An Old Nun Tells Her Story

Written by: Geyang
Translated by Herbert Batt

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The month I was born, my mother dreamed that there was a gold buddha as long as her arm inside our stove. As she carefully lifted it out, the buddha’s head fell off. Several days later, I was born. My father had wanted a boy. My mother told me that if I’d been a boy, I wouldn’t have lived because, as her dream showed, it wasn’t her fate to have a boy. Except for my father, everyone in the family was happy about my arrival, especially my sister. Before I was born, she was lonesome. My five brothers, by my father’s other wife, spurned her company. The afternoon Mother was giving birth to me, my sister was in the sutra room, praying for a girl. When, years later, she told me this, I was quite moved.

My father was an able merchant. By the time I was born, he owned a silk-goods shop, a tea and porcelain shop, and an estate in Toelung that he had bought from an impoverished aristocrat. However, the estate was not completely ours: we still had to pay annual rent to the Kashag government. There were thick groves of willows on the banks of a little brook gurgling past the back of the house, and a garden that overflowed with the scent of roses. But we stayed on the estate only for short periods, every now and then. It was only after I was grown that I realized the soil on the estate was so poor, and its irrigation system so inadequate, that the harvest sometimes wasn’t enough to cover our rent.

Father was of pure Khampa ancestry. When he was fourteen, he left the tiny temple where he’d been a lama and came to Lhasa to seek his fortune. He had realized that the powerful ambition surging within him would be a kind of desecration in the monastery. The wealth and influence he acquired proved the wisdom of his decision.

Father had two wives, so I had two mothers. They lived peaceably, like sisters, and together bore my father five sons and two daughters.

Old Mother was a devout Buddhist. She passed the greatest part of her day in our sutra room. As far back as I can remember, she ate vegetarian food–rarely having her meals with the rest of us–and sometimes she fasted. Despite this, she was fat; so I think whether one is fat or thin is probably fated by heaven. She wasn’t my natural mother, but it was from her that I received most of my childhood education, just as my brothers and sister did. [End Page 83]

Without any doubt, my natural mother was a beauty. She was fond of dressing up and gave herself a fresh, new look every day. It was she who managed all the affairs in our home, and under her direction, everything in the household was kept orderly and neat as a pin. She liked to sing and play the dramnyen and knew all the street singers’ popular songs. The trouble was that she was so busy she never had time for us children, who needed her care and attention.

My only companion was my older sister. I always gave in to her whims, and she always discovered fascinating things for us to see and do.

The year I was five, Father and my eldest brother set out on a long business journey. They were gone almost two years. When they finally returned home, I thought, Why are these strangers hugging and kissing us? I didn’t dare approach them.

Barely three years older than I, my sister had the opposite reaction. She threw her arms around Father the moment he entered the room. I found this strange because she’d told me that she hated him so much she hoped he’d never come back. Pretense isn’t always a bad thing; on the contrary, sometimes it makes us lovable.

When I was eight, my natural mother told me I would be taken to a convent in Gyantse to become a nun. She dressed me in a reddish-brown skirt and robe and told me I looked lovely in them. I stood a long time looking at myself in the mirror, worrying that I wouldn’t be beautiful after my hair was cut off. As I look back now, I realize how ridiculously vain I was. Fortunately, reddish-brown becomes me.

Who decided to send me away to be a nun–my father or my mother? I hadn’t the understanding to consider the matter then. I only hoped the place I was going to would be as beautiful as our manor. So, bewildered and confused, I left my family and home.

It was a fine temple: the solemn, magnificent sutra hall, the glistening snow-white stupa, the great, heavy gate painted with elaborate designs, the narrow, stone stairway up the hillside, the green trees, the bright, many-colored flowers, the little birds whose names I didn’t know. I couldn’t help immediately falling in love with it. It was so much more wonderful than I had imagined.

There were seventy or eighty nuns. When I looked in their placid faces, I hadn’t the least doubt that I would become one of them. We were so tiny, so insignificant. We could only kneel before our master, the incomparable Lord Buddha, and pray–not only for liberation from our misdeeds, but also for the liberation of all sentient beings.

Convent life was austere, but once I had grown accustomed to it, it didn’t seem so. It was monotonous, but once I accepted it, it no longer seemed monotonous.

The convent had a dozen yaks and a few dozen sheep. Winters, the nuns took turns tending these animals in the fields. Summers, the temple turned [End Page 84] the animals over to herdsmen who took them to distant mountain pastures. All this followed an ancient unwritten practice: when summer comes, the herdsmen pack up their tents and take the animals up to the mountains to graze, leaving the lowland grass to grow for the herds in winter.

The winter pasture was quite a distance from our little temple. More often than not, we were completely exhausted by the time we reached it. Still, I liked being sent there, liked the boundless grasslands, lying on the grass and looking up at the sky, and the feeling I got watching the smoke rise into the heavens as the tea brewed over the fire. Sometimes the nomad herdsmen teased us with brazen jokes so that we blushed until our ears turned red.

We went to the pasture in pairs. I was usually paired with Nechung, who was four years older than I. From the time she was little, she had neither father nor mother and was brought up by her brother and his wife, and so she knew how to do many things I didn’t, but she was understanding and sympathetic and didn’t mind my mistakes. She was not beautiful, but in my eyes she was lovable. The year she turned fourteen, a young herdsman fell in love with her and was always thinking up ways to get near her.

One beautiful sunny afternoon, Nechung and I built a fire, made our tea, ate the tsampa we’d brought with us, and then lay down on the grass. A light breeze was blowing, and the sun was so dazzling that we couldn’t keep our eyes open. Gradually, we fell asleep.

I’m not sure how much time had passed. A cry awoke me. The young herdsman was clutching Nechung in his arms and kissing her. Presently, he stood up and walked off a few steps. He’d put his arms around her before to tease her. I felt it was all silly, lay down again, closed my eyes, and fell asleep. When I woke up, Nechung was sitting at my side with a blank stare on her face. She looked at me. Something in her expression made me uneasy.

“He made me sleep with him,” she said calmly. “He was so strong I couldn’t stop him.”

I knew she was upset, but I didn’t know what to do for her. We went back to our temple, returned the livestock to their pens, filled the water jars, ate our supper, chanted the sutras, and went to bed. I woke up in the middle of the night and heard Nechung crying. We sat with our arms around each other until dawn, terrified.

Looking after the livestock was no longer something beautiful for us now. The moment we set foot on the pasture, fear was at our side. Fortunately, the weather turned warm early that year: the herdsmen soon took the herds off to the mountains, and we no longer had to look after the livestock.

I was only ten at the time, too young to understand what had happened to Nechung. I couldn’t comprehend her anguish, and she was afraid to express it; neither could I console her. I realize now that she didn’t expect a [End Page 85] ten-year-old girl to help her solve her problem. She just needed me at her side.

Before this happened, she had been a happy girl, though no one ever came to visit her. Her faith told her that everything that happened to her was determined by her actions in her previous life, so she wasn’t worried about this life. She believed that if she just tried hard, her next life would be one of good fortune. And so she chanted more sutras than other nuns, worked harder, and bore the misunderstandings and burdens that others created for her. But with this calamity, her purpose in life was snatched away: she believed she had defiled herself in the eyes of Lord Buddha.

Worst of all, she was pregnant. We realized this months later, when her stomach was so swollen it was impossible to hide. If we hadn’t been so naive, perhaps we might have realized it earlier and thought of something to do about it–perhaps . . . But until our teacher explained it to her, we were paralyzed by anxiety and didn’t know that inside her slender body a tiny life was stirring.

She told her teacher everything. But it wasn’t a story that everyone could believe. Probably everyone but me doubted her story to some degree. I was disgusted with the nuns around me, but I realize now that I ought not to have blamed them. Anyone with common sense would have had some misgiving.

One morning our teacher came to tell Nechung that the abbess would permit her to have the baby in the convent, but Nechung would have to leave after that. She was devastated. She told me that she didn’t want to go on living. To leave the temple, she thought, was to forsake all hope for a good life in her next reincarnation.

In the convent barn, among the piles of hay, Nechung gave birth to a sturdy, healthy boy. The sight of the baby dissolved the nuns’ misgivings and moved the abbess’s heart to compassion: if Nechung and her child were to leave the temple now, how would they survive? The abbess said she would allow Nechung to remain a year.

And so she should have enjoyed a year of peace and security, during which her wounded soul might have healed. But this was not to be.

Another nun got pregnant, and the abbess’s rage fell like lightning on Nechung. The abbess felt that the second nun had gotten pregnant because she hadn’t punished Nechung severely enough. Our convent’s reputation for purity and upright conduct had been blackened. The abbess announced that both Nechung and the other nun were to leave in ten days–never to return.

For two days Nechung spoke to no one. There was no resentment in her eyes, no blame. She accepted her expulsion as her fate. She gave no thought to how she would live after she left the temple, or where her path in the world might lead. She was waiting for death. [End Page 86]

When punishment for someone else’s misdeed crushes us, may we put an end to our life? May we ignore the teaching that, by choosing to die, we terminate the cycle of our reincarnations and suffer in hell for eternity?

It was my turn to take out the herds. Out of breath and panting, I reached the pasture with my new companion, a girl of infectious merry spirits. Our laughter attracted a crowd of other children watching their livestock. Someone began singing, and we danced around in a circle until we were worn out. I lay down on the grass.

Suddenly, my thoughts returned to Nechung. When I got back that evening, would I find her dead by her own hand? The boy who’d violated her was nearby, cheerfully drinking his tea. An irresistible impulse brought me to my feet.

His eyes shifted nervously as I stood before him. I discovered that I was frightened too. How should I begin talking? He had made love a pretext for doing what he wanted and had no idea of the suffering he’d caused. I wanted to chastise him, curse him, beat him, stab him, kill him. I didn’t dare. I couldn’t even scold him.

Stammering, I blurted out everything–what I should have told him and what I shouldn’t have–as if I was just telling a touching little story. When the story was finished, I had nothing more to say.

There was an awkward silence. He sat silently, and I walked away.

Had I run all this way just to tell him he had a son?

When I got back to the temple, I was relieved to find Nechung still alive. She rushed up to me and said, “He’s here.”

“Who?”

“The boy who . . .”

“What for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Where?”

“With our teacher.”

Like criminals awaiting sentence, we mutely sat side by side, gripping each other by the hand as if we would never see each other again once we let go. Nechung clutched her baby to her breast. Presently, the sound of approaching steps jolted us out of our daze. Then he was standing there before us. “I confessed everything to your teacher,” he said. “If the abbess won’t let you stay, there’s a place for you in my tent.” He looked at the baby, reached out, stroked it, and said, “A child without a father . . .”

The abbess changed her mind about Nechung staying at the convent, but now Nechung insisted on leaving–with the man she’d feared and hated. “It isn’t my fate to serve Lord Buddha in this life,” she declared. “Heaven sent that man for me to take care of. I’ll keep in my heart everything I’ve learned here in the temple.”

I was so young I didn’t understand what it meant to part with someone. [End Page 87] I thought she’d remain in the pasturelands nearby, but though I later searched and searched, I never found her. She and her man had disappeared forever.

My only good friend was gone. I grew lonely again. Luckily, people from home came to visit me. They brought alms for the temple, as well as things that I needed.

Sometimes I left the convent in the company of other nuns to go begging in distant cities. Often we’d stop several days in towns along the way, and so I saw something of the varied, colorful life of the world. But it did not make me want to change where I was.

When Old Mother died, the family sent a servant to bring me back home. As I again stood at the gate of the courtyard where I was born, my heart grew anxious. How much had changed in four years? How much had I forgotten?

The face of my own mother seemed strange to me. Watching me from my mother’s side, dressed in violet satin pume and matching yellow puyod, was my sister. Could this beauty be the girl I’d slept with in the same bed when I was little? Her skin was so fair, so lovely! Suddenly I thought of my own face. How long had it been since I’d looked in a mirror? Did I look like her? I must look like her–we had the same mother! But maybe I didn’t–maybe I didn’t look like her at all . . . As my imagination was running away with me, my father walked into the room as solemn and majestic as ever. He was genial, even smiled at me, but I was still afraid of him.

Several of my brothers were there, but I couldn’t tell them apart. Only my second brother, who was lame, told me which one he was.

I must have been a stranger in their eyes as well.

Though Old Mother had already died when I arrived, she is the only distinct person in my recollection of that time. She had visited me once a year at the convent. The donations she had brought made me proud. Her words, her tone, the expression on her face had given me such courage.

The whole house was grief stricken. Father had lost a good wife. My mother had lost a friend and sister. My brothers and sisters had lost a compassionate mother. The servants had lost a benevolent mistress. She had treated everybody kindly, done whatever she could to help people, and never caused trouble for anyone. She considered everyone’s mistakes forgivable. A person like her was sure to be reborn into a beautiful next life and to enter the way of future reincarnations in peace. If we were grief stricken merely because we would not see her again and benefit from her kindness, wasn’t there some selfishness in our sorrow?

I stayed on at home for four months, gradually becoming reacquainted with my family. They were especially attentive to me; still, I spent most of my time in the sutra room. [End Page 88]

I didn’t know what I would have felt in a truly rich house, but the luxury of our home shocked me. I recalled our little temple, where we considered radishes a treat, where we had our tea with just a tiny lump of yak butter or nothing at all, where we never thought of cake or candy. We worked so hard, got up with the stars still hanging in the sky and recited so many sutras. Yet it all made sense. Watching the life of my family after Old Mother died helped me to understand how impossible it is to set out on the path that leads to self-liberation and peace without deep faith and prayer in our hearts.

My sister turned sixteen that year. Beauty is always something good–her loveliness delighted me. My brothers were frequently away from home, absorbed in their own affairs. I never bothered to discover what they did. My mother was still the same: elegant and graceful. The daily round of life in the house went on beneath her watchful eye, as before. She had two more helpers now: my two new sisters-in-law. My sister took no trouble to conceal her strife with them.

A merchant friend of my father gave him a piece of beautiful White Russian cloth. To this day, I can’t say what kind of material it was. Its texture, its sheen, its pattern–everything about it mesmerized my sister and my two sisters-in-law, but it was only big enough to make two skirts. I knew that dividing this piece of cloth would create a problem. Without the least hesitation, my father gave it to my two sisters-in-law, and my sister was heartbroken for an entire week.

Finally, I returned to the remote little temple, where there were always tribulations but nothing of the sort to make me think there was anything wrong with convent life.

I next returned home three years later. What a difference between one person’s death and another’s! Till then I had naively associated death with the elderly. My sister’s death hurled me into depression.

If only she had lived, she would have been a bride and then a mistress of an aristocratic home. She would have borne beautiful children, devoted her life to her husband, and become a radiant star in society. Her fatal illness had snatched away a vibrant, lovely girl with such magnificent hopes . . . Death was truly omnipotent.

My companion was gone, and our home seemed alien to me.

My sister’s death aged my mother. The first wrinkles appeared on her face. She was my mother, but we had never been close, never confided in one another. Still, I loved her, and her anguish troubled me.

I’d been home half a year, and still there was no sign of any preparations to send me back to the convent. Early one morning, when I was chanting my sutras, my mother came to me carrying a light-blue robe and matching skirt and a pair of black leather shoes. She told me to put them on.

“Why?” I asked, surprised. [End Page 89]

“Your father wants you to wear these. Guests are coming.”

She looked over my hair and seemed quite satisfied. Though it was only an inch long, it had a natural curl and probably didn’t look too unattractive.

She left. Bewildered, silent, I changed my clothes. In the past when guests had come for dinner, nobody had called me to join them. I ate alone in the sutra room. I thought solitude was the lot of a nun. After I changed into the new clothes, I felt ashamed. I didn’t return to the sutra room. To sit on the cushion dressed like that, reciting my sutras, would somehow be improper.

When Mother came to call me, she had recaptured the radiance she’d lost after my sister’s death. There was only one guest, a man thirty or forty years old, not very tall or robust, a very ordinary-looking person. As I sat at the table and started to eat, I found myself doing such ridiculous things that I regretted having come. I dropped my food in my lap. My spoon rang against my bowl. The noise I made as I began to eat my soup was so loud that I couldn’t bear to take another mouthful. It had been so long since I’d eaten in the company of other people! My hands were shaking. I must have blushed to the roots of my hair. For the first time in my life, I felt like an ugly little buffoon.

I was weak with the realization that I was embarrassing my father and mother. Thank heaven, dinner finally ended. Alone again in the sutra room, I realized that the life I’d led in the convent had been so remote from anything my family had experienced that I could probably never be like them again.

Another month went by, and still there was no sign of preparations to send me back. My mother now insisted that I begin wearing bright, colorful clothes and taught me how to match the colors. She made me put on showy rings and bracelets. Was this how she thought a nun should dress? She gave me jars of fragrant facial creams, a box of face powder, and a makeup kit and taught me how to use them. In the convent, we just rubbed our faces with a bit of yak butter and never gave it a thought. I would sit like a variety storekeeper’s daughter, perplexed by this dazzling display of glittering objects.

When Mother went out to play mahjong with her friends, she insisted I accompany her, and along the way, she would explain how to walk, smile, eat, and talk in public. She taught me how to use a phonograph. She even wanted me to learn to sing. Everything she said made me feel uneasy. I began to have a premonition.

I had always been a good daughter and believed it would be wrong to defy my parents. At the same time, I gradually began to understand my position in the family and in society. I sat and reckoned to myself–it had been a whole year since I’d left the convent. [End Page 90]

“Mama, I think I should go back.”

“You don’t like it here at home?”

“No, no. But my teacher won’t like it if I stay here longer.”

“If your teacher says it’s all right, will you stay?”

“I’m a nun. I should live in the convent.”

“No, you’re not. You’ve left the convent. We arranged it all for you six months ago. You don’t belong to the convent anymore. You’re our only daughter now, you belong here at home, and your father and I have decided to arrange a much better life for you.” Mother gave me a little hug. “We know you probably haven’t gotten used to it yet, but you will in a while. Remember, from now on you’re not a nun, you’re the young lady of our family. We’re not aristocrats, but we don’t lack for money, and the day will come when you’ll become a true noblewoman.”

To become a noblewoman was probably my mother’s greatest dream, but such a notion had never entered my head. Her words startled me.

Half a year later, I was married. My husband was the man who had come to our house for dinner–the only man outside our family with whom I’d eaten at the same table. Though his family was far from prosperous, he had pure aristocratic blood. By my marriage to him, I’d become a true noblewoman, and my mother rejoiced.

My father had originally picked him out for my sister. If she had lived, she would have made him a fine wife. Her beauty, warmth, and charm would have assured his happiness. Stupid and clumsy as I was, I made up my mind to please him. I had to do this for my sister.

And so another phase of my life began. I was nineteen, he thirty-nine. Our life was uneventful, even dull. Time passed, we had four children, and I discovered the joys of being a mother. I had learned many things at the convent, and I realized that I was a knowledgeable mother. Of this I was proud.

He never shouted at me or hit me–unlike in my own family, where my father had struck my mother brutally. And he was a good father. I still recall the tears that came to his eyes when our son fell down the stairs.

His father had died when he was young and his mother had gone blind, so his only sister, who was older than he, had left her convent and come home to manage the household. She had never married. I was terribly frightened of her. Through the disgust and contempt in her eyes, I came to know the arrogance and prejudice of aristocrats. To her I was just a little beggar-devil; and she took every opportunity to create trouble for me.

The family took its meals in a dark-red room. I could see in the walnut table and elaborately carved chairs the luxury of bygone days. Although the family’s financial circumstances were nothing like in the past, their lifestyle had barely changed. My husband’s sister obviously believed I was not worthy of sharing this lifestyle. Her hostile, overbearing glare so [End Page 91] spoiled my appetite that I always left the table half hungry. My husband simply thought I couldn’t eat any more. As a nun, I had learned to make an effort to look on the good side of things; I had my sister-in-law to thank for my slender figure.

In my new home, I undertook many things that I’d never attempted before, and discovered that I learned quickly. The convent had taught me that life takes hard work. Gradually, I became accustomed to my sister-in-law’s slights and provocations. I did my best to ignore them, and when I had to cry, I went off to cry alone. From the first I gave in to her. After a time I found that her troublemaking left me unmoved, and I wasted fewer tears, until I eventually became indifferent to it all.

I assumed she could never like me, never cease trying to provoke me, but one day she started being nicer. I didn’t know what to make of it, but in fact it made me happy. As we began to get to know and understand each other, I discovered that she was really a most sincere person, a woman who expressed all of her feelings and held nothing back. If she hated you, she hated you to the marrow of your bones; if she liked you, you never needed to keep up your guard. My arrival had caused turbulence in their family; as it subsided, everything became quiet again.

My husband had two younger brothers. One had left the family and become a monk. The other lived at home. He and his wife were mild, gentle people who never bothered anyone. Ten years after I joined the family, he fell ill of some disease that baffled the physicians, and he died. Their uncle asked my husband to take his brother’s widow as his second wife, for the sake of stability in the family.

I didn’t mind. Hadn’t my own father had two wives? My sister-in-law was a good woman, and my husband a good man. Why shouldn’t two good people come together?

But my husband refused.

He said to me, “I don’t see any need for it. She’s still part of the family. I can fulfill my responsibility to my brother by taking care of his widow and children. Besides, you and I have a good life together. Why should someone come between us?”

In the ten years of our marriage, my husband had treated me well, he’d looked after my health, but he’d never revealed anything of a man’s feeling for his wife. I had always thought his concern for me was nothing more than a father’s for a daughter. But the emotion I saw in his eyes now could only be love!

To accept the love of a man nearing fifty and try to love him in return . . . Although it might have been called late love, there was nothing late, nothing incomplete about it. For the first time, I knew the incomparable joy of being a woman, a wife. Ten years I had remained aloof. I thought that as long as I looked after him and bore his children, I would be fulfilling [End Page 92] my duty. Deep in my heart, I had always thought of him as my sister’s husband. It took me ten years to begin to understand him, to let him into my soul. What a difference when a man and woman rely on each other . . . how much the heart can accomplish!

Our children were growing up now, and several years later, his sister-in-law remarried and left the household. Then his sister died, and I had to manage the household finances and oversee our expenses. When I realized our situation, I persuaded my husband to sell our unprofitable manor in far-off Kham, dismissed some of our servants, and cut our expenses. Things were easier for a time, but after a few years we were again short of money.

My husband had little understanding of financial matters, and his health had begun to deteriorate. If I’d explained our situation to him, he never would have stopped blaming himself, so I kept my lips sealed. My one consolation was that our eldest son was now a grown man, and my chief support.

Now I faced the greatest calamity of my life: my husband was ill, and the family’s finances were collapsing. I had nothing but prayer to keep me from despair. One evening my husband died . . . at dusk, in my arms. Fortunately, by then I had become indifferent to death.

He was gone; I remained. I called my children together and told them that from then on we had to be tough, learn to bear hardships, live by our skills. They hardly grasped the full significance of what I told them. We had no choice but to sell our home, and now, aside from our aristocratic blood and noble name, we had nothing. When, half a year later, my children found themselves penniless, trudging along the streets of Lhasa, my one hope was that they might keep their courage.

I’d brought them into this world. They were the tender spot in my heart. When they came in the door dejected over some opportunity lost through their own mistake or stolen because someone had cheated them, I tried to bolster their self-confidence by reminding them of past successes. I hoped they wouldn’t dwell on defeat. I witnessed their vulnerability, their frustration, their suffering, and their toil . . . Most often, hard work leads to defeat, of course, but I saw that they had begun to understand how to face defeat. Reversals and disappointments, bumps and bruises are unavoidable out in the world. From what I endured in those days, I learned that the most beautiful thing in life is not splendor and luxury, or wealth and rank, or occupying a position of power wherever you go, but the self-assurance that comes from having overcome obstacles, step by step, through your own perseverance.

It is a beautiful thing to raise children. So many things you do not experience directly, you experience through your children. Children represent hope for the future. But what do old people represent? My braids are silver-white, but I still have hope. [End Page 93]

My children were busy with their own affairs, and at last my spirit was free to find itself a home. I’m a common, ordinary person, and like most old people, I’ve chosen an ordinary way to spend my remaining years. I left my family and became a nun again. I’ve returned to the little convent where I lived as a girl. At sixty, I’ve shaved my head and put on a reddish-brown robe again.

Many of my convent sisters of bygone years are still alive. We tell each other the stories of our lives, and everything we’ve suffered becomes something beautiful. We discuss our hopes for the future, after this life is over. The pasture where I tended livestock as a child is as vast as before, the sky as blue. The white stupa, the red walls, the green leaves . . . Nothing has changed. And I realize now that the tumultuous life of a human being is no more than a passing flash of light against the timelessness of nature.