Lamasery by Huba - FreeImages.Com

Flowers Would Fall from the Sky Like Rain

ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014

The sun burns through the mist, vultures circling and then settling in the dead trees. The golden roofs of a monastery rise like a mirage against the snow-flocked Dharamsala mountains. Beyond, the Tibetan plateau stretches into eternity. Different things surface in his mind and make him unbearably sad: his sisters’ high-pitched voices as they chant skipping rhymes on a summer afternoon; the smell of his freshly-washed sheets as he lies waiting for sleep, his parents and grandmother talking downstairs; the blue light of winter as he glides on the skating pond, stars and planets glittering in the bare trees, his grandmother watching.

His mind settles on an afternoon when he was twelve, an afternoon like so many others, when he, his parents, his grandmother and his two sisters all lived together in a New Jersey town. He was lying at the foot of his grandmother’s bed as she again told him about how the 14th Dalai Lama was discovered at the age of three: ‘The search party approached the house, with all the goods belonging to the previous Dalai Lama, and His Holiness came to the door and said, “So you’ve found me at last.” ’ The prayer flags his grandmother had strung in the birch tree when she arrived from India fluttered outside the window; he heard the shush-shush of the neighbour raking his lawn. An idea began to form in his mind, growing until it possessed his waking hours and took over his dreams: he wanted to be found, wanted the lamas to appear and spirit him away to Tibet. His grandmother would come with him so she could finally go home to Lhasa. If only he did not live in a two-story American house but in a stone-and-mud house in Amdo as the Dalai Lama had, so that one day he might see the lamas coming for him, riding across the great plateau single file, their red robes flapping in the wind. Flowers would fall from the sky like rain, a crow would alight on the roof, a rainbow would appear over the surrounding mountains – all the auspicious signs his grandmother had told him about.

Night descends, swallowing the vultures and the dead trees. He hears the metallic ring of the stars as they pierce the sky. The suck and slip of the Ganges, the Mekong, the Salween, the Yangtze – the great bloodlines flowing down from the Tibetan plateau. All rivers flow to the sea. After people are cremated, his grandmother once told him, the ashes are mixed with tsampa barley flour and thrown into a river for the fish to eat, cycling their way back into the wheel of life. He thinks now about material things, how they instead remain. The same thoughts he’d had the day his wife, after convincing the judge that his struggles with depression made him an unfit father, won custody of their daughter. It was a sunny San Francisco morning, the kind that always exhausted him: breezy, cloudless, chilly; sailboats on the Bay tilting and flapping like drowning moths. He stood in the kitchen, stared at the smiling cow clock over the counter, the scarred cutting board that had been a wedding present, the frayed red cushion in his daughter’s high chair. The things that remained, even though his daughter would now grow up without him.

A clawed, feathery creature circles above in the darkness, its wings silvered by the stars. A lammergeyer perhaps, like the ones in Tibet that gathered at sky burial sites, hunched angels of death waiting for the body to be chopped into pieces. He hears whispers, the guttural sound of monks chanting funeral prayers. His sister’s voice, consoling, careful: ‘You don’t need to come.’ When she called, he was out running in the Marin Headlands, his feet pounding the earth as he switchbacked down a trail towards the Pacific. It was Indian summer, the hills brown and muscular, the manzanita trees fiery red, the bay trees fragrant in the scorching air. A couple of years after he’d lost custody and his wife had moved with their daughter to London, a couple of months since he’d been laid off from his job lecturing in classics at a college in Oakland. Running was the only thing that gave him solace; it made him feel he was on his way to somewhere in the world. On the path that day, he’d concluded that the broad, heroic life he’d always dreamed of wasn’t, after all, attainable. It had been a mistake to major in classics: reading Homer and Virgil, Dante and Milton, had only increased his dissatisfaction and longing. When you were young, you dreamed, and when you grew up, you did things – fell in love, had a child – that let you glimpse the ancient, epic world. But you couldn’t live the dream.

He’d finished talking to his sister and lowered himself onto a rock, sweat pouring down his face. A deer gazed at him from the brush alongside the trail; the wind rose. He sat for a long time watching the shadows lengthen, a tanker make its slow way under the Golden Gate Bridge and out to sea, the harvest moon rise huge and pendulous over the horizon like a great cog in the universe, like the moon over sacred Lake Manasarovar in western Tibet. He saw the photo of Manasarovar in his grandmother’s empty bedroom: moonlit snowy mountains reflected in the dark waters, a solitary pilgrim’s tent pitched on the shore. Why hadn’t he stayed with her in New Jersey after his parents died? But she’d as good as pushed him out the door, telling him it was time to make his own way in the world. ‘Try California,’ she’d said as she lay counting her rosary under the gaze of the Buddha statue on her dresser. ‘There are many pioneers there, isn’t it?’ He liked the idea of living on the edge of the land, looking out at the great Pacific instead of strip malls, and so he’d gone.

It was near midnight when he got home from his run and the next morning he flew to New Jersey to help his sisters arrange the cremation. In Tibet, the funeral would have gone on for a week, his grandmother’s body laid out in the altar room, condolence callers bringing khada blessing scarves and incense, the lamas reading the prayers from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to help his grandmother journey to her next life. But this was America and it was all over in a day. ‘I never should have left her,’ he told his uncles that night at the reception, a gathering attended by the local Tibetan community and the neighbour who’d called the police when she noticed the newspapers accumulating on the front porch. But his uncles had explained that his grandmother was relieved when he moved to California, that she’d worried about his melancholy and felt a change of scene would do him good. Hearing this, he wasn’t surprised. It was just like her, just like how she’d stayed back with her husband, his grandfather, when he fell ill as they were fleeing Tibet. Sending their small son – his father – on to India with the rest of the party, she’d remained by her husband’s side in a cave sheltered from the wind, eating tsampa and praying. The second night, the stars blazing lanterns over the snow-cloaked plateau, his grandfather started to see mirages, flickering butter lamps, the glow of fireflies in smoke. To encourage him to undertake his journey without fear, she spoke to him about happy things: their wedding, the birth of their son.

After the last reminiscences had been shared and the reception guests had gone off into the freezing December night, he and his sisters sat down at the kitchen table to discuss what should be done with the ashes. His sisters, who didn’t have a clue about anything, wanted to toss them in a nearby stream. ‘I’ll handle it,’ he said, and realized then that he wouldn’t be returning to California.

He slept that night on the floor of his grandmother’s room, below the photo of Manasarovar and beneath the gaze of the Buddha. Just before dropping off to sleep, he saw under the bed the battered leather suitcase his grandmother had kept packed for years, believing that any day now the Chinese would be driven out of Tibet and she could return. He woke at dawn and, bundling up only what he could carry, set off for India to take his grandmother home. After escaping Tibet, she’d gone on yearly pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree and reached enlightenment; and to Kushinagar, where the Buddha – grown old, and sick with dysentery – lay his body down in a grove of flowering trees and passed away, finally free. He’d take his grandmother now on a last pilgrimage, first following in the steps of the Buddha – to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath, Rajgir, Nalanda, Patna, Kushinagar – and then travelling north to scatter her ashes in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s home-in-exile, where she’d settled after leaving Tibet.

On the flight east to Delhi, he was overtaken by a calm that returned him to those long-ago afternoons in his grandmother’s bedroom, but this evaporated the moment he reached India. The hotel recommended by a fellow traveller turned out to be a roach-infested dive; setting off from Delhi, he made mistakes with the trains and ended up in dusty villages nowhere near his destinations; he was stunned by the heat, the mosquitoes and bedbugs, the constant diarrhoea. Everywhere he went, children chased him and threw stones; beggars converged on him and tore at his clothes. On the outskirts of Rajgir, he tried sleeping under a tree as the Buddha had, beneath the canopy of stars and planets winking over the ancient landscape, only to wake in the middle of the night to a raging downpour, leeches crawling on his face and his watch and passport gone.

But none of that mattered on the day he finally arrived in Dharamsala, just a hundred miles from the border with Tibet. Here was the requiem, mythical landscape he’d dreamed of: rocky, snow-filigreed mountains thrusting to the heavens; torrential rivers thundering to the plains; waterfalls threading down sheer cliff faces. He spent long hours gazing at the waterfalls, said to be portals to hidden worlds, to realms of paradise visible only to the enlightened. In the pre-dawn hours he did the kora with old Tibetan men and women just as his grandmother had, circumambulating the Dalai Lama’s residence, spinning the prayer wheels set into a wall along the path, dedicating his actions to all suffering beings. His grandmother was with him as he walked around and around; together they were doing the Dharamsala kora, together walking the sacred pilgrim’s road around the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the road she’d walked every day as a girl and that now had all but disappeared, swallowed up by the Chinese-built new town. After the kora, he’d go back to his lodging house to sleep, weak with the dysentery that was getting worse in spite of the herbs prescribed by a local Tibetan doctor.

One afternoon, he woke from his fevered dreams filled with urgency. He put his grandmother’s ashes into his bag and started walking, away from the town and towards the mountains. After about an hour, he came upon a fast-moving river. Hiking downstream from where a lone boy stood fishing on the bank, he found himself in a mossy clearing. Birds shrilled; the water burbled and eddied around jagged rocks. Clouds scudding overhead mirrored the fast-flowing river, everything in motion now. He took the pouch with the ashes from his bag and then stopped, stricken. Unable to remember any of the prayers his grandmother had taught him, he stood frozen, listening to the breeze sough through the branches of the deodars, produce a sound like the trees at the skating pond creaking in the winter wind. All he could think of was om mani padme hum, the mantra his grandmother used to recite when she counted her rosary. But she’d always told him that the wisdom of the Buddha could be found in those six syllables, and so with these words he scattered her ashes, watching them swirl away in the clear water. He turned and walked back along what seemed to be the path but somewhere in the woods he found that he was lost. The straight way back up the river had disappeared, returned to the primeval forest. Noticing reddish stains on his shirt, he realized he was vomiting blood. The pain in his abdomen brought him to his knees; unable to rise, he sank to the ground and lay on his side, the sharp smell of cedar and earth in his nostrils. He’d wanted to shed possessions and the gods were fulfilling his desire: they would now take his very body.

The night advances, the forest alive with barking, whirring, clicking; the inner workings of a great machine. He hears the prayers of the pilgrims walking the path around the Dalai Lama’s residence, the Potala Palace, Mount Kailash in western Tibet; the path to Delphi, Ephesus, the Wailing Wall. He studies the cold moon keeping vigil above the trees, the icy stars that are frozen tears in the inky sky; travels with his grandmother’s ashes to the sea, to the Bay of Bengal and out into the warm swells of the Indian Ocean.

She shouldn’t have died alone. He sees her body on the kitchen floor, near the window looking out on the prayer flags, the neighbour’s birdbath, the pink flamingo statue. What did she think about in her final moments? Did the sadness overcome her at last? If only he could join her now, find out from one of the high lamas where she was on her after-death journey. Then he could make things right, see her off properly to the next life.

How still the forest is. Lamps flicker at the bases of the towering trees. High above, the branches are flying buttresses reaching to the vault of heaven. He hears the unfurling of leaves, the rush of rain and river and blood, the world’s ancient heart beating in all the living and the dead. His wife and daughter glide through the clearing in white gowns, petals drifting down around them like tears. Fireflies glint in smoky mist and now he sees the lamas: they are riding in procession across the plateau, the wind lifting the manes of their fine horses, their red robes flapping. The moon burns, searing his flesh. The vultures perch in the bare trees, their hooked figures silhouetted against the golden-roofed monastery, the snowy mountains, the star-lacerated sky arcing up over the plateau, over his grandparents’ village, over the great land of Tibet that is now only a dream and a memory. He sees the solitary figures of his grandmother and grandfather and father walking south towards India, then just his grandmother and father, and then only his grandmother, her stout figure leaning forward against the wind, and then no one, only the vast plateau whipped by the great gales that rise in the afternoon and can blow a man right off his horse. The moon burns. The earth spins on its axis. The planets glitter with the promise of other worlds. The lamas are coming for him, and at last he will be found.



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