October 28, 2013
A Tibetan ghost story
To showcase the richness of Tibetan ghost stories and to celebrate Halloween, Trace Foundation invited you to send in your scariest, most hair-raising entries for a Tibetan ghost story competition. Learn more about Trace Foundation and their work over at www.trace.org.
Once upon a time, a young monk and his teacher lived in Sera Monastery. One day the teacher told the young monk to buy some meat at Tromsikhang, one of the busiest markets in Lhasa. But before the young monk left, his teacher warned him sternly, “Go and buy a few pounds of meat, but take only what the meat seller gives you and don’t ask for more!”
At sunrise next morning, the young monk took off, walking so briskly that when he arrived at the market, his forehead was wet with perspiration. He went straight to the meat seller woman. After she’d weighed the meat and handed it to him, he sensed the meat’s weight did not equal the measurement on the scale.
Clearing his throat, he stuck out his his tongue and rubbed his head. Dissatisfied, he said, “Meat seller Ama-la, this meat is not enough!”
Annoyed, the woman added a little more meat.
Still, the young monk felt it was not enough, and said again, “Meat seller Ama-la, this meat is still not enough.”
She again added a little more.
And still, the young monk was dissatisfied. “Meat seller Ama-la, there is still not enough meat.” He persisted: she was skimping him.
Finally, the meat seller woman brought out another slice of meat. Lividly, she passed him the meat and said, “Ya! There you go! If you need more, then just take this one!”
Confident his teacher would be thrilled with this extra meat, the monk returned to the monastery with a smile on his face. He told his teacher, “Today I bought some good meat. I will cook whatever delicious dishes you wish.” The young monk went on and on about how clever he was.
“Oh, that’s good,” his teacher said. “But did you do as I told you to do?”
“Yes, I did!” the young monk replied. “The saleswoman did not give me enough meat for the price she asked. So I kept asking for more, and that is how I got this much.” He chattered on proudly.
His teacher’s jaw dropped. “Ah kha kha, what a shame! You didn’t obey me. Now you’re in big trouble. Show me your hand.”
The young monk felt odd as he extended his hand. His teacher examined it carefully and found that there was a new mark there. “Oh, this is terrible! Didn’t I tell you to take whatever the seller gave you? You made a huge mistake! What shall we do?” The teacher looked sorrowful and his breathing became labored.
Upset, the young monk asked the teacher what was the matter.
The teacher said, “This is a mark given by an evil human demoness. It means that you will be food tonight. There is nothing left to do now but to die.”
Seeing his teacher’s expression and hearing his words, the monk grew apprehensive and short of breath. After a pause, he burst out, “Dear Genla, dear teacher, please save me! Please tell me how I can be saved. Please!” He begged his teacher over and over.
The teacher said to him, “I cannot save you! But . . . if you do exactly as I say, there may be a way you can save your life. Will you do as I say?”
“I will do whatever you say to save my life,” the young monk answered.
“You must go to Lhasa now. There is an old woman in her 80s who lives in a beggar’s tent near the Ramoche Temple. Ask for her help, and be serious. Give her some Tsampa ba, buttered barley-flour dough. Ask her to spend a night there with her. If she consents, ultimately your life can be saved. Otherwise, even if you hide on the Jowo statue’s lap tonight, there is no way to save you. So, listen up. Don’t squander your day on mindless things. If you are careless this time, you will lose your life.”
The young monk followed his teacher’s instructions and left for Lhasa that afternoon. Once he arrived, he looked carefully for the place his teacher had described until he finally found the tent and the old woman.
He spoke to her: “Ama-la, it is very late tonight and I don’t know this place or anyone here. Please, let me stay here with you tonight.” Although he pleaded pitifully, the old woman ignored his request.
He then took out some dried cheese and butter, added it to some tsampa, and made some delicious ba, which he then offered to her. Surprised, the old woman asked him why he did this. Without leaving anything out, he told her what had happened to him in the marketplace. Then he begged her, “Please, save my life!”
Although the old woman had initially ignored him, his pitiful, sorrowful pleas evoked her compassion, and she agreed to let him stay the night. To save his life, he was to hide quietly in a large clay pot used to store barley beer. The old woman made two small holes in the pot and tied down the cover with a length of chimiggudri (chee-meek-gu-dri), a woven rope of nine eyes. She tied it around the neck of the pot with nine knots.
As dusk fell, the old woman sat astride the clay pot. With a shak shak shak sound, she rode the pot across the ground toward an old tree where all kinds of evil spirits and demons had gathered. When the young monk managed to overcome his fear just enough to peek out of the two holes, he could barely believe his eyes. All around him, packs of evil spirits gamboled about—some rode horses; some mules; others brooms and fire pokers; some donkeys; and there were even some riding roosters, pigs, and other animals. They were riding all kinds of things. Some of the evil spirits breathed fire. Some had just one eye and were missing the other. Some had right legs but no left arms. Some were missing half their hides. Some had open backs, out of which their organs and intestines spilled and dragged on the ground. Though the young monk grew terrified seeing all these terrible things. He knew he could do nothing but heed the words of the old woman who told him to be still and stay in the pot as quietly as he could.
After a while, the old woman suddenly moved, riding the clay pot—shak shak shak!—and kicking up a cloud of dust as she approached. The evil spirits parted to courteously greet her. Finding a seat before the gathering, she said loudly, “Yah, yah, all right then! Who is the meat-bringer, the shagel, tonight? Bring your meat up!”
At that moment, one human demoness spoke up: “Gopön la, Chief of the Gathering, I am the one with meat duty tonight. Please wait a moment, everyone. Tonight I have prepared a unique meat for you all. I will go and get it right away.” Then she straddled a broom and flew out with a cloud of dust, disappearing.
Some time passed. She still hadn’t shown up with the meat and all the waiting ghosts and demons screeched with hunger. The young monk, still hiding inside the clay pot, listened terrified:
“When the duty meat arrives, I am going to skin the body and eat the flesh.”
“I am going suck his hot blood.”
“I am going to eat his eyeballs.”
All the cries and shouts from these hungry ghosts terrified the young monk so much that he nearly soiled himself. He bit his lip and repeated to himself, “I must restrain myself tonight. Otherwise, I will lose my life.”
Eventually, the human demoness returned. Embarrassed, she stuck out her tongue pathetically and said, “Respectable Chief, the duty meat that I had marked for tonight is nowhere to be found in the whole of Lhasa. Not even on the lap of the Jowo statue! I cannot find him anywhere. Except—the only place I haven’t checked is your clay pot. If you would please give me permission to look . . .”
The old woman replied, “Of course, you can check.”
“Thank you, the meat duty demoness said. “I will shout out nine times with different cries, and if the meat is still not revealed, I will find another to replace him.”
The old woman ordered, “Shout out only eight times to reveal the meat, not nine.”
Agreeing, the meat duty demoness began to call out, and with each shout, one knot after another unraveled. As the human demoness cried out, the clay pot swayed and trembled, and then began to crack. Petrified, the young monk’s mind raced: What should I do? I will definitely lose my life if they find out that I am here. But he continued to sit silently in the pot as he had been told. After the eighth shout, when the meat still had not appeared, the human demoness with that night’s meat duty became anxious and fretful.
She turned to the old woman and said, “Please wait for me just for a while, I will bring my duty flesh immediately.” Again she got on her broom and flew off, returning after a while, dragging a large, corpulent man behind her. When she threw the body in front of the gathering, the demons and ghosts jumped on it, devouring their favorite parts: some liked to eat the flesh, some liked the bones, some the blood, and some liked to eat the legs. They ate the flesh with relish.
The old woman on the clay pot was reserved the most important, most prized, and most delicious parts, like the liver and heart. Soon the evil flesh-lovers’ hands and mouths were soaked with blood. Fire blew out of their mouths and stomachs as they fought over the leftovers. All the while, the frightened young monk stayed hidden in the pot.
After some time passed, all the spirits went off on their own ways, the young monk’s life just barely saved in the old evil woman’s cracked pot.
Having just escaped death, the young monk thanked the old woman profusely. Curious, he asked her about the living and dead spirits he had seen.
The old woman said, “All my companions are evil spirits. I have lived with them for so many years. But once in a while I reflect on compassion. This time I was compassionate and decided to save your life. Actually, I would love to eat your flesh, as you are a living being and seem as though you would be delicious. But as I was feeling maudlin, this time I’ll let you go. There will not be a next time, though. If you’re in the same situation again, I’ll definitely eat you.”
She continued, “My companions are from all over, as you heard and saw last night. They all speak different languages and have different customs. They might not share my compassion. So it will be impossible to earn my help next time. Look at my barley beer pot: it’s about to shatter!”
The young monk’s fear only intensified as he listened to this old woman, this human demoness.
Day was just breaking when he returned to Sera Monastery. His teacher was overjoyed to see he had returned safely. The young monk told his teacher about what he experienced, of hiding in the clay pot and the horrors he’d witnessed. He also told him that the old woman living in the beggers tent turned out to be an evil human demoness; the one who had saved his life was the most powerful of the evil spirits. He described all the different ghouls he had seen: how fire spit out of their mouths, and how, when they blinked, flames fell from their eyes—dzi dzi dzi . . . Some had fleshy right cheeks and left cheeks made only of bone. When they laughed, their bones opened up, and you could see all their internal organs. Others had nails so long and strong that they ground the soil into smoke. He told his teacher everything he had seen, and the teacher, though frightened at the thought of these terrible evil spirits, had little to say but “Oh, how pitiful!”
Then, the teacher told the young monk, “You should go to Tromsikkhang market right now and see what has come of that meat seller woman.”
The young monk left right away. When he got to the market, he saw the meat seller woman at her stall.
Distraught, she wailed, “My husband! What has happened to my husband? When he went to bed last night he was fine. But this morning, he wouldn’t wake up! What has happened to him?”
The young monk realized now that she was the one who had the meat duty at the numinous gathering last night, that the body she had brought to fulfill her duty, the one the evil demons and spirits feasted upon, was none other than her husband. And his mouth opened wide with shock.
Chokey Dolma has worked as a teacher, editor, researcher, and translator. She is the author of Waves of Moonlight in a Cloudless Sky, a book of Tibetan poetry, and two works on Tibetan women's studies. She lives in Vancouver, Canada.
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