Ceba has been taken.
I shall describe how and by whom presently, but first, you should understand that there is one male for whom her skin is the dark musk honey scent of all women; for whom her eyes are the eyes of every goddess, every female bodhisattva, dakini, temple whore, all these things at once; her touch is the sum of everything, all become one, the universe into one experience, all from the recollection of a touch, of skin barely brushed against skin.
It has been this way since they were young; and she, Ceba, knows this, and secretly she feels the same for him, and there was a time that they swore, each to themselves but not to each other, because of mountains of shyness and fear, and on account of neither of them daring to test the shy, tentative creature that their love was — that they would, if they could, grow old together, and that they would, in a world filled to overflowing with so much uncertainty and sorrow, be together, if they could; if only the world would let them.
Now, the taking of Ceba went like this: she and her sister were carrying firewood to the monastery when they encountered a tulku on his way back from inspecting farms at the end of the valley. Naturally, they fell to their knees on the hard white rocks and prostrated themselves. They meant not to raise their eyes, of course — but just as the tulku was passing them, his horse, or Ceba and her sister, or all three, disturbed a Hot Spring snake, which had no business being there, so far from its normal environs, and the serpent, in its hissing and rearing and then its serpentine slithering away quickly, and the two women, in their fright at seeing the creature so close to them, and in fact at never having seen one before, leaping upwards from their prostrated position and shrieking in animal fright and surprise — all these things together caused the lama’s horse to rear, and so tip its rider onto the very hard and white rocks from which the snake had emerged.
The snake had instantly disappeared, to become the stuff of local legend; the horse had bolted, wanting no part in the proceedings, legendary or otherwise; and Ceba and her sister, once the maelstrom of dismounting and yelling attendants and whirling robes and panic and accusations and the twitching, speechless bleeding of the tulku’s life onto the rocks as a blossoming of wet, dark red were all resolved, at least enough for order to be regained — the two women were tied and trussed, their arms behind their backs, and they were dragged, their boots removed and their feet bleeding, behind the horses the rest of the way back to the monastery.
The women made the journey in a silence of terror, their breathing ragged with stumbling, and heaving with the exertion of keeping up with the horses.
The tulku, cooling in the descending evening and slung across his recovered horse, had entered the void he had so long contemplated.
The Master’s master has sent a letter. It is brought by a monk from Gyumey monastery, four days away. The monk in question spent those four days cursing his karma; spent it complaining to himself that the time of year could not be worse; grumbling that he should be sent to this place, when he was feeling so unwell… he arrives late, wheezing, his breath cutting into him like a knife, coughing bloody lace into the night air as he climbs the path up to the monastery. He seems too young for the disease, even here, but there you go… the letter he hands to the Master says this:
We are about to hold puja to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday. As part of the celebrations, special food will be thrown to the animals. You are to supply wet intestines, two skulls, blood, and two full human skins, all of which must be promptly delivered.
On reading the letter and sending the monk on his way bearing reassurance that the materials will be supplied on time (the monk will make it back to Gyumey, but the damage will be done, and he will be dead within a month), the Master summons the young monk Tenzin to his gompa.
Gompa is a charitable use of the name; it might be best to forget what you expect a gompa to be; this one is nothing grand, it is a jumble of small and lightless rooms, either carved into the rock or constructed from the hewn fragments of it (so you see there are two ways of making a room) and there are a few rough stupas there as well, in which it is generally accepted that there are relics of various kinds — a thumb here, a thighbone there, pieces of a nameless skull and jawbone in the one near the dried up spring… all this religion sits heavily on the summit of an old volcanic eruption of a ridge, where it is hidden from the sight of the town by more of the same order of convolutions.
Gompas aside, this town has something which the other towns in the area do not. A monastery sits on its edge, elevated above it by a few feet of rock. At its centre is a hall which is light in the mornings and dark in the afternoons, and lined with dry corpses, each enthroned on a platform covered with old and brittle golden brocade and the dust of crumbling robes and dried flesh. They are the prior abbots of the monastery, and now here is why, and how, they come to be here.
Near the Master’s gompa there is a cell, carved into the rock. It is very old, and it is where the previous abbots have all ended their lives, walled in and brought food by their monks, which they retrieve with wasting hands, reaching out of the darkness through small crevices. When they die, their bodies already preserved by their diet of leaves and barks, the cave is opened, and their mummifying remains are retrieved and installed in the hall of the Masters. There are 33 desiccated Masters there now, and when this Master dies, there will be 34.
It is to Master’s gompa, then, that the monk Tenzin is headed.
Tenzin has been a good pupil. Not only did he complete the Chenrezig initiation in his early years, but he also did not have to repeat any part of the instruction; he was never punished or scourged for failing even a single one of the examinations; he was never beaten for forgetting verses in recital; and he has even, to his credit, been chosen to assist Master in the rites with the novices. Tenzin has been an excellent student, and there is talk of his future.
Tenzin knows nothing of the letter from Gyumey as he climbs the path to the gompa. When one of the novices came with word that Master had summoned him, he had been in meditation, and he continues his practice as he ascends the twisting path, turning the wheel of dharma as he goes, walking slowly, mindfully, taking his time over thesamdhinirmocana sutra.
He labours only half-heartedly against the unskillful burden of pride, pride held on account of knowing it so well, and because he has bettered so many of the senior monks in debate on its verses, and because he knows that he, Tenzin, is unraveling the Buddha’s mind… The thought of Ceba arises in his mind, gossamerred in a mist that is a combination of memory, anticipation and desire. Mindfully, he places it aside. Aside, but within reach.
As Master’s gompa comes into view, crowning the ragged ridge ahead of him, Tenzin is contemplating the thousand-armed form of Chenrezig.
Due to this merit may I soon
attain the enlightened state of Chenrezig
that I may be able to liberate
all sentient beings from their sufferings.
May the precious bodhi mind
not yet born arise and grow.
May that born have no decline,
but increase forever more.
Due to the positive potential accumulated
by myself and others in the past, present
and future, may anyone who merely sees,
hears, remembers, touches or talks to me
be freed in that very instant from all sufferings
and abide in happiness forever.
Master is the incarnation of Chenrezig. Master is Chenrezig, and Chenrezig is Master; there is no difference. Chenrezig sees everything. The bodhisattva’s eyes, one in each of his thousand hands, never look away from the world, never close or look away; and so like all masters, Master sees everything. Tenzin, too, aspires to clear away the dust of delusion, so that he too may see everything… and there will be no difference between Tenzin, and Master, and Chenrezig…
Tenzin is decided on this: he will, one day, be Master of the monastery, and he will follow this current Master, this sick and dying old man who sees everything, into the cave, and then he will follow him mummified into the hall, and there he and Master will sit with the other 33 masters until the coming of Maitreya, and they will all sit there together, for the sake and enlightenment of all sentient beings…
Master’s room is dark. It always is. Tenzin imagines for a moment how total it will be, the blackness, when Master enters the cave. The shadows in Master’s room today are as heavy as the mountains outside.
Master is sitting reading by the light of a small fire. Another monk stands near him, waiting in silence. Master looks up, sees Tenzin in the doorway, and looks at a spot on the floor. Tenzin takes his place and says nothing.
The other monk is Gephel. He has brainless, expressionless eyes, and that sloping brow which is well known to reduce the brain-bearing capacity of the skull. Gephel has the thin lips that idiots have, and across his cheeks and shaved head are the scars of his life outside the monastery. He is no match for anyone in the debates, and for that Gephel is the object of jokes and derision. This causes him no distress, though, for no one would dare say anything to his face; if they did, he would beat them senseless, or if such disrespect came from a peasant, to death, and that has happened. Gephel has no interest in the sutras, but makes up for this with unquestioning, blind obedience. The end result of Gephel is that he is respected, feared, appreciated and ridiculed, all at once.
The Master leans forward and drops the paper onto the fire. “Lash them both,” he says to Gephel, as the flames flare then settle down again, becoming a soft drone of light again in the space of a breath. “One hundred times, then tie them to the rocks at Drolma Pass. Leave them to Chenrezig and their karma. If they survive the night, lash them again.”
Gephel looks up. “The children?”
The Master says nothing, and waves at the door without looking at it. Gephel bows carelessly and leaves. The karma of the runaway serf and his family is about to bloom.
The Master reaches for the letter from Gyumey. His hand is shaking with the infirmity that has been gathering around him; he grows weaker every day, his bones strain against his skin, his eyes have collapsed into their sockets. They focus on less and less, retreating into the darkness inside him.
“We need material, for rites,” the Master says. “Two individuals.”
Tenzin wonders at being given the task. He does not shy from his duty; he has assisted with blinding and removing hands and hamstrings, and has administered the lash himself, although only once and not expertly. That did not go well; death came too quickly, while the lash was still being applied; such things should not be rushed, but he was inexperienced. Now, he knows which arteries to stay away from, and how deep to go.
If there is a true practitioner in these matters, it is Gephel. Gephel makes them suffer, and the pain must be felt, otherwise there is no point. Without the experience of pain, the skulls and intestines and skins are not as potent; they don’t hold the power. Tenzin understands these things academically, but Gephel understands without thinking; in this matter, in Gephel, the formless ground seems to be unobscured. The ceremonial materials he provides are widely sought, such is his ability with pain. Gephel is much valued.
Tenzin recalls watching Gephel at work a few weeks ago, and the screams and pleas of the murderer under the knife and the hooks and the hot irons, and how quickly they degenerated into something beyond words. Even as they are torn, and bleed their lives screaming onto the earth, they grasp at life, seeking security in their egos. The hardship they endure is for the sake of others. All dharmas are empty. There is no suffering. The thousand eyes of Chenrezig miss nothing.
No one escapes their karma.
“Who?” Tenzin asks, nodding, feeling confident as he imagines the thousand eyes of Chenrezig turn onto him.
“Prisoners will do,” says the Master. “Skull. Intestines. Blood, skin … the Dalai Lama’s birthday,” he adds as an afterthought, letting the paper fall from his hand in Tenzin’s direction. “Gephel can go with you, when he’s finished up at the Pass.”
Tenzin will meditate beforehand. Most of the other monks would not, and Gephel certainly will not; but Tenzin understands what is at stake, and will attend to the void before he sends anyone there. This procedure is rich in tantra, and must be attended to skillfully, for the sake of all sentient beings.
Thus all beings may attain bodhisattvahood.
Tenzin meditates on Chenrezig, the great, compassionate Avalokatesvara, Sahasrabhujalokeshvara, the bodhisattva with one thousand eyes, one in the palm of each of its one thousand hands, Chenrezig, Sahasrabhujalokeshvara who sees everything, the all-compassionate…
The street is not crowded. There is no market day, no religious procession or ceremony due. There is no music, no drums or horns; just the shuffling of feet and worn, faded fabric stirring in the dust of the late afternoon like brown leaves.
A group of novices are loitering, sunning themselves and talking loud, unskillful nonsense about the Lineage Tree when Tenzin arrives at the prison.
Gephel is not here yet. Tenzin sits against the wall of the prison a little way from the novices, amusing himself with their inanity and enjoying what heat there is left in the day.
Not far from where he sits, the prison is a few rooms in the basement of the monastery connected to a small roofless yard surrounded by a wall. Its entrance is a doorway made of blocks of stone that are crumbling and split with age; above the door the prison is named — too grandly, it seems to Tenzin — after the Snow Prison, the labyrinth below the Potala, in Lhasa.
The novices have moved on and the sun is almost behind the mountains by the time Gephel arrives. He has brought Jampa, the mastiff. Jampa, large, heavy with muscle and power, and the congealed blood of Drolma Pass drying on his face. The dog is familiar with the ramble of tunnels and chambers near the monastery. It pulls at the leash when it sees the entrance, pawing at the ground, whining.
Gephel wears a smile that is dark and empty, with no centre. The peasant and his wife must have gone well. Gephel stops between Tenzin and the prison door and looks, smiling, conspiratorial, down at the dog. They both seem to Tenzin to be happy, slightly touched with the delirium of the same anticipation.
Tenzin knows this game; Gephel likes to let the dog choose them. He will take the dog through the cells and through the prison yard, letting it rummage and sniff and growl, until it finds one which, for some dog-reason, it will choose.
Inside the door, Jetze, the prison mastiff, growls at being distracted from the severed hand he is chewing on. The two dogs give a perfunctory low growl, but are comfortable enough, in a wary, brotherly, sort of way. Tenzin extends his own hand to the dog. It sniffs at the offered appendage and then, disinterested by the familiarity, turns back to its meal.
Against the stench of dead blood and offal and shit that looms around them, and the constant buzzing of clouds of black flies, the light from outside refuses to offer any contest as they enter the prison.
The peasant will not look up at first. Tenzin doesn’t know this one that Jampa ran to in the prison yard, heaving against the leash… and so karma unfolds, but of course, a dog does not understand karma, and Tenzin. He has studied the sutras. He doesn’t know why the man was here in the prison. He was here; that is enough. The rest belongs to karma.
The room is dark and rank; grease lamps sputter, possessed by the souls of burning dakinis. The kartika, the flaying knife, weighs in Tenzin’s hand, glints of lamplight move along its curved blade. It is heavy, he feels it pulling down, towards the earth.
The rest belongs to karma.
The peasant is trying to say something. Through the blood and the fear, it is impossible to understand; or perhaps there are no words, perhaps it is the beast-without-language speaking now, from that place where they all seem to go towards the end. The peasant’s eyes search Tenzin’s, imploring, seeking some kind of blank animal sympathy, some dumb, elemental connection.
Tenzin visualises the hands of Chenrezig embracing the scene, holding everything in it with a type of clear, disconnected wonder, the eyes in the thousand palms dissolving karma in the blood and tears shed here. Everything is born and reborn continually, reborn as Tara, she who is the exquisite, the essence of compassion, from the tears of Chenrezig…
It is fortunate that Tenzin understands this. If he did not, there would be no one here to pause before the spectacle of the peasant’s terror, in appreciation, in understanding of its true nature and value.
Endless wandering through the rounds of existence is caused by our grasping at egos as though they are real. This ignorant attitude is the demon of selfish concern for our welfare: we seek security for our egos; we want only pleasure and shun pain. But now this peasant must banish all selfish compulsion and endure hardship for the sake of all beings.
He makes a careful incision and begins removing the skin.
There is no more noise from the peasant; they usually make plenty, on account of which sometimes the tongue is removed early on, but then the donor will sometimes choke on the blood, and that is not ideal. This one lies there, quivering, looking, until Gephel puts out his eyes with the hot hooks, and then the only sound is that of the blade slicing, and the tearing of flesh as Tenzin cuts and Gephel uses the hook to pull at veins and tendons. At some point (and Tenzin is straight away ashamed that he was distracted, and not present in his work, and so did not notice) the peasant quietly dies.
Tenzin is disappointed. Gephel, who is opening the torso to remove the organs, has not noticed. It was too soon, but there is no need to say anything.
Jampa sits at Gephel’s feet, watching attentively, rapt anticipation obvious on the dog’s broad, handsome face.
Soon what needs to be in jars is in jars and ready to be transported to Gyumey. The skin has been scraped and washed clean, and is hanging, still steaming from the heat of the water, vaguely the shape of a man. The skin won’t be allowed to dry. The vat of water steeped with herbs that will receive it sits on the floor, waiting.
What needs to be boiled so the flesh can be removed — the skull that will be inverted and decorated with beaten silver and used to hold blood and other fluids, and the bones that are going to be handled and gestured and pointed with, weaving into existence the various worlds — these lie submerged already, being stripped clean under a blanket of boiling fat and lye in the kettle.
“That was too quick.” Gephel is wiping his hands on his heavy apron. He did notice, after all. He casts Tenzin a look, the look of a patient craftsman reminding an apprentice that he has much to learn. “We will take longer on the next one. Jampa, come. You can choose again.”
Gephel and the dog leave. Tenzin is left alone in the room, standing before the table, the stone surface shining wet and red with blood, with nothing to do but wait.
Good; a moment of peace. Tenzin relishes it. A moment of emptiness, of the ground; the bodies of the dhyani buddhas, all manifest in Vairocana, Nampar nangdze … a vision of serene and composed sky-born lotuses and deities, reposing in a field of infinite blue. He transcends the sweet metallic odour of blood which fills the room, the musky dark tang of rent bowels. The darkness of the room dissolves into the pure wisdom and light of tantra.
Just as the mountains of the Pure Land are forming among the clouds, he is brought back to the room by the sound of footsteps approaching. There is the shuffle of Gephel’s sandals, his uncaring illiteracy resonating in every sliding, arrogant shuffle and slap; there is the impatient clatter of the dog’s four sharp-nailed feet; and there is the uncomprehending, incoherent stagger of the prisoner that the dog had run to. That third set of steps gives nothing away; the sound is exhausted, confused and disoriented. It is too impersonal, too primal, for personality to have survived.
Tenzin dismisses the last of the mountains of the Pure Land and turns as Gephel and his entourage enter the room. Between the monk and his dog stands Ceba, bloody, her gaze sunken and fixed on the floor.
“Here”, says Gephel, and he pushes her forward.
Tenzin says nothing. He is silent, but his heart is pounding. He forgets to breathe.
Gephel goes to the stone trough just inside the door. Meticulously, he begins washing his hands. “We shall take our time. The ritual implements will be strong.”
Ceba sways on her bloodied feet. So that he does not have to look at her, Tenzin turns his head to the doorway, towards Gephel. Only when she is gone from his sight does he breathe. Gephel has straightened, facing Tenzin. In the half-light, he has become a gaunt, spectral figure, a ghost covered with gore and blood, hands wet with blood and water, head tilted like a wrathful deity on a thanka, emerging from the darkness as he steps towards Tenzin, who has still said nothing.
“Tenzin, are you ready?”
At the sound of Tenzin’s name, Ceba raises her head. She is bruised, and there is something broken in her face, so that one of her eyes is swollen shut. It is impossible, in the half-light, and with her hair hanging dishevelled and matted over her, for Tenzin to be sure just what is broken. He can only be sure that it is her.
At first she doesn’t recognise Tenzin. He is just a splash of red robe in the gloom, washed in the flickering light of the dakinis. She shrinks into the wall, hoping that in a moment of mercy, it will open and swallow her.
Then she gasps and says his name, and Gephel hears, even though it is quiet and beneath her choked breath. Gephel leans forward, looking into her face. She refuses to look back at him, and instead gives a single dumb glance to Tenzin.
Tenzin says nothing. There is nothing to say. She is shaking with pain. He feels it, it courses through him.
Gephel straightens, He recognises her now. “This is your one,” he says. “I’ve seen you talking to her.”
Tenzin nods. There is no denying anything. Clouds of flies noisily ignore the dried herbs hung in bunches to deter them.
“I’ve seen her in the market, as well.” Gephel’s tone is neutral. He may as well be talking about a yak, or a dog, or a rain front crossing a hill. “I know about this one. She and her sister were there when Seagal Tulku’s horse reared as though it was possessed and threw him. He died on the rocks, in front of them.”
He pauses, searching the dim recesses of a few hours ago. “There was something about a snake. No matter… Jampa likes her…”
He is smiling, that dark thing again, smiling with everything but his eyes, which are dissecting Tenzin, taking in everything that his brain can process and many things that it cannot.
He steps forward, takes hold of Ceba by both arms and thrusts her towards the table. “Here,” he says to Tenzin, to the room, to the jars and hung skin and boiling bones and on account of all these, also to her, “here…”
And he arranges her, in one strong movement that is part lift and part throw, as though she was already dead, onto the table, and deftly reaches here and there and ties her arms and legs. He finishes and looks at Tenzin, his eyes calm and unhurried.
As for Ceba: if eyes can be numb and feral at the same time, this is how it is done. Part of her is still walking with her sister, laughing, feeling the sun on their backs, and then seeing in the distance the tulku and his party coming into view, on horses ambling slowly along the narrow track. She still feels the sharpness of the rocks as she prostrates herself when the tulku draws near.
Everything since that flick and slither of twisting serpentine blackness against the rock near her has been a blur that keeps falling in on her. She is trapped, breathless and choking, under a tidal wave of blood and tears and voiceless cries, and everything that happened around her has been one unstoppable, seamless thing, with no heart.
Tenzin realises that Gephel has left the room. Somewhere in the last few seconds, the other monk said something. Perhaps it was “I’ll be back,” or “Jampa needs to get back”, or “needs to shit”. The details and context are gone, lost in the darkness that Tenzin feels smothering him like earth, like the shadows in Master’s room.
He is alone with Ceba, alone with her in the centre of this heartless, seamless thing that has come from nowhere. He goes to the table.
She is not looking at him, she is somewhere else. That distance allows him the thought of her skin being cut, her flesh being torn, of things hard or metallic or stone or unyielding, of things that blind or peel or burn touching her… causing her to recoil like a dumb, low-born animal.
His mind reaches for the quarter of the void from which Yamantaka presides over oceans free from fear and doubt, ripping them apart like sacrificed offerings, Yamantaka who bears garlands of bloody heads torn from bodies born of delusion and grasping…
There is no one to feel fear… there is no fear…. he stops, he exhales slowly, forcing his mind into submission.
The flies have paused in their buzzing. Ceba turns her head towards him. Her eyes have opened, and through a film of something that should not be there and is not quite blood, she sees something written on his face that she cannot decipher.
She sees him look around, and then she recoils again and whimpers as he picks up a knife, the blade and handle of which are covered with blood that is almost dried.
She recognises that he is unsure; she has seen that look before, that look of uncertainty, that doubt, there was something like it on his face that day he almost, she said to her sister later, kissed her. But there was no kiss then, just doubt. And now there is doubt again.
Tenzin is imagining what could happen. He imagines cutting the bonds that tether her. He is gaining control over what is happening, over what he is thinking; over his breathing, for it is upon his thinking and his breathing that it all rides. He will get her out of here. It will all have to be done quickly. If Gephel returns, he will deal with Gephel. They will run.
He slices through the leather thongs. He lifts her quickly and carefully to her feet, supporting her limp body, pressing his bloodless face against her throat.
She finds some resolve, and lifts her head, and both her eyes are open now, and she lifts a hand to his shoulder, as if to help him take her weight. And he turns to the door. They will run.
And then none of that is done. He is looking down at her, still tied to the stone table.
“I am here, Ceba,” he says.
He hears Gephel reenter the room behind him.
Compassion for all beings rises in Tenzin. It is a bell pealing above the clear ground of emptiness. The unconditioned nature of all dharmas, of the aggregates known as Tenzin, as Ceba, as Gephel, as Master — at last he sees their essential natures.
He knows what he must do.
As he reaches for the kartika, and waits for Gephel to join him at the table, finally he understands compassion, and the thousand fists and eyes of Chenrezig close forever.
* * *
Cover image: Tibetan Girl; oil, by LI ZiJian