peak in the world. ‘Down’ from the Himalayas and ‘downwind’ from Everest meant the whole planet.

“Yes,” Togden nodded, “and the Chinese government is now paying educated Chinese to go to Tibet, to live there. No one wants to live in Tibet because of the climate but they’re moving there because of the money the Chinese government gives them. Our people are not educated are given no opportunities to become educated. They are a simple people.”

I knew only too well the tactics of power mongers who maneuver and manipulate, and sometimes use methods that assassinate their ‘rivals’ and strangle their voice in the world. I knew that well meaning innocent people who perceived themselves as powerless either in the past or currently were especially vulnerable targets of those tactics and can unwittingly give power to territorial and aggrandizing leaders. I knew too, that tactic had worked in may organizations, situations, civilizations and countries. And I knew how well it worked from experience, knowing that whatever the cause or outcome, almost any American would somehow take the “high moral ground.” Many times I had watched in wonder at the ability of the human mind to rationalize its’ acts; I never underestimate it anymore. I wondered too, what Carl Sagan might have said, what Steven Hawking might say now. For centuries, Tibet has been a strategic peaceful buffer zone where many opposing ideologies of the world geographically meet. It seemed an abomination, anathema to me to dump the by-products of nuclear violence in the most peaceful territory on Earth. How must that feel to the Tibetan Monks? To the Dalai Lama?

I was to learn the next day. The Dalai Lama talked about the path that Buddhist’s take. It is a path of steadfast teaching and non-violence. It is a way to mirror to others the darkness that they won’t recognize in themselves or the light that lives there too that has potential brilliance. That is why he is so great a target of hatred. He teaches about duality and that there are not only two ways to solve problems—fight or flee. He is a wise, wise soul. His sense of humor reminds me of old bones—sharp edged, mysterious and cutting. He may teach with words, but he teaches more loudly by example. He is truly one of the last great spiritual leaders on the planet today. Like my friend Togden, the Dalai Lama too, is a man without a home.

When Togden left His Holiness he walked yet more lightly on his feet (as if that were possible.) “Barbara,” he said, “Someday you come to Nepal. With me. You will like Himalayas.”

The chill I felt next was not from the cold, and I answered my fiend’s invitation this way: “I will go with you when you go first and bring back to America an authentic Sherpa coat. Being the American that I am, just call it a ‘thing’ thing.”

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A few Thoughts...

When I think about it, my own life is no less rich and the living no less inspiring than my pioneering ancestors and I come from a long line of Indians and outlaws so don't ever turn your back on me!

Life is, after all, a slice of human consciousness lived from its place in human evolution. "From here to eternity" as it were-- from earth to the stars, from personal space to cyberspace, from a small local footprint to the world reduced to the size of a notebook and sitting on your lap!

As a child I lived with the perpetual and immenent threat of annihilation. That's child abuse! It wasn't a kid-friendly world and I couldn't understand why the grown-ups who were in charge weren't doing something?

So at age seven with my face in the window eyes turned up into the night sky and staring at the stars I made a vow: "When I am a grown-up, I will do something."

My writing is that something and I write to "simply change the world." If that sounds like a lack of humility it isn't because I know that one person absolutely can change the world and I've met some who have.

Kay Kennedy put together an anthology that puts the reader in the midst of history to view it from the inside out.

When I was in high school and even college, history classes were stale and boring featuring memorization and regurgitation of dates that coincided with events that had no human face, certainly no magic, and no life!

Anthologies are great fun and stores are rich remembrances. History books chronicle; stories are little narrative slices of living. History comes alive through story. I often think of my grandmother and her story, her life-- the history she lived. In her lifetime she saw humankind evolve from horse and buggy to man on the moon.

I was a sixties kid and for the youth of the sixties, turmoil, disillusionment, and revolution were everyday 'business as usual'. Like a radio perpetually on low volume, fear and death dronned on in the background. The superpowers threatened to extinguish all life on the planet, the Vietnam War was escalating and peers were being escorted home under American Flag blankets. The civil rights and equal rights movements were testing human civility, and faster than one could recover from one shock another real life hero would fall to yet another assassin. Despair was commonplace. Contrast that with a man on the moon... we could conquer space travel but couldn't make nukes or war obsolete! It was a time when youth needed hope because hope was scarce. When it was finally resurrected, it came in the form of idealism and a philosophy of brotherly and universal love. Perfect principles; imperfect execution.

For others who contributed to "Looking Back," the history is different for each because the "times" were different as well as the perspective of the individuals. The stories of human societal evolution are enlightening, heartwarming, poignant and spellbinding. They put a human face on the past.

And there are people now who are putting a face on the future...