The Spirits are About

Carbon, when subjected to extreme pressure, gives way and takes the form of a diamond. This induced metamorphosis of sorts yields an end product that is not only much stronger than that which existed before it, but leaves no trace of its former identity behind- almost as if something new were made out of nothing. Perhaps it was some sort of foresight into what was to come that made Pala turn Danny into Dorje.

Pala had taken a liking to me from the very beginning. Although he was initially appointed to my parents as their Sherpa tour guide and mountaineering expert for their placement at the Dawa Choling Gompa in the northeastern Nepalese village of Tengboche, he somehow ended up assuming the role of my primary caretaker for the duration of our stay. In fact, I don’t recall there ever being a time when I didn’t refer to him as Pala, or “father” in Tibetan. It begun because as a four year old, I found his Nepalese name difficult to pronounce, but it ended up continuing because he was more of a parent to me than either of mine ever were. Doctors Janet and Truman Barclay, husband and wife cum orthopaedic surgeon dream team, were pioneers in bringing the Doctors Without Borders initiative to remote regions of Nepal. They were dedicated in their efforts and often left for weeks at a time without providing any notice of where they were going or when they would be back. Before leaving, though, they would always discuss something quietly with Pala who would never share the details of those exchanges with me.

Instead, Pala would share with me Jataka tales which would capture my attention for hours on end. I was absolutely taken by the teachings of the Buddha and was in a haste to implement prajna, sila, and samadhi into my own life so as to seek salvation from duhkha, which I saw as my parents. Sensing that my thirst for knowledge was quickly escaping his grasp, Pala begun taking me to the Dawa Choling Gompa where I received instruction on novel meditation practices from a yogi-lama pairing who did not give the fact that I was a essentially a toddler a single thought. In fact, they were thrilled that someone so young could display such dedication and insisted that I join them on their annual pilgrimage to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. Alas, I never had the opportunity to make this journey. The morning of the day I was to depart, another Sherpa came to speak to Pala. At first, I thought nothing of this occurrence. However, it soon became very clear what had happened when I saw the Sherpa hand Pala the scarves my parents had been wearing when they left for their mission almost four months ago. Without uttering a word, Pala grabbed my hand and led me on what, at the time, felt like a trek that spanned an eternity in length to Kathmandu. It was here that I was enrolled in an English-medium school and signed up for cricket classes with funds that it appeared as though Pala had procured relatively recently. I may have been a child at the time, but I had the sense to not ask questions about what was happening. I simply did as I was told by Pala, who had all of a sudden become dogmatic about academics and receiving good grades.

One day, more than two decades later, while sitting alone in the doctors’ lounge at Harvard Medical School, I laughed to myself because I finally understood what Pala had been trying to do. He was trying to give me the life he thought I would have led had my parents never decided to make the trip to Nepal, and silly Pala didn’t know that it was baseball and not cricket that was the “it” game in America. Though I had promised daily correspondence upon leaving, realistically, I spoke to Pala about twice a week, which slowly became once a week, and then once a month, and then maybe a few times a year. That day, I realized it had been about a year and a half since I last had any contact with Pala and decided to give him a call. An unfamiliar voice answered the phone and told me that Sir was very ill and had been permanently moved to the hospital. Without speaking to anyone, including Sally, the pretty resident I had been dating, I left for Nepal. On my way to the hospital, I had the driver stop by a local Buddhist monastery where I requested to speak to the visiting lama. Before I had even stepped foot in the room, the lama told me that I needed to go home, and home was where I went. Securing a wheelchair for Pala whose entire body had been paralyzed, we embarked on a familiar journey to Tengboche. What happened after that was a thing of sheer beauty. Each member of the village that we had, for all intents and purposes, abandoned, came together to see to the treatment of Pala. While I did my best to put my medical skills to use, it became clear that I had much to learn from the traditional healers. They informed me that it was not so much the contents of the medicines they provided, but rather the fact that each pill had been extensively blessed with prayers and mantras which gave it more healing power. The yogis would often hold community-wide meditation sessions in which we all visualized a sphere of pure light making its way across Pala’s body, dissolving all malady in its path. This was paired with mantras recited by ritualists to rid the body of spirit harm by combatting it with images of Chenrezig, the Medicine Buddha and Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion. Through what I now recognize as compassion, faith, and true morality (three aspects that are completely lacking in Western medicine), Pala managed to regain control of his upper body. While still wheelchair-bound, he is again able to speak to me and now also aids me in the preparation of herbal medicines that I frequently make use of as a healer’s apprentice. While I aim to one day be an all-around practitioner like the wise man I work with, I have, to date, come to specialize in healing sicknesses that I was not taught to look for as a Western doctor- those that are caused by harmful forces. It is one thing to treat a disease on a molecular level. However, it is quite another to treat a disease with compassion, as I have been learning to do.

A few days ago, the wise man informed me that we must begin preparing ourselves for a major calamity that is anticipated to wreak complete havoc on our community. Hail the size of boulders, he says! Pala has been aiding me in the preparation of pills and poultices to aid in the treatment of any physical injuries attributed to the storm, whilst the wise man and I have been meditating and performing rituals in the name of Avalokiteshvara so as to appease any spirits that have been angered by the actions of one of our own. While I still consider myself to be a healer above all else, the wise man has informed me that he sees my scholarly pursuits paying off and knows that when he leaves, I will make a fine replacement as the community’s key ritualist-healer. In his eyes, my mere thirty years do not make me weak. Instead, they give the assurance, much like a diamond does, of longevity.

Our cave is nether enough that it should not require additional fortification, so we have transported patients of the local hospital here until the storm passes. In the past, we have treated many of these patients by way of rolling up a protective woodblock amulet and feeding it to them as medicine. For this reason, we deemed it not only fair, but necessary to leave the protective amulets for those individuals who are sufficiently self-aware and know that they have acted in a way that deviates from the Dharma and have thus angered the local spirits, for who are we to gratuitously take what is required by someone else?

As I write, Pala calls for me. He is telling me that one of our patients is having fits in her sleep. I apologize for making haste, but I must go- the spirits are about.

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