Written by Dawa Ghoso, MK Ottawa Host
This was my first time reading a contemporary Tibetan story written in Tibetan. Although it does point to the lack of readily available stories of such genre, it does point to my own ignorance and lack of effort in locating such stories written in journals such as “Sbrang Char” from which this one is extracted. Thanks to Machik’s Khabda, I “discovered” Pema Tseden, the writer as I had only known him as a filmmaker. This short story touched on various themes that a Tibetan encounters on a daily basis more so for Tibetans living in a Tibetan cultural milieu. However, the main topic seems to be Tibetan religiosity as acted out on a daily mundane basis. In an unassuming way, he manages to “poke” at the longstanding and uniquely Tibetan institution of “Tulku”. Growing up in India and Nepal, I had some similar experiences as the protagonist. One of my cousin brothers was recognized as a Tulku much later in his life than usual when he was in high school. There were abrupt changes as that fact was known. Although we had the same upbringing, being born in the same remote village and coming out of Tibet at the same time leaving our families behind, this new fact changed everything. He was taken to his monastery in South India and installed as the reincarnation of a lama. Before he left, many people came to get his blessings and I was left with lot of questions such as whether I can still call him “chocho” as he was my favourite cousin brother. I learnt only after he was recognized as a Tulku that he used to visit the “Tsam-palas” (meditators) who used to live in the hills above our Upper T.C.V. schools to offer food.
This short story depicts the religiosity of a young Tibetan in contemporary Tibet. It shows the negotiation of religiosity as experienced by a Tibetan youth in relation to the phenomenon of Tulkuhood. This is most starkly demonstrated by the three instances of the main character meeting Orgyan after his recognition. In the first meeting, he was forced to prostate before Orgyan against his will by his parents. At the second meeting, although he didn’t prostrate before Orgyan, he offered “khata” (offering scarfs) twice exhibiting a sense of respect towards the other person and recognizing Orgyan as a reincarnate or a being superior to him. The final meeting was a deliberate meeting where the protagonist went to see Orgyan to seek help as he was not having much luck in his life. He mentions, “…unlike before, I felt a sense of spontaneous sense of faith in him arise within me.” He also prostrated to Orgyan despite the latter’s insistence on not doing it. This eventual shift in attitude towards Orgyan as a Tulku is further cemented by his assertion that, “…I am able to call Orgyan’s separating from this world of humans as “passing into nirvana…”. Despite the eventual arising of faith for Orgyan as the tulku, the main character still shows hesitation in his religiosity as shown by this casual remark, “Following the completion of the stupa, many religious pilgrims, and even I, got accustomed to going there regularly.” The ending of the story seems to summarize the attitude of many young Tibetans towards religious practices, because although he circumambulates the memorial stupa for Orgyan out of faith and habit, he also knows that his own teeth is in there too which creates some kind of absurdity for the devotees including himself.
Whether knowingly or accidently, I feel that Pema Tseden touched on a very important subject matter that is hardly discussed and examined in our society and left to be status quo out of reverence for cultural heritage. Tibetans are very proud of our Tibetan Buddhist heritage and rightly so, however, the institution of Tulku is something that many younger generations might be ambivalent about. As young Tibetans get educated in different educational systems, different philosophies, sciences, different cultural milieus etc., the concept of Tulkuhood will get harder to reconcile with what one has learnt and experienced in their current socio-cultural settings.
In addition to tackling pertinent socio-cultural issues, Pema Tseden managed to put Tibetan literature among the world literatures. As a young child growing up in India and reading world literature in English, I always wished there to be a Tibetan story that can open the Tibetan world to readers around the world as the other writers did for me. Like Camus, this short story employs simple language yet saturated with potent themes. Pema Tseden is among the very few Tibetan writers published in English who has managed to open the window to Tibetan experiences to a much wider audience.