I came up to him and he shook my hand, placing the warm, slightly clammy palm of his second hand overmine. Then he took it back, wiped his nose and picked up the hoof pick again. I saw the donkey reflected in his spectacles, gloomy, waiting for his master to complete his manicure. His master. Who was he? A lama? Probably, since this was a Buddhist centre, one to which I had fled to escape the fuming menace of Dublin. Somebody had said "There's this place by a lake in Country Cavan" and he had gone there out of curiosity and stress. To Godforsaken Cavan, where they ate their dinners out of their drawers, where there was a lake for every day of the year, and dubious activities in border ditches. But a Lama? In Cavan?
I started to visit this Tibetan Buddhist centre the odd weekend weeding the vegetable patches and cooking gruel soups for supper. I got to know Lama O. He used to teach me Tibetan words as I chopped vegetables for the evening soup. He would stay with us sometimes, at the round table after supper, and tell us about the cost of living in Mongolia or India or a story of some great sage who stayed in cave for years or about the lama he knew in Lhasa who was so fat and lazy that when he was called to the Dalai Lama's palace for tea the horse that was meant to carry him there collapsed under the weight of him. Lama O could talk about any thing from politics to cooking to the finer aspects of Buddhist philosophy. But I knew so little about him, and the story of his exiled people.
Once when I saw cooking the soup, he came up and tapped the pot, muttering something in Tibetan. I thought he was criticising my cooking -he would often add something to my soups, a pinch of solt some chilli or a dried up piece of seaweed, which was good for his diabetes. This time, however, he repeated what he had said:
"Pum ba dak ba me."
" I don't understand."
"Pot," and he tapped it again, "is impermanent."
He walked away out the kitchen door, giggling to himself. I understood and yet I did not understand, as if what he said reminded me of something I once knew, long ago, and a slither of the memory of it had just resurfaced. But it was like a dream that had dissolved too soon. Later I would find out of it was an old edict of Buddhist logic, thrashed out in the courtyards of monasteries in dialectical debates.
There were other things like that, in the beginning, that I couldn't fathom. Like the deity Margery told me lived in the garden. Margery was the woman who ran the Buddhist centre, assistant in all things to Lama O, a woman as strong as a Yak and one of the best listeners I have ever met. She understood my curiosity about Lama O. One afternoon we were in the walled garden, and she was pushing a wheelbarrow full of brambles and weeds to the compost heap, and I was holding a pair of rusty secateurs, trying to wrench some nettles out of the ground.
I would be in Indian that I would come to know who he really was. I would learn his language, and I would climb the mountains and meet his people, the Tibetans, who had begun their slow, Painful exile in 1959. And I would wish, like anything, that one of them would tell me where on earth you could find Shambhala.
Back of the Book
Pema and the Yak is the fascinating story of a journey through the Himalaya along the Indo Tibetan border into the heart of Tibet in Exile. Encounters with oracles, lamas, ex-political prisoners, Tibetan doctors, D Js, nomads guerilla fighters, painters, poets, missionaries and Himalayan royalty paint a vibrant picture of Tibetans living in exile today.
Siofra O'Donovan was born is Dublin and educated at University College Dublin and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Her first novel, Malinski, was published in Ireland and Poland in 2003.
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