by Tenzin sangpo
“When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, Tibetans will be scattered like ants across the world…”
– Guru Padmasambhava, 8th century Indian Buddhist master
The Kalön lay still in his cell. Heavy chains fettered his sore limbs shackled against the cold wall. His grey hair was disheveled and brown with mud from the floor. His left eye was half closed, and his right eyelid swollen as if stung by vengeful wasps. Trails of dried blood ran down his deformed nose and lined his gaunt cheeks. Every fiber in his emaciated being groaned in agony for all the floggings endured. But that did not matter anymore. Nothing did nor would. A bribe, a fine synthesis of dried aconite roots with warm wine would end it all. As his heartbeat slowed, the minister felt uneasy in the abdomen. His breathing became irregular. The evening sun shone brilliantly outside on the immense inward sloping whitewashed walls of the Potala Palace. Yet dark shadows like menacing daggers crept into the fading recesses of his vision.
As he lay dying in his cell, the minister wondered about the afterlife – his afterlife. Thoughts meandering back to his past, in every pivotal episode of his otherwise blissfully ordinary life they dwelt. But the invasion – the People’s Liberation Army raiding the countryside like swarming plagues of locusts – anchored his musings to his confinement. But fear of the unknown soon gripped his subconscious. Have I accrued enough karma to be reborn free? Is this what death feels like? What trials await me? Just then a luminescent portrait of his smiling Sovereign, his God-King, suddenly materialized before his eyes. This image of the earthly manifestation of Avalokeshwara – the Lord of Compassion – was more real than the cold chains and his sore scars. He sought refuge in the warm glow of the image. It slowly dawned upon the Kalön that his cell was but a few levels below the former residence of his Precious Sovereign. This brought him some respite, a little peace. His breathing slowed, then ceased.
An eerie stillness about him followed, and remained.
This escape of death would prove to be a blessing in disguise. The Chinese Communist Party cadre of three charged with interrogating the Kalön summoned Losel. The minister’s chief attendant sought to claim the Kalön’s shriveled remains upon learning of his death. But they first demanded an exorbitant sum to compensate all the care the prominent bourgeois had received. Upon tallying the amount, Losel realized they intended to all but bankrupt the Kalön. He wisely lowered his gaze as his face flushed red then purple with rage. The officials mistook him bowing for profound gratitude.
- Comrade Losel, rejoice! One vile reactionary propagandist less!
- The yoke of oppression lifts from the upright peasantry such as yourself!
- The egalitarian reforms envisioned by Chairman Mao are being realized!
Losel clenched his fists firmly behind his back till his hands felt numb to the pain. He remembered hearing the firsthand accounts of the atrocities by the People’s Liberation Army in the eastern provinces. Monasteries bombed and pillaged. Monks and nuns forced to fornicate in the streets. Sacred effigies of peaceful deities molded into bullets. Libraries of ancient scriptures made into shoes. Holy places for worship and contemplation desecrated with filth. Revolts brutally cracked down with machineguns and artillery – to name a few. With all his might Losel held his tongue. His fury gradually yet hesitantly subsided.
Earlier in the afternoon, he had last seen the Kalön alive – barely, but still. The minister could only whisper his intentions, and had asked for some wine. In the privacy of his cell, he had urged Losel to add in a few ounces of a very particular herb he had been asked to procure. After quenching his thirst, the Kalön had then suddenly spoken as if possessed by a deity:
- You have been a most loyal friend, and your counsel the most wise.
Hear a dying man’s last words, so yours too will someday be fulfilled!
Losel took a parchment and a quill out from his robe.
- Rewa my niece, the chief of our clan, the eldest of our children,
seek the messenger who resides in the valley facing the north.
A dark cloud lingers above, and only the Pleiades light it.
Listen to what he says, consider and obey him with haste!
The letter had been confiscated and Losel not too gently escorted out of the premises. Yet with his erudition he had easily memorized its entire content. Though born a peasant of limited means, he had always desired to achieve great things in life. He had acquired a strong diction by consciously listening to all public announcements. He had learned critical inquiry from monks debating on the sheer emptiness of inherent existence, on how consciousness – an immaterial entity – cannot die when the body perishes. The dialectical approach of their discourse readily amused him. And by drawing with his bare fingers on the sands by the Kyichu River, he mastered the written script. That was where he first met the Kalön, on the crossroads by the riverbank.
- You there, lad! Which road goes to Shigatse City?
- Roads go nowhere, Sire. The one to the left though will lead you there.
- Ha! This one has both, wit and gall. What is your name, young man?
- This one, Sire, is referred to as Losel.
- And what is your trade, Losel?
- A mere pupil of all that inspires awe, Sire.
- Really? Then does the Potala Palace inspire awe in this pupil?
- Nothing awes him more, Sire, except maybe our Precious Sovereign.
- Good one! How would he like to work for Precious Sovereign in the Potala?
- The honor, the pleasure and the gratitude would entirely be his, Sire.
Losel had swiftly risen to become the Kalön’s chief attendant from a mere scribe. Under the Kalön’s tutelage, he had learned a great many things. Keeping his mouth shut in the Kashag – the royal cabinet at the epicenter of Tibetan politics – was one. Only speaking when spoken to first was another. The other ministers found him more than tolerable for his silence and his wit. He learned a great deal from them as well. The Kalön – a man of distinguished letters in his own right – had found in him a worthy protégé. Losel would have certainly succeeded him someday, become a Kalön in his own right. With ageing nobles seeking ambitious young men to claim their unwed daughters, he could have easily married his way into the aristocracy. And there was always the prospect of the Precious Sovereign ennobling him for his services to the state.
Now as he carried his mentor’s broken body in his arms, he wondered why the minister had chosen death. The only reason the communists had apprehended him was because he let them. His open condemnation of Chairman Mao’s policies, of the PLA’s egregious conduct and of the corruption in the top brass did not endear him to Party. And his passionate criticism of the officials who had clandestinely sided with the foreign communists did not win him many friends in the cabinet either. He certainly knew the concoction of aconite roots and wine would kill him. In their final exchange, the Kalön’s last words were solely addressed to Lady Rewa. Had he intended to create the diversion of complacency to his captors? Every correspondence from him was otherwise closely monitored. Had he chosen imprisonment so his clansmen could live free? Had he chosen to die with dignity rather than live with dishonor – depart in his own terms than continue a mere porcelain puppet? Having served under the Kalön for long, the significance of the minister’s sacrifice slowly dawned upon Losel. There and then, outside the palace walls Losel took a solemn oath. By all things still sacred in the Holy City, he vowed to deliver the minister’s final message to his clan.
To the new warlords of Lhasa, Losel was a true promising proletarian – a desirable man from humble origins entirely self-made. Enlisting him into the Red Guard Regional Youth Wing would have served as a major propaganda victory. The cadre of three agreed that the glorious virtues of communism and the indisputable wisdom of the Great Helmsman would surely prevail in this promising recruit. Yet his association with the Kalön and the incident with the letter nevertheless made him worthy of a little suspicion. Though the Kalön’s clansmen were a mere three days of uninterrupted horse ride away from the capital, the approaching winter threatened to block all roads and passes. Losel was cognizant of his precarious situation. He did not have much time. He needed to act swiftly.
At the Kalön’s residence he instructed the servants to prepare for the minister’s final rites with haste. Losel knew there were spies everywhere. The appearance of an elaborate set up could have the cadre believe he was not leaving anytime soon. This would buy him some time. So an order for thirteen logs of the finest firewood for the cremation was promptly issued. Thirty-one bricks of premium Chinese tealeaves for the monks participating in the ritual, along with a hundred and eight butter lamps were also included in the long list. Losel summoned all surviving elites from most prominent families of the Tibetan aristocracy to pay their final respects. He dispatched an unsealed letter to the abbot of Drepung University – the Rice Heap Monastery fifteen leagues west of Lhasa. In it he was informed of his friend’s untimely death, and requested his immediate presence. In the meantime, he sought and consulted the priests from the nearby Namgyal Tantric College, the personal Temple of the Precious Sovereign, for the ceremonial formalities. Losel had a messenger inform the CCP cadre of the forty-nine daylong observance. They grudgingly dismissed the letter bearer.
- Religion, according to Chairman Mao, is opium for the masses!
The following day, the abbot of Drepung initiated and led the ceremony. Before him was a veritable congregation of Tibetan nobility. The CCP informants preoccupied themselves with the honorable Kalöns while they surreptitiously gulped in gallons of bhöe-jha, Tibetan butter tea. When the cadre arrived, they asked only for the chief attendant. The scouting party from the afternoon before had returned. There was some confusion pertaining to the Kalön’s final letter. Finding this peculiar valley facing the north had proved impossible. The mighty few with well-trodden roadways leading north did not have any dark clouds hovering above. And the residents, though feverishly devoted to Chairman Mao and enthused with revolutionary fervor, seemed genuinely befuddled with as to who the messenger was.
They hoped the chief attendant would be able to shed some light on what they concluded to be a riddle. The servants reported he had locked himself in his chambers with barrels of hard chang – rice wine. He had instructed not to be disturbed while grieving for his mentor and his friend. But Losel did not respond to their summons. This blatant disregard of their authority enraged the officials. The cadre had his doors knocked down only to find his quarters unoccupied, and the barrels were stacked against the wall leading up to the window. From there, they saw a trail of scarves leading to the street below. They angrily glared at their informants who bowed their heads – cap in hands – and then quickly exited the premises.
A great many leagues away from the capital Losel furiously whipped his steed. He knew mere ostentatious ceremonies could never have entirely persuaded them. So he was going to perplex them instead. In life the Kalön had been delightfully adept in such machinations. If you cannot convince them, confuse them. He often said that in espionage, the only thing worse than no intelligence is to be overwhelmed by it. Surely the moles could never have resisted spying on all the esteemed dignitaries, rather than looking out for him. So he raced through the barren landscape at breakneck pace, his mind set on keeping his word. He galloped with the minister’s personal effects – little clouds of dust trailing behind.
But as Losel rode away from the setting sun and disappeared into the horizon, a shadowy apparition watched him from a distant hilltop. It chuckled. It had wandered through the dungeons, not noticing the attendant and the CCP cadre rushing into the cell. It had drifted through the Royal chambers of the plundered palace and then soared above the deserted streets of Lhasa. It had seen Losel exit the palace gates with its earthly remains. The guile and progress of the attendant’s little deception pleased it. It followed the scouting party on its doomed quest for the valley facing the north. It playfully agitated the horses, given their harnesses a rough shake. It witnessed the pandemonium among the spies outside what was once its sanctuary as the cadre of three belligerently chased them, their fists flying. And now it looked satisfied with Losel fulfilling his pledge. Unburdened by the weight of a physical form, if darted hither and tither. It saw everything but was never acknowledged in return. This perturbed it. Yet away from the confines of the capital it sensed an alluringly brilliant luminosity. But just as it began approaching the light, it suddenly heard echoes of an altogether familiar voice.
- Ye nobly born, that which is death is now upon you,
Behold the radiance of the clear light of pure reality!
Heed these words with utmost consideration!
Thou will now experience all three Bardos,
Recognize them and fear them not!
The abbot of Drepung, a friend in life was guiding it in death.
While the monks performed the final rites, the custodians discussed the bizarre occurrences they were witnessing in the minister’s residence. One time the sweeper had seen the deceased minister hurriedly putting on his robes in the guest room. He had immediately fled then returned with other servants but found no one there. Another time, the butler claimed to have seen the Kalön merrily sipping some chhaang by the fireplace. He found the place unoccupied when he returned to his senses. The crew never grew accustomed to these events, or the strange noises from the attic. But the ceremony continued regardless of events beyond and within the premises. It successfully concluded on the forty-ninth evenings. Suddenly an ear-numbing laughter from nowhere shook the building to its core. When it ceased, the abbot smiled and bid his old friend a fond farewell. All assembled realized that the Kalön had finally attained deliverance.
At first there were distant flashes. Then the echoing booms of CF-05-9 millimeter submachine guns. Before long came a hail of bullets – cold messiahs of death with lead cores in cupronickel jackets. Rewa was in the middle of his entourage, the elders trekked ahead and the children followed. They had been travelling across the Himalayas for weeks, or was it months? They had been careful not to light fires, nor clothe themselves in contrasting shades. They were quiet mostly, and they had always kept moving. But with the Chinese border guards, you could never be sure. Yet the imperative was to keep moving. So when bodies began to pile around him, he forced himself to look ahead and avoid their pleading eyes. But he could still hear them – and right behind him rose the wail of a wounded child. Not thinking he stopped turned around and almost slipped picking the child up. He clung her on his weary shoulders and began hastening along the well-trodden pathway.