Tibetan Diary

Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal

Geoff Childs
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 228
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pp1nr
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  • Book Info
    Tibetan Diary
    Book Description:

    In this rich and deeply personal account of life in the highlands of Nepal, Geoff Childs chronicles the daily existence of a range of people, from venerated lamas to humble householders. Offering insights into the complex dynamics of the ethnically Tibetan enclave of Nubri, Childs provides a vivid and compelling portrait of the ebb and flow of life and death, of communal harmony and discord, and of personal conflicts and social resolutions. Part ethnography, part travelogue, and part biography,Tibetan Diaryis a one-of-a-kind book that conveys the tangled intricacies of a Tibetan society. Childs's immensely readable and informative narrative incorporates contemporary observations as well as vignettes culled from first-person testaments including oral histories and autobiographies. Examining the tensions between cultural ideals and individual aspirations, he explores certain junctures in the course of life: how the desire to attain religious knowledge or to secure a caretaker in old age contrasts with social expectations and familial obligation, for example. The result is a vivid and unparalleled view of the quest for both spiritual meaning and mundane survival that typifies life in an unpredictable Himalayan environment.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93784-0
    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. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Prologue The Genre and the Purpose
    (pp. 1-6)

    Interest in Tibet and Tibetan culture has risen exponentially during recent decades. One tangible result has been a proliferation of publications, the majority of which center on Tibetan religion, or more specifically, Tibetan Buddhism. As perhaps the most salient and visible feature of Tibetan culture, Buddhism has captivated the imagination of the general public such that it now figures prominently in many people’s preconceptions about Tibetan society. Many now believe, and some openly state, that the key to understanding Tibetan culture is to explore the esoteric teachings of Buddhism. The logical extension of this argument is that the study of...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Raising the Curtain
    (pp. 7-18)

    As usual, the porters lagged behind. Weighted down by large packs bulging with reference books, reams of paper, and other “necessities” for my field research, they made slow and ponderous progress on the mountain trail. The footpath was often precarious, narrow and steep, with sections washed away in landslides caused by the frequent monsoon deluges. It was day nine on the trek from Kathmandu, the day that would bring me to my new home in the ethnically Tibetan village of Sama, a remote Himalayan settlement in northern Nepal’s Nubri Valley—a place I had never visited and where I knew...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Lay of the Land
    (pp. 19-37)

    From the deep gorges and impenetrable forests to the high pastures and glorious peaks, the environment of the Nubri Valley does not lack for scenic splendor. But what makes Nubri so intriguing is the layers of meaning inscribed on the physical surroundings by human inhabitants. This is not a pristine and untouched landscape, for it bears all the marks of long-term human intervention: terraced fields shaped and molded to mimic the natural flow of the slopes, southern-facing hillsides intentionally denuded of trees to create winter pasturage, and eroded gullies where cattle have grazed too intensively. More significantly, from a cultural...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Life Begets Death, Death Begets Life: The Life Course Begins
    (pp. 38-55)

    To Tibetans life does not begin at birth, but rather at conception. After death, a being’s consciousness(namshey)wanders in an intermediate realm until impelled by the forces of its own karma to enter a womb at the instant of conception. Gestation is a hazardous time when women try to consume nutritious foods and seek spiritual means to prevent any harm coming to their growing baby. Once born, the child must fight for survival against daunting odds. Infancy is fraught with more hazards than any other stage of the life course, and the infant mortality rate in Nubri is frightfully...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Adolescent Discord: Family Needs versus Spiritual Deeds
    (pp. 56-73)

    To marry and procreate or to pursue the celibate lifestyle of religious renunciation—that is an age-old dilemma in the Tibetan world. Critical decisions such as these are firmly situated within the social and economic realities faced by a family and household. In some cases the interests of parents and children coincide. In others they clash, with disruptive consequences for all involved.

    The following stories illustrate the theme of conflict between individual aspirations and social expectations. Three centuries ago Pema Döndrup fought vigorously to lead a life of celibacy and seclusion, a life dedicated almost exclusively to spiritual pursuits. His...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Growing Through Travel: The Pilgrimage for Knowledge and Prestige
    (pp. 74-97)

    “Taaa-shi! TAAAAA-SHIIIII!” I bellowed with all the force my lungs could muster, scolding myself for having gotten lost in this forsaken corner of Nepal. The vegetation on the steep hillside ranged from tangled, impenetrable thickets to widely spaced fir trees, their gnarled roots protruding from the thin soil. Immediately above loomed a rocky precipice that was beyond my capability to scale, especially with a full backpack, while one hundred feet below me the slope seemed to drop off into an abyss. On the other side of the river the clustered homes of a village looked like boulders strewn among the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Merits of Matrimony: Commencing the Householder Life
    (pp. 98-113)

    Buddhist clergymen consider marriage to be an obstacle to enlightenment. Marriage entails a commitment to perpetuating worldly suffering through procreation, as evident in the proverb “What is needed is the practice of the holy Dharma [the teachings of the Buddha], what is not needed is a wife for one’ssamsara[worldly suffering].” Yet whereas lamas and monks often rely on spiritual advancement to gauge their success in life, for the vast majority of humble householders marriage and procreation are the key to social validation. To the laymen of Nubri, a more pertinent proverb reads: “A single wild ass doesn’t get...

  12. CHAPTER 7 High Peaks and Deep Valleys: The Imponderable Nature of Everyday Life
    (pp. 114-128)

    Tashi awoke first and emerged from beneath his pile of bedding beside the hearth. His face was barely discernible in the faint morning light as he squinted toward the hole in the wall that served as a window. A frown crossed his face, followed by an audible groan. I immediately understood: it was still snowing. Grudgingly I sat up in my bed, which consisted of a thin foam mat resting on the wooden floorboards on the other side of the hearth from where Tashi slept. After brushing away some flakes of snow that had managed to seep through the porous...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. CHAPTER 8 Anticipating the End of the Life Course: The Anxieties of Old Age
    (pp. 129-141)

    The inexorable progression of time eventually forces all householders to come to terms with the dual frustrations of old age: recalling bygone days of status and authority that can never be recaptured, and becoming dependents of their own children. The cycle of suffering, driven by the desire to cling to those things that are impermanent, intensifies and becomes more self-evident as one experiences the unavoidable bodily degeneration that accompanies old age.¹

    “Friend! Oh, my friend! Help me! Help me!” Old Dorje, who lived to the west of my makeshift office at Pema Chöling Monastery, was in distress. Usually, as soon...

  15. CHAPTER 9 Parting Breaths: Death Is But a Transition
    (pp. 142-156)

    In Buddhist belief, death merely marks the transition point from one bodily form to the next. Death should not be feared, since it is not the ultimate cessation of life. Rather, it marks the commencement of one’s next existence. Upon death one’s consciousness principle enters the hazardous intermediary realm, calledbardo.For forty-nine days, the time that one spends in bardo, lamas read from a special text called Bardo Tödel (popularly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) that helps guide the person to their next incarnation. Reemergence from the intermediate realm occurs at the instant when a sperm...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Transcending Death: Rising Corpses and Reincarnations
    (pp. 157-170)

    Sincere devotion to the Buddha’s teachings and a life dedicated to virtuous deeds of compassion toward all living things can lead to rebirth as a human as opposed to a dog, or worse. Despite the many inherent flaws, attaining the human form is the penultimate goal. In the Buddhist worldview humans alone among all sentient beings are endowed with the intellectual capacity and temperament required to pursue enlightenment. To awaken one’s mind is to release oneself from the cycle of rebirth and perpetual suffering. But very few are able to attain such a grand objective; as a result, most people...

  17. APPENDIX: Place Names
    (pp. 171-174)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 175-188)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 189-194)
  20. References
    (pp. 195-212)
  21. Index
    (pp. 213-217)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 218-222)