The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Mindful Monday Morsel: Horses Like Lightning

by Lydia Anderson
November 10, 2014
Mon, 11/10/2014 - 11:00 -- landerson

In honor of our latest memoir, Zen Encounters with Loneliness by Terrance Keenan, we are sharing excerpts from our memoir collection this month. This week's morsel comes from Sienna Craig's Horses Like Lightning. At nineteen, Craig made her first venture deep into Mustang, an ethnically Tibetan area of Nepal, in the rainshadow of the Himalayas. In the selection below, she writes of her struggle to reconcile Mustang's Buddhism and lifestyle and her research and gender.

In many respects, Mustang is a Buddhist land where people are guidedby an ethics of compassion and ahimsa, non-harming. It is a place where people strive to heed the Buddha’s admonishment against killing other sentient beings, and the negative karma such acts can produce. But like other Himalayan landscapes, Mustang is a harsh place, where people raise more animals than grain, and where meat is both enjoyed and needed for sustenance. I had been a vegetarian for the six years before my return to Mustang, but I only lasted about two weeks before I broke this self-made taboo. Even though most meals at the Dancing Yak consisted of Nepal’s ostensibly vegetarian staple of dhal bhaat, chunks of mutton, slivers of yak meat, or bony chicken bits were often sautéed into sides of spinach, cauliflower, or potatoes. I knew that meat added expense and, in that sense, respect, to a meal, and it was simply too difficult to decline that which was offered me. Of course, that did not stop me from sneaking out to trekking lodges for the occasional plate of spaghetti or a cheese sandwich. Nor did it mean that I could tolerate all local delicacies. Nettles soaked in sour buttermilk and red chilies, served with a five-pound glob of buckwheat paste, pushed my gastronomical limits.

Later that night at the Jimi Hendrix Restaurant a goat would be martyred for the well-being of the household. Of course, it would also be eaten. As we prepared for the sacrifice, I struggled with the fact that it seemed to go against everything I’d read about Mustang’s Buddhist heritage. Charles laughed as he explained.

“Many people like to think of themselves as proper Buddhists—no killing, only offering pseudo-sacrifices of torma, barley-flour cakes. But as we’re about to see, this is really not the case. Buddhism is only one force at play here. The pantheon of local deities and the sense of sacred landscape that predates orthodox Buddhism is just as important. They’re tangled up in each other. Syangpa Rinpoche, that old Tibetan lama who tried to convert locals to ‘proper’ Buddhism in the 1960s, would be turning in his grave if he saw what we’ll see tonight—or rather, what the men will see tonight. Sienna, I’m afraid you will not be able to watch the main part of the ritual, the sacrifice. No women allowed.”

I swallowed this mandate. There seemed little else I could do.

By seven that evening, the smoke from burning fronds of juniper infused the Jimi Hendrix Restaurant. Our figures and those of the aaya could be made out only partially, in the half-light of dim bulbs powered by a small hydroelectric plant down the Kali Gandaki River. The aaya worked in the corner. Fresh juniper springs lay flayed across the frying pan, which had been set on a small metal pot aglow with embers. The aaya sat cross-legged, conjuring a household god in syllables that I could not understand. Movements that were as aural as they were physical ebbed and flowed within the swaying aaya. He had a rhythmboth within and beyond himself, for part of a shaman’s gift is his ability to transcend to the realms of mountain gods, or bring them down to the mundane, earthly realm. This mediation between worlds was his genius and his burden. By the end of the ritual, the aaya would be spent, physically, emotionally, and even, it seemed, spiritually.

During these rounds of ritual, the woman of the house appeared intermittently from the kitchen, carrying a clutch of live embers in her bare hands, which she then tossed onto the smoldering pile of ashes at the foot of the aaya. The act was arresting, yet simple. She fed the ritual fire, fed her household.

In the midst of all of this, a group of Australian tourists wandered in, looking for a meal and accommodations. In one turn of her skirt and rainbow-striped apron, the woman of the house shifted from ritual assistant to hostess and, in her best trekker’s English, offered the tourists, “Beer maybe, and somethings food dinner?” The trekkers ordered a round of Star Beer and, after a quick glance at the menu, settled on American Chop Suey—Jimmy favorit wit Pruple Hazes sauce (tomato catch-up).

“Hey missus,” one of them called out after the woman, “Why is this place called Jimi Hendrix Restaurant?” But she was gone. The work of ritual, as well as running a restaurant, did not allow her time to offer an answer, even if she had wanted to.

One of the trekker’s companions answered instead. “Ah, mate, I read about this place in one of the guidebooks. They say Hendrix really did come here.”

“Far out, man,” said Justin, calling out toward trekker territory from what had been staked out as the “researchers table.” No matter how sincere his interest in shamanism, Bön, and sacrifices, my fellow student had grown bored with the ritual, its dizzying incantations and its exotic complexity. He moved away from Charles, who was deep in the throes of local place gods and the intricacies of offerings, to discuss Jimi Hendrix with the Aussie trekkers.

The night wore on. The trekkers went to bed. At about one in the morning, all of the men in the house ascended the ladder to the roof. Nyima took a camera. Charles took his notebook and a flashlight. The aaya took his frying pan, a small bell and drum, and a handful of juniper sprigs. Once the room had emptied of men, the woman of the house collapsed into a chair near me.

“Tired?” I asked the obvious.

“Tired,” she said.

That night I felt the weight of being female, not just because of the missed opportunity to see a goat sacrificed, but because my exclusion from this event was symbolic of the larger challenge I’d set out for myself in Mustang. After all, horses were a man’s business. Aside from this, I felt the literal and figurative weight carried by the local woman next to me. She was running a household and a business while her husband, so far away, labored in his own right, to earn a type and quantity of cash that was not available through local tourism or selling sweaters in India during the winter months.

For all the cultivated illusions of Mustang as a simple, subsistence based, Buddhist place, everything I’d learned this evening revealed something quite different. The lives contained within the borders of the Jimi Hendrix Restaurant were at once bound to this place and, like the aaya himself, transcendent of it. I wondered, as I sat quietly, listening to the activity on the roof, if somewhere in Hong Kong a Mustangi man was listening for the aaya’s soundings. Could he hear them?

A bleat, followed by a muffled thud, signaled that the goat was dead on the roof above us. Blood spilled, as Charles explained, to wash clean the pollution of the last year, for good buckwheat and barley harvests this year, for the health and well-being of this family.

After the death of the goat and before the rounds of drinking, feasting, and singing that would last until dawn, I breathed in the night air and listened. The mistress of the Jimi Hendrix Restaurant had let her tired torso slump onto a dining room table. Sleep came to her for a few brief minutes. I settled on the thought of her rest, watched her eyes flicker under the spell of dream, and wondered where these dreams were taking her. On the opposite wall, in childlike capital letters, was painted the following:
If I don’t see you in this world, I’ll see you in the next. Don’t be late.—J. Hendrix

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How to cite this document:
© Sienna Craig, Horses Like Lightning (Wisdom Publications, 2008)

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