I REMEMBER WHEN THE BEAR MEN CAME.
That is what Master Chodak calls them because they have thick fur on their faces and bodies. I have also heard them called White Men, though not all are pale enough for such a name and some are dark indeed.
It was soon after my father brought me to the monastery. I was very young and every night I cried for my mother. I thought my world had come to an end. But the Old Master took pity upon me and said I could visit my family when the monks next went to the village.
Though it seemed to me a very long time, it was only a few days later that Master Thekchen, who was not a Master then, and Master Jampa, who was, took me with them to my home village. We went to the marketplace, and there I saw strange men in strange garments carrying strange metal rods. At sight of them, I pulled on Master Jampa’s robe to get his attention. He leaned down to hear me, for I always spoke in whispers.
“Who are those people?” I asked.
Master Jampa said, “They are warriors hired to protect our people from Chinese soldiers.”
“What are Chinese soldiers?” I asked.
“Foreign men who wish to call this place their own,” He told me.
I wondered what anyone would want with a village not his own. It occurred to me then that these Chinese soldiers must have lost their village, perhaps through fire. I tugged at Master Jampa’s robe again and asked, “If their homes are gone, why can they not live among us?”
Master Jampa smiled at my naïveté. He explained, “They do not want to live among us. They want to control us and steal from us.”
I did not understand politics and war and violence at that time, but I had seen men of the village use sticks and tools to protect us from a snow leopard. It disturbed me that we might need protection from men, as well. And it disturbed me more that we needed strangers to protect us from other strangers.
I saw my mother and I ran to her. She gathered me in her arms and hugged and kissed me and I laughed. But for the first time, her embrace did not make me feel safe. Later, when the Masters came to take me back, I cried not because I was leaving my family but because my father and mother and sisters could not come with us to the safety of the monastery.
THE NEXT YEAR, THE EVIL ONES CAME.
I was in the temple learning prayers when my father and a Bear Man burst in. The monks and priests rushed to shoo them out, but my father called for the Old Master.
“A Warlord has come and killed our Protectors,” Father said. “This is the last of them, and the Outsiders are plundering the valleys.”
“They’re taking over the whole region,” said the Bear Man.
The Old Master came from the Sanctuary. He asked, “Why have you come?”
My father told him, “We need provisions. This man knows where to go for help. I will take him to Kathmandu.”
“The winds will rise, soon,” the Old Master warned. “Even if you make your way out of the mountains before they come, you and this help you seek will not be able to return before spring.”
“Wind won’t stop The Tiger,” said the Bear Man. “One way or another, we’ll be back.”
The man spoke with such conviction I felt hope just hearing his words. I do not know whether the Old Master was also impressed—it is the way of the mystics that they do not show what they are thinking—but he agreed to provide what food and equipment he could.
While the monks hurried to gather the promised supplies, I took this opportunity to talk to my father. He assured me that my mother and sisters were hidden away safely, and he held me in his arms. I nestled there, content to smell his familiar scent and to play with his silken whiskers until the time came for him to leave.
When I watched my father lead the Bear Man away toward the Pass, I cried for him, and for my mother and sisters, and for us all.
TWO DAYS LATER, the Evil Ones turned their eyes toward our valley. When a villager warned us they were coming, the Old Master commanded us to offer no resistance.
“Violence is not our way,” he reminded the students and younger Masters. “And we have no weapons to match those of the Outsiders.”
At once, the Master chose twelve students to go to a distant cave to hide the sacred scrolls. I was the youngest selected. The priests dressed us warmly and gave us food and water for many days and told us to return only when it was safe to do so. They would send word.
Master Chodak and Master Thekchen led us along a narrow, steep path for perhaps three hours. It was very hard walking for my little legs, but it would soon become even harder: We left the path and travelled among rocks and boulders. As we climbed, we found less and less vegetation to block colder and colder winds. Our footing was unsure and the stones very sharp. But at last, just before nightfall, we came to the cave. A bush and three boulders blocked the entrance from view. I felt assured we would be safe.
Inside, the cave was dark and cold. Master Chodak lit a lantern to help us find our way through a tight passage to a chamber wide enough to hold us all. There, we sat on the rock floor and huddled close for warmth, clutching our sacks and shivering. Master Chodak extinguished the light and told us to sleep. But despite the darkness and our weariness, none of us could.
Morning came. Master Chodak gathered our scrolls and hid them farther back in the cave. Meanwhile, Master Thekchen took us outside to relieve ourselves and to exercise and breathe fresh air and drink from a spring. When we returned to the cave, Master Chodak opened a bag of rice and a bag of water. We cooked our meal in a small pot over a little fire. Then, with bellies filled, we dozed. But our dreams were fearful and our sleep fitful as we waited anxiously for news of our brothers.