In Buddhist philosophy, teachers sometimes pose this question to their students: “If the only certainty in life is death, and the time of death is uncertain, what then?” I’m a depressive with a big fantasy life, so this question makes sense to me. Death is imminent, and the future is uncertain. What then indeed, I wonder.
In February of 2001, for Tibetan New Year and as part of a class I was taking on Buddhism, I moved into a home-stay in Dharamsala, the hill station at the foot of the Indian Himalayas where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. As soon as I arrived at my home-stay, the very incarnation of life and uncertainty started climbing into bed with me in the mornings. She was four and her name was Danjing, but everyone called her “Danjing Dejun” when she was naughty, which was most of the time.
My first morning, I woke to her brown dilated eyes staring at me expectantly from the other end of our shared pillow. I felt confused about where I was. I could smell her butter-tea breath as she combed my face gently with a metal comb and laughed.
I looked over her shoulder at the one-room house without lifting my head off the pillow. In one corner was a Toshiba TV with a prayer scarf draped over it; in another corner stood the family altar, decorated with butter candles, a photo of the Dalai Lama and one of Richard Gere below it. A houseboy with wind-burned cheeks slept on the ground with a nun with partial facial paralysis who had tucked me in the night before — it was the nun who forced me to decide at the age of 21 whether or not I was an arms-in kind of gal. My host mom and dad slept against one wall. And directly across from us slept my host brother, Tensing, on the cushion he was supposed to share with Danjing.
Instead Danjing was kneeing me in the groin at five in the morning as she brushed my ears and my eyebrows and the top layer of my matted hair with her comb. I pretended to sleep for a moment and then snagged the comb out of her palm and threw it onto the cushion across the room where Tensing slept like a good boy. Danjing laughed at the violence of my gesture, and also at how close I came to hitting her older brother. She peeled off all our blankets and placed her little hand in mine to lead me to the communal outhouse.
I was secretly flattered. I let her stand on my feet in line while I talked to Westerners who were hoping to meet the Dalai Lama. No one knew if they would meet him. We peed and, without washing our hands, played games I could remember like “helicopter.” Then Danjing introduced me to games like “Look, I just spit on your toothbrush” and “Let’s throw rocks at the monkeys on the roof.”
When we came in for breakfast, because it was the month of New Year’s, our mom placed a tub of Tibetan cookies and packaged hard candy and biscuits out with our fresh Tibetan bread. I alone was allowed to spread peanut butter from a jar onto the bread, but when no one was looking, the little shorties boldly helped themselves to spoonfuls of peanut butter. I just drank from the glass of whiskey, presented to me at breakfast, and pretended to read Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama’s autobiography.
And at the end of the month I did end up meeting the Dalai Lama, but when I shook his hand I was distracted by the physicality of the devotee line, and I forgot to look up into his eyes. It was just a single moment in time, and I try not to think too much about what it means. I do remember that his hand was soft in mine, though, and that he seemed to hold it a beat longer than he had to. I can’t help but think because he knew I would want to look up and experience that moment.
So, what then? Then I left Dharamsala. The morning I left, New Year’s seemed to rage at my house. Danjing had the remote and turned up the volume on the Hindi musical so loud it hurt. “Danjing Dejun,” my host mom yelled, while Danjing stood on the cushions and danced seductively like a Bollywood star with a remote control in one hand.
I went out and bought two large glass jars of peanut butter. Then I tied blue ribbons the color of ether and white ribbons the color of air around them. I gave Danjing her present, and she turned down the TV and smiled so big I could see all her baby teeth.
I don’t know if I will ever see her again. •