I want to be reborn as a woman.
I tell this to Salje and he laughs at me. Food fills his cheeks, we are eating lunch on the roof, and I’m not sure what is so funny. So many want to be reborn as man, and you want other, he says, rice dripping from the corners of his mouth. But why be reborn as a man, I say. I like being a woman. Okay, he says. He wipes his mouth with a napkin. You can be Tara.
Tara is a female Buddha. Many, many times ago, she vowed to be reborn in the body of a woman, despite the common belief that it was only a man’s body which could reach Enlightenment. Adorned with colorful silks and flowers, right leg outstretched, ready to leap when called, Tibetan Buddhists often pray to her in times of need. Her wish is to lead all living beings away from the world of suffering, and she is beautiful.
Salje keeps eating his food. Now, he’s eating momos, dumplings that are filled with cabbage and potatoes and onions, steamed and thick and doughy. I take one from his plate and break it in half with my fingers. Maybe you should be Tara, I say, and he laughs even harder. I look at the other monks who are listening to us, and they’re beaming with amusement. It’s hot and I’m sweating. And the crows are circling above, spying for remnants of lunch.
I drink some water and look at the blue sky. The sun is strong today, the monsoon rains broke last night, and I’ll walk to the village well soon to do washing. After lunch, though. I never miss my time to talk with Salje. He’s my new best friend and we spend our meals across from each other doing what we are doing now: picking food from each other’s plates and laughing.
Cherok Lama comes up the stairs and stands next to me at the wooden bench. He’s four years old and a Rinpoche, a precious one, and the reincarnation of a high Lama, or teacher. I ask him, How are you? but he doesn’t answer. He seems preoccupied. He looks at his feet. Suddenly, he leaves me, and sits in a meditation position a few feet away.
On the roof, the world becomes quiet with stares.
He quickly glances over his shoulder and smiles at himself. He knows we are watching him. He knows how we feel watching him. He knows many things – things we do not know. Though we know this. Rinpoche, one of the monks suddenly says, breaking the quiet of this watching, Rinpoche, come here. Cherok Lama rises and walks over to him, and in Tibetan they speak about something I cannot understand.
I face Salje. Maybe I should be a nun, I say quietly. Salje hesitates. His dark, almond, Sherpa eyes look at me and he nods. He becomes serious and puts down his fork. I know he’s serious because he clears his throat. Yes, he says. Yes. I think you would be good nun. Nuns are important. You could live down at Nunnery, he continues, lifting his chin toward the road that leads down the mountain. I look to where he points and wonder if I could give up my attachments and live this life. Could I wear the same clothes every day? Could I cut off my hair? Could I renounce a bottle of red wine? Could I suppress my flirtatious ways and my love of love and making it?
Salje knows what I am thinking and says, It is hard for Westerners. Yes, I say, It is. Being here, with him and the others, I feel odd considering my life back home. It has so many luxuries – or rather, so many unnecessary luxuries. Luxuries that are not luxuries at all. I search myself. I cannot find the word that is the opposite of all this.
Salje kicks me under the table. You do not have to be nun, he says. He shakes his head while talking, as if reinforcing the point to himself or me or both of us. You can be good Buddhist without being monk or nun. Just make prayers to Tara, he says with a smile. Maybe, he continues, You can be reborn Tibetan woman. You won’t be nun, but you be in Tibet, around lots of Buddhists. He laughs loud. I kick him back from my side and ask him what he thinks, really. He just smiles at me in a way that no one has ever smiled at me before, and returns to his food.
Strong Buddhist practitioners have insight I will probably never come to understand. My teacher here, Gen-La, meditated in a cave for several years, and I’m sure that when I enter his room, requesting wisdom, he recognizes aspects of me that I have yet to discover. The silence of those years, the concentration, the discipline, the effort – what I think comes of that is enormous generosity. An understanding of the living spirit. And a commitment to make it perfect. Not in perfect form, but in perfect, luminous being. What is considered isolation is not isolation at all. What begins as listening to one’s own breath becomes listening to the breath of the world. There are no boundaries. We are all one.
Do you like being a monk? I ask Salje. He nods. Yes, he says. It’s hard sometimes. Sometimes I am lonely and miss my mother, but I am happy. I am happy. I nod back. The monks call and we turn. One of them throws food up to a crow, and we all start breaking our chipatis, our flat breads, and toss them to the sky. It’s a wonderful moment: a moving sea of maroon robes at a monastery above Katmandhu, laughter, momos and Tara. A four-year-old Lama, a Nunnery down the road, an American girl seeing from the inside. And the birds above us, diving and catching the pieces before they fall back on the roof; our arms lifting, and still lifting, into the air of a summer afternoon.