Instant Karma

Take three travelers, a nation of Buddhists, and one unfortunate rodent. Add a forbidden journey and a dark childhood secret, and you could have the time of your lives.

   
 
 
 
 
I killed the rat. Even though the woman who swept the courtyard told me I would bring bad karma upon myself. The rat was menacing the bunk room. It was a big, oily sewer rat. Every night it crept into the room after we were asleep and clawed into our backpacks, gorging itself. One night it leaped onto the face of a Danish girl and got its claws tangled in her long blond hair. She woke up screaming. Enough is enough.

The woman who swept the stone courtyard wore a traditional Tibetan gown, trim and dark, and had plaited her raven hair into a thick braid. She came from a remote village and was a devout Buddhist. She looked into my face and told me no one sold rattraps in Lhasa. In the market I found almost everyone sold heavy, serrated, spring-loaded metal rattraps. I bought one and baited it with a cube of yak meat and placed it under my bunk. I heard the loud snap around midnight, the desperate thumping, a final jerk. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and slept soundly.

In the morning the woman was solemn and anxious, but the travelers staying in the bunk room were relieved. Killing the rat is how I became friends with Maury and Brigitte.

"Thanks," Brigitte said. "No one else would have done it."

"I know I wouldn't have," Maury said.

Brigitte was a Canadian physics student, a climber with blue, round doll's eyes. She was traveling alone. She carried her Tibetan phrase book everywhere she went, and despite all the laughter she provoked she was actually learning Tibetan. She would eventually be invited to Geneva to earn her Ph.D.

Maury was a tall, beach-blond Aussie, a former lifeguard who became an itinerant carpenter in Vancouver, building decks half the year and traveling the other half. He loved to dive and knew every brilliant blue-water lagoon from Honduras to Hong Kong.

That evening, with a ratless night to look forward to, Maury and Brigitte and I went out together to celebrate. On the way to the restaurant Maury bought a case of bottled beer and carried it lightly on his shoulder. We laughed so hard and stayed out so late that we were locked out and had to pound on the great wooden gate to get in.

The next day, hanging out in the courtyard in the cold sunshine, I asked each of them if they were up for something illegal.

"What do you think, mate?" said Maury, breaking into his habitual smile.

"Always," said Brigitte. I didn't know if this was true or not.

I wanted to go to Lhamo Latso, the holiest lake in Tibet. I'd been hearing about the lake since my first journey to Tibet, in 1984. One day in the slums of Delhi, where the beggar children with limbs broken backward by their parents peer up from the ground, I had found a book titled The Power-Places of Central Tibet for sale between an Indian tome on sexual positions and a photo-biography of the Beatles. In it there was a description of Lhamo Latso: "It is Tibetan belief older than Buddhism that every individual, every family, and an entire country, possesses a 'life-spirit' called la. This la is embodied in natural phenomena, such as mountains, lakes, trees, and so on. When the place of residence of the la is damaged, the individual, family, or nation suffers directly. Thus when a lake that is the home of the la dries up, this omen of death and disaster can inflict the terrible result that is presaged. The 'life-spirit' of Tibet is identified with Lhamo Latso."

Lhamo Latso is also the geographical life-spirit for all Dalai Lamas. It is a surprisingly small lake, a tiny oval barely recognizable on a map, located a hundred miles southeast of Lhasa near the head of the Metoktang Valley. Over the centuries, most Dalai Lamas made a pilgrimage to this oracle. By staring into its cold, lapping waters, each Dalai Lama could divine essential clues to who his reincarnation would be. When the 13th Dalai Lama died suddenly in 1933, the Regent of Tibet made a pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso, where, transfixed by the turquoise water, he had a vision that gave exact details for finding his spiritual leader's reincarnation, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama—until then an unknown two-year-old boy living in a lost yak-dung village in central Tibet.

I had food, tents, and camping gear left over from an aborted expedition, but neither Maury nor Brigitte had come to Tibet prepared to live out in the cold, so we went shopping. In lieu of a cheap Chinese army slicker that Maury thought too expensive, he bought himself an enormous white plastic gunnysack. We cut out holes for his head and arms, and he pulled it on and tied a rope around his waist.

"You look like a priest from the Middle Ages," Brigitte said.

"You know it gets cold above 15,000 feet," I told him.

"No drama," said Maury—Aussie for "don't worry"—and donned a green felt fedora he'd purchased instead of a Tibetan sheepskin cap.

Brigitte borrowed my fleece pants and bought herself a Tibetan scarf and a floppy wool cap. She would stay bundled in them for the next two weeks.

The Chinese were requiring foreigners to hire a guide, a driver, and a jeep and to obtain (i.e., buy) three or four permits for any travel outside Lhasa. We couldn't have received permission to go to Lhamo Latso in any case; it was deep inside an off-limits chunk of Tibet the size of Texas, and four days of hard mountain hiking from the nearest road.

We sneaked out of town before dawn, catching a lift on a local bus overloaded with Tibetans bundled up like Inuits, the bus driver eyeing us in a shard of mirror. We hid under the seats at security checkpoints. Where the bus U-turned we jumped out and started walking away fast, not looking back, not turning around, expecting to be stopped and questioned and perhaps jailed, but it didn't happen. We negotiated a ride with a well-connected local, sardined into the back of his jeep, and he drove us straight past every dusty roadblock with a grin and a wave.

At dusk the jeep dropped us near the head of the Metoktang Valley. We slipped across the Tsangpo River on a tank-wide suspension bridge that was inexplicably unguarded, hiked up into the mouth of the canyon, and pitched camp in a muddy field encircled by apricot trees. I couldn't believe how lucky we'd been. Lying in my bag, I must have said so out loud.

"No such thing, mate," whispered Maury from the other tent. Brigitte was already curled up asleep beside me.

"What's that?"

"No such thing as luck."


 
   
 
In the morning, mist wreathed the valley. To either side, treeless slopes reared up a mile in the sky. We walked the track in shade, the ground hard-frozen, and watched the sunlight coming. When the light finally sailed into the bottom of the valley the temperature leaped 50 degrees. In minutes winter metamorphosed into summer. The river began to cough and jerk and then run free, the pastures turned from frost-white to green, and shouting shepherd kids sprouted on the hillsides. That's how the world works above a certain altitude. Of course, it could just as easily have been snowing.

"So, Maury," I said. "You don't believe in luck?"

He had his pants hiked up, revealing the funny, laceless, ankle-length Blundstone boots that Aussies like. He'd taken off his fedora and was strolling hat in hand. "Luck isn't something you can believe in," he said. "Luck is the word used by people who don't believe."

"Good things happen and it's not just a matter of luck?"

"Nope. They were supposed to happen."

"And bad things?"

"Same." Maury was practicing twirling his fedora on the tip of his finger and catching it. "Everything happens for a reason, Mark."

Brigitte was just ahead, practically skipping even with a heavy pack. She was implacably cheerful, just like Maury. You couldn't get either of them to say a bad word about anything or anybody if you tortured them.

"So you must believe in karma."

"I do."

"And reincarnation."

"They go together." Maury flashed a smile and flipped the fedora up onto his head.

To me, it seemed like the oddest coincidence that I should wind up walking to Lhamo Latso with a man who actually believed in reincarnation. But then Maury would have said that that's because it wasn't a coincidence at all.


 
   
 
That night we camped in the bleak medieval village of Tseqgu. Brigitte danced among the snot-faced urchins practicing her Tibetan until they clutched our fingers with their callused, dirt-blackened hands and pulled us into a tiny stone hut. We had to stoop and could see almost nothing in the dim light. We were led through an indoor pen separating the goats and sheep from the humans but allowing the animals' body heat to half-warm the cramped black space. An old man plunging a yak-butter churn with gnarled hands greeted us and invited us to sit on a dirt bench beside a red-glowing hearth. Steaming red potatoes were poured into a basket on the floor and the children squatted on their haunches and wiped green mucus across their red cheeks and we all ate together.

The next morning there were three inches of snow on the ground. While we were packing up our tents a shivering, barefoot boy, ragged and filthy and carrying a water jug heavier than himself, passed our tents. I looked at Maury.

"OK, mate," he said. "If it's bothering you so much, this is what I believe: Every thought, every word, every action produces karma. Our karma carries on from life to life. It's a spiritual progression. Bit by bit, act by act, life after life, we create our own karma. Acts of kindness in this life beget gifts of kindness in the next. Acts of cruelty in this life beget suffering in the next. It's self-fulfilling retribution and reward. It's a spiritual quest for learning, and we all have a choice as to what path we will take."

Brigitte asked Maury how the actions of others affected an individual's karma.

"Depends on how you respond," he said. "It's up to you."

In the honey light of late afternoon we reached the forlorn but still magnificent Chokorgyel Monastery. Chokorgyel was built in one of the ancient geomantic hot spots of Tibet—a vast triangular plain at the confluence of three rivers and surrounded by three mountains symbolizing a perfect harmony of three elements: earth, water, and air. The monastery's castlelike walls form an equilateral triangle, a quarter-mile to a side. Gendun Gyatso, the second Dalai Lama, founded the monastery in 1509 as a place of rest and worship for those making the pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso.

We popped up our tents outside the walls of the monastery, across the vast triangular commons from the black wool tents of the Tibetan nomads. Lion-dogs—immense mastiffs with the solid bodies of rottweilers but the matted coats and lion ruffs of chows—were staked outside these tents, barking themselves hoarse.

The Chokorgyel Monastery was razed by the Junggar Mongols in 1718, rebuilt, and destroyed again by the Chinese in 1959. Inside the walls were the beheaded skeletons of hundreds of stone buildings, including several temples. Before the tanks and dynamite, there were 500 monks at Chokorgyel; now, we discovered, there were only two: an old man and a young man living amid the ruins, quiet and transparent as spirits. They thought we were pilgrims—and we were, although I didn't know it then. To reach Lhamo Latso, they told us, you follow the wide stone path leading northeast from the monastery. We would find our way.


 
   
 
The lion-dogs barked all night, lunging and snapping taut their heavy chains, mistaking gusts of wind for intruders. We collapsed our tents in the predawn dark and left the gear on the broken stones of the former temple as the monks had suggested. Slipping back out below a whistling sky, we moved along the wall past piles of stone tablets all engraved with the same hypnotic chant—om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, "hail to the jewel in the lotus"—as if the wind itself were using the tablets as a hymnal.

To stay warm, we simply hiked swiftly. By the time we crossed the Metoktang River it was light enough to switch off our headlamps. We walked through a yak herder's camp where great black beasts snorted columns of white steam. A woman in angular swaths of black was milking one of the yaks. Brigitte went over to speak with her, but the woman fled to her black tent.

It was steep going into a hanging valley, and then level again. Cold squalls kept coming and going. I was making my case for the irrationality of reincarnation and waiting for Brigitte, the scientist, the physicist, to chime in.

"Matter cannot be created or destroyed, only reformed," she said at last. "If you want to infer something spiritual from that—"

"Brigitte!"

"Well, Mark, it's up to you."

Maury was walking ahead of us with his arms crossed and his fedora pulled down over his ears. "We not only come back in a new form," he declared. "I believe we choose the form we come back in."

"What!" This was too much. "Who would ever choose to come back as that dying barefoot child we saw carrying water yesterday morning?"

"I don't know," said Maury, his tone implying not that it couldn't happen, but that he himself didn't have an example.

"C'mon, Maury, this is preposterous. Forget about coming back as a beetle or a rat; just take a child who dies of starvation or AIDS or malaria. Who would choose that life? For that matter, take any kid who is abused by his parents and tell me he chose to be reincarnated into that kind of suffering."

Maury glanced back over his shoulder. "I suppose it depends on the kind of lives, the hundreds or thousand of lives he's lived before."

It was too cold to talk anymore. We finally reached the 17,300-foot pass overlooking Lhamo Latso—"a sharp cragged ridge," according to The Power-Places of Central Tibet, "upon which is built the Dalai Lama's throne, and from this eminence the divine rulers of Tibet once sat to gaze into the lake...to divine the future." The throne itself was buried beneath untold thousands of prayer flags frozen into an icy mound, and the wind was cutting us in two. The sacred lake didn't look any different from a thousand other inhospitable high-altitude tarns found everywhere in Tibet.

Maury and Brigitte and I tried to stay up high and stare down into the oracle-lake because we all want a vision, we all want something mysterious and inexplicable and portentous to happen to us—especially those of us who doubt that such things can happen. We braced ourselves amid the creaking flags and peered down into the hard blue lake until our eyes blurred and our faces froze and our feet began to slip. To me it was just like standing on the summit of a mountain: no divination, no enlightenment, just the howl and bite of cold doing all it could to freeze solid the blood in three beating hearts.


 
   
 
That night bullets of snow strafed our tents and the lion-dogs yelped and the monastery stood silent as stone. The next day we crossed Gyelong Pass in a whiteout. The day after that we woke to eight inches of snow, and more falling.

By now we'd each settled into our roles, which of course were not roles at all but who we really were, so there was harmony. I was the navigator, plotting our course over the earth and through the mountains on 1:500,000 declassified military maps, reading between the brown lines. Brigitte was the bubbly, fluid linguist who got us invited into every Tibetan home or tent we came near for boiled potatoes and yak-butter tea. And Maury was the incorrigible optimist, the blast of fresh air, the man who could not not smile no matter how deep the snow or how hungry we were, even when it got so cold we all had to cram into one tent and sleep in a pile to keep from freezing to death.

One evening we followed a mule cart stacked high with hay into the village of Woka Taktse. There was a dirt road trickling out of this village and a jeep for hire, and so our journey would end. The Tibetan women in their bright blue tunics and heavy wool aprons were on the flat roofs of their mud homes, beating stalks of barley and singing softly in the twilight.

Maury and I were talking, and I was telling him how lucky I was to have been raised in a big family where everyone was loved.

"No such thing."

"Love?"

Maury hooted. "Luck, mate. Luck!"

"What about you, Maury? What was your family like?"

"Ah, well..."

"Well what?"

"It was a learning experience."

"What's that mean?"

Ahead, Brigitte was being led by the hand by a bowlegged old woman. It was almost dark, but the air was still warm. Maury doffed his fedora and ran a hand through his scarecrow hair and told me that he had lived in terror as a boy because his father was a drunk. A mean-spirited drunk who all through Maury's childhood viciously beat him and his mother.   



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