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.

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
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.