ONE

Just as the bedridden Gendün Dargyé was calmly reciting his ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hun­dred and ninety-ninth mani he was struck by a sudden, intense pain, and without even having a moment to realize it, he was taken into the next life. At around the same time, Gendün Dargyé’s sole sworn brother, Tsering Samdrup, had the sensation that he wasn’t long for this world, and, folding his hands over his heart, mur­mured, “May the six classes of sentient beings that have been our mothers attain liberation and reach the level of omniscience. I pray that humanity may have equality, freedom, and peace. Om mani padme hum,” immediately after which he drifted off as if into a peaceful sleep and set out on the narrow path to the netherworld.

Among the teeming throng of tens of thousands of transiting souls, Gendün Dargyé and Tsering Samdrup were reunited. 

“Haha! It’s really true what they say—even in the afterlife sworn brothers will be brought together.” Tsering Samdrup, grin­ning broadly and looking completely carefree, approached Gendün Dargyé and grasped his hand, just like he used to when they were still in the land of the living. But Gendün Dargyé simply stood there expressionless his face drained of all color, shaking his head.

“What’s the matter, my brother?” asked Tsering Samdrup as put his arm around Gendün Dargyé and helped him to the side of the road.

Gendün Dargyé continued to shake his head sorrowfully. “A shame . . . what a shame, I . . . I must be cursed,” he said finally, now on the verge of tears.

Ah ho, my brother, what on earth has happened to you?”

“Don’t they say that if you recite one hundred million manis you’re sure to go to the Blissful Realm?”

“Yeah, I think that’s what they say. Why?”

Eh,” he said, sighing, “do you know how many manis I did?”

“You’re always reciting your manis, aren’t you? You’ve done a lot by now, I’d guess, maybe even a hundred million. You should be happy!”

Eh,” he said, sighing again, “let me tell you: I recited ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine manis—I was short of a hundred million by just one. You tell me, do I have bad karma or what?”

“Hahahaha! So that’s what you’re worried about?”

“Yes! It’s no laughing matter.”

“In that case, you can set your mind at ease.”

“?”

“Well, as you know, I pretty much wasted my life away goofing around. I was never able to save up any money, and I never did any chanting or spiritual practices either. But, just before I died, I recited one mani. I’ll give you that mani.”

“Wh . . . what? Did I hear that right? Say that one more time.”

“I’m giving you my only mani.”

“You . . . you . . . you’ve always been a kidder, haven’t you? It’s not right for you to make fun of me over such an important thing.”

Ah ya, you’re so . . . It’s just one mani. We’re sworn brothers­—what’s one mani?”

“Brother, my wonderful brother!” Gendün Dargyé, deeply moved, tears welling in his eyes, embraced Tsering Samdrup. “You know that when I was still in the human world you were my only sworn brother—no others—and it was absolutely the right choice. This must be my good karma.”

“That it must. Ah . . . who knows if we two brothers will get another chance to meet after this. Why don’t we recount some of our stories, remember the happy times together?”

“Yes, that’d be nice, but . . . I’m still not feeling completely comfortable about this. What’ll we do if the Lord of Death says your mani can’t be transferred to my account? So . . . so wouldn’t it be best if we went to see the Lord of Death now and explained the situation to him?”

“Oh, yes—let’s do that. The bardo path isn’t a very nice place to be, either.”

“I recited ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine manis—I was short of a hundred million by just one. You tell me, do I have bad karma or what?”

Truly, it was a murky, ashen-colored place, a place that was nei­ther dark nor light. Apart from the countless masses of mistlike dead, there wasn’t a sentient being or living thing to be seen. It was a realm that evoked feelings of terror and loathing at the same time.

The two of them rejoined the ranks of the tens of thousands of departed souls. Like a mother guiding her naughty child, Gendün Dargyé led Tsering Samdrup through the wavelike crowds, never letting go of his hand even for a second.

TWO

The Lord of Death’s offices were located in a newly built Western­ style high-rise next to the former law courts. The building was divided into five large departments. Each employee had a computer in front of them, and each computer formed part of an online net­work with access to a database that exhaustively recorded and calculated all the virtues and vices and good and evil thoughts of all the departed souls from the five continents of the earth. It is said that on average each employee could process the virtues and vices and good and evil thoughts of one departed soul and send them to the appropriate destination—be that the Blissful Western Realm or the worlds of the Six Beings—within thirty seconds. Despite this, there were still tens of thousands of departed souls arranged into numerous lines, all waiting to register in a huge hall bigger than a football field.

On the walls of the great hall were a number of large color screens. Some were showing video footage of the achievements of political and religious leaders who had made contributions to the freedom of humankind; of the accomplishments of scientists, thinkers, artists, charity workers, environmental activists, animal rights activists, and others who had worked toward the spiritual and material well-being of humankind; and of how, after death, they were encircled by beautiful deities and escorted to Shambhala, or back to a developed democratic country where they could continue to achieve great things. The other screens were showing video footage of the crimes of dictators, deployers of nuclear weapons, destroyers of the environment, corrupt officials, drug dealers, and others who had incited wars or trampled on the rights of races, nations, and individual human beings, and of how, after death, they were taken to the hell realms, where they suffered unspeakable torments.

Gendün Dargyé finally managed to guide Tsering Samdrup to the registration desk, where he gave a detailed account of his situation. The case was perhaps a bit too complicated for the employee on duty—at least, he said that it was beyond his authority to decide and he would have to pass it up to his superiors, and he informed them that he had transferred the file containing their vices and virtues and good and evil thoughts to the Lord of Death’s computer. Much to their surprise, Bullhead and Boarhead, the Lord of Death’s messengers, arrived on the spot to bring Gendün Dargyé and Tsering Samdrup directly before the Great Lord himself.

“Is this true?” asked the Lord of Death, deeply moved and completely dumbfounded, as he partly arose off the throne from which he had never arisen before, then sat himself down again.

Gendün Dargyé and Tsering Samdrup, rather unsure of what was going on, looked at each other for a moment, then turned back to face the Lord of Death.

The Lord of Death took a look at his computer screen. “So, Tsering Samdrup wishes to donate the only mani that he recited in his entire life to Gendün Dargyé, is that right?”

Tsering Samdrup answered him without giving it a second thought: “Yes, that’s correct.”

The Lord of Death said, “Have you heard the Tibetan proverb ‘As rare as a mani in the next life?'”

“Of course I have.”

“Then you understand the meaning of this saying?”

“Well, I think it means something incredibly valuable, something very hard to come by.”

“And yet you still consent to bequeath your sole mani to another, without hesitation?”

“Of course. Gendün Dargyé and I are sworn brothers. If I weren’t even willing to give up a single mani, wouldn’t ‘sworn brothers’ be an empty title?”

“How marvelous! You are a man of true virtue!” The Lord of Death leaped suddenly from his seat and rushed over to shake Tsering Samdrup’s hand, then led him insistently to his throne, upon which he seated him. Picking up the phone, he announced, “A man of true virtue has arrived. Escort him immediately to the Blissful Realm—no, prepare a banquet—after we have dined I shall accompany him myself!”

Tsering Samdrup, feeling very uncomfortable now, rose to his feet. “Great King, this is too . . .” he began, but the Lord of Death placed a hand on his shoulder and forced him back into the chair. “Eh. The people of Earth are becoming more self-centered with each passing day—just look at Gendün Dargyé. Gendün Dargyé, let me ask you: you have all these manis, and yet not only do you not give any to your sworn brother, you have no qualms about taking his sole mani for yourself, is that so?”

“That’s . . . that’s . . .” said Gendün Dargyé in a feeble voice, apart from which he was unable to muster any other response.

“Have you no shame?” boomed the Lord of Death as he beat his fist on the table.

Gendün Dargyé lowered his head.

The Lord of Death paced back and forth. “I truly have no idea whether or not you held in your heart the sentient beings that have been your mothers as you were chanting all those manis. There­fore, I also have no idea whither I should send you.”

“Great King, Great King, it seems that I have harmed my sworn brother . . .” said Tsering Samdrup in a fluster, but the Lord of Death cut him off. “No no no. This has nothing to do with you. All his vices and virtues and his good and evil thoughts are recorded in his file. Whither he should be sent is also clearly stipulated in the Lord of Death’s legal code. I am simply reminding him. To be truthful, Gendün Dargyé has committed no great sin, bar his excessive selfishness. In any case, he still recited all those manis, so he shan’t be sent to the hell realms,” he said, breaking into a smile.

“Oh, that’s good, that’s good.”

“Now let us dine!”

“Ah . . . Great King, I have a request . . .”

“By all means.”

“May I be permitted to have this last meal with my sworn brother?”

“How marvelous! Pure friendship, friendship of purity! Once again you have touched this old man’s heart. Come, come, please come!”

The Lord of Death threw his arms around the shoulders of the two sworn brothers, and together they marched across the thick green carpet toward the banquet hall.

Excerpted from The Handsome Monk and Other Stories by Tsering Döndrup. Copyright © 2019 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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