Golok, Tibet, September, 1927.
This story is told from the point of view of Pema Ozer, the sixteen-year-old attendant to the great meditation master Sera Khandro.
Two monks had arrived at Khandro’s cabin on the outskirts of the grounds of Awo Sera Monastery from far away Mt. Kailash the previous day and pleaded with Khandro to bestow the empowerments for the practices revealed by her late consort and teacher, Tulku Drimey Ozer. Khandro initially declined to give the empowerments, saying she was not qualified. The elder of the two monks returned the following morning. Pema Ozer ushers them in, and he takes his seat on the floor. This story is fictional.
Khandro unwraps a text, places it on the table in front of her, and gazes at it for a short while. She takes no notice of the monk sitting respectfully on a low mat only six or seven arm-spans away. I thought she wanted me to let him in this morning, but maybe I misunderstood. She flips the red cover on top over and starts to read, stroking her chin. Her eyes follow the lines of handwritten script from left to right. The corners of her mouth curve upwards. She leafs quickly through the volume’s pages, flagging sections and passages for the empowerment ceremony. Her cheeks glow pink like an expectant mother.
What is that she’s humming? Oh. The wedding song, the one the nomads sing. The elder monk who has been sitting in silence clears his throat. She looks at him, hands still poised on the two narrow ends of the volume, and nods for him to speak.
“We had dinner with the abbot last night. If you should agree to give the empowerments, he’ll make the monastery available for them. He’d like to invite all the monks and village lamas from around these parts.”
“All right,” Khandro says in a hushed voice. The monk lights up.
“But I do have one request,” she continues. “I would like Pema Ozer here to be permitted to attend—as my guest, not as a servant.” Her upturned hand extends out in my direction.
The monk nods. “I’ll have a word with the Abbot. I’m sure that won’t be a problem.”
Tupzang is in the kitchen off the shrine room when I arrive, supervising a crew of monks who are putting the final butter ornaments on the tormas. Today’s the day. This morning Khandro said this is the most important thing she’ll do in her whole life, to pass on Rinpoche’s writings and revelations to the next generation of teachers. In the old days I would have thought so, but now I think her writings and practices might be just as important. Rinpochey was like a second father to me, but right now I wonder, will monks come some day from a faraway place and ask for initiation into her own revelations?
Small groups of monks from all over Golok are arriving now on horseback. The local gossip network never fails. I walk back to the cabin to stitch in the final touches on a brocade chuba I’ve sewn for Khandro. The attendants of the lamas who’ve already arrived are bustling on the grassy hillsides, digging fire pits and pitching tents. Two groups of riders approach over the pass, led by men with braided hair swirled up on their heads like turbans—yogi teachers trailing their wives and children. The yapping and barking starts up again.
“Oh, my head. I can’t take any more of that barking!”
There isn’t anyone on this lonely path between the temple and our cabin to hear me complaining. It’s the dogs’ job to guard Awo Sera, but do they have to go insane? I pull the lapel of my chuba up to cover my mouth and half yell into the thick wool fabric, “Shut up!”
Maybe they’ll stop barking all night and half the day now that the empowerments are about to start and almost everyone has arrived. A few people who rode in this morning are on the nearby slopes, racing to unpack their saddlebags and pitch their tents. Curls of smoke rise from the tents that are already up. There’s a sea of red robes, of course. The monks.
The village lamas and yogis are so striking in their striped shawls. Some are so magnetic I can’t look away.
It won’t do for a girl to stare at grown men. Why don’t they look at me?
Back at the cabin, I offer tea to Khandro, who’s intently finishing up studying and reorganizing her text for the ceremony.
I hold up her new chuba to inspect my work. Respectable. I wish I hadn’t had to guess how a woman lama should dress. How am I supposed to know what to do? I’ve never seen another female teacher. I secure the last tie in place, the one that will keep the front of the chuba closed. Three stitches. Tie it off. Done. Time to go. Did I forget anything?
The pot of noodle soup will stay warm on the embers so dinner will be ready when we return. The other pot on the stovetop—butter tea—is half full, enough for those who will come ‘round to see Khandro tonight.
Khandro shakes out the new chuba, and I help her get into it. Good. It’s hanging nicely on her. The belt’s not twisted. She gestures for me to gather up her things, mouths meet me there in my direction, and speeds off ahead of me down the trail to the monastery.
I huff loudly through my teeth. First she keeps me waiting, then she won’t wait the few moments it takes me to bundle up everything she’ll need so I can go with her. It’s not very lama-like to arrive down there without an entourage. At times like this, my love and respect for Khandro doesn’t do much to cool my exasperation.
When I arrive to drop off her necessities, Khandro is at the lama hospitality area near the shrine room. A nicely dressed young girl is standing next to her. As I get closer, I see that Khandro is tying the belt of a girl’s chuba for her.
“That’s better.” She smiles then turns to face me. “This is Kunzang from Darlag, Lama Yeshe’s daughter. He sent her to be my helper so that you can sit and receive the empowerments and teachings nicely. Isn’t that kind of him?”
Look at this girl. She can’t be more than ten years old! How will she know what to do? I’ve planned everything out so Khandro will have her tea when she needs it, water when she needs it, her lap blanket to keep her warm—
“Khandro, it’s not a problem for me to take care of you. I’ve already set everything up!”
“How thoughtful of you,” she says, widening her eyes as a discrete warning. “Then it will be easy for Kunzang to take over. Remember our conversation about this?”
I feel a blade pierce my heart. It’s obvious now that she’s planned all of this, and won’t be talked out of it. My head is pulled down by an invisible weight. I stare at my worn boots and mutter, “La so, Khandro-la.”
“Good. You will sit with the wives of the married lamas.” I’ve attended a few large functions when I’ve traveled with Khandro, but I’ve never had a real place to sit before. I’m used to watching—eagle-eyed—from a quiet perch in an out-of-the-way place so I can glide in to help her if she needs something. I can even gather up the books she needs in the monastery library. That girl can’t possibly know the alphabet.
Arguing with her plan is out of the question, so I walk to the lamas’ tent area and find some wives to trail back with to the monastery’s stately shrine room. Two solemn monks in tall hats with red crests are stationed at the huge doors when we arrive, each holding a spouted vase of saffron water. One of them pours the yellow liquid into my cupped hand. I rinse my mouth and spit outside, then recite the hundred-syllable mantra of purification.
Inside, the abbot is seated on an immense throne. The seat is as high as my shoulder, ornamented from top to bottom with ornate carvings. The reincarnate teachers, some of them children younger than me, are also on high seats. Khandro—people call her Sera Khandro now—sits front and center in meditation on a shorter throne, regal in her brocade chuba.
I finger the butter stains on my own chuba. My eyes are drawn to the hem, blackened from years of wear. I wish I was invisible. The crowd murmurs like the hum of bees. She’ll start any minute now.
As if they could hear that thought in my mind, the high lamas come down from their thrones and move to low mats in front of Khandro, where they sit and fold their legs.
With that the murmur subsides and the rank-and-file monks take their seats. The yogis sit down behind them. I scrunch in with the families crowded into the back. Mothers sternly shoosh their young children, just like the old days in Rinpochey’s shrine ba.
Khandro’s familiar voice carries over the shiny heads of the monks, over the woolly black braids of the yogis, all the way to me. Tears well up as I hear the familiar lilt. She’s going to sing this Golok-style, like Rinpochey used to do.
Soon, the captivating melody clears away my swirling dark clouds of thought. I’m fresh and open. She punctuates the ritual with the peal of her bell and the clack of her small hand drum.
She powers through the ceremony. Periodically, everyone files by her and she touches a golden vase to our heads. We sip more vase water. She dabs red powder on our chests with the third finger of her left hand and spoons nectar from a skull-shaped cup into our hands.
Back on our cushions, she holds a round mirror high, slowly moving it from side to side so we all can see. From time to time, pleasurable tendrils of joy shimmer through my brain at the sound of her voice, like blessings pouring in, right through my skull.
Excerpted from from Excavating Pema Ozer (Cycle of the Sky Book 1) by Yudron Wangmo @2016 Mayum Mountain Publishing. Naljorma Yudron Wangmo is a long-time American practitioner of the Nyingma Buddhist tradition, now writing Buddhist young adult fiction.
Featured image of Sera Khandro. Photo of ngakpas supplied by the author. Photo of prayer flag by
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