From Lhasa, the deep lowing of the dungchens roused Tenzin Gampo Norbu from his slumber in an antechamber of Shechen Monastery. The old monk struggled to his feet, grabbed his saffron robe from a hook on the wall, and moved silently down the corridor towards the shrine for his morning meditation. As he approached the ornate altar and settled somewhat painfully into the lotus position, he chuckled to himself that once again he was the first to arrive for sunrise devotions, the new batch of novice monks under his tutelage not accustomed to waking at this hour. He would give them a few more days before donning a disciplinarian persona.
The lama placed his palms together and began intoning mantras. “Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate gate paragate parasamgate Bodhi svaha…Om gate –“
Suddenly, the monk’s meditative state was broken with a start as his mind processed what it had been seeing yet not seeing in his non-contemplative awareness. The golden statue of Avilokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, at whose feet he had sat every morning for the past thirty-five years, was crying blood red tears. The subtle smile upon the statue’s lips remained, but the viscous liquid escaping its eyes in periodic droplets stained the brilliance of his lovingly sculpted cheeks with russet trails. He rose tentatively from his straw mat and approached the icon. With the tip of his index finger, he wiped at one of the fresh narrow stains and was startled that it had the consistency of actual blood. He had heard tales of such phenomena associated with Christian idols, recounted to him by the frustrated missionaries who had periodically visited Tibet decades before the Chinese invasion in a futile effort to convert the devout Buddhists of the country, but had always secretly guessed that these were simply myths accepted as truth by those desperate Western eternity-seekers. Invariably, such “miracles” were interpreted by the faithful as harbingers of grave events to come. But there were no parallel legends in the Mahayana tradition. Still, he felt most unsettled, feeling a new empathy toward those few proselytizing westerners who had been rugged and determined enough to traverse the dangerous Himalayan terrain. Settling back onto his mat, he pondered the nature of the great Bodhisattva. The emanation of Chenrezig, as this perfect embodiment of lovingkindness was also known, was only apt to intervene in corporeal affairs when someone, somewhere was suffering unspeakably…and alone, long abandoned by anyone who would care to feel a single iota of compassion. Rinpoche bowed his head and chanted anxiously. Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum…
Ed sat bolt upright in his damp bed, slick with sweat, bangs of gray hair plastered to his forehead. Another nightmare, replete with phantasmagoric images so real and persistent that they had come to serve as his defacto alarm clock. Until recently, the contents of his dreams had evaporated within the first few moments of awakening, his several hour long “nightcap” effectively dampening his brain’s ability to maintain a steady state of REM sleep. But ever since Joan died, he had been unable to preemptively drink away the frightful reveries of his subconscious. These were no mere nightmares, either. Each scene that had played behind his darting eyeballs for almost a year now was a meticulous reproduction of an event that had actually occurred in his past. Invariably, these dreams caused him to relive long forgotten moments wherein he had behaved most monstrously towards Joan, his children, his colleagues, even himself; but regret was not something to which Ed was inclined. No, these relentless chimeras bothered him for an entirely different reason: they seemed, somehow, to be retributive warnings, as though some great avalanche of cosmic justice was poised to come crashing down on him.
Leaning on his walker for support, Ed threw the bathrobe with the faded VFW insignia over his shoulders and plodded into the kitchen. He grabbed a tumbler out of the cabinet, filled it halfway with flat store-brand cola and topped it off with a generous shot of Scotch whiskey. Having no further need for the soda, he placed it back into the refrigerator and left the half gallon of Scotch on the table for easy access. Resting the glass between his distended beer belly and the top rung of the walker, he hobbled to his La-Z-Boy recliner in the living room.
“…and several members of the Congressional committee have questioned the President’s reluctance to take a firmer stand against Hamas in the wake of last week’s violent unrest…”
“Fuggin’ commie Muslim ape,” Ed slurred aloud in obedience to the Fox News staff whose job it was to ensure that men of his generation never reflected upon the validity of their views or the fear behind their hatred. Letting the sound of the newscast fade to a background hum, he hoisted himself laboriously out of the chair and snatched the bottle of whiskey from the kitchen, returning and placing it on the end table next to him.
Last night, he relived a particularly animated shouting match with Joan that must have occurred some time in the late 1970’s. Ed bellowing maniacally at Joan for any minor offense, real or perceived, had been par for the course throughout their 40 year marriage. But on this particular occasion, in the hallway just outside the kitchen where the kids were slurping up the chocolately-brown milk from their Cocoa Puffs, Joan had had the audacity to yell back. This uncharacteristic display of courage arose from the fact that Ed had now stolen from his children, though he didn’t remember doing so; the Dutch Masters cigar box they had been filling with babysitting and lawn mowing funds to finance a family vacation to Disney World now empty in Karen’s sock drawer. Karen and her brother Joseph tried to ignore the increasing volume of the argument until – WHAM! A sickening sound of bone into flesh as Ed delivered a shattering blow to his wife’s nose and left her whimpering on the floor as he stormed off to the bathroom.
Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, one; clink-glug-splosh-gulp, two; clink-glug-slosh…
Ed wondered fuzzily if these moralistic nighttime reminders were sent by God as a warning or by Satan as a mockery. The two principal polar entities of the Judeo-Christian mythos offered the most simplistic, and therefore acceptable, explanations for everything that could possibly occur and as such, Ed never questioned their validity, though he did seem to have trouble understanding the rules of the game. Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp…darkness crept into the periphery of his vision as his head settled back onto the recliner, a sporadic buzzsaw snore lifting his Adam’s apple nearly clean out of his throat.
Five year old Joseph ran across the modest patch of urban lawn that passed for a front yard, arms outstretched, barely able to contain his excitement as his dad exited the car in his rumpled business suit and started toward the house. “Dad! Dad! I got a A on my science project! “ As he latched onto his father’s pant leg in delirious elation, a curious foreign scent filled his nostrils. “What’s that funny smell, Daddy? It smells like a lady.” Rather than place the blame on himself for overlooking the lingering perfume on his clothes, Ed mentally raged at the whore who should’ve known better than to wear such a pungent fragrance when meeting a married client and grabbed his son forcefully by the throat. “If you say a goddamn word to yer mother about that funny smell, I will kill you. I will take you down to the basement, tie you to a chair, and slit your stupid little throat with a razor, d’you understand me?!” “yes..s-sir,” he managed weakly through his constricted windpipe. “I SAID DO YOU HEAR ME, DAMMIT! TALK LIKE A MAN!” Ed relaxed his grip slightly, revealing bilateral bruises on either side of the boy’s neck. “Yes, Sir,” he said again.
“What the—“ Ed was jarred back into wakefulness by the sound of a semi’s horn just outside the front window. “Shit,” he whispered, wiping a line of drool from the corner of his mouth.
Clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink-glug-splosh-gulp, clink…Ed dangled the bottle impotently above the rim of the glass for several dumbfounded moments. “Son of a —great, just great.” He rose from his seat and pulled back the threadbare curtain from the front window, double-checking that his car had made it back home with him yesterday. Without bothering to grab his coat, he started toward the door. Just as he reached for the doorknob, his foot caught a snag in the carpet and he felt himself falling headlong, as if in slow motion, until he hit the floor with a dull thud. “Shit!! This crummy house will be the death of me,” he grumbled as he attempted to struggle to his feet, but to no avail. The brittle bones in both of his ankles had snapped in his twisted descent, though he was too inebriated to feel the pain. He glanced helplessly back at his chair and saw that the telephone was in its charger on the wall behind it, far out of reach. Like an upside-down tortoise, Ed wobbled back and forth, realizing in increasingly overwhelming waves of desperation that he would not be able to stand up of his own accord, no matter how hard he tried. Nobody would come to his rescue, since nobody ever came to see him, including his children who had long since moved out of state with their respective families. For the first time in his seventy-five years, Ed began to feel remorse, albeit of a selfish variety. No one to save him. No one to forgive him. No one to fetch him liquor as he convalesced. No one to bury him when he died. No one.
Already the withdrawals were starting. He clawed at the shag of the carpet, the pain in his ankles becoming steadily more acute, awaiting the onslaught of delerium tremens. From above, a commercial on the TV taunted him: “Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, made with the finest grains, aged and filtered through sugar maple charcoal. Don’t settle for anything less.” Ed whimpered as a solitary tear meandered down his stubbly face and came to rest in his ear. Outside, across the street, children were laughing in the late morning sunlight. Pressing his palms over his ears like a petulant child refusing to listen to his mother’s orders, Ed began to pray through his chapped lips. “Our fadder, who art’n heaven, hallobeethy name…”, simultaneously counting each pass of the dusty blades of the ceiling fan.
Tenzin Gampo Norbu opened the leatherbound volume of the Bardo Todol in his lap. This antique edition of the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead had once belonged to the 14th Karmapa and had been given to him by the Dalai Lama himself after his ordination at the Potala Palace. His eyes fell upon the page to which he had opened:
The Lower Circles of Samsara
II. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts
those men whose passions overruled their innate wisdom will spend a thousand times a thousand kalpas in this realm, until the karma caused by selfish grasping has been exhausted. ever-starved and parched, their pinhole throats will not accommodate so much as a single swallow of sustenance, though temptations arise unabated and just out of reach…
The monk had been unconsciously licking his lips, an alien desire growing to overwhelming proportions in his mind. Breaking out in a series of cold sweats, he slowly realized that he was detoxifying, though the precepts he had taken as a boy ensured that he had never tasted a drop of liquor throughout his long life. He thought back to yesterday morning, the scarlet tears on the countenance of Avilokitesvara, the furious Tonglen session he had performed for an unknown person whose suffering was so great that it elicited the grief of the Bodhisattva. Tonglen, the practice of taking on another’s suffering through the in-breath, extending warmth and compassion through the out-breath, finally revealed itself to be so much more than the symbolic gesture he had always assumed. Closing the book, he stood and made his way to the front gate of the monastery, in search of a peasant vendor selling strong barley-brewed chang at one of the scandalous roadside stands dotting the road from Kham to Lhasa.