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Tibet, Dogs, Death and Hope

(Originally published in the Door Peninsula Voice, a Door County, Wisconsin arts publication, in Brian Linden\'s "World of Art" column.)

"Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horsemen pass by." Yeats. Dogs - 85 big dogs, small dogs, nice dogs and definitely mean dogs. If any image comes close to transcending my memories of Tibetan beauty and spiritualism, it is the dogs.

Packs of dogs roam the muddy streets, basking in the high-altitude sun, and saving their energy for the raucous evening fighting and yelping that punctuate the mountain quiet. Like concentric rings of discordance flowing across stilled water, the cacophony provokes an anger and impatience contrary to the Buddhist imagery seen during the day. Sleep, already adversely affected by the thin air, is often illusively beyond reach.

On one such Lhasa night, after five hours of sporadic rest, I left long before sunrise to watch the sky burial three miles outside of town. It is a long walk, down unlighted streets, full of forbidding growls from the dark. I followed a hand-drawn map illuminated at each corner by a key-chain flashlight. The map had been drawn by a Tibetan man who had made the trek to Lhasa to sell some items from his village in Eastern Tibet. Even in the brilliant July sun, he was wearing asheep-skin cap reminiscent of the hat worn by Rocky the Squirrel, and pilot’s goggles with heavy-looking one inch thick lenses. Buying a prayer wheel from him outside Lhasa’s most revered temples, the Jokhang, I was captured by the man’s stories and spent an afternoon with him drinking yak-butter tea and wearing his Rocky hat and goggles. He told me many stories about Tibetans\' beliefs about life and death and encouraged me to witness a sky burial held outside of town. He sketched a simple map on the back of my guidebook and included a flower below to "make my book more beautiful." The sleepless night made it a perfect time to go.The Tibetans view the sky burial as a way for every death to benefit the living. The family of the dead takes the body to a stone altar in the foothills. Smoke from burning junipers floats toward the sky, attracting vultures. Two or three "tomdens", Tibetan men who lead the ceremony, interact with the birds, encouraging them to eat. The body is then dismembered by these men, who continue to feed the vultures with pieces of the dead. The family watches the birds soar above the surrounding mountains, carrying with them the spirit of the dead. 

The ceremony starts when the first rays of sun reach the natural stone "altar" upon which burial is performed. After nearly thirty minutes of walking down pitch-black roads, I finally was able to start to make out the contour of the mountains.

As I moved ahead, a pack of dogs appeared in the middle of the road.I raced at the animals full of bravado, having already chased off dozens of individual dogs, only to find out that they did not scare easily. In fact, they started growling among themselves and slowly crept in my direction. Seeing nothing but a decrepit stone and mud hut twenty yards off the road, I ran to this refuge hoping that a door would exist to keep the dogs out. A wood plank loosely hung from a rotten timber and I slammed it shut hoping to deter the dogs. They remained barking outside the house, making an occasional leap against the door and sliding back.

Words came from the corner of the room, Tibetan, and completely incomprehensible. I responded in Chinese, "Who are you? I am lost." A match provided a pocket of light that slowly rose to the gold-toothed grin of a young Buddhist monk. I could see only his smile and the slightly down-turned wrinkles emanating from his eyes. His face was afire with warmth and openness, all of which disappeared with a slamming of the door and a loud slap as he grabbed a wooden shovel and pounded the ground outside the door to scare off the dogs. He came back with another match and laughed (at me?) so much that he burned his finger.

This made me laugh as well, and a friendship had clearly started.

His name was Tenzin and he had left his temple south of Lhasa to make his way back to his family’s village in southeast Qinghai province.

Because he was raised in Qinghai Province, near the predominantly Han Chinese town of Xining, he spoke fairly good Chinese. 

Tenzin was trying to find a ride on a truck heading north from Lhasa but had been unlucky for three days. All trucks leaving for the 30-40 hour grueling ride north left before sunrise. I had arrived in Lhasa on

this route, hitching a ride on a Hami melon truck, spending most of the daylight hours sitting on and eating the melons. I gave the Uighur driver some extra money once we arrived in Lhasa for the cargo I had eaten. The driver still gave me a difficult time claiming that I had bruised too many fruits during the jarring ride. "Nobody will take me north," said Tenzin, "Being Tibetan gives me no chance of getting a ride from the Han Chinese. They view us with prejudice, some fearing us because of our strength, others looking down on us because of our supposed lack of education or sanitation." 

Tenzin\'s only hope was to catch a ride with a Hui Chinese driver. The Hui are ethnically Chinese but are Muslims, having been converted during the early part of the last millennium by Middle Eastern traders. 

"Because they feel, like us, that they receive their share of racism from the Chinese, there is an interesting connection," claimed Tenzin, "However, I feel very uncomfortable dealing with the Chinese."

Tenzin explained that the Chinese were no longer allowed to observe the

Sky Burial. Many had ridiculed the Tibetans during previous ceremonies and "were now often chased away by flying rocks," laughed Tenzin, who went on to explain that the ceremony can cost the family of the dead nearly one-third of their yearly incomes. 

"It is a very special event practiced in few places around Tibet. Please be respectful and do not do anything to hurt the family." This included taking pictures which my friend in the square had already warned me about. 

The discussions with Tenzin were being held in near darkness, and our words were left floating briefly in the near freezing air. It continued to brighten throughout the moments together, and Tenzin soon encouraged me to leave before the "sun reached the rocks." He whisked me out with the practiced sweeping motion of monk, saying "go quickly now that the dogs hiding," and feigned an angry growl. He laughed again, his gold front tooth shining brilliantly, and searched unsuccessfully for something in his tattered knapsack. He looked down to his wrist and started to lick his hand and continued to soak his wrist until he was able to painfully squeeze a silver-inlaid ivory bracelet down over his hand. He grimaced as it finally made it over his rough knuckles and grabbed my arm and motioned for me to place it on my wrist. I tried to decline the offer but he insisted and started to try to wet my fingers in order to get it over my hand. I ended up taking over for him and struggled to get my wrist as wet as possible. Getting the bracelet on my hand was a painstaking process, full of screaming and laughter. I also was worried that Tenzin was asking me to try it on, after which time he would signal for me to hand it back to him. I was uncertain if I would be able to get the bracelet off my hand again. The gift however, remained on my wrist. Tenzin brought his hands together and gave me a slight bow. He said that this would protect me from the dogs and any other fears that I may meet on my journeys. He then ran out the door claiming that a horse was the only way for him to get home. The metaphors, whether intentional or not, sent chills throughout my body that have remained as respected and treasured as the bracelet itself.

I had nothing but the key-chain light to give Tenzin in return. I told him that I hoped that it would help him in the dark evenings that awaited him during his trip. He was overwhelmed by the kindness and continued to call out to me long after we lost site of each other. I left Tibet one week later with the gift from a kind monk with a gold-toothed smile, echoes of which left me no longer in need of the light to brighten any darkness.