The priest proclaims the creek water holy, and so it transcends the state of mediocrity as holy water. The teacher dictates what is right and wrong, and so it splits into dichotomous constructions, unwavering and unyielding. The people, as in gentle lapping waves, in the smallest shift of expression and intonation, cast the mold set in stone and the world takes shape to fit the predefined standard.
The dark clouds billowed and roiled low, its wisps kissing the tip of the mountain peaks before dissipating. Riding on the rhythm of the rumbling thunder, the clouds drew closer, denser, until he could feel the moisture resting on his scalp. Without prying his eyes open, the student spoke, “Guru Sangye, we should return to the monastery soon.”
“Hmm?” Sangye’s voice ground like gravel underfoot. “And why should we, Sonam?”
“The rain won’t be kind to your old joints, Guru.”
“Is that reason enough to evade meditation?”
The gusty mountain wind carried Sonam’s silence forth, along with the first swell of rain.
“For what purpose do you meditate?”
“To gain enlightenment for the sake of all other sentient beings.”
“Yes, that is the reason why we meditate, but not your purpose for meditating. These are two distinct notions.”
The rain whipped into Sonam’s head and the wind tugged at his robes. “. . . Thank you for your insight, Guru Sangye.”
“Now close your eyes, open your mind, and mull over your purpose.”
“Yes, Guru Sangye.”
For the remaining hour, the pair sat under battering sheets of rain as two still figures, yet not quite as two quiet sanctuaries sheltered from the brewing storm.
Under the darkening blanket of the sky, Sonam tagged after Sangye’s sweeping figure as he left the recital hall. The air was still thick with moisture, and the hems of their robes dragged in the damp stone slabs dotting a path toward the hall.
As the question sat on the tip of Sonam’s tongue, Sangye spoke, “Your refuge ceremony may have ended yesterday, but your journey into a full-fledged monk has not. We will head to Tirthapuri. We have a few more rituals to complete.” The stone slabs ended where the rocky terrain angled steeply, and the pair began their trek downhill.
“Tirthapuri is a few hours away, isn’t it? Won’t we miss the evening prayer and assessment? Have I not converted into a monk already?” Sonam’s misty puff of breath faded into the chilly mountain air.
Sangye heaved a grunting sigh, so quiet that Sonam almost mistook it for a stray pebble scraping against their feet.
“‘Do not accept my teachings merely out of respect for me, but analyse and check it the way a goldsmith analyses gold, by rubbing, cutting and melting it.’” Sangye’s voice rang out, clear, still. “When I said that yesterday, I do not mean for you to question the appropriateness of my teachings, but for you to prod at the validity of the wisdom I may share. Perhaps you have your own insight into certain matters, and I am willing to engage in debate. However, the time and place of my teachings will be as I see fit. Do not obey my words such that you would toss a life buoy at a fish.”
Sonam bowed his head. “I will keep your words in mind, Guru Sangye.”
An hour later, “Guru Sangye. . . I still wish to know the point of carrying out these rituals when I have already completed my ceremony,” Sonam piped up.
“That is a good question, Sonam. The ceremony and rituals sit at the core of our religion as two distinct, interwoven pillars of support. The former embodies the communal aspect of our religion, the spirit of congregating in a shared belief, and more importantly, the latter reflects the interior of the self. Introspection, interrogation, mediation. It is a time where we forge a personal connection with the religion.”
“I see. . .”
“But, I want you to ponder over what the ceremony and the rituals mean to you.” In the void of the vast mountain range, these words seemed to end in a hollow echo.
Soon, the incline plateaued into a shelf set into the mountain, and the uninterrupted terrain vanished under a graduating bed of rock slabs and coarse sand encircling a shallow hot spring, which had receded into disuse over the years. The moon slashed a shattered white streak through the surface of the hot spring, and the thin veil of mist enclosed them from the barren surroundings, leaving behind two silhouettes, ash-gray rocks, and a clear body of water.
Sangye directed Sonam to sit by the water’s edge, the tiny rocks and sand shifting around him as he settled into cross-legged position. From his robes, Sangye withdrew two thick steel needles and plunged them into the steaming pool of water.
“This ritual hasn’t been widely performed in many years, but it may be useful in furthering your understanding of my teachings.”
Tilting his jaw up with one hand, Sangye pushed a needle into Sonam’s cheek, then into his other cheek. Sonam’s face twisted, his cheeks dimpling as he grimaced. “Don’t move. The needles will prevent evil from entering your body through the mouth.”
Sucking in a sharp breath, Sonam smoothed out his facial features, his teeth pressing down on his tongue. Sweat beaded on his forehead.
“Now you will chant the sutras. Once you have finished, I will remove the needles for you.” One silhouette, the one with stooped shoulders despite the straight back, withdrew from the mist, leaving behind the other silhouette cloaked in the mist, a huddled figure despite the hulking physique.
Sonam closed his eyes and began chanting.
Partway through the sutras, Sonam felt the thread of his concentration snap, his mind wrenched to the surface.
“Tenzin.” The n sound was inconceivably dragged out. “I have waited for this day – the day you would come trundling right into my arms.” The steam seemed to chill into a thick sludge that draped across Sonam’s body. It held no substance, like mist, yet it weighed down on his body. Sonam shivered.
“Who are you?”
“I am here to harvest incertitude. Yours is the quivering, wandering needle of a broken compass – the most delicious kind.” The sludge slithered and solidified into a human-like form, twisting its limb around Sonam’s arms, torso, and head. A shelin.
“You’re looking at the wrong person.” The words came out as a strangled whisper instead of the solid boom Sonam had envisioned. “My name is Sonam.”
The shelin hissed, “A name erroneously bestowed in yesterday’s ceremony, Tenzin. When your cheeks were pierced, you thought, ‘why do I have to endure this,’ and that thought” – the shelin cackled – “has dwelled in your feeble little head ever since your mother abandoned you at the steps of the monastery.”
The word “clear” means “evident”, as it does “comprehensible”; the earth encompasses the soil, as it does the water and so the two discrete entities meld into a muddy mix of elements. And so do “evident” and “comprehensible” converge into a single two-for-one deal called “clear”.
Sonam screamed as the sludge wound him in a crushing hug, coiling and slinking until his body felt like it was bursting of out his skin. The viscous air filled his mouth, his nostrils, his ears with a choking vacuum.
“D-demon!” Sonam’s voice rang out, despite the obstruction.
“Ah,” the shelin uttered with delayed inflection, lifting and settling back on Sonam. Mirth coloured his voice. “No. You are completely wrong. In fact, you would be closer to being a demon than I am.”
The chill seemed to seep into Sonam’s body, his heart, his stomach. “Guru Sangye! Save me! Save me!”
“He can’t hear you, dear boy; I am a spirit, and I am part of you as you are a part of the earth. And I lie in your heart with all its quivering doubts. Now, won’t you let me in?” The chill licked at Sonam’s face, leaving behind numbness before a wave of scorching pain blossomed across his skin. A scream erupted from his mouth.
Sonam heaved. His throat felt dry, scratchy. “No. . .” The word gave way to coarse gasps in the lingering pain, and a shuddering pause as he swallowed to steady his shallow breathing.
Harsh inhalation interjected each word, “Get out of my head!” With gritted teeth, Sonam yanked the steel needle out and plunged it into the sludge atop his scalp. The needle clotted in the sludge, and the sludge slithered into the tear in Sonam’s cheek, up his nose, past the blood-brain barrier, to encase his mind in an icy bath.
The shelin cackled over Sonam’s mental prayers. “Western philosophy? You think spirits and demons are one and the same, don’t you?” The needle slid deeper through the sludge. “Your religion may be kind enough to welcome others, but you – you lack faith in any of them!” The resounding laughter seemed to loop and echo in waves.
The pits of Sonam’s stomach burned in a slow ache as his body shook.
As the laughter abated, Sonam growled, “You don’t know anything!” With a roaring scream, Sonam grabbed the other needle and jerked it through the sludge. A sharp arc shot through his eyeball, and Sonam clutched at the needle, his hands slick, as blood and inky liquid spurted from the deflating eyeball.
“No, no- Save-“ Sonam’s fingers slid and slipped as he grappled for grip.
The mist drew tighter, closer, gripping his arm and driving the needle deeper until the tip touched the back of his skull, wrapping his body in a neat mummified package until his lungs collapsed.
The eye connects straight to the heart before the brain invades. Then comes the inherent, primal need to pass what the heart saw, and what brain thought through loose jaws.
The monks declared that Sonam was targeted by a preta dwelling in Tirthapuri. A rare occurrence these days, but the necessary procedures had to be executed: A simple, quiet funeral. A cremation. Later, an exorcism. And the case was swept shut.
The following months saw the return of the monsoon season.
The dark clouds billowed and roiled low, its wisps kissing the tip of the mountain peaks before dissipating. Riding on the rhythm of the rumbling thunder, the clouds drew closer, denser, until he could feel the moisture resting on his scalp. Without prying his eyes open, the student spoke, “Guru Sangye. Why does rain constitute an omen when rain signifies bountiful crops and sufficient water?”
“A good question based on poor premise, Kunchen. An omen is not necessarily a bad thing.” . . .
 translates into English as “hungry ghost”