China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Tibetan Topics (藏话题)

English Excerpt from “Prayers in the Wind” (祭语风中) by Tibetan Author Tsering Norbu

Excerpt from Prayers in the Wind

A novel by Tibetan Author Tsering Norbu

节选:《祭语风中》(次仁罗布 著)

Translated from the Chinese by Joshua Dyer
Edited by Bruce Humes

Zhyiö Rinpoche’s body sat upright on a wooden bed wrapped in his frayed and faded robe. Peering through the thick veil of incense smoke, I could almost will myself to believe Rinpoche was still alive and well. His beard extended down to
his chest, and his eyelids stood slightly apart, giving the impression he was observing something carefully. A clay lamp flickered on a wooden table to his right. Heartbroken, I fell to my knees, kowtowed, and then finally laid myself prostrate on the ground before him, shedding tears all the while.

“Rinpoche,” I called to him.

“Don’t cry,” someone urged.

I was pulled to my feet and escorted outside again. The sunlight stabbed at my eyes. The courtyard was filled with white light. Next door I heard the sound of sutras being recited to the urgent beats of the tamaru drum and bell. As my vision adjusted to the light I realized it was Tendzin Drakpa and his brother at my side.

“Rinpoche’s passage to Nirvana reminds us all how cruel this world can be. You must not hold him back with your tears. Let him pass on. We’ve already done the calculations. The day after tomorrow is a very auspicious day. We have begun preparations for his cremation,” Tendzin Drakpa said, tugging on my arm.

I didn’t know how to thank him properly so I merely nodded.

He led me out behind the monastery to see the crematorium the villagers had built. From the distance it looked like an offering burner, but larger and wider at the top. An even coat of mud had been applied to the outside. Inside there were crisscrossing beams of green wood to hold the body. Three holes lined the outer walls at ground level for feeding wood and oxygen to the fire. As I stood by the crematorium, the gratitude I felt for the villagers took some of the sting out of my heartache.

Tendzin Drakpa had more grey in his hair now, and his back was a little more stooped. At the same time, there was a look of philosophical detachment in his eyes that had not been there before. Time was working at him, slowly molding him into the form he would assume as an old man. I faced the crematorium and recited the Sutra of the Heavenly Gathering, and prayed that Zhyiö Rinpoche would attain a speedy rebirth.

A villager hurried towards us shouting, “Tendzin Drakpa, come quickly! There’s blood dripping from Rinpoche’s nose!”

We ran back to the monastery right on the heels of the villager. The people in the courtyard had their hands held together in prayer, and were bowing and reciting sutras. The tamaru drum was beating quickly now, like a hard rain. We moved to the front of the courtyard and saw Zhyiö Rinpoche was still seated on the bed. A thin trail of whitish fluid flowed from one nostril, a trickle of blood from the other. I had heard that this auspicious sign indicated that a tulku had forsaken entrance into Nirvana, and would assume rebirth in order to continue teaching. The white fluid represented semen, and the blood, menses.

Tendzin Drakpa pressed his palms to together and kowtowed while reciting the Three Refuges. I joined in, kowtowing at his side.

“This is proof of his attainment!” said Tendzin Drakpa, crying tears of joy.

Having witnessed this miraculous portent, the pain in my heart subsided.

That evening I sat on a cushion in front of the open doors to Rinpoche’s room, reciting the Avatamsaka Sutra,the Thirty-Five Buddhas of Confession, and sections of the Shorter Sukhavativyuha Sutra. There, in Rinpoche’s presence, I felt cleansed of my foolish affections and jealousies. My heart was as pure as a swift-flowing mountain stream. At dawn I opened my consciousness up to Rinpoche. I felt waves of beautiful light radiating from him, like ripples emanating out over the surface of a pond, penetrating my flesh and gathering in my heart. I felt myself dissolve into the light. I saw clearly that this body was but a temporary residence. Only consciousness is eternal.

At daybreak I kowtowed once more to Rinpoche, and then left to find Tendzin Drakpa. I could still hear the sutras being recited next door. The villagers continued bowing and kowtowing in the courtyard.

I found Tendzin Drakpa, and asked for milk and lime, which I took to the crematorium. Tendzin Drakpa’s son followed with a wooden bucket of water. I mixed the water and lime in an aluminum pot, and then slowly stirred in the milk. When the sun hit the crematorium, I began to splash the walls with the lime solution while reciting sutras. After three passes, the crematorium shone brilliant white in the sun.

I told Tendzin Drakpa’s son he could go, and then I sat cross-legged before the crematorium and prayed to Rinpoche:

I understand now. You have used your death and transcendence to remind us that all in this world is impermanence. All that I see will disappear with the turning of time’s wheel. You remind us to cherish the life of this body, while it lasts, and treat all other bodies with compassion. Tomorrow we will cremate your earthly form. Your soul will be free to fly to the womb of your next rebirth, so you may return to aid all sentient beings; to make us aware of our greed, hatred, and ignorance; to teach us to mold our wayward spirits, and conquer our impetuous natures.

Zhyiö Rinpoche, this is the great work you do.

I have defiled myself with a foolish belief in the pleasures of romantic love. I have fallen so deeply into this abyss, I don’t know how to climb my way back out again. My desire for personal gratification has reduced me to the state of a hungry ghost. I beg you Zhyiö Rinpoche, to bestow your blessings upon me. Help me to become someone who can be of service to all people.

I continued to pray in this vein until the villagers arrived carrying firewood for the cremation.

At noon we found a large copper vessel and filled it with warm water to cleanse and prepare Rinpoche’s body. As we removed Rinpoche’s robes, we discovered his body was emanating a scent almost like incense. This light, refreshing fragrance was said to permeate the bodies of those who have undertaken lifelong spiritual practice. It hung in the air for a long while before dispersing.

Rinpoche’s body had shrunken somewhat, and his skin seemed whiter, like milk, more taut and youthful than before. Familiar wrinkles on his face had diminished or disappeared altogether.

We seated his body on a wooden board spanning the vessel and began wiping it down with damp cloth. When finished, we emptied the copper vessel and filled it with water in which saffron had been boiled overnight. Once again we wiped down his remains, this time in a strict order dictated by the monastery’s monks. We began at the throat and wiped to the wrist joint, following the major energy meridians of the body. The saffron water dried on Rinpoche’s flesh, leaving a golden sheen. All the while two older monks sat in one corner praying.

“Jikme Wangdrak, hold up Rinpoche’s body while I fetch the cotton cloth,” Tendzin Drakpa told me.

I wrapped my arms around Rinpoche, supporting him from behind, his head resting against my chest. Once again I felt the soft, fluid light emanating in waves from him. I shuddered as it entered my chest and spread to every inch of my body.

Next, we ladled purified, golden yak butter over Rinpoche, and smoothed it over every inch of his flesh before it solidified. Tearing off strips of cotton cloth, we bound them around Rinpoche’s limbs and body, leaving only his face and hands exposed. The old monks now instructed me to again coat the body in yak butter. The process was repeated several times, until his body was mummified in layers of cotton. We dressed him once again in monk’s robes, and asked his permission to seat him again in meditation posture. Finally, I intertwined his fingers in a mudra known as the “Great Perfection,” signifying the attainment of absolute wisdom. The three older monks bowed down before Rinpoche’s body, while the villagers came forward to place khata over his neck.

As evening fell the weather changed abruptly. Dark clouds gathered, covering over the stars and moon, and the wind began to moan. Every spare room of the monastery was filled with villagers laid out on the floors, unwilling to leave while Rinpoche’s body was still there to bestow its blessings.

Tendzin Drakpa, his brother and I retired to one of the rooms off the courtyard to sit by the fire.

“Can we cremate him in this confounded weather?” Tendzin Drakpa’s brother asked.

“Even the heavens are mourning his passing. Listen to the wind cry,” said one of the younger monks.

“We shouldn’t worry ourselves. Tomorrow is the most auspicious date, and Rinpoche is a great tulku. The weather will sort itself out,” said Tendzin Drakpa.

We stopped talking and the voices of the three older monks chanting outside filled the room. When their recitations were finished, they stood, arranged their robes, and entered. I stood up from my place by the fire and told everyone I was going outside to spend more time with Rinpoche.

“Go ahead. We still have some preparations to discuss,” said Tendzin Drakpa.

I nodded and then stepped out into the black night. I shivered as the wind whipped my clothes around my body. I saw the light of the offering lamps, and jogged towards them. Pushing open the doors, I saw Zhyiö Rinpoche still seated inside. I shut the doors, and then stood in front of Rinpoche with hands folded in front of me and prayed once more that he would soon find rebirth in this world.

Feeling the urge to look at him one last time, to imprint his features on my mind, I lifted one of the clay offering lamps and held it close to his face. I noted all that I saw: the hollow cheeks, the broad, compassionate brow, the well-defined chin, the wispy beard. Though it caused me anguish to study him so closely, and tears slid down my cheeks, I didn’t allow myself to look away until I felt certain I had memorized every detail. Finally, I put the lamp down, and kowtowed before him once more.

The wind was quiet now. So quiet, in fact, that the only thing I could hear was the sound of my own breath. I opened the doors and discovered a blanket of snow spread across the courtyard, and a layer of white on the monk’s quarters opposite. Snowflakes spiraled down from the sky. Through a tear in the dark clouds I saw stars shining high above. I closed the doors again, sat on a cushion in one corner of the room and began to chant the One Hundred Syllable Mantra of Vajrasattva.

At dawn Tendzin Drakpa pushed open the doors and stepped inside, followed by the three older monks. They inspected every detail of Rinpoche’s funerary clothes, and then each of them reverently placed another khataaround his neck. Before long Tendzin Drakpa’s brother and a younger monk arrived carrying a wooden pallet with ropes tied to each corner.

“Pay your last respects now. In a moment we will escort Rinpoche to the crematorium,” said Tendzin Drakpa.

We each took a turn kowtowing to Zhyiö Rinpoche.

Suddenly the room brightened, and I stepped outside to have a look.

By the three treasures! The sky was translucent blue, empty of clouds, and the ground was covered in pristine white snow. Conditions could not have been more auspicious.

Rinpoche’s body was transferred to the wooden pallet. Four of us younger men each hefted a rope up over our shoulders, lifting the pallet into the air. The three older monks led the procession, beating tamaru drums and ringing bells, while Tendzin Drakpa brought up the rear carrying a fistful of smoking incense sticks.

My leather boots kicked through the fresh snow as we followed the older monks through the monastery, the sounds of drums, bells and prayers echoing off the walls of the courtyard. We exited and began to climb the sloping ground behind the monastery. Both sides of the trail were lined with villagers holding khata aloft with both hands. As we passed them, the villagers joined the procession. Once we reached our destination, they gathering around Rinpoche’s body and draped their khata around his neck.

A column of smoke rose into the heavens from the pile of smoldering mulberry and pine branches next to the crematorium. The three older monks began to recite sutras in dignified tones. A crowd formed in front of Rinpoche and held their hands in front of their chests, palms together. With the help of a few more strong men, we lifted the pallet over our heads, Rinpoche still seated on top, and lowered it down into the crematorium with the ropes.

Seeing Rinpoche seated inside the crematorium, my eyes filled with tears. Looking down from the opening in the top, I could only see his snow white head nestled within the folds of khata draped over his shoulders.

Following the old monks, the mourners bowed in reverence, and joined in the chanting. Some flung themselves prostate on the ground, overcome with grief. The sun rose over the tops of the mountains, and sunlight streamed down on the snow-covered slope.

Tendzin Drakpa, assisted by a couple of villagers, took charge of lighting the fire. At first a thin plume of dark smoke rose from the crematorium. Then, golden tongues of flame could be seen intertwining around Zhyiö Rinpoche through the opening in the front.

Tendzin Drakpa’s son stepped forward carrying a copper pot. Using a ladle, he poured yak butter over Rinpoche’s body. With each scoop, flames erupted, sending a multi-colored blaze twisting up and out of the crematorium. Nearby snow began to melt from the heat. I looked back at the monastery and noticed birds of every kind perched on the roof.

“Look, in the sky! There’s a halo around the sun!” someone shouted.

“And there in the west, a rainbow, between those two peaks!”

Sure enough, rings of purplish light could be seen encircling the sun, and to the west, the most perfect rainbow I had ever seen, a fairy bridge stretching between the mountains. Along with last night’s auspicious snowfall, these signs convinced me that Rinpoche had consciously chosen rebirth, and would soon reappear in this world. I found that all of my grief had departed, replaced by a deep and abiding joy.

Early the next morning, Tendzin Drakpa, the three older monks and I approached the still warm crematorium. The lime-painted walls were charred a deep yellow, and the mud was cracked and flaking. Following Tendzin Drakpa’s instructions, I rolled aside the stone that covered the opening into the base of the crematorium, and felt a blast of heat. Using a long wooden post I retrievedthe smoldering ashes, and we recovered more than a dozen ringsel and three pieces of charred bone from them. Resembling pearls, ringsel are treasured relics found in the cremated remains of accomplished Buddhist adepts. I selected two ringsel and the bones to take back to Lhasa, and distributed the remaining ringsel to Tendzin Drakpa and the monks from Draklagön Monastery. [终]

For details about foreign language rights, contact China Translation Publishing House ( Prayers in the Wind is one of a dozen or so works of fiction featured in the Kaleidoscope Series of China’s Ethnic Authors. For additional English-language excerpts from the series, see: Patigül’s Bloodline (百年血脉) and Alat Asem’s Confessions of a Jade Lord (时间悄悄的嘴脸).

4 replies on “English Excerpt from “Prayers in the Wind” (祭语风中) by Tibetan Author Tsering Norbu”

Unfortunately, one reader — who often visits and leaves a comment — has not been able to do so this time around. So I am inputting this for “Bathrobe”:

This excerpt fills me with very mixed feelings. I am sure it is a good piece of writing. But I am caught in a double bind:

1. I am not moved by Buddhist “miracles” or religious themes in general and

2. I do not feel things written in Chinese about “minority cultures” to be truly authentic.

The author may be 100% Tibetan, but forcing the culture and language of the Tibetans into the conventions of Chinese prose spells a kind of falsity. The only thing that Chinese, even if written by a Tibetan, can do is provide a kind of annotation on Tibetan thought. It cannot replace it.

I am not normally prey to such essentialism. But the way that the Chinese government is attempting to purify Chinese culture so that it sits firmly within the Great Tradition (as has been done a number of times in the past) makes it hard to see Chinese acting as an honest broker for the cultures of the empire. It is the language of imperium and control. The moment that it is harnessed to express totally different cultures (as is being done with the staging of the epic Manas in Chinese), the result is vacuous and false. Like a plastic figurine of a tiger in place of the live animal.

It is, of course, interesting how the language of the suppressors has been turned against them and used to spread the superstitions they have tried to root out. Unfortunately, the result resembles New Age thought.


Great Job!
Just read the opening chapters of 《祭语风中》online and got the impression that your translation confers a smoother readability than the original.


Tsering Norbu has quite a name as a Sinophone Tibetan writer and, unless I am mistaken, sometimes collaborates with Pema Tseden the filmmaker for film scripts. While I find the present excerpt smooth and pleasant to read, I cannot help getting the impression that Tsering Norbu writes for a Chinese audience (or at least, for a non-Tibetan one). Half fiction, half documentary, the text could read like a chapter of “Tibet for dummies”, in a part dedicated to tulkus, death and rebirth. It is, to my taste, too obviously tailored to educate the reader about the “mysteries” of the Tibetan approach to feel sincere. Educating Chinese readers about the complexities of Tibetan civilisation is important, and it is quite elegantly and respectfully done here. But the energy and space spent on such preliminary work means little room is left for anything else meaningful, i.e. literature per se.
One is left wondering if such a thing as Sinophone Tibetan literature meant for a Tibetan readership, and not for a Han readership (i.e. a literature that would not be mainly explanatory in nature, but… literary), actually and presently exists.
One a more positive note, I appreciate that the translator, although not a specialist of Tibetan, has made an effort to render Tibetan names in a readable manner that is closer to Tibetan phonems than distorted pinyin. Still, some sinicisms remain: “to kowtow” is very loaded and immediately prompts images of a Chinese world. “To prostrate” is the regular term when dealing with Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. Tamaru has been rendered as damaru for decades. Zhyiö looks so unfamiliar I cannot figure out what the Tibetan original might be.


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