6 year old Gedhun stared down at his dinner plate. A mix of spicy lentils and rice filled a small metal bowl. Next to the bowl was hasta roti, a Nepalese version of fried bread made into circles resembling the shape of onion rings. Before taking his meal he reflected on how hard his family worked to be able to eat like this.
The family’s semi-dwarf wheat crops, which produced over 400 kilograms of harvest each year, provided the flour to make the roti. The lentils were grown in 13 of the family’s 35 farming patches terraced into the southern facing portion of their land near Chusul, Tibet. Gedhun’s family grew 4 types of lentils: green, brown, yellow and red. They had an agreement with their closest neighbor, Chokey, to barter a portion of their brown lentil crop for some of Chokey’s rice harvest.
After each rice harvest Gedhun’s 2 older brothers would carry sacks of lentils to Chokey’s home almost 6 kilometers down the wide path. They would return with sacks of recently harvested rice. The brothers would spread the rice on the family’s roof to dry in the sun. It was their job to make certain that the rice was dried perfectly. If it wasn’t done correctly it was an invitation for insects and mold to spoil the rice, and all the hard work of growing it in the first place would be wasted.
Rice needs a consistent water supply to grow. Lentils are very drought resistant. Gedhun’s grandfather had figured this out a long time ago. That’s why the family had set aside almost a third of their farming area for growing lentils. His grandfather had also figured out that being an expert in drying rice was a huge asset and taught Gedhun’s 2 older brothers how to do it. They were quickly becoming experts at a young age. Harvested rice had a value. It was traded for lentils. Perfectly dried rice had had even more value as it could be stored and used later.
Gedhun was grateful for the food before him and he gave thanks.
When Gedhun finished his meal he waited at the table for everyone else in the family to finish their dinner. His grandfather, Pemba, was usually the last one to finish eating. There were 2 reasons for this. He had very few teeth left, and some of the remaining ones were very sensitive. Sometimes when he chewed down it bothered his teeth. Often times Gedhun would offer to mash his grandfather’s food with a stone pestle and mortar to make it easier for Pemba to eat. His grandfather also liked to talk during mealtimes and Gedhun loved listening to his grandfather’s stories about life in the old days before the Chinese had annexed Tibet.
Gedhun took all of the dirty dishes from the table and brought them outside. There was usually just enough water left to clean the dishes. Each morning Gedhun’s mother, Sonam, would walk the 10 minutes to the stream that divided the the families lentil fields from their root vegetables. The stream provided water for the crops and for the family to use for cooking and washing. She would fill the water jug, carry it on her head, and make this trip back and forth 3 times as the sun came up every day. Gedhun washed the dishes, set them to dry, and headed back into his home for the night.
Most evenings Gedhun’s 2 older brothers, Norbu and Karma, would spend time teaching and tutoring him. There were no schools anywhere nearby so children ended up working as part of the families subsistence farming efforts. There were usually no other options. 10 year old Karma, the middle brother, practiced drawing and writing with his siblings. He seemed to be the one in the family with an artistic ability. Norbu, at 13 years old, was the oldest brother. He helped his 2 younger brothers learn and practice Tibetan Buddhist mantras. Every young Tibetan learns Om Mani Padme Hung and Gedhun’s brothers had learned dozens more from their father, Jampa. Gedhun’s favorite mantra was Oṃ Amideva Hrīḥ – the sacred mantra of the Buddha Amitabha.
When it was time for bed Jampa blew out the tallow candles and the family turned in for the night. Gedhun pulled up his wool blankets and relaxed face up in his bed. He crossed his ankles and folded his hands. He closed his eyes. Silently inside he began to repeat his favorite mantra. Inhaling – Oṃ Amideva Hrīḥ – and exhaling – Oṃ Amideva Hrīḥ. He drifted off to sleep quickly and easily.
Gedhun soon found himself in a room with many other children, all sitting at small wooden tables, facing the same direction. There was a man at the front of the room facing them. He was dressed in very unusual clothes which Gedhun had never seen before. He listened as the man spoke to the group in a different language. Although it was not the Tibetan language he spoke at home, Gedhun understood him. He raised his hand and answered the man’s question in the language the man was speaking.
Gedhun heard his father’s voice faintly calling for him from a distance. His body jolted briefly, he inhaled quickly, and his eyes shot open. The rest of the family was already awake. Sonam had finished going back and forth to the stream to gather the day’s water. She was now preparing a breakfast of lentil paratha (bread), butter tea, and tsampa. She made the lentil paratha by combining lentil paste (cooked and mashed lentils), with flour and chilies. She had steeped some tea overnight, adding yak butter and salt in the morning. Tsampa, roasted flour, was sometimes added to the butter tea to create a sort of porridge.
He hurried out of bed and headed to the common room to eat. His brothers were checking the rice which was drying on the roof. His grandfather was outside, squatting down and looking down the path that led to Chokey’s place. The path eventually led to the village of Chusul. Pemba stood up, turned back toward the home and told Gedhun’s father, Jampa, that they would be bringing Gedhun to Chusul with them today and not the oldest boy, Norbu.
The entire family gathered inside and ate breakfast. The delicious bread, which had a greenish color, was eaten up quickly. The boys added some tsampa to their yak tea and spooned the porridge non-stop from their bowls. When everyone was finished the 2 older brothers took the dishes to be washed. Jampa told Gedhun he would be traveling to Chusul today with his grandfather and him.
Gedhun got dressed and prepared to leave and he remembered his dream. For a moment he thought about the unusually dressed man speaking in another language. He found his hat, jacket and socks. He thought about answering the man’s question. He wondered about dreams and what they were really about. He laced up his boots and went outside to meet his father and grandfather. The 3 of them headed off down the path toward Chokey’s carrying 40 kilograms of lentils between them. They would trade half the lentils with Chokey, and the other half at the Chusul market for items the family needed. As Gedhun walked along he daydreamed about what language the strangely dressed man spoke. Before he knew it they were at Chokey’s home.
Pemba, Jampa and young Gedhun sat outside Chokey’s home and drank some water from her well. Chokey took the sacks of lentils that Gedhun’s family had brought to her and dragged them into her home. She returned with a few ladoos. If there’s one thing you could look forward to when visiting Chokey it was her ladoos. The sweet mix of steamed millet flour, jaggery, coconut and peanuts all rolled into large balls the size of lemons make your mouth water as soon as you see one. Chokey’s ladoos were extra special, extra tasty. Maybe it was due to Chokey roasting the peanuts, or maybe it was because of the type of jaggery she used. They each devoured one and placed extras in their pockets for a snack later on. Chokey told Pemba that her rice would be harvested in a few weeks and he could come pick up his share next month. They thanked Chokey and continued down the path toward Chusul.
The market in Chusul was another 6 KM away. Gedhun was excited and a little anxious, this being his first trip to the market. He didn’t know what to expect except that whenever his father or grandfather returned from their trips to the market they usually brought back items that were not available near their home. Stuff like dried mushrooms, pots and pans, rope, paper and pencils, and sometimes dried fruits. After passing a few more homes on the path they saw 3 men squatted in a circle with a hookah in the middle. Smoke was rising, Gedhun looked closely at the men, whose eyes were glazed and bloodshot as they coughed and laughed.
A few houses further down the path, 2 small children stood in front of their home behind a small iron gate and stared at Gedhun. His grandfather stopped briefly to say hello. The children’s mother motioned for Pemba to come through the gate and into the yard. Gedhun, Pemba and Jampa followed the 2 children over to where the mother was standing. She offered them some raw milk from her water buffalo who was penned up nearby. Water buffalo milk has 10 percent more calcium and protein than regular milk and almost 40 percent more iron. As Gedhun finished his milk he pulled the extra ladoos from his pocket that Chokey had given him and offered them to the 2 kids. They looked to their mother for approval and she nodded. The children extended their hands, took the ladoos from Gedhun, and bowed toward him, thankfully.
Continuing their walk down toward the market, they got closer and there were other locals on the trail now heading in the same direction. People with large backpacks and women carrying loads on their heads, all on their way to the weekly market. The closer they got they could hear the sounds from the market. Bells gently ringing. Motors running. People talking louder. They started to smell smoke from fires, food cooking and even some sort of incense burning. As they entered the market area Gedhun noticed one of the first food stands set up on the left hand side. A man was selling fried mozzarella balls. Next to the wok there was a small box playing loud music. Gedhun had never, ever heard music before or seen a music box. The song playing was Iron Man by Black Sabbath.
Jampa headed straight into the market area where he would trade his lentils. Gedhun followed his grandfather in a different direction down a narrow dirt way lined with merchants on both sides. Green and blue tarps were haphazardly strung overhead to block the sun or the rain, whichever decided to show up. Underneath there were new tarps of various sizes for sale. Rope was strung everywhere with all kinds of things hanging from it. They passed by locals selling blankets, bags, clothes, vegetables, and grains. And there were many things Gedhun did not recognize.
Pyramid shaped piles of spices in brightly colored shades of crimson and saffron rose out of small wooden barrels. Alongside, small baskets overflowed with dried chili peppers. Defeathered carcasses of ducks were laid out across large metal pans. There was a small truck loaded with bananas. They were piled twice the height of the truck. 2 men had set up small fires nearby. Each of them had a wok and were selling food. One was peeling, cutting and frying the bananas, the other one was making omelets. A goat, tied up nearby, ate the banana peels and eggshells. The goat’s owner was selling white cloths filled with cheese that were hanging from a rope.
Gedhun’s attention was being pulled in different directions at the same time. The vegetable merchants were yelling about their produce, how it was the best, the freshest, organic, the best price. The blanket merchants patted and folded and turned over their blankets, repetitiously telling whoever was listening or not that winter was on the way and everyone needed more blankets and these were the blankets you needed. The folks selling rice extolled their virtues of being expert rice driers. The banana man competed with the omelette man for people who thought they were hungry. The woman selling the ducks was pretty quiet. She had no competition. If you wanted a duck here they were. All ready to go. She had done all the hard work for you.
Gedhun’s family is vegetarian. He stared at the dead ducks with all their feathers missing. He didn’t know what to think. He was just about to ask the woman what happened to the ducks when his grandfather grabbed him gently by the upper sleeve of his jacket and coaxed him away. They walked a little further and met up with Jampa again who was now holding a few small sacks. He pulled a handful of candles from one of the bags to show to Pemba and Gedhun. He told them someone at the market was selling these pre-made candles. James was going to experiment with them to see how they worked back home. If all went well the family would not have to render beef fat into tallow to make candles anymore.
Gedhun and his grandfather took some of the other bags from Pemba and prepared for the journey back home. As they walked back near the man selling the fried mozzarella balls they saw 2 monks sampling his food. They stopped and bowed toward the monks and the monks returned the gestures. One of the monks offered Gedhun a mozzarella ball. Gedhun looked to his father, who nodded with his approval. Gedhun thanked the monk and ate the treat. His father offered the monks one of his new pre-made candles. The monks accepted and thanked him.
Jampa struck up a conversation with the monks about them being at the market as the closest monastery was maybe 20km away. The monks told them they were just completing the overseeing of the construction of a small Buddha stupa nearby the market as a gift to the local people of Chusul, and that their monastery was actually much further away, perhaps 60km toward the South. The monks told Jampa and Pemba that they also had a small educational campus at their monastery that housed and educated dozens of girls from poor areas. There were also 3 or 4 young boys on campus who were provided an education in English along with religious training in the Buddhist tradition. Room, board and tuition were free. The children stayed there 10 months of the year and spent the other 2 months with their families. Jampa looked at Pemba. Then he looked at Gedhun. Then he looked at the monks. His mind was racing. An opportunity for young Gedhun he thought. He could learn English. He had already shown a keen interest in Buddhist mantras and he was only 6. The man frying the mozzarella balls smiled as young Gedhun stared back. Stranger in a Strange Land by Iron Maiden played from the music box in the background. Gedhun was oblivious to the current life-changing conversations that were taking place right there next to him.
The monks offered to educate young Gedhun in their school at their monastery. They would be back at the market in 3 weeks time. Jampa and Pemba could think about it. If they decided to send Gedhun for an education it was just a matter of meeting the monks back at the market next month. Think about it, they said.
The monks headed back through the busy market and began their 35 mile journey back home, while Gedhun, Pemba and Jampa headed back up the path toward their place.
Jampa spoke first.
‘He’d be the first in our family to be educated.’
‘We need him to work with us, with all the farming’ replied Pemba.
‘He’s got 2 older brothers, we’ll be fine.’
‘But you and I aren’t getting any younger.’
‘20 years ago it was just the 2 of us and we handled it just fine.’
‘I don’t know, sending a young boy far away to live with strangers.’
‘It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. No one in our family has ever gone to school. You’re his father, so you decide. But I’m your father and I would have sent you if we had the opportunity.’
Pemba stopped walking, looked at Jampa, then looked at his son. ‘I’ll sleep on it’ he said.
Gedhun thought to himself about what it would be like to live with the monks in a faraway place, away from his family. He thought about school, and learning, and education. He didn’t know too much about it but he found it interesting.
The 3 of them trudged up the hill toward home.
They stopped at Chokey’s home again, just as they had done on their walk down to the market. She had some black tea boiling and offered it to them. The group sat around in a small circle outside, in front of Chokey’s place, drinking tea. She told Jampa about one of their neighbors, Dorje, who had died suddenly a few months ago. And Dorje’s wife, who had been living alone since the death of her husband, had decided to relocate to her sister’s family’s home on the other side of Chusul. Anyway, the wife had 2 water buffalo that she was going to take with her to her sister’s place. Unknown to her the cow was pregnant and had just produced twins, a rarity, but it happened. So now she finds herself with 4 animals instead of 2. And obviously the calves must stay with the cow until they are weaned.
‘So’ Chokey said, ‘Are you interested in 3 water buffalo? She’s only taking the bull along to her sisters.’
‘How would we possibly buy them?’ asked Pemba.
‘She’s just looking for a good home for them right now, you can work out something with her’ replied Chokey.
‘We’ll take them’ said Jampa, ‘and we’ll take good care of them.’
‘OK’ said Chokey ‘I’ll let her know.’
They said goodbye to Chokey and turned back up the path.
Jampa stopped and turned toward Chokey.
‘I almost forgot’ he said, pulling a few of the candles from his bag. ‘Try some of these. They’re pre-made, from the market.’
Chokey took the candles. She turned her head sideways a bit and inspected them closely. They looked perfect, she thought.
‘Thanks’ she said.
As they hiked up the hill back home Jampa thought about the water buffalo. The milk, cheese, ghee, butter, and yogurt they could supply. One of the calves was male and he’d grown up to help plow the fields. And then there was dung, which could be dried, and stacked and used for fuel. He was excited.
Pemba thought about Gedhun going off with the monks to be educated. He wasn’t sure if it was the right decision, but he did realize that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. What were the chances of them crossing paths with the monks today at the market? And speaking with them. And having a young son who was primed for an education, a free education at that. He was happy but anxious.
Young Gedhun daydreamed about the music box that the man in the market had. The strange and funny music that was blaring from it. And how the ladoos and the fried mozzarella balls were the same shape and size, but were made of something completely different. He certainly wasn’t hungry.
They arrived home back home just as the sun was setting. Gedhun looked across the valley and noticed it had rained. The last rays of the sun reached out to touch the moist air over in the valley, forming a rainbow.
Pemba woke to the cool morning air with a feeling of comfort. The decision to let go of Gedhun felt natural, like the right thing to do. His son would receive an education with the monks and perhaps break the familial cycle of living and working at their mountain homestead. It would be a first. Who knows what it would lead to.
At breakfast Pemba shared the news, and it was news, with the rest of the family. Jampa was pleased and agreed it was the right decision. Sonam tried hard not to weep. Her baby would be going away, far away, with strangers no less. The brothers, Norbu and Karma, were a bit jealous, although they said nothing. Gedhun was naturally a bit scared, a bit anxious, and excited too.
Over the next few weeks life went on in a somewhat unusual way at the family’s hillside home in Tibet. Sure, there was the usual harvesting of radish, turnips, carrots, daikon, potatoes and onions this time of year. But the construction of a new pen and stack of straw for the water buffalo, which were to arrive in a few days time, kept the boys very busy during the day. At night, Gedhun and his brothers would read and draw under the light of Jampa’s fancy new candles, the ones he’d gotten from the market. They seemed to work just fine.
Sonam spent the evenings packing up all of Gedhun’s clothes, getting them ready for his departure. The 3 weeks flew by. In the morning Gedhun would travel back to the market with his father and grandfather, and be handed off to the monks who would educate and care for him. Sonam did not sleep a wink. She tried some Chrysanthemum tea but it didn’t help. By the time everyone else got up that morning she had gathered the day’s water and had breakfast prepared.
Once everyone had finished eating Gedhun asked the entire family to sit in a circle. There was something he wanted to do before he left. He asked if he could lead the family in the recitation of a mantra, The Green Tara Mantra – Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha. Everyone obliged. Sonam’s eyes welled up as the entire family began to chant. Not because she was saying goodbye to her 6 year old son for 9 months, but because there he was, leading the family in a mantra. A mantra to relieve them from all sufferings. A mantra to relieve them from the 8 fears. A mantra to help overcome unpleasant situations. After 10 minutes or so the chanting stopped. Gedhun opened his eyes and smiled. He stood up and gave everyone a big hug before heading out the door. His father and grandfather followed. They were on their way to the market to meet the monks.
The monks were waiting patiently at the market when Gedhun, his father, and grandfather arrived. Amid the smoke and strong smells of spicy food being cooked, Gedhun’s attention was drawn to the music coming from the fried mozzarella ball stand. Carol King’s ‘I Feel the Earth Move Under My Feet’ was blaring. The monks greeted them and made small talk. They agreed to meet back at the market in about 9 months time, on Saturday, right after the new moon.
Gedhun hugged his father and grandfather, turned, and headed off with the monks. His father and grandfather turned and headed out of the market and back up the hilly path toward home. No one felt joyful, not even the monks. But deep down inside everyone knew the truth. Gedhun and his family had been presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. He would be educated. The monks walked mindfully back toward their monastery and school with Gedhun. The 20 kilometer walk would take the better part of the day.
The monks stopped around midday near the bank of a slow flowing river. Everyone sat and the monks shared a lunch of dried fruit, leftover rotis, and cold tea with Gedhun. Across the river, deer walked silently. All around them birds chirped, happy to be warm in the midday sun. Just before getting up to continue on, one of the monks pulled a small wrapped package from his monk’s bag. He slowly unwrapped it to reveal a thick bar of chocolate. Gedhun had never seen or tasted it. The monk broke it up into small pieces and shared it. The monk encouraged him to allow the chunk of chocolate to sit and dissolve in the mouth. Gedhun tried that for a minute but was overcome by the deliciousness of it, finally giving in, chewing it up and swallowing it.
About mid afternoon the group stopped once again. This time everybody laid down. The monks had a daily practice of resting on their back, ankles crossed, hands folded, for about 20 minutes. They were adept at relaxing their body and mind to the point where they could produce delta and theta waves in their brains, giving them the benefits of hours of deep sleep with a simple 20 minute nap.
Gedhun fell asleep quickly and began to dream.
The oldest monk was the first to feel it. A subtle but steady vibration of the ground beneath him. He began to shift his conscious awareness from his deep sleep state back to the present moment. When he finally blinked his eyes open the steady vibration had become more of a rumbling and shaking. Gedhun and the other monk were shaken awake. The eldest monk motioned for them to sit cross-legged facing each other. He began chanting Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha – The Green Tara Mantra. The mantra to relieve them from all sufferings. The mantra to relieve them from the 8 fears. The mantra to help overcome unpleasant situations. The mantra that Gedhun had chanted with his family right before he left his home earlier that morning.