A God without Gender

Written by Yangdon
Translated by Herbert Batt


She gazed around. Everywhere were lustrous purple willows and houses. She didn’t understand what the steward shouted to her. She turned, looked back, saw the dome of a gigantic white stupa towering between lofty twin mountains. At its base, human figures were stirring. A sparkling scarlet ring crowned its pinnacle. She shut her eyes against its burning light. “Second Little Miss, wake up. Look!” She opened her eyes again, perplexed, and stared up where the steward pointed: a shining precipice cut by brown fissures. Its crest blazed.

“The Potala Palace, Second Little Miss! You remember?” No, it was no dream; it was her nanny’s hoarse voice that called to her. “The dwelling of Bodhisattva Chenresig, ah mo mo!”

A fresh, cool breeze swept her face. She awoke from her stupor. From the foot of the mountain, a steep stairway wound up through a cluster of tall trees. On the trees’ branches hung wisps of greenish smoke from burning juniper boughs. The ringing of bells and the drone of prayers poured from the windows of the red-walled palace. Trembling smoke scattered down through the forest.

She joined her hands and recited the mantra “Om mani padme hum,” merging body and soul in this holy sublimation of the powers of apprehension.

Gaslights blazed in the courtyard. The steward helped me down off my horse.

“Second Little Miss has arrived.”

The glaring, hissing lights hurt my eyes. I couldn’t see the people around me, but only heard the voice of the steward, the sharp, broken cries of servants, the pleasant sound of the Lhasa accent. I walked into a broad corridor.

Three women in splendid satin gowns stood before me like painted ladies on a vase. Thin and covered with jewels, they smiled at me. One woman a little older than the others took my hand and said, “Little girl, who’s your mama?”

I looked behind me. My nanny bowed, beaming. I pointed at her. She had accompanied me into my new home. [End Page 134]

The older lady turned to the two women behind her. “Ha, ha! Doesn’t even know her own mother!” The three ladies laughed gracefully.

A second lady walked up to me and stroked my face. On her long hand was a diamond ring. “Just like a peasant girl.”

“Hair all matted with dirt!” exclaimed the third.

“When you’ve had some tea, Governess,” said the tall, older lady, “please take her for a bath.” This lady was the most senior of the master’s three wives.

“Yes, Mistress.” A tall, thin woman with sunken eyes–the manageress of the household–stared at me, then approached.

My nanny touched her forehead to mine and blew out the candle. “In the holy land of Lord Buddha, you can sleep soundly. Good night, Miss.”

There was a fragrance in the quilt that made my head ache. I felt sick to my stomach. I’d ridden on horseback for eight days; now I couldn’t sleep. It was terribly muggy. I sat up. Moonlight streamed in the window. The sickening fragrance congealed in the moonlight–gray-white, gray-white. I heard the hiss of gaslights, the clack of mahjong tiles, voices, laughter, but I didn’t know where they were coming from. I’d lost my sense of direction. A dark light flashed in the corner.

That person in the mirror: maroon silk robe, smooth-shaven head . . . Was it me? How had I changed . . . into a nun?!

“You don’t like it?” Governess asked me. I noticed that she knit her eyebrows.

Her teacher told her a story . . .

Smoke spiraled upward all year long. A crisscross of gullies, an ominous mountain, weeds scattered everywhere. The smoke from the brazier of burning juniper branches drifted out over the valley, marvelously forming an auspicious hooked cross. Villagers from beyond the mountains realized that an incarnate lama deeply compassionate, clairvoyant, and possessed of awesome powers dwelt in this valley. In search of spiritual growth and mystic teaching, the people climbed up along the little brook, through the tiny pass.

Tashi, the lama’s disciple, watched all this in consternation. At first he thought the stream of people would ebb when autumn had passed, but every day more and more pious believers flooded into the valley, prostrated themselves, touched their foreheads to the incarnate lama’s feet in deeper and deeper veneration. Their ever-growing numbers dismayed Tashi.

Besides diligently serving the incarnate lama, Tashi assiduously studied a variety of sutras. Observing this, the lama led Tashi up to the top of the mountain, pointed to a little cave barely visible among the lofty cliffs, and told him to meditate there for a month . . .

Tashi emerged from the mountain cave with his head down. His pale, sunken face was distraught. He had meditated a month, enduring hunger and cold, but no sign had appeared to him. He had had no vision, heard no [End Page 135] miraculous voice. He reeled down the slope, then suddenly smelled a terrible stench. Covering his nose with his hands, he searched for its source. A swarm of flies buzzed around a sick, ugly B**** lying flat on the ground, and countless maggots wriggled in her dark-red anus. “Ai!” Compassion welled up in his heart. He took off his robe, tore off its bottom half, and spread the cloth on the ground. Squatting down, he gently picked off the maggots one by one with a pair of twigs and placed them on the cloth. He drove away the flies, carried off the maggots in the cloth and buried them, then covered the dog with the other half of his robe. Continuing on his way down the mountain, he shivered in his sleeveless shirt.

He knelt in shame before the incarnate lama. “Teacher, I failed. I meditated a month in vain.”

“You did not fail. Stand up.”

“What?” He raised his head and gazed in bewilderment at the lama.

“On your way back, you saw a sick dog. And what did you think? A live dog covered in maggots–how pitiful!” The lama nodded. “Your month-long meditation was barren because your heart was impure. You thought of the prestige and status that success would bring you. But your meditation has borne fruit. The root of the dharma is compassion.” Tashi reached out and received his robe from the lama. It was whole, bearing no mark of repair.

“How did the lama get Tashi’s robe, Teacher?”

“It is only a story. A story can say anything.”

With her teacher, she stood on the slope of green grass and trees. A tiny path wound down from their feet to the bottom of the mountain. Quietly, wild goats meandered by a murmuring brook on the side of the valley. Beside the path grew wild pomegranates, dazzlingly bright. “What the incarnate lama taught Tashi was not secret magic arts or profound Mahayana doctrine, but the importance of a pure heart and love.” Teacher tossed away a stone and walked down the slope.

The light, delicate scent of the wild pomegranates filled the air. The drifting fragrance seemed to merge with the brook and the bright, clear calls of the birds. Today, for the first time, the convent was sending her to the city to beg for alms. She wanted the little path to continue forever, but she also wanted to go home to see her mother and her nanny.

“Don’t hurry.” Teacher bent over again with difficulty, picked up another stone from the road, and tossed it away. “Throw away the one under your foot too.”

She threw away the stone, gazing down at the pass at the foot of the mountain. “When I get to the city, won’t it be dark?”

“To clear the obstacle of sin from the spirit, making travel easy for all those on the way is also compassion.”

Their red robes wafted in the leisurely wind like prayer flags.

“Is that a way to accumulate virtue?”

“Of course.” Teacher caught up from behind, panting slightly. “Why are you wearing those funny gloves? To clear away obstacles and plant good [End Page 136] karma, you cannot avoid filth. Please take them off.” Obediently, she pulled off the gloves. They were exquisitely knitted and of fine white wool. Embroidered on the back in yellow thread was a tiny hooked cross. The gloves didn’t cover her hands entirely, but left the fingers bare.

Funny gloves.

As soon as I awoke, I couldn’t resist the impulse to leave the bedroom.

“I’ve brought breakfast to your room, Second Little Miss.” A maidservant caught up with me in the corridor and blocked my way. “You can wash your face.”

“I want to go out,” I said, waving her away.

Governess walked straight in the door. “What’s this noise? The mistress has just fallen asleep.”

“I have to get out of that room. I don’t like that smell. I want to use my own woolen quilt tonight.”

“Second Little Miss, it is only servants who do not use satin. I sprinkled it for you with French perfume. Of course, if you have better, please tell me.” When she said this, she raised her eyebrows and left, her face devoid of expression.

The lawn gave off the clean, plain smell of grass and earth. It gave me a cozy feeling, like being on the meadow back at the manor. But here they fussily trimmed the grass, so it wasn’t uneven as at the manor. A furry little dog came running up to me with its tongue hanging out, plopped down at my side, and licked its belly. Bees came buzzing around my head. I sat down on the grass, indolent as a bee, dreadfully bored. Through the light-blue smoke drifting through the grove came a slow, leisurely song that made me uneasy.

I went to look for the source of the song. At the back of the grove was a dark row of servants’ cottages, small and dreary beneath the high walls. The melody was coming from the open door of a cottage with windows covered in cheap white cloth.

With head down, someone was sitting on a straw cushion and knitting. Black cotton shoes, a Tibetan robe of black cloth, close-cropped hair, a white, white face on a slender neck. Suddenly the furry little dog appeared in front of him, and the man’s voice abruptly ceased. He looked up and stared at me in alarm. After a pause, he set down his bamboo knitting needles, gestured to me, and said something I couldn’t understand. I asked a passing maidservant who this was.

“Chinese Lobsang.” She explained that the lord of the house had brought him back from Chamdo and replaced his Chinese name with a Tibetan one.

He raised his head and smiled at me, his two eyes squinting into one long crease. The wrinkles covering his forehead looked out of place on so smooth a face. [End Page 137]

Whenever she heard it, she felt uncomfortable. Though Governess forbade it, she often ran off to the servants’ quarters to gaze at him as he knit with his bamboo needles and to listen to him sing his peculiar, desolate song. In broken Tibetan, he told her that it was an ancient song from his hometown, but what it was about, he didn’t know.

“Are you afraid of demons?” she asked him.

“In Tibet, Miss?” His needles froze. “Demons?”

“Yes! They come out as soon as it’s dark!” She thrust her head in the window, opened her eyes wide, grinned, put her fingers against the sides of her head and extended them so they looked like horns, and then swayed back and forth, howling.

“Me . . . scared?” His two eyes squinted into a single seam, and he burst out laughing. “You not be afraid. I come catch.”

That night a sheet of low black clouds covered the moon and stars, stirring a wild wind. The prayer flags on the courtyard wall fluttered in the wind with a peculiar, cracking sound. The bewildered dogs barked madly. People went to bed early to escape the frenzied gusts. After the last courtyard lamp went out, the wind fell silent. The dogs’ barking ceased and their eyes shone dimly in the blackness.

A piercing scream rang out: “Mistress!” A dark shadow rushed through the servants’ entrance and into the courtyard, then scurried up to the main door.

Instantly, lamps and candles were lit in every room. People dashed out, terrified. All they could see was Chinese Lobsang standing barefoot on the steps in a pair of floppy underpants, waving his arms. “Demon! Mistress! Demon! In quilt!”

Supported by her maidservants, the mistress came out trembling, her robe draped over her shoulders and her hair in disarray. She shouted to Governess to light the gaslights and ordered the steward to take every manservant to Chinese Lobsang’s cottage.

The maidservants cowered together, their robes pulled on in haste, their hands over their bosoms as they screamed.

Two manservants dragged a great black shape into the courtyard and threw it on the steps. Whack!

“Ah mo mo!” the household cried, shrinking back.

Before them was a great, bulging cowhide sack, its top knotted with a leather cord, its smooth, round bottom painted with a terrifying red face that had a huge, bloody mouth full of long, sharp teeth. “The soul-sucking sack!” the people cried in panic. Such a sack took the last breaths of dying people.

“From the Hall of Heavenly Guardian Tsimare in Tengyeling Temple!” the steward shrieked, approaching the sack with a look no one had ever seen on his face. “Stolen from the temple! Who could have put it in Chinese Lobsang’s bed? Heavenly Guardian Tsimare will be enraged! Light up boughs, purify the house with juniper smoke, or there will be disaster!” [End Page 138]

The mistress gasped. Her hair stood on end. Her long robe dragged on the ground.

“Give it here, give it here,” the steward said as he snatched a smoking brazier from a maidservant who had approached the sack with it.

“A woman mustn’t touch that sack!” Governess hissed at the maidservant. “It would suck the soul out of you!” A cloud of thick smoke merged with the cries of Chinese Lobsang and the susurration of the maidservants’ prayers.

She sat beside her teacher, looking out over the valley . . .

A flock of yellow ducks flapped their wings and quacked contentedly in the grass. The wandering monk sat by the stream, scrubbing his clothes with deft, practiced hands. He then spread his clothes on the grass to dry, took out some baby yams from his bag, and scattered them for the ducks to eat. When he had finished feeding them, he rang his ritual bell and began a hymn. A fierce male eagle swooped down, calmly snatched up the bell in its beak, and flew back into the sky. Watching the eagle, the monk saw it circle gracefully, set the bell down on a cliff on a distant peak, and then fly away.

The wandering monk built a hut at the top of that peak and lived there as a hermit, continually meditating. The mountain people brought him offerings of food. One day a rainbow appeared over the peak, and the air overflowed with the delicate fragrance of wild pomegranates. The monk paused in his meditation, then felt a sudden burning, like a flame pouring into his stomach. An uneasy feeling gradually filled his body.

The people who were there with their offerings saw the monk changing. His voice became delicate and high-pitched, his face acquired a womanly beauty, his bosom swelled. Long, long ago, some old people had seen the sky mother goddess appear on this precipice. The people watching the monk realized that the sky mother had taken possession of his body and that the place was sacred. Crowds from all around and, later, from the holy city beyond the mountains came to help build the sky mother’s temple, and many women offered themselves at the temple as nuns.

The mandala turns, age succeeds age. Over and over, people rebuild the wooden steps of this temple, over and over the chant leader appoints a successor, and still the fragrant smoke of the holy fire rises–vigorous, clear, and pure.

“I pray for the blessing of the Buddha, I pray for the blessing of the dharma, I pray for the blessing of the lamas . . . ” At her teacher’s side, she knelt on a thin cushion in front of the tiny, gentle lamp burning before the simple Buddha image in the ancient shrine and softly chanted “Sutra of the Refuge of the Dharma.”

After they finished evening prayer, they left the little hall and were walking down the narrow stairs when that marvelous, sorrowful song ran through her mind. In an instant, her mind’s peacefulness was shattered. [End Page 139]

Chinese Lobsang entered the room behind the steward, wearing a pointed, black, Tibetan-style hat that he’d knitted himself. Around his long, slender neck, he had knotted a red silk cord into protective Buddhist talismans. When had he begun accompanying the steward as he spun prayer wheels at nightfall on the Barkhor? As soon as Chinese Lobsang saw me, he joined his hands and bowed deeply, saying, “Honored Jetsun!”–a term meaning “spiritual guide.” The prayer beads between his fingers swayed slowly in the setting sun’s rays. His black clothing made his face seem paler, more emaciated.

Since I entered the convent, everyone in the household except my mother had been calling me Jetsun, and was respectful and reserved in my presence. This courtesy reminded me of life at the old countryside manor –its big kitchen, its grain pile, and the clean scent of earth and rain.

I was sitting out in the sunlight and peeling the scabs off the back of little maidservant Tsomu. When my oldest cousin had gotten angry at her, he’d poured burning coals down the back of her neck. Tittering as I touched her, she blew the white sheets of skin into the sky.

The warm, dimly lit kitchen was full of the scent of burning yak dung. Little Tsomu and I ate roasted potatoes as we listened to the caravan drivers’ loud, crude talk about sly female shopkeepers and the color of Nepalese women’s skin.

The beating wings of the wild pigeons swept over the roof, bearing away their mellow cooing. The five-colored prayer flags were motionless against the background of evening clouds. All around there was a solemn stillness. In the rose-colored evening, the slow, bleak song came drifting from beyond the grove like a dream. My body seemed to dissolve and float into the evening fog. An inexplicable, overwhelming desire rose up in me.

His hands knitted with practiced ease as he leaned against the door frame. Lost in reverie, he gazed at the setting sun and sang. His usual expression had vanished as if the hand of some demon had wiped it from his pure-white face, leaving an expressionless mask in its place.

I walked up to him and said, “Tomorrow is the Day of Universal Peace, when we celebrate Buddha’s birthday and his enlightenment. Won’t you come worship Lord Buddha with us?”

He turned to me and said, “Honored Jetsun!” Apprehensively, he folded his hands and bowed.

I repeated my invitation.

“How I dare? How I dare? Mistress not allow me go. I am servant.” He rocked his head oddly.

“Tomorrow is the Day of Universal Peace. The mistress will let you go.”

He continued rapidly bowing to me, hands clasped. “Day of Peace, Day of Peace. My breath stinks. Blasphemy.”

“But didn’t the mistress give you a box of tooth powder?”

“But . . . it does not wash out garlic stink.” Knowing the smell was offensive to Tibetans, he clutched his head, his whole face red. [End Page 140]

“As long as you sincerely want to worship and you practice good deeds, Lord Buddha doesn’t care about that.” The setting sun was a disk of red. Gratitude welled up in my heart. Thank you, Compassionate One, I thought.

“Thank you for paradise fruit you gave me, Jetsun.”

“Thank you for the beautiful gloves you made me.”

May all follow the way of bliss.
May all sources of bliss increase.
May all beings extricate themselves from suffering,
And from the sources of suffering.
May all sentient beings cast off enmity and vain desire,
And be of one heart, one mind.
She set down the book, still open, on her knee. The sky was clear azure. The mountain ridge blocked the sun. The valley was dark, translucent. The white stupa was suffused with a cold, clear, lonely light. A little calf kept close to the mother pian cow that roved back and forth by the bank of the stream among a herd of wild goats.

“You’re doing well, doing well, my disciple.”

Her heart shrank suddenly at this voice, and her thoughts were thrown into turmoil. Angrily she shut her book. “Who is it?”

“It’s me, your honored teacher!” Behind her the strange, mannish voice spoke again.

“It’s you, Chungchung! You frightened me!”

She turned, took the pail from Chungchung’s hand, and plunged it into the stream. The two of them then sat down on the bank.

“Look!” Chungchung shouted, pointing to the distant slope, where a figure quickly disappeared behind the rocks.

“It’s Norlha, isn’t it? Where is she going?”

“Down the mountain maybe,” answered Chungchung. “Her teacher gave her a scolding this morning.”

“She didn’t remember her sutra again?”

“No, her teacher said her shape had changed.”

“Her shape had changed?” All Norlha had done wrong was to eat a lot of wild pomegranates. Her nose had turned black, and she was often sick to her stomach, had gotten fat, and often vomited. Why had Norlha’s teacher been so harsh with her? The scent of wild pomegranates burst over her with the ring of bells on the necks of goats in the weeds. Fear consumed her . . . Hadn’t she secretly filled her own pockets with wild pomegranates whenever she went to collect firewood?

“What a shame . . . such a pleasing beauty.” Chungchung leaned and stared at the distant slope.

“Don’t say that. Her teacher got angry when she heard someone call Norlha a beauty, and she said that was the reason Norlha hadn’t memorized her sutra.” [End Page 141]

“The old biddy.”

“There you go again! My teacher is going to have tea. I have to leave.” Agitated, she wrapped her book in its yellow silk cloth and hastened
away . . .

Slowly she walked up the stairs with the sand-ware teapot. The yak-butter lamp shone on the little, low table. A book with a threadbare, brown-wool cover lay open on her teacher’s knees. Teacher sat under a cloak, legs crossed, head swaying continuously from side to side as she whispered the praise of Lord and Protector Jampeyang Bodhisattva.

She shook the teapot and poured tea into her teacher’s little wooden bowl. “Why don’t you eat some tsampa?” she asked.

“Tea will be enough. I can eat at noon and in the evening.”

“There’s plenty of tsampa.”

“No need to waste food. Many are hungry,” Teacher said, then blew lightly on the butter that floated on the tea. “Why don’t you eat something yourself?” She picked up her prayer beads, eyes already shut.

A silver teapot, a snow-white lace tablecloth, a silver tray covered with pastries dripping butter. Cups and cups of yogurt, Xinjiang grapes, Indian candied fruit, Arabian dates, Kashmiri apricots, apples from the estate. No one ate much. Now and then Big Sister took a small cake, languidly broke off a piece, and gave it to the little dog. Her fingers were covered in butter. When a servant brought in more pastries, the dog feigned disinterest and snuggled up to me, drooping its ears. Laughing, Little Brother and Little Sister threw pieces of candied fruit at each other, then began to throw them at a passing servant.

“Don’t do that,” I said to them in a low voice.

Governess appeared at their side. “Sit still. Second Young Miss does not permit you to play in your own house,” she said to them enigmatically. “You must listen to her.” Her sunken eyes gave me a sidelong glance.

My nanny gestured to me, covering her mouth with her hand.

I ran to her. “Why should I keep silent?” I asked angrily.

“Speak softer, Miss.” Looking around and lowering her voice, she said, “Old Master cast off the family and abandoned us all the day you came out of your mother’s belly. Now your mother is one of the wives in this high-ranking official’s residence.” She picked a leaf out of my hair. “You must be obedient so that new Master and Governess will like you.”

An apple rolled to my feet. Little Brother and Little Sister were shouting and leaping in the bushes. From the corridor a pair of horrible sunken eyes was watching me above lips that wore a cold smile. I wanted to raise my foot and crush the apple. Despite myself, I picked it up.

She walked out of the temple at her teacher’s side, filling her lungs with pleasant, cool air. Her heart was bursting with an inexpressible sense of [End Page 142] accomplishment. The sky was so blue it seemed to be drawing her up to heaven, the realm of the Buddhas. Walking down the steps, supporting Teacher by the arm, she noticed the ache in her own legs. All day, she had been sitting cross-legged on the thin cushion, answering one question after another, until she had smoothly passed the oral examination. Now she would be a chuzan, permitted to study the Sutra of the Heavenly Guardian with a teacher from one of the three great temples in Lhasa.

“Most of us live in ignorance,” Teacher said in a low voice. “As we practice compassion, our ignorance dissolves. But one must also study hard to clarify the spirit.”

The clear chanting of the sutras, the ring of the bell, the mysterious, dark wisps of smoke from burning juniper boughs, the simple grace of the robes–marrow and pith of the temple. More and more she would know, would comprehend all. As she stepped from the last stair onto the soft earth, the familiar yet haunting song came drifting down from heaven.

I, Su Wu, hostage of a western tribe,
Cherish my Han god,
Finding no shame in loyalty.
Gulping sleet, chewing hides,
Nineteen years I have endured
Earth of snow, heaven of ice,
A shepherd in bondage
On the shore of a frozen sea.
The insignia has rotted
On my envoy’s banner,
And I am captive still,
Finding in old trouble troubles ever new.
My heart is firm as iron.
At midnight I hear the alien flute
High up on the fortress wall
Bitter in my ear.