Screaming black wind

Screaming black wind

Paltrül was passing through the northern reaches of Kham with nothing but stones for company. He was avoiding the kind of events in which he took no interest, and giving no mind to the concerns of the professionally grandiose. He had no time for pseudo-spiritual posturing, preferring the sight of drong [wild yaks] on the high plains to the sight of herds of monastics in their domestic institutions. That is how he was – but it just so happened that, at a point where a brief rest seemed in order, Paltrül was invited to stay at a hick Nyingma gompa. Now this was just the type of venue Paltrül enjoyed – a relaxed atmosphere, minimal formality, and a distinct absence of thrones.

Now, the usual translation of the word ‘gompa’ is monastery. But the word ‘monastery’ could give rise to images of large institutions, extraordinary assemblages of rooms built into impressive mountainsides. That is the popular image of Tibetan monasteries – but the word ‘gompa’ literally means ‘meditation place’. In the Nyingma tradition there are many diminutive gompas, some little more than shrine-rooms surrounded by a few huts. It was typical for such small gompas to be attended by a mixed group – monks, nuns, ngakpas, ngakmas, naljorpas and naljormas. Arrangements were often fairly ad hoc at such places, and often those monks or nuns who had only taken only the basic gényen ordination would marry, without anyone causing a terrible ruckus about it. They would continue to wear their robes, but were otherwise family people. Such gompas can still be found today; not only in the remote Himalayas, but also in and around the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal.

The gompa to which Paltrül was invited was a size up from many a tiny gompa that the well-to-do might pass by as a hovel, but had only enough room to accommodate ten people. The head Lama, Namgyal Dorje, was a good careful man, and his wife Ani Tsomo was devoted to her practice. They spared no effort to maintaining the place in tidy order. They had a good association with the drokpas – the local nomad tribes. The drokpas put in requests for monks to visit their gars, and made healthy contributions to the general upkeep of the gompa – an arrangement that made everyone happy. The brigand camps also sent invitations, but Namgyal Dorje didn’t consider it appropriate to have dealings with them – besides which, they occasionally took to rustling the drokpas’ yaks and dris [female yaks], and that didn’t go down too well. He didn’t refuse the brigands – that would have been unwise; but neither did he send anyone to visit them. There was always a good reason – the monks were needed to perform rites for the dead, or for the crops, or for any one of a long list of reasons. Anyhow – such were the diplomatic arrangements of the gompa according to the most circumspect tactics that Namgyal Dorje could devise.

The small lha-khang, or main shrine room, was well kept, and they had a small gön-khang or protector house which held statues of the ma-za-dor-sum, the three Nyingma protectors. It also held a large painted wooden statue of the local protector – ‘screaming black wind’. The statue was very old. It had been made at a time when Bön practitioners used the place. The little gompa had alternately been used by Buddhists and Böns down the centuries and had occasionally run into neglect. Originally it had simply been a diminutive temple that held the one large statue of the mountain protector who had his residence in the subtle dimension of the nearby mountain. Since the obscure beginnings of clan memory, the local farmers had the habit of making offerings to ‘screaming black wind’ at harvest time, in order that their crops would be protected from hail, and so the door to the gön-khang was always open. Hail may not seem too terrible to most people, but in certain parts of the world hail is not the brief shower of petit-pois that the British might experience. Hail in Tibet and the Himalayas can devastate crops. Hour-long assaults of ice pellets, from the size of acorns to horse chestnuts, can thrash a field of barley into a slushy fibrous pulp. Occasionally lumps the size of grapefruit hurtle out of the sky, killing sheep and goats. In view of this, it is not difficult to understand that any local protective spirit who can be called on to prevent such things is well-regarded and called upon frequently. Khambas are nothing if not pragmatic when it comes to making offerings to local protectors; and if they don’t deliver the goods, respect tends to dwindle rapidly. In one remote region a local protector had failed to produce a decent harvest and the villagers dragged his statue out of the temple and beat it conscientiously with chains!

Anyhow, all that apart, one blustery day a brigand galloped up to the gompa. He dismounted from an impressive stallion with unmitigated swagger. His saddle was decorated with the most impressive Dér-gyé iron-work and sumptuous Shi-ga-tsé carpentry. He was a dashing young fellow. He wore an expression of the most profound insolence and impeccable cool. His sharp eyes bore the mark of both predator and prey, and were set off by a fine moustache, well oiled hair, and a large golden earring. He sported rakish leather boots and a dapper lamb-skin chuba draped back off his right shoulder. He walked with long relaxed strides covering the short distance to the gön-khang in a quick but unhurried manner. He entered without removing the aforementioned foot-wear and, lacking any pretence at formal courtesy, addressed the local protector: “Screaming black wind! This is the deal – you get an offering like this every month on the twenty-ninth day – I get to rustle yak without any problems. If’n y’all agree... take this shoulder of lamb – if’n yer don’t agree, kill me now! Here – on this spot – where I stand! I tell you in earnest... I’m a dangerous man!” And there it was... that was the deal. He obviously thought he’d rather die with his boots on. The brigand waited awhile – motionless, with unblinking eyes. Then, in a careful yet leisurely manner, he unwrapped the leather bag and deposited the shoulder of lamb in front of the local protector. He stood for a moment and said: “This is my vow then – if’n I break it, take my life – but if’n I keep it always, reward me with unrestrained banditry!” Then, turning on his heel he left the gön-khang, leapt onto his horse, and galloped into the rising gale. That was the way of it.

Now, it so happened that there was a young scrap of a monk, no more than a boy. He had been sitting in the gön-khang at the time the brigand made his deal. He had been cleaning and trimming the butter lamps, and consequently the brash horseman had not seen him. The boy was quite taken aback by what he had seen and heard, but decided that discretion was the better part of valour. He was afraid to say anything to anyone – after all... ‘screaming black wind’ had not killed the horseman on the spot... so, who was this brigand? The young monk had never seen such a thing before – he had never even heard of such a thing before. What to do? Keep quiet... that seemed the best choice.

After some time had passed the monks began to notice the leg of lamb that appeared in the gön-khang every month on the day of the protectors. Some had observed the audacious brigand who strode into the gön-khang with his boots on – he came in the morning of the day and they practised in the evening. Some wondered what was going on. Some tied the two thing together. After a while everyone at the gompa fell to talking about it, and before long the young monk piped up with what he had seen. The story was unbelievable; but there had been a lot of rustling going on, and some of the nomad families were getting rather more than touchy about it. Having their herds of yaks and dris diminished was not a situation guaranteed to please most drokpas, and parties of young men slung about with blades and primed muskets were riding out in a mean disposition, looking for the culprit. Their blood was up, and blood was evidently going to be shed before much time had elapsed.

After some weeks these events came to the attention of Namgyal Dorje, and he in turn came to discuss the situation with Paltrül. What could be done? The rustler was in cahoots with ‘screaming black wind’... and Namgyal Dorje was sorely vexed by his inability to handle the situation. What could be done? It was obviously a terrible dilemma, and he presented the awful facts to Paltrül. The drokpas in that area were getting irate to say the least, and the heads of the families had come to him for advice. There was a rash young bandit who had invoked their local protector to aid and abet him in his rustling endeavours. He owed a duty to the local drokpas who came to him, but he also owed a duty to the local protector. Namgyal Dorje was in a quandary: “This brigand must be stopped, but how can he be stopped if he has the help of the protector? If I try to intervene then the protector will be offended and the pastures may not provide sufficient food for the animals.” There seemed to be no answer. “Yah,” Paltrül commented, “y’all can please all the people some of the time, and yer can please some of the people all of the time – but yer can’t please all the people all the time.” Namgyal Dorje sat silently before Paltrül waiting for something – he didn’t know what, but he hoped that Paltrül would think of some way out of the situation. Finally he put his cards on the table “Rinpoche, can’t you punish this brigand?” Paltrül looked a trifle quizzical at this question, “What for?” he replied. Namgyal Dorje was obviously surprised by this response, “What for!... he is a thief!” Paltrül eyed Namgyal Dorje carefully, “He’s just like us then – why should we punish one of our own?” Namgyal Dorje was uncertain how he should proceed with the discussion at this point, because he had no concept of the nature of the theft to which Paltrül was alluding. “But... ” he attempted “we are not rustlers... ” Paltrül laughed “No – not of yak and dri, but we’re rustlers none-the-less... ” Namgyal Dorje was silent – Paltrül obviously had something in mind about which he was not being explicit. They sat together without further exchange for an uncomfortable duration. Namgyal Dorje struggled with what it could be. Paltrül had included himself as a rustler, so whatever it was they rustled could not be animals, and could not really constitute theft in the usual sense of the word. “You see... ” Paltrül said at length, “this brigand... he really is quite a good practitioner... He’s without fear. He keeps his vows. He is simple and straightforward in his dealings; and, he is has not compromised himself with anyone. I wish the same could be said for us.” Curiouser and curiouser... this was becoming a miasma of perplexity. Namgyal Dorje wondered how he might have compromised himself, but could not think of anything. “What concerns you in all this?” asked Paltrül after another difficult silence. Namgyal Dorje didn’t need much time to find an answer, “Protecting the drokpas from rustling... ” Paltrül eyed Namgyal Dorje quizzically. “Yes...?” Namgyal Dorje started to think about the drokpas and it gradually dawned on him that Paltrül might be insinuating something to the effect that Namgyal Dorje’s little gompa relied on donations from these people. “Yes..” repeated Paltrül “You rustle in your way, and I rustle in mine. Most people rustle pleasurable experiences, and some yogis rustle ideas.”

Namgyal Dorje looked ashamed at these remarks, and said with a deep sigh “It is true – I am a rustler too... I rustle donations... I rustle everything you have named – but I am neither fearless neither do I keep any vow as diligently as this brigand.” He bowed his head and fell silent. “But...” said Paltrül, “you are a good man, and you are not dishonest. You understand the nature of your situation and your motivation well, so I will do what I can to help. However – you must make a vow now, and one that you will always keep. Promise me that your monks will visit the brigand gars as well as the encampments of the drokpas. It is not right to neglect people simply because of their brigandage. These people need the influence of the teachings as much, if not more, than others.” Namgyal Dorje agreed that this was certainly true, and promised to send monks to the brigand camp when they requested visits. He recognised his fault of partiality towards his nomad benefactors, and that he had allowed himself to live in a compromised position.

The 29th day was close, so Paltrül gave some advice as to how he would proceed. On the eve of the day of the protector no one at all was to go to the gön-khang – Paltrül would practise there for the entire day himself, and no other rites would be necessary or welcome. He would wait for the brigand to arrive with his shoulder of lamb, and deal with the protector in his own way. Paltrül had no great anxiety when it came to local protectors, or brigands for that matter – he had seen both before and neither caused him any loss of sleep. He was especially unimpressed by local spirits whose vanity was immense, and whose intelligence was such that they could be bought for a piece of meat they couldn’t even eat.

Paltrül arrived just before dawn and sat silently, obscured by the large drum which was used in the invocations. Dawn arrived, and with it the brigand. He galloped into the courtyard and sprang from his horse in the manner anticipated from the rumours that had become legendary. He strode into gön-khang with his leather bag, and was about to proffer its contents to screaming black wind when Paltrül spoke: “You keep your vows well, master horseman.” The brigand was surprised but reasonably unruffled. “What’s it to you?” he retorted. “Nothing much,” replied Paltrül “apart from the issue of this local protector being answerable to me.” That was an unexpected answer for the brigand – this old yogi was either insane, or he was someone to be reckoned with. “Is that a fact?” Paltrül bored him clean through with a steely gaze. “Yes, that’s a fact – for what it’s worth.” The brigand considered these words briefly and adopted a defiant stance which belied this slightly eroded sense of ease. “And so, what does that add up to?” Paltrül smiled. “It adds up to the fact that your pact with this little imp is over – if’n y’all rustle now, you do it without supernatural assistance.” The brigand pondered the import of this statement – was it true or was it a piece of spiritual bravado. “Strong words for a ragged flea bitten old timer without a blade.” Paltrül roared with laughter at this piece of sarcasm. “I don’t need a blade to get the bulge on a youngster like you.” The brigand’s ire was touched now, and he snapped back at Paltrül, “I’m real scared now, old man.” But Paltrül was not moved. “You bet your damn life you’re scared – you volunteered your life at the hands of this local imp, but he’s nothing but a menial servant of a minion of The Single-Braid Mother I invoke.” Something about this yogi was becoming very disconcerting. He was not backing off, neither was he becoming angry. He was speaking to the bandit as if he were some young nomad scamp... Was he lying? Was he stark raving mad? He didn’t seem to be mad; and, if he was lying – he would surely be dead by now – after all... screaming black wind obviously had the power to protect his rustling. He knew the power of this protector from his own experience, and here was this old yogi trivialising it as a little nothing. So... this must mean that Paltrül had far greater power than this local protector. Maybe this was the end of his life? “No,” Paltrül quipped, “do not fear for your life from me – I have no wish to kill you – y’all could be a great good one day if’n you gave up this nonsense. What’s it to me if’n y’all rustle every damn yak and dri you see? Hasn’t it even started to get just a little boring yet?” The brigand sat down, and asked: “What do you want of me A-mé?” Paltrül took his time answering. “Nothing. It would be useful if’n you give the drokpas a break with this rustling of yours – but what do you want for yourself? Surely there must be something beyond this business of droving yak and dri from one place to another, and then teaching your children to do the same when you’re too old to do it yourself... Or is that what you really want?” The brigand had no good answers, so Paltrül continued, “You know you can do this brigandry business blind-folded – but you’re not yet ready for the life of a yogi. We’ll meet again one day, and when we do you may want to receive teaching from me. Until then try to do as little harm as you can; and... remember our meeting.”

The brigand left. The rustling stopped and everyone seemed quite content for a while. Namgyal Dorje kept his vow to Paltrül and sent monks to visit the brigand camps, and in turn the brigands turned their attentions to the Chinese border lands. Brigands, after all are brigands and have to continue the business of brigandage somewhere or other.

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