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Manoa 12.2 (2000) 134-143

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A God without Gender


She gazed around. Everywhere were lustrous purple willows and houses. She didn't understand what the steward shouted to her. She turned, looked back, saw the dome of a gigantic white stupa towering between lofty twin mountains. At its base, human figures were stirring. A sparkling scarlet ring crowned its pinnacle. She shut her eyes against its burning light. "Second Little Miss, wake up. Look!" She opened her eyes again, perplexed, and stared up where the steward pointed: a shining precipice cut by brown fissures. Its crest blazed.

"The Potala Palace, Second Little Miss! You remember?" No, it was no dream; it was her nanny's hoarse voice that called to her. "The dwelling of Bodhisattva Chenresig, ah mo mo!"

A fresh, cool breeze swept her face. She awoke from her stupor. From the foot of the mountain, a steep stairway wound up through a cluster of tall trees. On the trees' branches hung wisps of greenish smoke from burning juniper boughs. The ringing of bells and the drone of prayers poured from the windows of the red-walled palace. Trembling smoke scattered down through the forest.

She joined her hands and recited the mantra "Om mani padme hum," merging body and soul in this holy sublimation of the powers of apprehension.

Gaslights blazed in the courtyard. The steward helped me down off my horse.

"Second Little Miss has arrived."

The glaring, hissing lights hurt my eyes. I couldn't see the people around me, but only heard the voice of the steward, the sharp, broken cries of servants, the pleasant sound of the Lhasa accent. I walked into a broad corridor.

Three women in splendid satin gowns stood before me like painted ladies on a vase. Thin and covered with jewels, they smiled at me. One woman a little older than the others took my hand and said, "Little girl, who's your mama?"

I looked behind me. My nanny bowed, beaming. I pointed at her. She had accompanied me into my new home. [End Page 134]

The older lady turned to the two women behind her. "Ha, ha! Doesn't even know her own mother!" The three ladies laughed gracefully.

A second lady walked up to me and stroked my face. On her long hand was a diamond ring. "Just like a peasant girl."

"Hair all matted with dirt!" exclaimed the third.

"When you've had some tea, Governess," said the tall, older lady, "please take her for a bath." This lady was the most senior of the master's three wives.

"Yes, Mistress." A tall, thin woman with sunken eyes--the manageress of the household--stared at me, then approached.

My nanny touched her forehead to mine and blew out the candle. "In the holy land of Lord Buddha, you can sleep soundly. Good night, Miss."

There was a fragrance in the quilt that made my head ache. I felt sick to my stomach. I'd ridden on horseback for eight days; now I couldn't sleep. It was terribly muggy. I sat up. Moonlight streamed in the window. The sickening fragrance congealed in the moonlight--gray-white, gray-white. I heard the hiss of gaslights, the clack of mahjong tiles, voices, laughter, but I didn't know where they were coming from. I'd lost my sense of direction. A dark light flashed in the corner.

That person in the mirror: maroon silk robe, smooth-shaven head . . . Was it me? How had I changed . . . into a nun?!

"You don't like it?" Governess asked me. I noticed that she knit her eyebrows.

Her teacher told her a story . . .

Smoke spiraled upward all year long. A crisscross of gullies, an ominous mountain, weeds scattered everywhere. The smoke from the brazier of burning juniper branches drifted out over the valley, marvelously forming an auspicious hooked cross. Villagers from beyond the mountains realized that an incarnate lama deeply compassionate, clairvoyant, and possessed of awesome powers dwelt in this valley. In search of spiritual growth and mystic teaching, the people climbed up along...