Like a Waking Dream - Selections
Chapter 1: Life in Tsang
Until I was about ten years old, I had many misfortunes: accidents, illnesses, and brushes with death. But when I entered into religious life, my situation improved. Once I entered the monastery I became healthier and happier, and possibilities began to open up that were inconceivable for a layperson from my rural part of Tibet at that time. After that, there was slow but steady progress. I still had many hardships of course, but when I think back on where and when I started, it seems almost unbelievable that I ended up in America.
How is it that I am where I am today? I came from a small village in Tsang, went to Lhasa, was forced to flee from Tibet to India, and then somehow found myself in America. Even when I consider only what has happened to me here in America it is amazing. All these things that happened to me seemed like big things at the time. Now they seem like a dream. It’s like a waking dream. When I was young, the West was a place you only heard about in stories; no ordinary person like me knew about such things firsthand. People said that beyond Tibet was India, which had been taken over and ruined by the British. Beyond that, far beyond the ocean, they said that there was a place called America. Ordinary Tibetans would never imagine that they could go to America. But here I am.
I was born in the Shang region of the Tsang province of Tibet. Shang is best known as the region where the Shangpa Kagyü sect was established by Khyungpo Naljor at the beginning of the second propagation of Buddhism in Tibet in the eleventh century. Shang has many smaller areas within it, and as is often the case with settled areas in Tibet, my village was in a valley between two mountains. The valley itself was called Shum, and my village was called Phordok.
The name Shum comes from the word for “cry.” There is an area of white sand on one of the mountains that can be seen from farther down the valley in the east. When you look up at the mountain from the valley, this white patch looks like a human face. Some say that this has a connection to the time when Padmasambhava was in this area. I’m not sure of the exact story, but it may have been that the name Shum came from people crying when they saw this face, the face of Padmasambhava, and remembered the great things that Padmasambhava did for Tibet. In Tibet there are many places that are named after such features. Phordok means any kind of a mound or bump that sticks up above flat ground. The name of our village was derived from the hill, so Phordok was both the name of the hill and of the village that lay at the foot of the hill.
My family consisted of only my father, my mother, and me. I am their only son. It was the custom in our part of Tibet to use just one part of your full name in everyday use. My father’s name was Losang, and my mother’s name was Buti. The full name that my parents gave me was Dorjé Tsering. My parents married late in their lives. When I was born, my mother was around forty and my father was already fifty, or maybe even older than that. I don’t know for certain.
It was not common in Tibet for one to record the exact date of one’s birth. The year was noted, and when the New Year came around everyone was considered to be one year older. Some high lamas and other important people would know their exact birth month and day, but ordinary people would know just the year and that was enough. I did not have many relatives, so after my parents died there was no one who remembered the exact month and day of my birth. So like many Tibetans, I don’t know my exact birthdate. The Tibetan calendar has a twelveyear cycle. Each year is associated with one of twelve animals as well as one of five elements. Finally, there is also a two-year cycle: the first year is male, and the second year is female. So every twelve years is the same animal though the element changes. I was born in a pig year. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was also born in a pig year; he is twelve years younger than I am. His Holiness was born in the wood-pig year, and I was born in the water-pig year. In the Western calendar, this was 1923.
Pordok was a farming community; people in the area grew many crops. They grew barley, wheat, and a kind of black pea that we ground and added to tsampa. Tsampa is a Tibetan staple made of coarsely ground roasted barley flour. Tibetans usually eat tsampa by mixing it with butter tea and making a ball of dough. The black peas we grew were larger than the peas here in America. When they were coarsely ground, we also used them for horse feed. Wealthier people especially would use these peas in this way. Ordinary people ground them into flour and mixed this with barley flour for our tsampa. This gave the tsampa a slightly sweet taste. We also grew mustard plants and extracted oil from the seeds. The mustard plants had long rigid stems with beautiful yellow flowers on top. The plants had pods, with many seeds inside. We planted mustard and peas in a field together. The peas had a thin, weak stem and a tendency to bend down when the pods developed. By planting them mixed in with the mustard plants, they were protected, and the pods wouldn’t lie on the ground and rot. That is the way farming was done in that area of Tibet. In the summer when the mustard plants flowered, the peas couldn’t be seen. From high on the mountainside one would see entire fields filled with huge, beautiful yellow flowers.
My family had a small piece of farm land. I’m not sure if we owned the land we farmed or if it belonged to someone else. Land was often owned by the local or central government, or by aristocratic families or a monastery or a labrang, which is the estate of a lama, but ordinary people would work the land like their own. There was a basic unit of land called a kang. I don’t know if it was an acre or more or less, but in any case it was a sizeable area. Some families held one of these units or only a half, and some families had two, three, or more. My family held half a kang.
People had to pay a tax based on how much land they farmed, so those who held several kang would have to pay more than someone who just had one or one half. A local official, who was something like a governor, collected this tax and sent it to the administration. Tsang was part of the domain ruled by the Panchen Lama’s government in Shikatsé, so our taxes went there, but most other parts of Tibet would pay tax to the central government in Lhasa. The Panchen Lama was widely considered to be the second-highest religious figure in Tibet, after the Dalai Lama. The lineage of the Panchen Lamas began when the Fifth Dalai Lama bestowed the title of Panchen Lama on his own teacher, Losang Chökyi Gyaltsen. Panchen is a shortened form of pandita chenpo, which means “great scholar.” The Panchen Lamas had political power over the Tsang region for centuries, though by our time this power was not absolute.
In the fall, people who worked the land had to send grain to the central government, or a local representative of the government would collect money from the people who lived in the area under his jurisdiction. Similarly, if the government needed to raise an army, each family would be responsible for providing support for it based on how much land they held. I don’t really know the system very well, but it worked something like that.
On the hilltop above our village there was a Nyingma lama’s labrang. It was not a monastery—the head lama there was married. There were three lamas living at this labrang, a senior one and two younger ones. Unlike the lama lineages that most people are familiar with, these lamas were actually a father and his two sons. The estate had a big house where the whole family lived. In the summer, the lamas were hired by people in the area to protect their crops from hail. The lamas were paid a salary to stay in a small house in the middle of the fields, where they would perform rituals to drive away hailstorms so that the crops were protected from damage.
Every year an elaborate series of rituals was performed at the labrang to drive away all negative forces. This was an important event in our area, and it was an exciting time for people all over the area. People dressed in their finest clothes, and everyone gathered to watch the public events. We children would imitate these things when we played.
The main ritual was performed on the twenty-ninth day of the twelfth Tibetan month, which usually falls sometime in February. Before the main ritual began, there were preparatory rituals. For a week we heard horns sounding from inside the labrang, inviting the gods in. Part of the public ritual took place in the labrang courtyard. The ceremony could be viewed from a balcony that overlooked the courtyard, and people came from all over Shum to see it. I don’t recall very much of that part of the event, but I remember the playing of trumpets and long horns, and that there was some kind of a religious dance. The other part of the public ritual took place outside the labrang compound. One implement used was a yak horn with mantras written on the outside that was filled with some substance, though I don’t remember what. Arrows were shot in the ten directions, and a human figure was drawn on the ground with a ritual dagger called a phurba. The lama took a large metal container, which had mantras written inside it, and turned it upside down on top of the figure, stepping up on it and performing a dance. Then ritual cakes called tormas were thrown into a triangular fire. There were more dances, and finally another torma was thrown over the side of the hill, which represented the final banishing of evil forces. This was all done according to the ritual system of the Nyingmapas. It was said that if the ritual were successful, the enemies of the teachings and obstacles to religion would be destroyed.
Some people said that this ritual could also be employed as a type of black magic and could be used against an evil person or family. It was said that when the ritual was done for this purpose, fire would be seen coming from the sky, landing on the house of the person. Much misfortune, including sickness and even death, would befall them as a result of this ritual. People said these things, but the basic purpose of the ritual was to drive away hindrances prior to the new year.
In Tsang, Buddhism was so deeply ingrained in the culture that it was customary for each family to have at least one son go to the monastery. If a family had three or more sons, then two sons would become monks, one son would stay at the family home and continue to tend the farmland, and the last would engage in business outside of the home. The lay sons could, of course, marry. If a family had several children and none of the sons were sent to the monastery, people would think badly of that family. Ordinary people were very religious, even if they didn’t really know very much about their religion. There were many monasteries and nunneries then, and also many small shrines. Even ordinary families had a hanging scroll painting, called a thangka, or an altar in their houses. Everyone knew the refuge formula to the Three Jewels, and they knew the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion: Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ. No one had to be taught these things; we grew up with them all around.
For ordinary people there wasn’t really a sense of belonging to one sect or another in any exclusive way. It depended on what was present in the area where one lived, rather than individual people or families choosing one sect based on their own inclinations or consideration of the different teachings. I went to Ganden Chönkhor basically because I had relatives there, so there was a family connection. Not far beyond Ganden Chönkhor there was another smaller monastery called Dechen Rapgyé where others in our area had relatives. There were perhaps one hundred and eighty monks there. Dechen Rapgyé Monastery was connected to Tashi Lhünpo monastery and followed its traditions.
Historically, much of the Tsang region had been under the control of the Panchen Lama’s government in Tashi Lhünpo dating back to the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama and his teacher, the First Panchen Lama. The Fifth Dalai Lama had given his teacher authority over the area around Tashi Lhünpo. So while we had to follow the orders of and send taxes to the central government in Lhasa, we also had to obey orders from Tashi Lhünpo and send taxes there too. There was a fortress above Ganden Chönkhor that was the government center of our area. The government administrator there was sent by the central government in Lhasa. If there was an order to be delivered or a punishment to be dealt out, it was done by this administrator. Ganden Chönkhor, however, was connected to the Dalai Lama’s government in Lhasa and to the three great monasteries there. For the most part these two systems were similar in that they were both of the Geluk sect, but there were differences. Because of my years at Ganden Chönkhor, my knowledge and experience is primarily of the system followed by the three great monasteries in the Lhasa area.
Chapter 2: Early Memories
I still remember a story that my parents told me from when I was very young, around the time that I first began to talk and walk. I think it may have been an indication of a previous life. Far down in the eastern part of the valley, there was another town where an important noble family lived. My parents said that when I was very young I said, “My house is down there, and I have a horse that’s bluish gray. I want to see my horse.” They said, “Where is your horse?” I pointed my finger in the direction of the lower part of the valley, saying, “Way down there.” I was pointing in the direction where the noble family lived. Perhaps one of the old grandfathers or some religious person had died there, and my family thought that I was the rebirth of this person. But my parents never said anything to anyone in the other family or took me there. They were a high noble family and we were just ordinary people, so nothing came of it.
When I was very young I encountered many illnesses and accidents. The first time I came close to death I was only two or three years old, but I remember it clearly. In front of our house there was a hill of piled-up dirt from which you could get up onto the roof. One day my mother laid me down at the bottom of the hill because she had to go up on the roof for some reason. Then she stumbled, which caused a large rock to roll down the hill and hit me where I was lying. I started crying of course, and my mother screamed, “I’ve killed my baby!” The rock hit me on the forehead and, curiously, on the foot. I still have the scars. If the rock had hit me more squarely, I think I would have been killed instantly. Instead it wasn’t really that serious, but there was a lot of blood, so it looked pretty bad. We didn’t have modern medicine then, but we had our own ancient methods. In old houses like ours there were many spiders’ nests. My mother collected some of these and put them on the wounds. This was supposed to stop the bleeding and keep the wounds from getting infected. It must have worked. It’s funny that I so clearly remember my mother crying out and running to me. That was my first brush with death.
In Tibet many natural locations such as mountains, lakes, and streams are considered to be sacred places where deities and nāgas live. One type of deity called a sadak was said to inhabit such places, and it was said that one must be careful not to bother or upset the sadaks or they would become angry. Often, when a child was born, the parents would go to one of these sacred places and make an offering to the deity. They offered prayer flags and incense, and the child would then always have a connection with that deity, who became known as his birth deity.
Because my family farmed a little piece of land, they needed a bull to pull the plow. We had some some cows and sheep as well. Our house had a courtyard where the animals were tied when they came home. There were many trees around our house, and a huge willow tree grew right next to our door. The tree was bent way over, parallel to the ground, with branches that reached all the way to the earth. A pillar supported the trunk of the tree to keep it from bending all the way to the ground or breaking. The branches of the tree formed a closed-in area, and when I was young, maybe five or six years old, I really enjoyed playing around that tree. I went there to sit or play, and I probably didn’t bother to go somewhere else to go to the bathroom, so you can imagine what it was like. Old trees like this were also home to deities and nāgas. We believed that if someone harmed or cut one of these trees, then he would get sick because he had upset the deity. It was said that nāgas did not like dirtiness or impurity, so their places had to be kept clean and protected or they would cause problems. My constant playing under the tree probably made it dirty, and I became very sick.
I grew weak and was afflicted with a kind of rash or pimples. I was sick almost constantly. Though my parents were very poor, they called in an oracle healer. While people are more familiar with the famous major oracles such as Nechung, at that time there were numerous local oracles as well. Many local deities had oracles whom people consulted on many matters, including sickness. Usually a person would begin a career as an oracle because he had been possessed by one of these deities. Though it began involuntarily, eventually these people came to be able to control and utilize these possession states. They were then trained by another older oracle, and they learned the rituals and methods of divination that were used to help people. The oracle called the deity and then went into a trance in which the deity would answer questions about the person’s problems.
I must say, I am a little skeptical about some of these oracles. There were so many of them, and this was a way of earning a living. Horses had to be sent to bring the oracle, which most people would have to hire, and when he arrived he had to be offered good chang—Tibetan beer— and be well compensated. With so much to gain, I wonder about the legitimacy and intentions of at least some of these oracles.
In Tibet, it was generally believed that sickness was the result of some kind of unseen being. The oracle that my parents consulted said that my illness was due to a female, conch-colored nāga, who was angry at my behavior around the tree. Nāgas do not like people running around without their clothes, and they don’t like bad smells or other kinds of dirtiness. The oracle said that my parents had to keep that place clean by keeping me out of there and that they shouldn’t cut any of the branches. Whether one believes in this kind of thing or not, I had been very sick, and I did get better after my parents took the oracle’s advice.
When I was seven or eight, another curious incident happened. In our village all the cattle were taken together to graze in an outlying area every morning. It was the children’s job to take the cattle out to graze, and at least one child from each family was sent to do this. We were sort of like cowboys. We’d take the cattle out beyond the village, keeping them together until we reached an open place. Then we’d let them go freely wherever they wanted, and they would go in all directions. In the summer we had to make sure that the cattle did not get into anyone’s cultivated fields, and we had to chase them out if they did.
There would usually be a group of about fifteen children. One of them would be an older boy who was in charge, but the rest would be young children, probably between the ages of seven and ten. Every morning we took the cattle out, and every evening we brought them back to our own houses. We took tsampa, or something else to eat, and something to drink, and we would stay out all day. Sometimes we would go far out where there weren’t many fields, so we didn’t need to worry about the cattle getting into them. There were many nice valleys and pastures from which to choose. This was very enjoyable for us.
One day we went farther than usual to a valley where all the fields were on one side of a little stream. On the other side of the stream there was a nice open area where there were no fields, so the animals could roam and just enjoy themselves. We children stayed in this valley for a long time and played. If an animal found its way across the stream to a field, we took turns going to chase it out. There was a nunnery there, and farther up the mountainside there was a small yellow house that was a hermitage (ritrö) where someone was living.
Next to this hermitage was a small cemetery. Cemeteries in Tibet were not like cemeteries in the West. There were no nicely maintained lawns, headstones, or flowers. Here they were solitary, frightful places where the bodies of the dead were taken. The bodies were chopped up, and vultures came and devoured them. Most people were afraid of such places because it was thought that there were spirits there. People avoided cemeteries, but we children weren’t aware of these beliefs yet. We learned this kind of thing later in life.
While we were in that valley, one of the cows crossed through the cemetery toward a cultivated field, and it was my turn to chase the cow back to the rest of the herd. I walked up to the hermitage and around the cemetery and chased the cow back toward the others. When I came back, I cut through the cemetery. As I went through, I saw a strange figure between two rocks. It was small like a baby but it had a big head and hair hanging down to its huge eyes. I didn’t know what it was. At first I thought it was a rock, but when I looked more closely, I saw that this strange creature was moving its head, looking around. When I saw this I was terrified; there was a real living thing there!
Later, people had some explanations of what I had seen. Some said that I saw a type of being called a lord of the cemetery. Others said that maybe I saw a being called a theurang that is associated with dragons and thunderstorms. When dragons take off there arises a great noise, and the theurang, who is a little man with a hammer, is said to be hitting the dragon on the head. When there is a lot of lightning and thunder, people say that there are many theurang around. It sounds strange to modern ears, but these were the beliefs people had. I don’t know what it was that I saw. Maybe it was an appearance arisen through my karma, or maybe there was nothing there and it was just some type of negative vision. Whatever it was, this event was the beginning of a period of great suffering for me. But it also set in motion a chain of events that would lead to my entering the monastery, so who is to say whether it was positive or negative?
When I saw this thing, I ran away as fast as I could toward the others, running over stones and through bushes and thorns. I was barefoot, so I was hurting my toes and feet, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was running and jumping without looking where I was going, and eventually I jumped and landed right in a bush that had very thick, very strong white thorns. These thorns went deep into my legs and feet, especially in the heels, but I didn’t feel them. I was scared so I just kept running. When I got down to where the other children were, I told them what had happened and what I saw. They didn’t believe me. But some children picked up sticks and stones and went back to the cemetery looking for this “baby” I had seen. They did not find anything there, and when they came back down they said that I was lying. I was very bloody, and only then did I begin to feel the pain and realize that there were many thorns sticking into my flesh. We took most of them out, but there were three very strong thorns deep in the heel of my foot that we couldn’t get out without digging into my flesh. They simply would not come out, so I had to walk all the way back home with the thorns in my foot. I was in a lot of pain, and the walk home was horrible. I couldn’t stand on that foot at all. I made it home, but we still could not get the thorns out of my heel, and the wounds became infected.
Because my foot was infected and painful, I did not want to walk on it. When I sat down, I drew that leg against my body. From sitting like that all the time, and from limping for a long time to avoid walking on that foot, I developed a knotted-up lump high on my leg, and this became inflamed like a boil. If someone pulled my leg straight it was excruciating, and eventually this lump became infected and filled with pus. Between the injury on my heel and the bump on my leg, I stayed in bed for months. I was very sick. The longer I stayed with my leg curled up, the more difficult it became to straighten the leg at all. There was a monk-doctor who lived some distance away, and my mother carried me there. He gave me some treatments and some medicine, but I was still in great pain day and night. I became very weak and dehydrated, and again I came very close to death.
My parents were already quite old by this time. There were three other families in the area that were relatives, some of whom were a little wealthier than us, and they helped some. When my parents had to work, some of these relatives would come and take me out to sit with the other children who were playing, or sometimes they would sit me with the older people who were chanting and spinning prayer wheels. This helped me. Back then, people were not so busy like they are here in America. People had time to spend with each other and could more easily help others. That was a good thing about the situation then.
My parents tried all kinds of things to help me. They sent for doctors and for lamas and oracles who did divinations. One of the lamas said that the problem was not just the injuries; there was also a karmic obstacle. He said that I should not become a farmer but instead should be sent to a monastery to become a monk. Then, he said, everything would be all right. Otherwise I would die. It was then that my parents, or I should say my father, decided that after I recovered I should not stay at home and live a farmer’s life. If I did not die, I would be sent to Ganden Chönkhor Monastery. This was not usually an option in a case like mine. At first, my father kept this plan to himself because the local government official would not have agreed to let the parents of an only child send him to the monastery. This is because if I went to the monastery, there would be no one left to take care of the land after my parents were gone. My father planned to take me to Ganden Chönkhor in secret. Once I was there, it would be difficult for the government official to argue with the monastery officials. So it was by my father’s determination, and my own, as you will see, that I would become a monk. We had two relatives at the monastery, so that also made things more feasible. The younger one often came to our house to visit. I called the older one Ashang-la. This uncle was a very important person in my life.
After my father resolved to send me to the monastery, my immediate condition still had to be treated. A doctor came every day and pulled on my leg to try to straighten it out. It was incredibly painful, and I dreaded these visits. I cried the whole time, and they had to hold me while they pulled on my leg. It was really terrible, like being in hell. I became very thin and weak because I wasn’t eating very much. I think my parents must have given up hope many times and thought that I would die. This went on for a long time, probably six months or more. Eventually the doctor dug into the heel and was able to remove the three thorns. After that, it got better. Somehow, after a long time, through prayers, medical treatments, and determination, I didn’t die. And my father did not forget what the lama had said about my entering the monastery.
Chapter 9: Running Away from the Monastery
At monasteries such as Ganden Chönkhor, the year was separated into various educational and religious sessions or semesters. In between these sessions, there were short breaks, and during the fifth Tibetan month there was a vacation period, and we could go anywhere. During this time, young monks usually went to stay with their parents, which was very nice. Going home at any other time required permission from the disciplinarian, and that was very difficult to get. However, during the semesters, one’s mother and father could come to visit. When I first entered the monastery, my parents often came to see me, but when they visited, I wanted to go back home with them, and I always cried when they had to leave. The monastery was built on a hillside and rose way up from the plain, like the Potala. On the days that I thought my parents would be coming, I watched for them. From the monastery I could see them coming from a long way off, and when they left I could watch them going for a long time. That was a very hard thing to watch.
There was a time early on when I was so unhappy at the monastery that I ran away. It was during the period when I had to memorize all the prayers and ritual recitations. Some Dharma recitation teachers were stern and fierce, and some were patient and gentle. My fundamental teacher, my uncle, chose a monk named Gelong Dompelpa, who was very well known and respected but was a very strict teacher. Everyone feared him, including me. He made me work very hard on my memorization and chanting. He insisted that I do my chanting loudly and very clearly. I had to memorize the passages very quickly too. The end result was good, but at the time I didn’t see it that way.
Every day I had to go to Gelong Dompelpa’s house in the evening and read a portion of text over and over. Then I had to recite that section to prove that I had learned it. In the beginning I had some difficulty with this, and my teacher became angry with me. One day I was unable to do the recitation, and he became very angry and scolded and beat me. He told me that I had to work harder. The next day I was still unable to do the recitation, and again I received a scolding and a beating. Then he showed me two whips that were hanging from a post in his house and told me that if I didn’t do my recitation properly, the next day he would whip me with them. I was very frightened. I didn’t think I would be able to do the recitation the next day and knew I would have to face a whipping. When I returned to my home the next afternoon, my uncle tried to be encouraging in his stern way, but that did very little to ease my mind. All I could do was worry about the whipping. I decided to run away that night.
When it was time for me to go back to Gelong Dompelpa’s house, I went instead down to the main gate of the monastery and hid behind the open gate. I knew I couldn’t make it all the way home that night, so I sat there for a long time, crouching behind the gate. I knew that the gatekeeper came around midnight to close and bolt the doors, so when midnight approached, I ran to the doorway of a nearby house. The doorway had a step down into the door, which made a small space where I could hide. I stayed there until the gatekeeper came and closed the gates. Then I returned and hid in the space of the gates, up against the doors. The gatekeeper would come out every so often on his watch, so I had to keep running back and forth between the gate of the monastery and the doorway of the house.
At one point when I was crouching in the doorway of the house it began to rain. I was protected from the rain by the doorway. However, just outside the doorway, there was an indentation that quickly filled with water. A small dog came by and began to drink from the little pool.
Sometimes children do strange things, and for some reason I decided to scare this dog, who could not see me. I jumped out and the dog ran off, terrified. Unfortunately, when I did this, my foot bumped the door of the house, and it got the attention of the monk who lived there. He called out, “What is going on there?” and I had to run back to my spot by the main gate. He came out with a lantern and looked around, but he did not see me. I spent the whole night going back and forth between the two spots. When morning approached I knew that the gatekeeper would reopen the gates and the monks would begin to come out and gather for the morning assembly. So I found another spot to hide and waited. Finally, when the gates were opened and all the monks were in the assembly hall, I ran from the monastery.
It took me almost all day to get back to my home, but when I got back to the village I was afraid to go home because of what my parents would say. For a while I hid in a hay barn. I stayed there until I was so hungry and thirsty that I could no longer bear it, and finally, I went home. My mother scolded me and said that it was foolish and dangerous for me to walk all that way by myself. She was worried about me. When my father came home he didn’t scold me much. He said that it was too late in the day to take me back to the monastery, but he would take me back in the morning. My mother then said that since I had come all that way I could stay a day or two, and then I would have to go back. They sent a message to my uncle to let him know that I was safe.
After several days my father took me back to the monastery, even though I really didn’t want to go. I was afraid of what my uncle would say and even more afraid of my text teacher. To my surprise, my uncle was not very angry. He asked me why I had run away and caused everyone so much worry. I told him that I was afraid of my teacher and that I had not been doing well and was afraid of being whipped. My uncle went to see my teacher and told him that there was no need for me to be hurried through my memorization; I could do it at a slower pace. This made matters much better. After that my text teacher became more patient with me.
Chapter 12: Sustenance in the Monastery
In addition to being responsible for the boy’s education, the fundamental teacher also had to provide all a monk’s material support.
It was the custom in Tibet for laypeople, wealthy monks, and lamas to occasionally distribute money to all the monks of the monastery. The donor did this in order to generate merit. The money received by the fundamental teacher contributed to the support of the young monk. As a member of the Sangha, the young monk also received these disbursements of money. The fundamental teacher, like a parent, kept this money for the novice. The teacher also received support from the novice’s family as well as from his own family. Of course, in the monastery, one didn’t have to worry about a morning meal because every monk received tea and brought his own tsampa to both of the early assemblies. During special occasions, the monks didn’t have to worry about any meal for that day. In general, however, it was not the case that the monastery fully supported the monks who lived there. Rather each monk relied upon his family home to provide support.
The monastery owned farmland and fields, which were worked by laypeople. When the crops were harvested, half of the grain usually went to the monastery, though in some cases farmers gave less. Either way, the monastery always had a store of grain. People also offered animals such as yaks and sheep to the monastery. Some richer monasteries had arrangements with people in the nomadic areas. A group of nomads raised and tended animals that belonged to the monastery, and the monastery received a portion of their milk, butter, and cheese.
During the semester, each monk received an allotment of barley, which he would have someone roast and grind to make tsampa. This grain came from the monastery’s granary, which had originated from the fields owned by the monastery. The monastery oversaw this system of distribution. The amount of food was not great, but it was enough to keep one from starving. Some monks, based on their families’ wealth, were comparatively rich, but most of us had just enough to survive. We brought our own tsampa to the early morning assembly. When we drank our tea, we would leave a small amount in the bottom of the bowl. From the bag of tsampa on our belts, we would take a small amount out and mix it with the remaining tea into a ball of dough. We did this underneath our outer robe and then quietly ate it. This was our breakfast. We also did this at the second assembly later in the morning.
At those times when there was a third assembly, such as when a wealthy patron sponsored a ceremony, we would have a very delicious soup. Such a soup could not be duplicated, even at home. It was made with a special kind of meat, lamb or something, and large bones that were roughly chopped and put into huge cooking pots in the monastery kitchen.
These pots were huge, as tall as a man. Just one of these pots would fill most of a normal-sized room. The monastery kitchen took up nearly an entire floor of the building and had three or four of these pots. One was the main teapot, one was filled with water, one contained the soup, and one was for the ingredients that were added to the soup. They all sat over wood fires. I heard that after the destruction of Ganden Chönkhor during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese troops used these pots for toilets. They did many terrible things like that.
Along one wall of the kitchen were the teapots used for serving. They were wooden with three decorated bands of metal that wrapped all the way around them. Wooden poles were put through the handles to carry the teapots, which also had spouts from which to pour the tea. The opposite wall held similar pots for the soup, which didn’t have spouts but instead had ladles for serving. The monks sat in rows in the assembly hall, and each row had one person who went into the kitchen and picked up the pot that was marked with his row number. This was always done the same way. The young monks had to take turns doing this, and so did the dopdops of all ages.
The tea masters were the overseers of the kitchen, and they maintained a very strict environment there. They were really quite intimidating, and they didn’t allow the young monks and dopdops to talk or joke. The kitchen was part of the monastery after all, and the monastery was a place of discipline. This was true of every part of the monastery; there were no exceptions. At Ganden Chönkhor, the tea and soup were well known for being delicious. The tea, of course, was Tibetan butter tea. The tea leaves came in bricks, and as many as twelve of these bricks were crushed and boiled at a time to make tea for the entire monastery.
To make the tea, two dopdops stood on the top edge of the stoves and used huge, long-handled spoons to mix the tea as it boiled. They had to stir it for a long time, scooping down into the pots and pulling the spoons way up overhead and then down again in a circular motion, over and over. They did this hundreds of times for each pot. The men selected for this job had to train in the summer before beginning. For practice, they went out to the river and used an old heavy handle for exercise. It was hard work.
Before the tea could be served to the assembly, the tea leaves had to be taken out of the pots. The dopdops who worked in the kitchen had long-handled strainers made from a metal hoop with a piece of thin cloth stretched over them that they used to strain the tea. The job was also physically demanding, and it required a great deal of skill to get all the tea leaves out efficiently. When all the leaves had been removed, what was left was a delicious strong black tea. Then the butter was added. They used the same method to mix in the butter, though it didn’t take as long as removing the leaves. At first the butter floated on the top, glistening yellow, but it only took about ten or fifteen strokes for the dopdops to mix it in. This tea was so delicious! It’s difficult to accurately describe it, but hopefully this gives you some idea.
When I was very young I used to go through the upper level of the kitchen on my way to the assembly so I could watch the tea-making process from the balcony. While the dopdops stirred the tea, they had a special chant to count each stroke. As they brought the spoon down into the tea, they sang, “chik cha chik,” ending as they scooped the leaves out. When they put the spoon in again they continued in the same manner chanting, “nyi nya nyi,” then “sum sa sum,” “zhi zha zhi,” and so forth, eventually counting to well over one hundred.
I think this special method was unique to Ganden Chönkhor. It was not done the same way at Sera or the other great monasteries. They didn’t mix the butter in this way. At Sera, what they called “tea” was really little more than hot water. Today in the monasteries in India, I think they mostly use churns. But Ganden Chönkhor had this wonderful tradition of making tea in this way, and it was delicious. When there was a special ceremony and a donor sponsored one of the offerings to the assembly, the tea would be even better—only the best tea and very good butter were used. At such times, everyone went to the morning assembly. No one wanted to sleep in and miss this tea!
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© Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Like a Waking Dream (Wisdom Publications, 2012)
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