Go to this issue's Table of Contents.
N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 0
"The Tibetans look uncomfortable to me," he said. "They look cold. Perhaps you could find some coats and shoes." Robes and woven sandals were the extent of their dress, Antoine had noticed, and he was perturbed that Father Léon had not thought of their comfort in Quebec. He went to fetch coats and sweaters, thick socks and shoes, from the wardrobe in the attic, and took them over to the old seminary house in a wheelbarrow. When Sering and Tenzin saw the pile, they poked through it, examining each article, pulling at it and trying it on while laughing at each other. Tenzin went inside with a thick coat and threw it over Cello. Sering selected a coat, a sweater, woolen stockings, and shoes for the geshe. Then the teenagers chose colorful clothing for themselves, articles that seemed to blend well with their oxblood robes and saffron undergarments.
HE next day the Cistercians were allowed to question the geshe. He sat alone under the crucifix, on the abbot's throne, while Sering translated the questions. Someone asked how old he was. Another asked at what age he had become a monk. A third asked if Buddhists believed in a heaven, and Brother Norbert wanted to know if Cello was saying the same rosary that Catholics said. To all these questions the geshe responded with the same answer: Bad thoughts must be banished from the mind.
While this was going on, Antoine nervously pulled at his ear. He began to realize that as long as the geshe was present, the other monks would remain silent, except of course for the necessary translation, and for Cello's incessant whispers. He made plans to get rid of the geshe.
That evening he tapped lightly on Father Léon's door. A moment passed, and he heard footsteps.
"Yes?" the priest asked. Only one eye and a nose were visible behind a crack in the doorway.
"Excuse me, Father, but I noticed today at the conference that the geshe is definitely not looking well. In fact, I see that his color has become worse since he arrived."
"Really?" Léon said, opening the door wider. "I thought he was perking up." He held a book in his hand, a finger stuck between the pages. He wore odd half-moon spectacles on his nose. Antoine continued in an evenly paced whisper, the most authoritative voice he could muster.
"Did you have a doctor look at him in Quebec?"
"Why, no," Léon said, rubbing the book against his nose. "We didn't have time, what with our schedule. Besides, it's just a case of the grippe, don't you suppose? I feel rather bad about hauling him all over the country this way, but we do have a schedule to keep."
Antoine lifted a hand to his mouth and paused for what he hoped would seem a grave moment of consideration.
"Well, now, Father," he said, "imagine the consequences if the geshe were to have serious complications. How would anyone know until it was too late? What if he had walking pneumonia, for instance? Or a bacterial infection of the lung? Who are we to say? The geshe could become dangerously weakened. And what would happen then? Your tour might be held up. You'd have to explain to everyone how seeing a doctor had never occurred to you. And if the geshe should die ... Well, Father, you must understand how I want to save you embarrassment."
By four o'clock the next afternoon Father Léon and Geshe Damchoe were at the Victoria Hospital, in Winnipeg. While they were away, Antoine went to the abbot and told him that the remaining Tibetans wanted to speak to the community. Then he told the Tibetans that the community wanted to ask them questions. A conference was quickly arranged.
They gathered in the chapter room. This time Cello was given the abbot's throne. He crawled up into it and sat on a cushion with his feet dangling over. Thus seated, he smiled and muttered his prayers. Sering and Tenzin sat on either side of him. Cello took questions, answering them without hesitation. Sering translated.
"How many vows do you take?" someone asked.
"Tibetan monks take a vow to abandon each of the two hundred and fifty-three downfalls," Cello said. "Nuns vow to avoid only the eighteen root downfalls."
"Why do women take less?"
Cello rubbed his nose. "Because vows must be received from the novice by a living monk or nun, and the tantric tradition died out among Tibetan nuns."
"When did you enter the monastery?"
Cello laughed. "I was given to the monastery as a child," he said. "Most monks and nuns begin their monastic lives this way. In fact, the best monks and nuns are those who spend early formative years memorizing all the necessary scriptures and living a monastic life while they are most impressionable. Adults may enter the monastery, of course, but they never make very good monks or nuns, because they haven't memorized the necessary scriptures."
"How old are you?"
Cello had no idea. No record existed. He explained that he had been given to a monastery in Tibet, and when the Chinese occupied the country, his monastery was destroyed with all its records. The Chinese put an end to religious freedom, and Cello fled to India with thirty companions. Only three of them survived the trip through the mountains.
Brother Norbert raised his hand. Antoine felt the blood rush to his head. He thought Norbert would ask if Cello believed in the Virgin Mary, if the Tibetans would consider giving up the error of their ways and being baptized as Roman Catholics. Antoine feared that Norbert would offer a prayer on the spot for the conversion of the heathen and the liberation of the world from the dark fog of Buddhism. Antoine thought for sure Norbert would inform Cello how stupid it was to believe in reincarnation, to believe in howling ghosts or prayer wheels. But Norbert did none of these things.
"What does the name 'Cello' mean?" he asked.
Sering translated the question. Cello raised his eyebrows and then spoke briefly in the bubbling language they used. The whole room waited for a translation, but Sering hesitated. Cello waved a hand to encourage him.
"Cheh'leh," he said, "is the word for 'nun.' You see, Cello is a woman. She is the abbess of the famous Geden Choling nunnery, in India."
Mouths dropped open, and Antoine heard gasps. No one said a word. The Cistercians needed time to absorb the fact that the short, wrinkled person on the abbot's throne was not a monk. The cloister had been invaded. A woman had taken the abbot's throne.
Everyone turned to the abbot. He was seated on a bench like the others, portly and overheated. At first Antoine thought Dom Jacques's face was red with anger, but then he noticed that the abbot's shoulders were moving up and down. For a whole minute Antoine heard only the thick sound of his own pulse in his ears, while he wondered whether the abbot was laughing or weeping. Then he noticed the abbot's eyes, how they sparkled. Dom Jacques's mouth fell open, and he let out a short hoot that began the rumble of his laugh, and this set off a chain reaction with everyone in the room.
Cello smiled broadly, showing her four little teeth. Even with laughter coming from all around her, she took up her beads and continued her mantras.
The tension in the room dissipated. The laughter died down, but no one knew what to do next. Tenzin covered his mouth. Sering's cheeks were rosy with embarrassment, and he cleared his throat.
"We didn't want to tell you," he said, "because it seemed to us a discourtesy. We had no idea, in India, that you wanted only monks. We didn't know how very important it is for you to exclude women from your monasteries. After we brought Cello all this way across the ocean for our tour of North America, we thought it ungrateful for us to disappoint you, so we said nothing. After all, what were we to do with Cello? She is, after all, the abbess of the Geden Choling nunnery, and the founder of five other nunneries. Besides, who would know that she is a woman? Our heads are shaved. We wear the same clothing. She may as well be a monk. In our world, because we remain celibate, we are equal. We are more alike than different. And even without such considerations, each of us has been a man or a woman in a past life, and each of us will be a man or a woman again, unless we are reborn as higher spirits. So, you see, it makes no difference."
The abbot rose and adjourned the meeting. He immediately summoned Brother Antoine to his office. Antoine worried. As official East-West Dialogue Contact Person, he thought he would be blamed for having staged a debacle. Inside Dom Jacques's office he looked at the floor while sitting in a chair facing the abbot's wide oak desk.
"Brother Antoine, I thought it best to inform you about things as they are," Dom Jacques said. Antoine's palms began to sweat. "You know," the abbot continued, "that Father Léon insisted upon taking Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen to the hospital. It was a very wise decision. The geshe has a bad cold, of course, but the doctors have discovered an aortic insufficiency near the lower left chamber of his heart. This condition may be life-threatening, and he has been persuaded to give up his tour. Father Léon will accompany him to a Tibetan monastery in Colorado, where he will be looked after by American doctors. Meanwhile, Sering, Tenzin, and Cello will continue on to Saskatchewan."
"I will notify the other abbeys that Cello is a nun," the abbot said. "She will be respected as an abbess, of course, but the cloister must be observed. I was startled and amused by this revelation of identity, but I must uphold the rules about cloister."
Antoine nodded and smiled. He kept silent, but he was fuming that Father Léon had been given credit for the hospital visit. Who cared about Cello, he thought. She was old. It didn't matter any more if she was a man or a woman.
"A magnificent human being," the abbot said, "this woman who has suffered grave injustice, in the mountains watched her companions die, been in exile all these years -- yet she is so cheerful. So humble."
Antoine nodded. But he said to himself, She has no teeth. How can anyone with no teeth be "magnificent"?
"She's not what I expected," he said to the abbot. "I mean, even beyond the surprise, her being a woman, she's too odd to be an abbess. I had hoped for someone more dignified."
The abbot opened his mouth to say something but tapped his fingers lightly against his lips instead.
"Brother Antoine," he said after a moment of silence, "I want to thank you for your assistance as Contact Person. The Tibetans are scheduled to continue their tour tomorrow. It has been a rare opportunity, this exchange of cultures. Perhaps you have some private questions for Cello? I give you my permission to speak with her."
Antoine rubbed his chin. "Oh, I don't know," he said. "I don't think I need to talk to her. I want someone more interested in meditation. She just says those mantras over and over. I find that boring."
The abbot leaned back in his chair. "You're missing a golden opportunity."
The only opportunity Antoine wanted was to take rightful credit for having saved the life of Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen, something Father Léon did not deserve. Then an idea flashed into his head. He could explain to Cello, Sering, and Tenzin that he, Antoine, had saved the geshe. If he could tell them how it happened, how he had gone to Léon and begged the priest to take the geshe to a doctor, they would realize Antoine's virtue and how much they owed him.
"Yes!" Antoine said to Dom Jacques. "On second thought, there might be something I could discuss with Cello."
E went off to the old seminary house. He found Sering and Tenzin outside, pushing the wheelbarrow. Cello was seated in it, like a small Oriental dignitary. All her earthly belongings were in a little felt bag. She was speaking softly to her carriers, in a confident and reassuring tone, without the usual rosary in hand. Antoine made them stop.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "Where are you taking her?"
Cello stopped speaking. Sering smiled and said that they had been told to move the abbess out of the cloistered grounds to the gatehouse, where Brother Henri would give her a room.
"Oh, yes," Antoine said. "Such a bother." He stood in the path of the wheelbarrow. All three Tibetans smiled at him, but he did not move.
"I've come to set something straight," Antoine continued. "The geshe's being in the hospital -- that was my idea. I'm the one who told Father Léon to take him there."
Sering looked at Tenzin, and they spoke briefly in their native tongue. Sering looked back at Antoine.
"This hospital is not a good idea?" he asked. "The geshe is in a bad place?"
"No," Antoine said. "You misunderstand. I am the one who saved Geshe Damchoe Gyaltsen's life. That was not Father Léon's idea."
"That's fine," Sering said. "We are not unhappy."
Before Antoine could explain further, the wheelbarrow was taken up, and he had to move out of the way. Cello continued speaking in a thin but expressive tone, much like a Chinese grandmother telling a bedtime story. Antoine followed alongside. The little procession moved down the road and past an orchard where red, nutlike crab apples hung in profusion on branches.
"What is she saying?" Antoine asked.
"She is giving us a teaching," Sering explained. "Her subject is Gelugpa, or the Yellow Hats, one of the principal sects of Tibetan Buddhism, to which His Holiness the Dalai Lama belongs."
Cello's cheerful, rocking words seemed somehow connected to the movement of the wheelbarrow, and Antoine had difficulty believing that she was talking about anything serious.
"Can you tell me what she is saying?" he asked.
"It's very complicated," Sering answered. "In general, she explains that the real ground of Gelugpa is knowledge of suffering. Only when a person is fully convinced of the immensity of suffering can enlightenment follow."
"Oh," Antoine said.
"This suffering," Sering continued, "must be recognized as a universal condition, and the monk or nun must want deliverance for all beings from this suffering. Only then can enlightenment, or sunyata, be experienced."
"Really," Antoine said.
They had reached a picket fence, and Antoine opened the gate for the wheelbarrow. After they had passed through, he turned back to check the latch, just above a yellow sign that read MONASTIC ENCLOSURE in black letters. Cello had finished speaking, and she pulled from her felt bag the old, discolored rosary. The road ran ahead of them into cool shadows of elm and ash trees, and just beyond that was the gatehouse. When they arrived there, Brother Henri was waiting for them on the screened porch. Rubbing his purple-veined nose, he offered no words, not even to the abbess, who seemed to be a man even yet, the same person as when she had arrived, bald and stooped with years. Henri came down the steps to collect her little bag, and the two of them disappeared into the gatehouse.
"Is she upset?" Antoine asked.
"At being moved," Antoine said. "Is Cello upset inside?"
"Oh, no," Sering answered. "She is perfectly healthy."
"I mean, is she angry, about being put out?"
Sering laughed and said something in Tibetan to Tenzin. The blush on Sering's face was of unmistakable innocence. "Cello would sleep on the sidewalk without hesitation," he said.
Brother Henri appeared on the porch with a rubber ball. "Eh?" he said to the Tibetans, and before he got an answer, he threw it out at Tenzin. The boy was delighted, and the ball was soon going back and forth in a wide arc between Sering and Tenzin. The teenagers whooped and laughed, and Henri, without so much as a grin, turned and re-entered the gatehouse. Just as I expected, he seemed to be thinking. Boys are the same everywhere.
Antoine caught the ball once, but then waved himself out of the game. The Tibetans ran down the road on which they had come, looking spry in the late-afternoon light. Antoine followed them as far as the crab-apple orchard. He felt sad that they would leave tomorrow, to travel on to Saskatchewan. He wished that he were taking Father Léon's place, but he had to admit that he knew next to nothing about airports -- probably less than the Tibetans -- and besides, Brother Gennade depended on his help in the barn.
With the Tibetans gone, Antoine knew, he would no longer be official East-West Dialogue Contact Person. Life would sink to the ordinary again.
He opened the gate in the picket fence and went inside the monastic enclosure to the orchard. Sitting beneath an apple tree, he asked himself what he had learned from his contact with Buddhists. The first thing that came into his head was how little he had learned from books. "People are far more complicated than books!" he said aloud.
The short, twisted trees in the orchard offered their tiny crab apples. The fruit was plentiful even as the branches were losing their leaves. From where he sat he could see the white seminary house, flanked by several yellow elms. The air was cool and thick with the odor of pumpkins that grew just over a hedge and down by the river.
Antoine felt on the cusp of grasping something important about monasticism, some common thread between East and West that he could identify and present to the abbot, who would be suitably impressed with his insight. And then perhaps Antoine would discuss it with the Tibetans before they left in the morning. Yes, but he could not quite name it, the lofty idea he was after, and he decided that what he needed was a bit of meditation to shake the thought loose.
HOUGH he sat for some time under the tree, no profound thoughts occurred to him. The sun was not visible behind the abbey, to the west, but the evening sky was bathed with its scarlet influence. Birds sang across the fields up and down the river, their chorus resonating sweetly.
He pulled out his rosary and made the sign of the cross. Antoine said his prayers in a whisper. Wrapping his feet beneath him, he attempted to be very solemn. He wanted to banish all bad thoughts and put his mind perfectly at peace.
His prayer went well. He imagined that he looked like the Buddha himself, under a flowering lotus tree, serene in meditation. He imagined himself to be Saint Benedict or Saint Bernard, caught up in tender and undisturbed prayer.
On a nearby tree a flock of cedar waxwings pecked at the shiny crab apples. They exhibited identical rose plumage, with tiny crests of feathers. Suddenly they all flew at the same instant.
A gentle breeze played at Antoine's ears. He closed his eyes to the birds. His mind was nearly empty of distractions when he heard something peculiar: a dull repeated noise. It would not go away. Antoine whispered his rosary louder, but the noise continued. It sounded like heavy apples falling on the ground, one by one, methodically. He struggled to put the noise out of his mind, but he could not, and the more he tried, the more exasperated he became.
The rhythmic thuds persisted. Antoine ground his teeth. Sweat rolled down his forehead. He simply had to know the cause of the noise.
He opened his eyes. Slowly he got to his feet and began to walk toward the sound, hunched and stalking. Over the short grass, a few trees away, he saw the small, bent figure of Cello in her oxblood robes. With her bare feet she was stomping on fallen crab apples, one after another, breaking them open, beating them with her heel into a pulp. This done, she would bend low and pick at them, putting bits of apple paste into her mouth.
From a distance she looked like an abandoned and hungry child. Antoine was transfixed. He had never seen anything so peculiar: there she was, the Venerable Cello, spiritual mother to 6,000 nuns, eating crab apples from the grass.
As sunlight drew away from the orchard, it came to him: the thread that bound their lives together. Cello was abandoned by society. She was marginal. Antoine realized that the abbess was as defenseless and as irrelevant to the world as an orphan. And being a monk, so was he.
The experience of many days clicked into a clear order in his head. Antoine saw before him a Cello who had survived immense suffering in the Himalayas to offer a living witness to anyone interested: nothing less than the reversal of world order. Weak as she was -- weak as all human beings are -- she had found freedom from pain, which was the same as freedom from the desire for fame and fortune.
Cello seemed unaware of Antoine's flabbergasted stare. She straightened her rounded back. She looked at the crab-apple tree. Then, brushing her knotted fingers back and forth over its trunk, she appeared to thank a perfect living creature for its fruit. And when the wind died and the birds stopped singing, Cello walked back toward the gatehouse, making her way to bed.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.