Sipping TeaPart One:

It is the eve of the Tibetan and Chinese New Years, which this year fall on the same date. I am in a small Tibetan village in Aba, which is located in the heart of Sichuan Province. Aba’s favorite point of boasting is that it is the home of the panda bear. Every Chinese school child knows the English word “panda” and I’m told that all panda bears in zoos around the world are actually only rented out by China. China owns all Panda bears, and don’t you forget it!

I’m staying with Trulku Yonten, the Lama I worked with in Beijing, and his family. They have two very kind-hearted teenagers, a girl named Sherab Lhamo, and a boy named Namkhai Dorje. They are home from boarding school now, as it is the midst of the three-month long winter break. It being New Year’s Eve, the house is buzzing with activity. There is one main room with a yak-dung stove, guest couches, tables and a shrine. The tables are piled high today with cookies, breads, candy, soft drinks, fruit, yak meat, and momos – Tibetan meat-filled dumplings the size of a small fist. The children are giddy with excitement about the fireworks they’ve been waiting all week to explode.

There haven’t been many guests today. Usually Trulku Yonten will see 5-20 guests in a day, all local people coming to ask him for different kinds of prayers and help. One of his specialties is performing “mos,” divinations that predict the outcome of difficult situations. People come with all sorts of troubles – illness, problems with livestock, issues with family, relationship and money. Trulku Yonten recites mantra, rolls a pair of dice, and then consults a text which interprets the numbers that appear. He is known for extremely accurate divinations, so local people have come to rely on him in hard times.

Another of his specialties is curing people who have gone insane. Just this week, a family arrived in the middle of the night with their 15-year old daughter who had become psychotic. She refused to wear clothes, and after looking far and wide for her, they finally found her naked in the forest, almost lifeless. They brought her to Trulku’s house, with many family members to restrain her quaking body, and after about 20 minutes of Trulku Yonten’s mantras, she was completely clear minded Bright Smilesagain without any trace of mental impairment. Trulku says that for some reason, this area has a fair number of insane people. He has had great success with all of the ones he has been asked to help.

He and I are again working on the autobiography of the 19th century lama, Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje. Now, my conversational capabilities are much better than they were while we were in Beijing, so we can communicate without a translator. This feels like a great success. I’m still not great, but I am getting my questions across, and making sense of his commentaries so that I feel the translation will be accurate and rich with meaning. Apparently, this autobiography is a much more difficult work than most – it is full of inner and secret meanings that a person without extensive training in dharma would never understand. Trulku Yonten is extremely knowledgeable and highly trained, so he can beautifully explain all sorts of references to me that I otherwise would miss.

From the point of view of learning dharma and being immersed in language practice, living with Trulku Yonten and his family is a perfect opportunity. What’s hard is that Teait is freezing cold here! Their house, other than the small stove in the main room, has no heat whatsoever. Winter at 13,000 feet is well, almost unbearable at times! We spend most of the day together in the main room, working, drinking tea, greeting his guests. At night, I retreat to my completely frozen room, put on several more layers of clothing, two pairs of gloves and a ski mask, and bury myself deep within my sleeping bag and many blankets. I wouldn’t have thought I was capable of living in such cold, but I’m surprising myself. Still, I would love a weekend in a five-star hotel with a toilet, bath and heat!

Part Two:

New Year’s Day is here, and so are swarms of visitors. Osel Drolma is a flurry of activity, cooking, monitoring tea cups, re-filling the stove with yak dung she has brought up from the front yard. We all eat thukpa (noodle soop), piles of newly steamed momos, fresh bread twists, and boiled yak meat. Each person has their own knife and the meat is cut and gnawed right off the bone. Every bit of the tissue is eaten, right down to the Me and the Kidsliquified marrow inside the bone, which is considered a delicacy. What’s left is a perfectly clean, white bone! Meat eating here is a skill I have yet to master. I still inconspicuously choose the sections with familiar looking meat and the least fat; my western taste has not adjusted to the flavors and textures of the other soft and not-so-soft tissues.

The neighbors who share the house have a gang of little boys over today. They range from about the ages of six to 11, so there are 10 stomping, yelling, laughing little boys constantly disturbing the general peace of our home. What’s more, their families have left them unsupervised in a room with heaps of sugary treats and unlimited beer. To add to their rowdiness, a few are quite drunk. Apparently in the nomad areas it is acceptable for boy children to get drunk on Losar. I’m not happy about it, but since their parents are nowhere to be found, I keep going to check on them. So far I’ve stopped them from trying to drive a motorcycle, and rescued a tiny girl from their noisy chaos. “Ah, it will be over soon,” I remember as I find Mumid Tsomoa quiet spot and take a nap, the covers closed around my head.

Part Three:

New Year’s never ends here! The stores have all been closed for about a week, and will stay that way for another. It is the day after the new year, and today we are making rounds to other people’s homes so that Lama Yonten can bless their shrines and say prayers for each family’s well being in the coming year.

I have eaten enormous amounts of food. Each house has the same spread displayed, the same food that will sit on the tables until it is gone – days or weeks. My eating is carefully monitored, probably because I am a foreign guest, and no one is ever satisfied that I have eaten enough. Meat stuffed intestines, cookies, and cans of foul-tasting, coconut-esque milk are forced into my hands, and until I have taken a bite or a sip, all eyes are on me. Osel Drolma whispers secret ways to evade the eating and drinking, so we are constantly giggling to ourselves in our attempts to save me from overstuffing. One western friend here told me a story about having been overfed Happy Gatheringto the point of vomiting. Lama Yonten has told me another story about a time when his father’s family pushed so much food onto a western woman that she burst into tears.

When groups gather, there is often impromptu singing and dancing. It’s one of my favorite Tibetan traditions. Today is no different,many of us taking turns to entertain the group. I sang two songs, a mantric song of Guru Rinpoche, and a bit of Italian opera. The mantra song was well received but as it turns out, opera seems a bit over the top for Tibetans! As soon as I began, I saw and heard the reactions of wide-eyed shock or fits of giggles. Osel Drolma laughed so hard she had tears streaming down her cheeks. Later she said to me “Wangmo, the Guru Rinpoche song was so beautiful. It was exactly like listening to a lama sing mantra or looking for a long time at a thangka painting of Guru Rinpoche. But that other thing – I have no idea what that was all about!”

I guess I won’t have much of an operatic career here!

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