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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 42-48

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Get the Boat Here


Translator's Note

The structure of this parable is circular. Four Tibetan tourists cross a river by boat in the morning, disembark, and then wait for the boat to take them back to their hotel for the night. When the boat fails to appear, they search for it anxiously, even trying to climb a cliff so that they can see further. Finally the boat appears at the end of the day, and they return to their hotel. The circle is a fundamental symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Human life moves in an endless round of reincarnations, and the characters' journey back and forth across the river is suggestive of one incarnation in this cycle.

The characters represent four types of people: the leader (Gangchen), the willing follower (Tenphun), the intuitive personality (the narrator), and the unwilling follower on the verge of despair (Yangnor, the lone woman). Their actions on the far bank of the river--disjointed, absurd, agitated, fearful, purposeless--reflect the Buddhist conception of human life as a meaningless illusion, inextricably bound up with suffering. The vacationers have no stake in the place where they find themselves. They poke around, pick things up, throw them away. They're on a lifelong vacation. The true nature of this meaningless existence is captured in Yangnor's vision of the gate of hell. Their preoccupation with finding a boat corresponds to a fear of not finding a conveyance to another mode of existence when life ends.

The real meaning of the story resides in the author's presentation of the paramount Buddhist virtue--compassion--in the midst of meaningless flux. After she hears a lama's mantra, Yangnor weeps, and the boatman, moved by her tears, casts into the river the huge fare he has forced the travellers to pay him--money representing attachment to the illusory things of this world. Gangchen, the group's leader, sets a destination for the next round of the travellers' circular existence: the hermit's cave, symbolic of the Buddhist struggle for detachment and illumination. The boatman repeats the lama's mantra as the group lands on shore.

Buddhism is a focal point of Tibetan resistance to the Han Chinese regime, so Sebo's Buddhist theme has political implications. Images of Han occupation--the army camp, the soldier on the boat, his rifle--are additional representations of the absurdity and suffering of daily life. But these [End Page 42] images are fleeting. We see that Tibetan believers have torn a red strip from a Chinese flag to use as part of their five-color Buddhist prayer flag, and that the soldier of the occupying power is asleep. It is the lama on the passing boat who is awake--spiritually--and his mantra echoes across the falling night.--H. J. B.

The moment the cowhide boat touched shore, the boatman tossed the oblong paving stone on the rock-strewn bank and said, "On your way back, get the boat here."

Clay bodhisattvas lay among the rocks on the bank. Yangnor stooped down, picked one up, and put it in her pocket.

The rocks along the shore were covered with dark-green moss. Azure-green patches appeared where fish had licked the moss. The Yarlung Tsangpo River was broad as a lake, and desolate--no waterbirds flying or swimming. And no wind.

We had been wandering back and forth along the shore for hours now, seeing no sign of a boat.

"We'll never get back!" Yangnor moaned.

A line of mani cairns--rocks inscribed with the mantra "Om mani padme hum"--stretched up the ridge and out of sight. Prayer flags jutted up from each one, their staffs wound with yak hair, and from every cairn the smoke of a votive fire floated toward the sky.

"If this is the wrong place to wait for the boat, even better," Tenphun said, grinning.

"This way!" Gangchen snapped. "Come on." We followed him down a narrow path along the stretch of shore at the foot of the cliff. Sixty meters ahead, a narrow...