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Misfortune Befalls Kelsang Wangdu's Family

Text & Photo by Gyayang Xirab

Push and pull competition
Push and pull competition

Picking up Hada from a speeding horse.
Picking up Hada from a speeding horse.

Horse Racing and Wangchen's Death

During the transition from summer to autumn, herdsmen usually take part in and enjoy horse racing.

This is a huge annual gathering. Usually it includes three major stages: first, inviting monks to pray and conduct an invocation ceremony, second the horse racing itself together with various kinds of sporting activities... and finally the trade and exchange of goods.

All these sporting activities, like horse racing, including picking up Hada while dashing past on horses, as well as archery from horseback, all offered the men an excellent opportunity to strut their stuff.

While the sky became a curtain of darkness, the grassland became a garden. The opening party began. Girls with festival garments were like booming flowers and shone in the square lit by stars. Men and women with bright costumes spent their whole night singing songs and dancing; they sang to celebrate their year's hard work and the harvest; they also took the chance to express their love and blessings for the future.

Horse racing came on the third day. Kelsang Wangdu drove his big truck after picking up the invited Lama from Doigya Monastery--an indispensable event in every gathering for horse racing and, of course, it is also the most anticipated event amongst the locals.

The Lama's coming always enhances the holiness and solemnity of the occasion. Belief and behavior often personal desire; it seems horse racing, singing, dancing, and even trading of goods trade, are so meritorious and invaluable that even the attraction between male and female seems to lose its significance in comparison.

Man always dreams of winning the horse race.
Man always dreams of winning the horse race.

It was during these celebrations that the sudden heavy news of Wangchen's death spread all over the grassland. He had been hit by lightning.

What a great misfortune for Kelsang Wangdu and the villagers this was! Wangchen had inherited Kelsang Wangdu's care for his family, but lacked Kelsang Wangdu's greed in money issues. Nowadays, people recognize this is actually a common characteristic of most herdsmen. For this reason, Wangchen had won all the villagers' hearts. In the year that Kelsang Wangdu retired, the party committee of the township appointed Wangchen vice-administrator of the village. But Kelsang Wangdu's stubborn refusal of Wangchen being appointed caused part of the township committee to change its decision. Several years later (in 1996), Wangchen was chosen again as vice administrator, but this time he didn't decline.

Kelsang Wangdu's whole family was just like a tent, in which Kelsang Wangdu and Wangchen were the two poles; but the death of Wangchen made the half of the tent collapse. In 1996, I went to Nagchu and heard that Kelsang Wangdu was also there. Thereupon, I went to visit him. The first words he said to me were "My family is bankrupt". Then I recognized how much Wangchen's death weighed on his heart. Wangchen's misfortune almost extinguished the hope of the whole family. This was a harsh blow to Kelsang Wangdu. He said: "Originally, I asked him to accompany his wife to the county's downtown area to have a sterilization operation. But due to the lack of transport, he did not go. The sad thing was that I had asked Director Tan, in consideration of many years' cooperation with him, to send a car for my son and his wife to the county hospital. But he refused. If he had helped me in this way, Wangchen could have escaped from this disaster. This is the greatest regret of my life time."

Then tears ran down his face like little glass balls--these were the tears of a hard man from northern Tibet. I knew perfectly well that at such a moment, Kelsang Wangdu really needed the help of others. Nevertheless, I was incapable of doing anything, but took the words of my old friend and said: "Life is uncertain, and death is determined by destiny. You must take care of yourself and shake off your sadness. It is good to go to monasteries to present your holy lamps." Then I gave him 100-dollar cash in an attempt at consolation.

The death of Wangchen ended the horse races because of the resulting discord.

Kelsang Wangdu immediately invited Buddhist monks from Doigya Monastery to release Wangchen's soul from suffering. Amongst herdsmen of the Fifth Village, some follow Bon religion and others are followers of Buddhism. Both the families of Kelsang Wangdu and Sokya follow Bon religion. Maybe they were never exactly sure what they belonged to, what kinds of the religion, but from their point of view, they are Bon religion because many villagers here, including Kelsang Wangdu, take the Rala Yungdrung Ling Monastery in Shigatse as their regular monastery, and for events such as the births and deaths of villagers they ask this monastery to help. Kelsang Wangdu explained: "This has come from our tradition" --obvious evidence that their ancestors belonged to Bon Religion. Moreover, the name of Sokya's sister, Yungdrung Lhamo, is a typical name for Bon believers. "Yungdrung" is the symbol of Bon Religion--the fylfot.

The clergy is holding a religious service in a herdsman's house.
The clergy is holding a religious service in a herdsman's house.

For geographic reasons, the herdsmen in this village frequently visit Doigya Monastery when they feel it necessary; for example, whenever they get sick they will ask the master of the monks in this monastery for a medical check. Many herdsmen have not clearly defined themselves as Buddhist or Bon. Some of them follow both.

I once met an old man called Rabgyal from North Tibet. Villagers believed he was a famous doctor, saint, master of sky burial, and shaman. He said to me: "So long as he is being honest, a person could simultaneously believe in both Buddhism and the Bon religion. The key issue is to be good and honest to others."

The funeral rites for Bon religion are rather complicated with massive costs that are almost beyond ordinary herdsmen. Kelsnag Wangdu had really spent a lot. He first invited monks from Doigya Monastery to recite sutras in order the release the soul from purgatory. Then he contributed the black horse, which had been used by Wangchen before, ten yaks and twenty sheep to Rala Yungdrungling Monastery. He also asked the monks of this monastery to recite sutras for Wangchen again.

Life is at its summit when a man is just 38 years old. It is the most crucial time for his career as well. However, a sudden and unexpected electrical storm took away Wangchen's life. Kelsang Wangdu could not accept it and the villagers were all shocked. Speaking of death, maybe this was a good way to go--an ordinary person might fear the experience of death. A quick death involves less experience of fear. From this point of view, maybe it might be good luck to die so quickly (being hit by lightning).

However, when I heard this news, I also could not accept it. Wangchen was only an ordinary person living an ordinary life. Although his existence never changed my life, his smiling face lives on in my mind.

Dongya is facing loneliness but a happy life.
Dongya is facing loneliness but a happy life.

The Funeral Ritual of Bon Religion

I have witnessed the group funeral rituals of Bon religion (Kun Rig Gi Rus Chog) and I was asked by friends to write the following short article about this ritual.

This is a high land at an extreme altitude surrounded by snow-caped mountains. It seems this is the perfect environment for the prosperity of religion. Looking at monasteries of various sizes, chambers, meditation huts and caves, gives clear evidence of this. These are stages not only for religious activities but also for the origins, cultivation and spread of folkloric culture.

Human beings are always accompanied by their folkloric cultures, beliefs, and the further development of unique religious cultures. No matter what the folkloric culture or religion, both are the embodiment of the wisdom of mankind.

Ethnic Tibetans believe that birth always goes together with death. The transmigration between birth and death resembles the shift between day and night or the sun and the moon. The physical death does not imply destruction of the soul. At the end, there is a world that we cannot see with our eyes, like a dark night; the wandering souls are searching and roaming; they are still involved with the temporal world.

To the herdsmen in Northern Tibet, a baby's birth will not be any big deal amongst villagers but on the contrary, the death of an old person always creates a stir and villagers perform solemn funeral rituals lasting over 49 days.

The conception of death being more important than birth is profoundly rooted in the practice of Bon religious beliefs. The pious believers usually hold a cremation for their deceased relatives with an expenditure of at least thousands of Yuan and up to tens of thousands of Yuan, or even hundreds of thousands of Yuan.

From historical records, Gshen Rab Mi Boche (the son of Mi Skye Tho Dgav) founded the Bon religion, which was recognized as the indigenous religion of Tibet. He also adopted the symbol of the fylfot as the emblem of Bon religion--symbolizing that the Bon religion will always shine like the sun and the moon and would be impossible to destroy.

Gyaltsan Lozang was the senior master of Bon religion in Dargyeling Monastery in Sharu of Nagchu Prefecture. In Bon religion, people presume that the moment when a person in the need of most care from others is when that person is in the process of dying and the soul is roving. To hold a funeral ritual in order to realize the separation between life and death must be a sacred business. Because of that, Gyaltson Lozang has throughout his career of 15 years provided funeral services for 2313 deceased.

Believers praise Gyaltsan Lozang: "We all wish you to have an auspicious because you have a compassionate heart, just like a Bodhisattva. Amongst all religious sects, the Bon religion of Yungdrung is the most advanced. It is both a national treasure and a living tradition that remains fresh by providing comfort and guidance. Its followers believe that this religion will surely prosper forever. The doctrine and language sounds like sweet bells to them. On hearing the words of the master of this religion, we could all benefit from receiving the invaluable assets inherited from Bon religion. We wish you could dismiss all impediments naturally."

A pilgrim before setting out.
A pilgrim before setting out.

Releasing the soul from suffering is the most necessary and the easiest way to provide benefits to deceased persons. People always fear death because they imagine it to be such painful and lonely experience. Also, some souls of deceased persons are still infatuated with the material world in terms of pursuing their treasures or something else they desired, resulting in their souls remaining behind.

Gyaltsan Lozang was acting as the religion figure to provide funeral services for deceased people in order to purify their souls, release them from fear and pain occurring during the process of death, and then comfort them permanently. Today, Gyaltsan Lozang was providing a ritual service to purify relics (such as teeth, finger nails, skulls) of his 2313 deceased clients (referred to as Kun Rig Gi Rus Chog in Tibetan). They were both Tibetans and Han Chinese. They were ordinary people, cadres, laborers, elderly persons and criminals.

There was a temporary altar built. At the top of the altar, three wood plates were placed, decorated with small colourful flags. Gold powder was used to write sutra inscriptions on ink-covered plates.

The inscription is the funeral oration, used to guide the deceased soul to release from pain and fear occurring during the process of death.

A white cloth bag was placed at the altar with small pieces of the skeletons of 2313 deceased persons were kept inside. The relics are referred to as the reincarnation and temporal abode of those people. It also symbolizes to the relatives of the deceased people their commemoration. On the bag a motif, this was designed to describe souls that were wandering between the world and hell, was drawn. Today, all those wandering souls would fade away like a subtle fog, accompanied by the sound of sutras recited by lamas.

Gyaltsan Lozang instructed everybody who attended: "Please pray!"

Rows of tributes, such as rice, Tsampa, yak butter and sweet nuts, were placed in front of the altar. All the foods presented there resembled the everyday foods on the tables of herdsmen's families.

Believers in front of the Jokang Monastery
Believers in front of the Jokang Monastery

The master for the funeral ritual in Bon religion could be chosen in three ways, i.e. formal examination, reincarnation or lineage inheritance. Gyaltsan Lozang is the lineage and inheritance master of Sharn Dargyeling Monastery, and he will pass his post on to his son Yungdrung Gyaltsan.

Just after the end of sutra recitation in the tent, the conch started to sound outside the tent as if it was an elegy in a plaintive voice.

Strong relatives of the deceased carried the over two thousand remains slowly to the funeral site, and placed the cloth bags into a huge cinerator where the wood plates, with the funeral oration written on them, were placed. Sutra recitation and the conch accompanied the prayers of the people.

Palm bush in the cinerator ignited the bamboo baskets that had been worshiped before (the bamboo baskets symbolize the treasures presented to the deceased). A dense fog with a subtle aroma spread around. The religious followers in formal dress were shaking instruments to make a sound. This was the last moment to say goodbye to the dead. Men and women, one after another, cast Hada into the incinerator, and then prostrated themselves on the ground to pray.

Having recited the sutra, Gyaltsan Lozang soon became the monk police to maintain order. He asked people not to block the draft so that the fire could vigorously burn all remains of the dead, implying that the souls were being sent as far as possible.

Today, Bengluo Lama from Rala Yungdrung Ling Monastery of Shigatse came to participate in the sacred religious ceremony. Relatives of the dead queued to receive a blessing from Bengluo Lama through his touch to their foreheads; obviously, the relatives worshiped their deceased relatives. This might reflect the broadminded attitude of Tibetans towards both life and death. 

When the altar had nothing left on it but tributes, the butter lamps were still lighting the statues of Buddha. Lamas continued their sutra recitation and women put their handiwork aside and piously came to the tent to receive a blessing from Gyaltsan Lozang.

Man is a small element of Nature, which bestows on mankind all they could enjoy in their lifetime. However, the rules of Nature are irresistible. Birth and death are a mutual balance, like the alternation of the sun and the moon, or fire and water...

Love Affair between Widow Yutso and Dongya

The death of Wangchen made Yutso a widow. Though she was already mature, there was still time in her life for further encounters.

Just at this time she became suddenly aware that while she was an unwelcome person in the eyes of her father-in-law, her seven children were being treated as child labourers. The children's clothes became shabby. However, she still believed that this might be her mistake because her father-in-law could not possibly so change his attitude toward his grandchildren.

The herdsmen' first principle about raising children is to give them food and clothes to survive. To train children to be graziers is of first importance and God's will--and this is a common attitude of herdsmen in the North of Tibet. Reviewing the past, Yutso felt she was still lucky. She handed over all responsibilities to her husband; what she left for herself was just to raise children. She never worried about food and clothes. However, she had to shoulder all the responsibilities of a parent after her husband's death, and she suddenly found her children's clothes were worn out. This was her first negative experience of the family, including her father and mother-in-law.

An old religious believer is walking on a pilgarimage path.
An old religious believer is walking on a pilgarimage path.

A common saying is; "rumors always attach themselves to a widow". Later on people said they often saw men "turned over" in Yutso's living room. Dongya was one of them. Another rumor spread in which Dongya had attempted to marry her, and that she was also intending to live apart from Gelsang Wangdu's family. These rumors endangered Gelsang Wangdu's family and property. Thereby, Gelsang Wangdu sued Dongya in front of the administrative committee of the village and alleged he was threatening the stability of his family; he asked the officers to take preventative measures.

Following this request, the village committee made a ludicrous decision, i.e. to forbid Yutso and Dongya to have a love affair because such behavior would disturb the stability of Gelsang Wangdu's family. They were both bound by the direction that they not marry. The committee also directed Dongya and others to make a promise to cease their improper behavior and not marry Yutso.

While rumors were spreading everywhere in the village, Yutso heard Dongya's intention was to get yaks and sheep from her through marriage in order to buy a truck. This was actually what Yutso was worried about. Therefore, she decisively cut off the relationship with Dongya. But she never closed her heart towards men. Dongya's younger brother Robu was still studying in school. Though he was just 17 years old, he occupied her heart. He spent his whole school summer holiday in her house, and finally Yutso was pregnant--but she didn't exactly know who was the father of the baby.

Though this was the kind of thing that Keslang Wangdu could not tolerate, he also did not dare to raise the topic of family breakup. Family separation was to Kelsang Wangdu's the worst possible outcome. He would never let the priority of the family, which he had spent his most of his life to establish, be destroyed. Therefore, Kelsang Wangdu took whatever strategies he could to prevent Yutso from causing family separation. He asked Yutso to choose one of his younger sons to be as her husband. After thorough consideration, Yutso decided to marry Ruo Erje.

However, Ruo Erje could not accept the proposal to marry his former sister-in-law who was actually 24 years older than him. Tsegyal, another son of Kelsang Wangdu, said he would like to marry Yutso; but Yutso refused and dismissed him as a midget. Without any clear solution, Keslang Wangdu proposed to Yutso that, if she promised not to divide the family, he would take her as his concubine to form a polygamous family. Sonam Kyidrong passed this on to Yutso. Having perfectly understood Kelsang Wangdu's intention, Yutso shouted at Sonam Kyildrong: "How could it be possible for you as his daughter to speak to me like this? You know perfectly well, according to the custom of herdsmen, that a father-in-law is just like a natural father. Do you really want me to be disgraced in public because of your immoral proposal offending public decency?"

Eventually, Yutso lived apart from Kelsang Wangdu's family. Of course, the property division had caused disruption on various fronts. In every case, the village committee stood aside to act as a mediator and help Yutso to get some property. In fact, Yutso just wanted to gain her proper due and she would never overstep her entitlement. At the very beginning, Gelsang Wangdu proposed that the truck not be included in the division because it had taken his life to achieve the truck for his business. Yutso consented to his proposal. Actually, Yutso understood why Kelsang Wangdu was able do his business and buy a truck. This was because her boys had studiously taken care of yaks and sheep, even in harsh weather conditions. In addition, she believed that the so-called business of Kelsang Wangdu came entirely from the products of animal husbandry. However, she was not a buzzard and just wanted what she should have from this family. Still, Kelsang Wangdu tried hard to tighten his pocket during the whole process of division. Every item was debated and finally solved through the mediators. The division took over a year to settle.

The young clergy. Photo by Guo Ali
The young clergy. Photo by Guo Ali

After Yutso's departure, Kelsang Wangdu asked his youngest son Ruo Erje (who was only 17) to marry 18-year-old Takdruk, the younger sister of Sokya.

He had convinced Tanor and Sonam Kyidrong to move in with him as one family. Therefore, two of them completely replaced all the work that Wangchen and Yutso had done before. Tanor, on one hand, as the former master of his own family, was actually much like Wangchen in his skill in the exchange business of salt, family management, and grazing. He was definitely capable of shouldering his half of the family tent. On the other hand, Sonam Kyildrong was the daughter of Kelsang Wangdu. No matter what she did for the household or how much she showed filial piety and respect to her parents, she was automatically better than Yutso. The combination of the two families filled the vacancy in the number of animals taken by Yutso. Therefore, Kelsang Wangdu was still a rich man with a big name.

Kelsang Wangdu built two small houses for Yutso at a spot not far from his house. Naturally, this was what Yutso should have. Yutso had another baby--her eighth. At almost the same period, her elder daughter Tsotrul delivered a baby too. The father of the baby was a young man in the Fourth Village but the two of them had no intention to marry.

When we first entered the Fifth Village, Sokya lived in a tent made of yak wool. His family was the only one of the three households without a modern house. Due to the hard work of the two siblings (Yungdrung Lhamo and Yudro), the tent became the most clean and comfortable tent in the Fifth Village. At present, Sokya was married with Chogyel and part of this family, but Yudro had married in Bokyi Village, and Yungdrung Lhamo asked a man from Gomang Town to join her family. The original family was now divided into three parts. Yungdrung Lhamo set up a small house and added a new baby. Her life was still comfortable, but without Yudro, her songs were not as loud as before, and her smile was not as wide either. 

Dongya said: "Kelsang Wangdu did not allow me to marry Yutso; however the family was eventually divided. Of course, it was not my fault. Yutso clamed her baby's father was my younger brother Rubo but this was not clear. This case was just like the one of Chogyel; who could prove that the baby was Rubo's baby?"

Yotso's little daughter is carrying back her only little daughter
Yotso's little daughter is carrying back her only little daughter

Dongya also revealed that he had had a love affair with Pade for some time. Pade was the sister of Doje's wife. When they decided to marry, Pade's mother fought against it although Dongya did not know why. Later he heard that there was a blood relationship in the lineage of both Pade and Dongya. Nobody had mentioned this before. Such a thing, therefore, shocked everybody.

Eventually, Pade married Soje's brother Dogde.

In 1999, when I went to the Fifth Village again, Pade had already become the mother of a little girl, but Dongya was still a single man. He said: "I am currently living with my parents and taking charge of production and the labor allocation of the family. I will try hard to earn money to build my own house and then marry."

One more year has passed. I wish that Dongya's marriage will come to a cheerful conclusion. 

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