Teaser 325: Our Witness to a Solemn Undertaking
Our trip to Dabaxiang took seven full days to cover a distance of barely thirty miles. It was thirty of the most rugged, exhausting miles I had ever traveled. When we actually reached the tiny village I looked to Chodak with great appreciation. Not only was he correct in stating earlier to me “delays are common” while traveling to Dabaxiang, I would never have reached it without him. He rescued me after I slipped on a rock in a fast moving section of a mere stream and was bounced along nearly a hundred yards until I snagged a limb which held and he stealthily waded into the stream, grabbed and pulled me incessantly until we both reached the calm bank. I had given up once I had held on to the limb for fifteen minutes. I was ready to let go and would have let go, knowing when I did I would never return anywhere. Chodak's firm grasp of my arm and his incessant pulling gave me the strength to struggle with him. While I tried to assure others I would make it to India, there were many, many moments in this journey to Dabaxiang when I considered it simple delusion. Humans always delude themselves and I was not immune.
Once we reached the outskirts of the village we were greeted by a solemn undertaking. Days before residents of the area and some of the Chinese stationed there had returned with the body of a young man who was unfortunate enough to be caught in an avalanche while he and others were negotiating a mountain pass at its most narrow. They were all parts of four families, all related in some manner, and had been returning to the area around Dabaxiang and their permanent homes from their annual summer migration to a wilderness valley with abundant grass and land for summer crops, something their ancestors had been migrating for centuries. Avalanches in the higher elevations of the Himalayas are not uncommon but their causes, from weather patterns, are well-understood by those having lived there for lifetimes. These four families happened to get caught in a very unexpected storm change, which dropped huge amounts of snow in mere hours, triggering the avalanche at a time when they were most vulnerable in the narrow pass. They were caught in one of those moments which many human beings have encountered where the danger factor has, unexpectedly, heightened to such a peak that one single error in judgment will result in death. If you have never experienced such a moment, where your every ounce of reason and tenacity are required only to survive, don't think you're so lucky. Since you're alive and haven't experienced such a moment may mean your moment is yet to come.
Most in this area of Tibet lean to Buddhism, but a monastic and thus more formal presence is lacking near Dabaxiang, so the procedures for the death of one or more is not conducted with much adherence to the most formal instructions found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with the bardos and stages and all of it. The process here is still done, more or less, in the manner it always has been done as far as any can remember. What you discover with Buddhist practice all over the world is that it is never rigid and always incorporated into the prevailing customs of the local peoples, and Dabaxiang is no exception. Besides, since the man had been dead for weeks before his body was finally retrieved, there were a lot of bardo stages which were impossible to perform. So be it. It's the Buddhist way.
There was reverence in the proceedings but there was little uncontrollable grief. The one passing from this life left a young wife, a brother and his young family, an uncle and his family, and one of the wives' sisters and her family. All had been traveling together and had escaped the worst of the avalanche, but the unfortunate one had been pulling at their now stubborn yak and both were swept away by the wall of snow. Chodak and I watched the proceedings silently, respectfully, and the deceased was wrapped in a white cloth and eventually lain on a short funeral pyre and the fire started below. There were many hugs and calm, consoling words between all, of the village, the surrounding area, even the Chinese merely stationed there and certainly awaiting release. What Chodak advised me, while we kept a respectful distance and merely observed silently, is the young wife often gazed upon me. Taking reverential care of the dead is a serious proceeding and all are inherently involved, but our unexpected arrival, Chodak and me, seemed to reach a similar attention from the longstanding residents of the area, and especially the young wife, now a widow.
We waited until Chodak reached a comfort level to get on with what we needed, bowing and nodding frequently, and we secured a vacant room to rest from one of the villagers and began our unpacking and readying for bed. This took the rest of the day into the evening and we were invited to eat with our hosts and did so. We retired to our small, solitary room to settle in for the night, when we heard a commotion at the entrance between our host and some unexpected visitor. From what little Chodak could overhear and relate, it almost certainly concerned the young wife, the widow.
Humans die everywhere. No one gets out of here alive. In Western cultures, when a man or woman die, they may leave behind a grieving husband or wife, children too, but the widow or widower almost never arrange some type of “bond” with another immediately. In other cultures, though, a widow or widower often attach, in some manner and with differing influences, to another family, and the affected lives go on. In Tibet, especially in the more rugged, remote and wild areas, often the widowed attach to a surviving family member, either their own or one of the deceased's family. This “arrangement” continues to this day in the most remote areas, and often that's not a requirement. What is most unique about this practice is that it does not always require family. The newly widowed have a say in it and, in fact, they have the largest say. They can and have, in the past, attached to those not of either family and right away, it seems, and no one considers it unseemly. Life goes on so get on with it.
The commotion at the door of our host soon involved Chodak and me, since the host knocked upon our closed door and asked to speak with us. The unexpected visitor was the brother of the deceased and he had come with a specific proposal. The deceased's brother and uncle, having returned safely while their brother and nephew had not, knew, as did everyone in the area, about the growing financial problems in China, though it was not phrased this way. It was becoming more difficult to conduct typical, essential transactions with those outside Dabaxiang, transactions which were expected easily, so easily they had become dependent upon them. They all knew things were going to be difficult for a while and neither the brother nor the uncle nor anyone else had room for a widow who had no family anywhere close to Dabaxiang. The brother himself, telling this to Chodak and Chodak soon interpreting to me, was overwrought with grief and anxiety and regret but adding another mouth to feed in his small and impoverished family would be a huge burden.
Chodak turned to me and told me then what the brother had just told him. “I would do it, my friend, we all would do it, but Jinpa refuses.” Jimpa's refusal was the most important aspect of this since she was the widow and if she wouldn't stay with the brother no one could make her. What the brother asked us was to meet with all of them soon, tonight. Chodak turned to me. “You must come. It involves you, Al-Barrak.” We agreed and followed the brother to their shack of a home.
In a cramped and barren room with but a few furnishings, all taken, and a bare, dirt floor, we gathered with the participants, the brother, the uncle, the young widow, Jinpa, and the three wives, the husband of one, and all the children. Chodak and I sat on the dirt floor with legs crossed and listened and spoke when fitting. Jinpa was from a northwestern province of China, not Tibet, hundreds of miles away, and had met her spouse during his trip years before. Jinpa had no family still alive from where she had come and, of course, had no family here either. She was resolved that she could not place herself in a burden for her brother-in-law, nor any of the other family of the deceased's brother, but if she did not, she would have to go back to her homeland and would certainly become a mere beggar. Chodak told me, “You saw them, even in Lhasa, Al-Barrak. Those women on the streets, begging, have no family. This is all they have left, sitting in the streets, day after day, begging.” I had seen them, even given money to them while I had been here. They were not like most beggars everywhere else in the world, maybe because Tibet doesn't ignore them, nor do foreigners, and they receive money to go on. They're not beaten down but it is their only livelihood. I stared at Jinpa while she stared at me. I had a hunch. I knew where this was going.
Again, Chodak advised what they had been discussing. “Jinpa wants to go with you, Al-Barrak, if you will accept her, take her with you. She says she will serve you, do anything-”
I cut him off. “I want to speak with Jinpa, Chodak, with you as my translator. Only her.” It took but minutes to clear the barren room as all stood and stepped outside to wait. “I want to know, from your heart, Jinpa, why you want to do this with me.”
This is what she told me through Chodak. “You are a man, I know, of great understanding and compassion. You have a place for me and I accept that place, for it will be joyful and worthy, since I will serve you in that place like no other. I loved my husband and served him faithfully but he could not give me children, which I want more than all. You will give me children and for that I will never leave you, never fail you. I will serve you obediently and do all you ask, if only you will take me with you. Please, take me with you.”
I turned to Chodak and said, “Ask her if she will give me tonight to think about it. I will not leave her until I give her my answer. Ask her.”
Chodak asked her and she answered with one word, accompanied by a wide smile. “Yes.”
I slept fitfully as you may imagine. We ate an early breakfast with our host and family and walked to the home of the brother and his family, where Jinpa was staying. When we reached the entryway, I told Chodak to ask the brother I wished to ask one more question of Jinpa, out in the open here, away from all others. A few minutes later, Jinpa arrived at the doorway, stepped beyond it, and her smile was inviting. She was inviting me. This is what I told Chodak to tell her. “You said, Jinpa, you wanted children from your husband. I can take you to my home where there are many men who will surround us. If I fail to give you children, you must tell me how long you will wait until you abandon me so you can have children with one of the many men who will surround us. Should you lie to me, Jinpa, you know you will be punished.”
The smile from Jinpa when she listened to Chodak's translation was captivating. I had been trapped in her snare. “I shall devote my life to you for ten years, Al-Barrak, for if you haven't given me children by then, you never will, and you may even be dead by then. I will give you ten years of devotion.”
- Just Desserts, Segment Forty-One “Exit Tibet” by Gregory R. Schussele, © 2021
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