The end of time was starting in Tibet. Shan Tao Yun’s old friend Lokesh had told him so repeatedly in recent months, reminding him just the day before as he had pointed a crooked finger toward an unnatural cloud lurking on the horizon. More than once during the past year Shan had listened, chilled, to Lokesh and their lama friends solemnly recount the ancient prophecy. Humans had been given their chance and had failed, had let their civilization become more about inhumanity than humanity. They were spiraling downward, biding their time until a more intelligent, compassionate species arose. The evidence was everywhere in Tibet, and it seemed perfectly logical to the lamas that the process was starting there, at the top of the world, the land closest to the homes of the deities.
Now, as he watched Lokesh clearing an old pilgrim path, murmuring prayerful apologies to the insects he disturbed, Shan realized he cherished the old Tibetans not just for their gentle wisdom but for the joy they showed despite the approaching clouds.
“Jamyang frolics with a goat!” Lokesh suddenly called out.
Shan saw that his friend had paused and was cocking his head toward the opposite slope. He looked across the small, high valley in confusion, making out now a running figure clad in the maroon robe of a monk. He glanced in alarm toward the road in the larger, main valley beyond. Only an hour before they had seen a police patrol. Jamyang was an unregistered monk, an outlaw monk, and it was reckless of him to show himself so close to a public road.
“He’ll be late for his own festival,” Lokesh declared with a grin, reminding Shan that the lama had asked them to join him in an hour for a meal at the little shrine by the remote hut he called home. The rest of the day was to be devoted to celebration of Jamyang’s restoration of the shrine.
Shan stepped to his truck, pulled his battered binoculars from the dashboard and focused them on the opposite slope. “Not a goat,” he reported a moment later. “He’s chasing a man.” The figure in front struggled to balance a sack and a long object across his shoulders, running with a bent, uneven gait.
With a worried, confused expression, Lokesh raised a finger and traced in the air the course of the path the running figures followed. “It is the way to that new Chinese town!” he warned, pointing to where the trail disappeared over the crest of the ridge. “He doesn’t realize where he’s being led!”
With sudden alarm, Shan studied the slope again. He had carefully avoided the town, one of the new immigrant settlements that were sprouting in the Tibetan countryside, and had warned his old Tibetan friends to stay away as well. The government had begun paying a bounty for information on unregistered monks, much more for their capture, encouraging a new breed of bounty hunters who did the work of the police in ferreting out hidden lamas. “Bonecatchers,” the Tibetans called such reviled men, for those they brought in were usually dazed, emaciated hermits who were little more than skin and bone. The bonecatcher who lured Jamyang into government hands would earn more than most Tibetans made in a year. There would be a police post in the town, with a jail. Once in the town the bighearted lama would never get out.
Shan frantically consulted the worn map on the front seat of his truck, then leapt behind the steering wheel. He called out for Lokesh to meet him at Jamyang’s shrine but as he turned the pickup truck around the old Tibetan leapt into the cargo bay.
He drove with reckless speed down the mountain, the decades-old truck bouncing and swerving in the loose, uneven gravel, fishtailing around the base of the ridge where Jamyang ran, then up the rough switchbacks of the far side to cut the fleeing man off. Shan could hear the clatter of the loose buckets and shovels in the rear, and above it the laughter of Lokesh, the gentle laughter that had helped keep Shan alive during the first terrible months when he had been thrown into a gulag barracks years before.
The old engine groaned and coughed as the truck climbed the dirt track that stretched up and over the ridge ahead of Jamyang, at last shuddering to a stop by a long defile of boulders where the trail intersected the road. Below them were open pastures and, less than a mile away, the small grid of streets that marked the new settlement.
The running man was so pressed with carrying his heavy load and watching the path behind him that he nearly collided with Shan. He gasped and tried to avoid Shan by jumping onto a ledge stone at the side of the trail. But his limp threw him off balance and he fell heavily, cursing as he twisted on his ankle, sprawling in the grass, the objects in the sack he had been carrying scattering around him.
“He’s a lunatic!” the stranger groaned with a fearful glance down the trail as he rubbed his ankle. “Raging at me like some crazed yak!” He began quickly gathering the objects in the grass.
Shan studied the man a moment. He was a tough wiry figure in his thirties with a long scar over his left eye that disappeared into shaggy black hair. His tattered fleece vest and cap seemed to mark him as a shepherd, but under the vest the Tibetan wore a black T-shirt with the image of a skeleton holding a sickle. Shan took off his hat.
The stranger stiffened as he recognized Shan’s Chinese features. “He’s not registered, Comrade!” the Tibetan cried out in a thin voice as he retrieved a small copper offering bowl. “He can’t be, hiding in that hut like some wild animal.” He pulled himself up, wincing as he put weight on his foot, then inched toward the largest of his burdens, two planks, as long as his arm, tightly wrapped with the ribbons used to tie together the wooden plates carved for printing Tibetan scriptures.
Shan took a quick inventory of the other objects the limping man gathered. A rolled deity painting, a small bronze figure of a dakini goddess, two sections of a ritual trumpet, and a silver gau, one of the amulet boxes devout Tibetans wore around their necks with secret prayers inside. With the printing blocks, such antiques would fetch enough on the black market to feed the man for weeks.
The shepherd began to lift the blocks to his shoulder, then gasped and stepped backward as he saw the tall lean man in the maroon robe who had materialized beside him. Jamyang smiled. “Lha gyal lo,” he said to the thief. “May the gods be victorious.”
The stranger raised the blocks in front of him like a shield. As Jamyang put a hand on the blocks he pulled them back, struggling to wrest them free of the lama’s grip. “There’ll be a bounty for the sorcerer!” he cried to Shan, then gestured to the settlement below. “There’s a police post in town, right there in Baiyun!”
The man, Shan realized, was genuinely afraid of the gentle middle-aged lama. Jamyang had appeared at his side, not from the trail, but as if out of thin air, without being in the least winded. Tibetan tradition included many tales of lamas who could magically transport themselves.
“What is the bounty for thieves?” Shan asked the stranger.
The man turned his makeshift shield toward Shan, then toward the end of the truck where Lokesh now stood. He sagged and lowered the blocks but as his gaze settled on the faded insignia on the truck door his chagrin faded. “You’re just a damned inspector of ditches,” he said.
“I am the damned official inspector of ditches,” Shan replied, “and that is the closest to the government of the People’s Republic you want to come today.”
The Tibetan stared at Shan for a few heartbeats then frowned and looked up in confusion as Jamyang, one hand still on the blocks, extended the little bronze dakini with the other. He released the blocks, grabbing the figurine and stuffing it into his pocket before placing the other stolen objects on the tailgate of the truck. After a moment Lokesh began to help him, then good-naturedly directed the thief to sit on the tailgate and pushed up his pants leg to examine his ankle. Lokesh sighed and glanced at Shan. The man may have sprained his ankle but his leg had already been twisted from a fracture that had not properly healed.
“You should have a crutch,” Jamyang declared, and glanced about the slope. The nearest trees were far below, along the stream that ran by the new settlement.
“I will drive him,” Shan said.
“Of course you won’t,” Lokesh quickly rejoined. “You will take Jamyang back and begin the celebration. By road it is miles to the town but by this sheep path it is a short walk. I will be his crutch, then meet you at the shrine later.”
Shan gazed with foreboding at the old Tibetan, knowing it was futile to argue. “You have your papers?” he asked his friend. Police were appearing with alarming frequency in the valley, checking and rechecking registration cards, even laying unexpected traps on back roads. The people of the valley were steeped in Tibetan tradition, which made them inherently suspect to the government. Lokesh gestured to his shirt pocket and nodded, then pressed his fingers on the gau that hung from his neck, as if to indicate the real source of his protection.
Shan gave a hesitant nod. “Lha gyal lo,” he offered. “We will wait for you before the evening meal.”
The shepherd held up a hand as Lokesh helped him onto his feet. He reached into his pocket and extended the bronze goddess to Jamyang. “No,” the lama said, “I gave it freely. It is an auspicious day,” he declared.
The thief’s face clouded. He remained silent, watching the lama with wide eyes as he limped away, one arm braced over Lokesh’s shoulder. Shan too gazed in confusion. The little dakini had been one of the oldest, most valuable pieces from Jamyang’s shrine.
Without another word the lama moved around the battered truck and climbed into the passenger seat. By the time Shan settled behind the steering wheel, Jamyang was staring at his prayer beads, working them with a strange intensity as he murmured a mantra, a long repetitive invocation that Shan did not recognize.
The silence between them was strangely brittle. Shan began to wonder whether the lama felt Shan had unnecessarily interfered with the thief, whether he grasped the new threat raised by such a man knowing the location of his hut. “You don’t always understand how dangerous it is,” he offered in an apologetic tone.
Jamyang turned and tilted his head at Shan as though surprised at the words. A tiny smile flickered on the lama’s face and he ran his hand through his short black hair. “You don’t always understand how dangerous it is,” the lama repeated in a whisper, then resumed his mantra.
After several minutes the lama seemed to relax and as they edged along a long ledge he raised his hand in a tentative motion. His voice was as light as a feather. “I think I should say words at your pilgrim shrines. Just a few moments.”
They had reached a sharp curve at the edge of one of the steep switchbacks, with an unobstructed view of Yangon, the sacred mountain that reigned over the long valley, the majestic peak that was believed to anchor the local people to the old ways and the old, sleeping deities. Four rock cairns, restored by Lokesh and Shan, rose up from near the road. Built with mani stones, rocks inscribed with prayers, they marked not only the road’s intersection with one of the valley’s many pilgrim paths, but also a semicircular flat above a steep drop-off where the earth was packed hard. The overlook had been used by pilgrims for centuries to pay homage to the land deities.
The lama was out of the truck before Shan brought it to a stop, an energetic bounce in his long stride as he stepped to the rim of the ledge, throwing his arms out as if to embrace the mountain. As Shan watched he spoke in a low confiding voice toward the peak, then turned to visit each of the cairn shrines.
It was a day of rare beauty, the mountain’s snowcap shimmering under the cobalt sky, its slopes alive with the hues of early summer. Shan’s anxiety began to fall away, giving way to a new contentment as he watched the lama. It was not the first time they had saved Jamyang from detection by the authorities, and today had been the closest yet. Each time it happened, Lokesh would later explain that the lama was not destined for bonecatchers, that he and Shan had been chosen by the deities to help save Jamyang for a greater destiny, to help keep the old ways alive.
Shan plucked a sprig of heather and set it on the cairn next to Jamyang. He wasn’t certain the lama knew he was at his side until Jamyang suddenly spoke. “I read once about the age of the planet. It has taken us four billion years to get to where we are,” he said with a melancholy smile.
Shan had grown to deeply care for the lama in the months since he and Lokesh had first encountered him, restoring a wall of mani stones along a lonely track in one of the high side valleys. Jamyang was in his late fifties, a few years older than Shan, not nearly so old as Lokesh. Like many of the lamas he would never speak of his background but it was obvious he was highly educated, not only in the Buddhist scriptures but in history and literature and the ways of the world. Shan knew his old friend had begun to regard Jamyang as something of a bridge, as one of the rare independent, untainted teachers who would survive another generation after Lokesh and the others of old Tibet were gone. Jamyang never joined in when others spoke about the end of time. He still nurtured hope, Shan knew, even though that seed was beginning to dry up and die in so many other Tibetans.
“Lokesh and I climb up the slopes some nights,” Shan offered, “just to sit with the sky. Last month we watched showers of meteors. They all seemed to land on Yangon, as if they were being called in to the sacred mountain.”
Jamyang nodded. “The mountain and its deity have always been there. They will always be there, long after all of us. Man cannot change that, can we?”
Shan studied the lama a moment, not certain if he understood. “No,” came his tentative reply, “we can’t.” He watched in silence as Jamyang walked to the truck and retrieved a copper tube, one of the trumpet sections the thief had taken. He pulled away a plug of wood and extracted a small roll of cloth tied with string. It was a line of prayer flags, handmade flags, each bearing a sacred image and an inscription in Jamyang’s own hand. He gave Shan one end and silently they fastened the line between two of the rock cairns, anchoring the ends under the cap rocks. Each flap in the wind would renew the prayers.
The lama offered a grateful nod when they were done, then gestured toward a cluster of crumbling structures in the distance, on the floor of the main valley. “There are probably signs of visitors on such a day,” he said. It took Shan a moment to realize there was inquiry in Jamyang’s tone. He retrieved his binoculars and trained them on the ruins. The local farmers and shepherds had begun restoration work on the ancient, abandoned convent a few months earlier, working in their spare time. Others, like Lokesh and Jamyang, usually worked there under the cover of night.
“Yes,” he reported, “I see a truck.”
The lama offered another silent nod. “I will join you in a moment,” he said, motioning Shan to the truck. Shan climbed behind the wheel and watched as the lama paced along the prayer flags, touching each in turn, murmuring the words to empower them in their task, then turned to the mountain and abruptly dropped to the ground, prostrating himself to Yangon as a pilgrim might.
It was late afternoon by the time they had parked the truck and climbed the half-mile trail to the lama’s hut. The little structure where Jamyang slept, originally a shepherd’s shelter, was as spare as a hermit’s cell. The lama spent most of his time in the shallow cave above, where he had restored an ancient bas-relief depicting several deities and sacred signs.
Shan coaxed the smoldering embers in the hut’s brazier back to life, adding some of the dried yak dung the lama collected for fuel. They silently shared some tea, then Jamyang filled a small wooden pail with water and they moved up the trail to the shrine.
Jamyang had arranged two crude benches like altars below the old rock sculptures, which were now covered with offerings. No special prayers would be offered, no celebration begun, until all the offerings were cleaned. Jamyang returned the items recovered from the thief before filling an offering bowl with water. Then he produced a rag and began reverently wiping the objects on the altar. Shan emptied the ashes from a small ceremonial brazier and walked down the slope to collect some of the fragrant juniper wood whose smoke attracted the deities. As he worked he puzzled over the somber, unsettled mood that had settled over the lama on the drive back. Jamyang had seemed eager to say something to Shan yet he had never found the words. But now the lama was home, at his secret shrine, and serene once more.
It was indeed a day for celebration. Now that rehabilitation of the simple, elegant shrine was complete, Shan knew Jamyang and Lokesh would begin bringing local Tibetans to worship there, to show them that the old ways were not forgotten. The risk to the lama would become ever greater. Shan would have to make them understand that they should never bring more than a handful of worshippers at a time. To assemble more would risk attracting the authorities. Beijing worked hard to scour all vestiges of Tibetan tradition from the land but it would never succeed as long as men like Lokesh and Jamyang existed. In recent weeks devout Tibetans elsewhere in the valley had taken to defying the police by holding impromptu prayer gatherings, marking them by sounding the long, deep-throated duncheng horns that once had summoned worshippers to temples. The daring group that was doing so would no doubt come to Jamyang’s shrine and no doubt taunt the authorities with their horn from the site. He found himself studying the landscape like a soldier, considering where he might stand as an unseen sentinel when worshippers came, marking routes where Tibetans might flee when police began climbing the mountain.
Half an hour later, as the fragrant smoke drifted upward into the calm, clear sky, Jamyang sat, legs crossed under him, and began reading scriptures to the stone-carved deities. As he spoke all vestiges of worry left the lama’s face. Shan sat beside him in the position of the novice, keeping the long loose pages in order, holding them down when the breeze freshened. His eyes wandered along the makeshift altars. Jamyang was an accomplished artist in the traditional style, and he had taken to adorning everyday objects with religious signs. Along the rim of a tea churn he had painted a conch, a leaping fish, a vase, and the other Eight Auspicious Signs of Tibetan ritual. A large eye stared out from a copper pitcher. The handle of a small barley scythe sported a vine with lotus flowers.
Suddenly Shan froze. At the center of the bench nearest Jamyang was something new, a black and alien object. A small automatic pistol. It was impossible that Jamyang would have such a weapon, but then he saw that it too had been adorned with a flower and the mantra to the Compassionate Buddha was painted along its barrel. Shan struggled with the urge to leap up and fling the treacherous, ugly thing down the slope. He told himself that this was just another of Jamyang’s ways of pacifying the world, that to the lama the gun was one more of the everyday objects that could be purified with sacred words. Once purified, the old ones believed, such a weapon would never cause harm again.
Shan fought against his impulse, tried to quiet his pounding heart. More than once in his imprisonment he had seen a monk executed with just such a pistol, kneeling and reciting mantras as the executioner hovered over him. He reminded himself that others would be visiting the shrine, others who knew possession of such a weapon was a serious crime, others who might not understand Jamyang’s ways. Where could the lama have found the weapon? Shan pushed down his fear, reminding himself that Jamyang’s naïveté was in its own way a gift, part of the pureness of the teacher. He settled back, deciding not to disturb the ritual but resolving to return in the small hours of the night to dispose of the pistol.
They sat in the pool of late-afternoon sunlight, watching as the shifting shadows gave movement to the deities on the rock, the sweet smoke wafting over them, the only sound now that of Jamyang’s low mantra and the occasional song of a lark. Shan relaxed again, letting his consciousness embrace only the reverent words as the lamas had taught him. A door in the back of his mind opened and he began hearing the chanted prayers of the monks of his former prison barracks, the sound once more soothing his troubled spirit. For the moment it did not matter that there were brigades of Chinese police seeking to ferret out men like Lokesh and Jamyang, two of the gentlest, kindest humans he had ever known. It did not matter that bonecatchers roamed the hills, that outsiders were settling in the valley, pushing out Tibetan families who had been rooted there for centuries. He could forget for now the nightmares of death that increasingly disturbed his sleep. He would not even let thoughts of his son, locked in a gulag camp thirty miles away, cloud the day. Shan had been learning from his friends to accept that what mattered was the here and now, the experience of this moment. And this moment, in the company of the prayerful lama, his heart filled with anticipation of Lokesh’s arrival and more reverent hours to follow, was perfect.
As if reading Shan’s mind, Jamyang looked up from his meditation. “The gods are content enough,” the lama declared with a serene smile. He reached through the fragrant smoke and squeezed Shan’s hand. “I take strength from you being here now,” Jamyang whispered, and wrapped his rosary around his fingers.
Then the lama picked up the pistol and shot himself in the head.
Copyright © 2012 by Eliot Pattison
Eliot Pattison is the author of The Skull Mantra, which won the Edgar Award and was a finalist for the Gold Dagger, as well Water Touching Stone and Bone Mountain. Pattison is a world traveler and frequent visitor to China, and his numerous books and articles on international policy issues have been published around the world.