Sensory Biographies

Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists

Robert Desjarlais
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 406
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pngq4
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  • Book Info
    Sensory Biographies
    Book Description:

    Robert Desjarlais's graceful ethnography explores the life histories of two Yolmo elders, focusing on how particular sensory orientations and modalities have contributed to the making and the telling of their lives. These two are a woman in her late eighties known as Kisang Omu and a Buddhist priest in his mid-eighties known as Ghang Lama, members of an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people whose ancestors have lived for three centuries or so along the upper ridges of the Yolmo Valley in north central Nepal. It was clear through their many conversations that both individuals perceived themselves as nearing death, and both were quite willing to share their thoughts about death and dying. The difference between the two was remarkable, however, in that Ghang Lama's life had been dominated by motifs of vision, whereas Kisang Omu's accounts of her life largely involved a "theatre of voices." Desjarlais offers a fresh and readable inquiry into how people's ways of sensing the world contribute to how they live and how they recollect their lives.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93674-4
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Note on Transliteration
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Kurāgraphy
    (pp. 1-19)

    “Many years before,” Mheme Lama related, “when people would die, the body would vanish along with the soul, and people would cry and get very upset. It was like this a long time before. My father’s grandfather and other people from before told about this. Before, before, at the time of dying, the body would vanish like ‘phet’! Then the family of the dead man would cry and search for his body in the sky and in the ground. When it was lost, they would ask, ‘Where is he?! Where has he gone?!’ ”

    This eighty-five-year-old man was also known...

  6. Hardship, Comfort
    (pp. 20-53)

    One vivid memory I have of Mheme, of a way of looking, to be precise, is from July 1997. I had already been in Nepal several weeks that summer and had hiked up to the Yolmo region to visit the villages I had lived and worked in eight years before. I hoped to meet up with old friends, including Lhatul Lama and Dawa Lama, two adult sons of Mheme who I had come to know well while I was living a few houses down from them in Gulphubanjang in the 1980s. In visiting Lhatul, I learned that his younger brother...

  7. Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision
    (pp. 54-101)

    Ideas and motifs of vision, of perceiving, thinking, or acting through the medium of the eyes or the mind’s eye in some way, informed much of what Ghang Lama had to say about his life. By no means was he an “idiosensant,” living and remembering by means of a single sensory modality. A wealth of varied, interinvolved senses patterned his life. In our talks, elements of taste, sound, touch, smell, and bodily sense were frequently spoken of. When prompted, the lama detailed the kinds of foods he liked and disliked at different times in his life; he appreciated spicy foods...

  8. Startled into Alertness
    (pp. 102-132)

    Very present in my mind are the dominant tones of Kisang Omu’s speech: crisp, sharp, lucid, with a clarity of sound and expression, at turns reflective or grievous or joyful. Her voice is foremost in my memories of her.

    We first met in the winter of 1998, a few days after the Yolmo losar, or New Year, activities ended for that year and shortly after I had returned to Nepal for a four-month stay after being away for nine months. She was living then in Boudhanath, a few twisted streets north of the chhorten, with her youngest son, Kānchā, and...

  9. A Theater of Voices
    (pp. 133-151)

    Think of a fabric—a piece of cloth, say, or a carpet, or a shawl. Consider the ways in which different threads are woven together in forming a texture of interlacing strands.

    Karma asked me to do just that, one afternoon as we sat at a cluttered table in my home in Massachusetts and discussed Kisang’s narrative of her first wedding. In speaking of Kisang’s decision to abide by what her father arranged, he wanted me to understand the profound importance of family and social ties in Yolmo communities, especially when it comes to important decisions that people make in...

  10. “I’ve Gotten Old”
    (pp. 152-160)

    As Yolmo men and women age, they inevitably grow weaker and frailer. A person’s age “decreases” or “becomes less” (N.,umer ghaṭnu) in the sense that his or her life span decreases as the years wear on. To have become “old” among Yolmo wa situates a person in a particular bracket of time and in a social grouping that is distinct from being young or “recent.” Some of these changes are for the better. A person can find a degree of wealth or comfort in his or her later years that was hard to come by in earlier ones, and...

  11. Essays on Dying
    (pp. 161-175)

    Some of Kisang’s words told of acts of dying. They spoke of the decease of loved ones, of the ways that harmful actions could cause someone’s end, and so carve out a “chapter of sorrows” within a woman’s life.¹

    After her marriage to Wangel Lama, Kisang stayed with him in Shomkharka, in a house adjacent to the gompa, or temple, that her brother had just finished painting. “I arrived there, I stayed there, and I needed to do the work,” she told us. “I didn’t feel anything,” she said when asked what she felt about getting married. “What to do?...

  12. “Dying Is This”
    (pp. 176-181)

    Kisang’s account of her first husband’s death involved a different narrative voice from the one expressed in her tale of her marriage to the lama. The tone was somehow more direct, more mature, even a bit world-weary. It was the voice of a worried wife, one who had already mourned the death of several loved ones. The narratedI, Kisang, was also more assertive in her pronouncements. Now the mother of several children and settled within her husband’s household, she was more able and willing to voice her own judgments, to mouth critical words in response to the actions of...

  13. The Painful Between
    (pp. 182-188)

    Cultural forces shaped how Ghang Lama spoke of dying similarly to their shaping of Kisang Omu’s words. But the means were different. Mheme approached death in ways distinct from Kisang Omu’s approach, and the tenor of his last years was unlike that of Kisang’s. For him, being on the “verge” of death meant mostly a liminal time of fear, uncertainty, and longing.

    He told us, for instance, that his heartmind was “disturbed” as of late. The disturbances were in line with his understanding of what happens to people when they come close to dying. “The sem gets disturbed,” he told...

  14. Desperation
    (pp. 189-200)

    Desperate times can lead to desperate actions. Within the fabric of Yolmo lives, it can be said of one woman that she felt compelled to remarry; of another, that she died of jealousy.

    The consequences of Wangel Lama’s death in Kisang Omu’s life were several. In the days that followed his passing, she had to make arrangements for the funeral rites that needed to be conducted on his behalf. “What could be done?” she said to Pramod and me. “When having the ghewa performed and everything else, I needed to do everything by my own hand. I needed to pay...

  15. The Time of Dying
    (pp. 201-205)

    So the woman who left Ne Nyemba suffered an uneasy death years before, whereas Kisang herself was still alive.

    All the same, an abiding question for Kisang and others was why she had come to live for so long, and, consonantly, whether her “staying” was the karmic fruit of either good or bad deeds that she previously undertook. During our numerous visits to her, she often mused on the possible reasons for living so long. “Why am I staying? Heh!” she once interjected.

    “People usually die before they reach your age, but you’re staying a long time. Why is that?”...

  16. Death Envisioned
    (pp. 206-218)

    “A bugbear.” “The sleeping partner of life.” “Pale priest of the mute people.” “A black camel, which kneels at the gates of all.” These are but a few of the ways that humans have given image to death in different lands and centuries. Death has been designated as a transfer, as annihilation, as “the ultimate horror of life,” as an “ugly fact.” In poetry it has been portrayed as “the mother of beauty,” as a “spongy wall,” as “but a name.” In philosophical discourses it has been defined as “nothing,” as “that possibility which is one’s ownmost, which is non-relational,...

  17. To Phungboche, by Force
    (pp. 219-229)

    Some recollections nagged at old wounds. They rehearsed contemptuous deeds, retraced scars, marked a woman’s defiance.

    The marriage between Rinjin Lama and Kisang produced two children: a first son, who died at the age of five, and then a second son, who soon acquired the name Kānchā. Living in the lama’s home in Shomkharka, Rinjin and Kisang stayed together in marriage “for no more than ten years,” according to their son Kbnchb, and then the husband “quit” his wife. “They didn’t get along,” their son explained. “Her husband was nineteen years younger than she was,” Kānchā’s wife, Neela, once noted....

  18. Staying Still
    (pp. 230-235)

    Kisang’s account of her forced passage to Phungboche parallels other narratives of marriage among Yolmo wa, particularly those tales that speak of a woman’s “capture” by unfamiliar others. In many ways, the account stands as a distorted image of Kisang’s first marriage, as though the violence enacted upon her during what would have been her third marriage also violated any narrative expectations in such matters. She was taken by force. The good cheer and ritual auspiciousness that accompanied the first wedding went unsounded. She labored against the flow of ritual time. The prospective groom was an unwanted black enemy. She...

  19. Mirror of Deeds
    (pp. 236-244)

    Different lives bring different betweens. For Kisang Omu, the bardoic interval between her present life and her next one was characterized by a moribund stasis. For Ghang Lama, both the “bardo of dying” and the more general “death between” that would transpire just after he died were marked by turbulence, disorientation, and discombobulated states of mind and body. For one, a life of movement ended in a stillness unto death. For the other, a life founded on notions of clarity, legibility, and patrilineal rootedness altered into a spell of unfamiliar, dreamlike uncertainties and a slew of perceptual opacities.

    Those opacities...

  20. Here and There
    (pp. 245-254)

    Words for Kisang could sow memories. They could recall a disgraceful scene or denounce a relative’s actions. They could track a mother’s displacements or question why things happened the way they did.

    In the years following her divorce from Rinjin Lama, both before and after she was taken to Phungboche, Kisang lived in a series of homes in Ne Nyemba, on lands once owned by her first husband but now divided among the sons from her first marriage. By a roundabout course of events, she eventually moved to Kathmandu and later settled in Boudhanath, a few streets north of the...

  21. “So: Ragged Woman”
    (pp. 255-274)

    “If it’s not good, don’t show it,” Kisang told me late one morning. “If it [my talk] is good, then show it. If it’s not good, don’t show it. What to do?. . . What to say? I don’t know how to compile my talk well. It’s all jumbled up.”

    She spoke these words toward the end of one of our tape-recorded interviews in 1998, as we sat and drank tea in her room in her son’s house. She voiced similar admonishments on other occasions as well, particularly during the later occasions when we met; to me it became clear...

  22. Echoes of a Life
    (pp. 275-308)

    “Shyi mandi mareko hoina. Sareko ho.” I heard these words as I drove south along Interstate 84, gliding past Worcester and Hartford and a world of unknown places as the magnetic trace of a voice recorded months before sounded through an unreliable tape deck sitting on the seat beside me. Time and again I listened to the voice and tried to soak up the sounds and grammar of the sentences heard. I wondered about the welfare of the speaker, hoping that the old man was alive and well and talking still.

    “Shyi mandi mareko hoina” (Dying does not mean dying)....

  23. A Son’s Death
    (pp. 309-314)

    One more story still. One last meditation, on the occasional need for words to rephrase the past, to suggest how things really happened.

    For a time in the late 1970s, while Kisang was living with her daughter and son-in-law in Kathmandu, her second son, a man known as Jho Bharpa, was staying with them as well. He was planning to build a house of his own, and he had asked his mother to join him once he got settled there. Before this could happen, however, he died one night under uncertain, contested circumstances. Pramod and I learned about the death...

  24. The End of the Body
    (pp. 315-327)

    Her body was eroding, Kisang’s words sometimes implied. Once, when we praised her ability to speak well, she answered in Nepali with a slight, possibly self-effacing laugh, “Jiu chaina. Ani bhāṣā mātrai cha. Jiu siddiyo. Ke garne?” (There’s no body. So there’s speech only. The body is finished. What to do?)

    Unable to get about and act in the world, she no longer possessed an active, skillful, useful body. The remaining strands of her existence were becoming more ethereal than material. All that remained, she inferred, were thoughts of dying and the ability to speak a little. “Now I can’t...

  25. Last Words
    (pp. 328-352)

    Certain forms recurred, certain ways of talking. “Before dying,” Karma told me in 1997, “when a person feels that now he’s going to die, he calls his sons and daughters, he says everything to them, he talks about everything, and these are the last words to the relatives.”

    Kha jhemis the proper Yolmo term for those last words spoken to family members in the hours before dying, when loved ones are often themselves trying to see the face of the dying person one last time.Kha, which literally means “mouth,” is found in many compound words that signify speech,...

  26. Notes
    (pp. 353-374)
  27. Glossary of Terms
    (pp. 375-378)
  28. References
    (pp. 379-388)
  29. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 389-392)
  30. Index
    (pp. 393-396)
  31. Back Matter
    (pp. 397-397)