Paul Maxwell gets married in Mongolia, and gets to know a most unusual lama.
My fiancee and I were on our way from Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, to her family’s house in the desert, where our wedding would be held. She said we should bring a present for the old lama who lived near her parents, and I asked what would make a suitable gift. “Oh, you know lamas. They always like liquor or bottles of snuff.” She wasn’t joking. I told her the lamas I had been around were mostly non-drinkers. “Not our lama,” she said. “He smokes and drinks. Plus, he’s clairvoyant.”
A few days later we called on the lama, whose name was Shuddup, to present the gift (a bottle of snuff) and to tell him about the upcoming wedding. His house was a tiny, weather-beaten adobe shack in a patch of scrub leading up to the dunes. He lived in one of its two rooms and used the other as a shrine. “So,” Shuddup Lama said when he heard the news, “you’re going to marry a man who can’t speak our language and can’t eat our food.”
“Well, he can eat our food.”
“And your father can’t even talk to him!” He busied himself for a few minutes feeding dried cow dung into the mud-brick stove that was his sole source of heat. It was Christmas Day, and the temperature was already below zero. Turning to me, he said, “You’ve got a camera, right?”
“And you want to take a picture?”
Sure I did. But how did he know I had a camera? It was out of sight in my shoulder bag. Was that an example of his extrasensory perception, or an example of how predictable foreigners are?
He was wearing extremely ragged and dirty clothes, but slipped into the closet-sized shrine room and reappeared a moment later in a brown robe, maroon shawl, and peaked yellow hat. He sat cross-legged on the k’ang, a carpeted sleeping platform, with the loose pages of a Tibetan book on a little table in front of him. I took two pictures, and then he immediately returned to his stool in front of the stove. We stayed for about an hour, and when we left he said he would see us at the wedding the following day.
“What do you think about our lama?” Sarengowa’s sister asked me when we got back to the house.
“I liked him. He was dressed in rags…life must be hard for him.”
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s poor,” she said. “Shuddup’s got plenty of money. He lives that way because he just doesn’t care.”
I expected him to wear his lama gear to the wedding, but he arrived on horseback in a Chinese army tunic. Inner Mongolia, like Tibet, is an Autonomous Region of China, and during the Cultural Revolution the Mongolian lamas were forbidden to practice their religion or wear their robes. Monastic dress is permitted now, but few of the “country lamas” have gone back to it. Still, the army tunic was a surprise, and so was Shuddup’s wedding present: a lovely piece of pale gold silk and a generous sum of cash.
He had cut his finger on a barbed wire fence, and had tied a grimy strip of cloth around it. I had a first aid kit in my pack, so I cleaned the cut with antiseptic and put a band-aid on it. The band-aid was a real novelty; he seemed quite pleased with it and showed it to several people. At that moment he apparently decided that we would be friends, and at the wedding party we sat together for several companionable hours, unhindered by our lack of a common language.
The party started in the afternoon and continued until ten o’clock the next morning. Shuddup Lama sat cross-legged, with his back straight, drinking barley liquor and chain smoking, from beginning to end. Then he stood up, walked outside, mounted his horse, and rode off. He was 75 years old at the time.
Shuddup Lama’s reputation as a clairvoyant was due in large part to his ability to locate lost animals. For Mongols who live outside the towns, herding sheep or goats is often the only occupation possible. Most people also keep some horses, cows and donkeys. An animal that strays into the dunes is unlikely to survive for long; it will either die of thirst or fall to a predator. Vultures will eat the soft parts (eyes and genitals) before the creature is even dead. But Shuddup could tell a herder where to look for a stray, and the local people credited him with a very high success rate.
My mother-in-law, Mem (“Mother”), told me about the last time she had lost a sheep. She searched the sands in vain, and naturally she told Shuddup Lama about it. Two days later he came to the house and said, “You can find what’s left of your sheep at the market tomorrow.” He had just paid a visit to a Chinese family who lived about a mile away. They were considered newcomers to the area, having arrived from the south about twenty years earlier. (There are now more than twenty million ethnic Chinese in Inner Mongolia, compared to about two million Mongols.) The woman of the house served him tea in the yard, which was a strange thing to do in early March when winter was still lingering. There was a pile of sheepskins on the ground, and the lama casually ran a hand over each hide. Only one was fresh. But in the course of the conversation, the woman made a point of saying that they hadn’t done any slaughtering lately. She also mentioned that she was planning to take the hides into town to sell the following morning.
The next morning at dawn, Mem was waiting behind a roadside dune on horseback. When the Chinese woman went by on her little motorbike loaded down with sheepskins, Mem followed her. She confronted the woman in the marketplace and identified the hide. The protestations of innocence were feeble: “We didn’t know it was your sheep. Somebody gave us this sheep…” It was agreed that an animal would be given in compensation, but this didn’t settle the matter, because the sheep that was eventually presented was obviously not equal in value to the one that was stolen. It was doubly aggravating because the two families had always been on good terms, and Mem had been generous over the years with milk, cheese, butter and clothes for the woman’s ten children. The thief had attended our wedding.
Every Mongol house in the region has a pair of three-pronged spears planted in the ground in front of the door, in token of the honor Genghis Khan paid the local warriors 700 years ago when he chose them to form his household guard. Genghis, faced with a thieving neighbor, would probably have killed every member of the family, as well as their relatives, pets and livestock. But Mem did nothing; she didn’t even report it to the police. Had four centuries of Buddhism made the Mongols more peaceful? I don’t know, but what interested me most about the story was Shuddup Lama’s role in it.
Because of his reputation, everyone in the area naturally informed him whenever they were missing an animal. He was therefore in a unique position to see a pattern to the disappearances, which led him to deduce that there was a thief at work. The Chinese woman’s husband had been stealing a sheep from each flock in turn, so that no single herder ever suspected that the loss was due to anything other than natural causes.
Nearly two years later, on our first visit to the desert since our wedding, over a leisurely breakfast of salted milk tea, butter, cheese, and millet, I mentioned to Mem and Aweh (“Father”) that I intended to go to Shuddup Lama’s house that afternoon. “I want to ask him some questions about Buddhism,” I said. “Do you think he’d mind?”
Mem laughed. “Buddhism’s the last thing he wants to talk about. He’s a lot quicker to pick up a bottle of booze than a Tibetan book!” She and Shuddup had been friends and neighbors for more than 50 years. We were still at the breakfast table when he rode up on his horse. “It’s his psychic power,” Mem said sarcastically. “He knows you’re here.”
But Shuddup wasn’t coming to see us; he was so angry he hardly noticed our presence. He had a little spread just east of Mem and Aweh’s; it wasn’t much land but it was enough for his fifty head of sheep. Now he had discovered that another family was secretly bringing their sheep over to his property at night to graze. This is more serious than it may sound; grass is a scarce resource that must be carefully managed. There are often disputes over grazing, but they usually arise when someone hasn’t been keeping a close watch on their animals. Deliberately leading a herd to a neighbor’s land was outrageous, and talking about it brought his anger to the boiling point. “I’m going right over there!” he said, and quickly left.
Late that afternoon another neighbor dropped by, and he added to the story. Shuddup had gone to the home of the transgressors to confront them. But the man wasn’t there, and his wife had just set out some fresh millet and a jar of new butter. Fresh millet is a once-a-year treat, and the pretty young housewife fixed Shuddup his favorite dish: a big bowl of tea, with heaping spoonfuls of millet, butter, dried cheese and sugar added. After that he couldn’t bring himself to tell her why he’d come in the first place. But by the time he got home he was mad again.
I had sent a photo of Shuddup to some Buddhist friends in the U.S., who of course thought it was funny that his name sounded like the English expression, “Shut up!” Now Sarengowa explained the joke to the neighbor. He said, “Ha! Shuddup needs to shut up! He’s always arguing with everybody!” He added that the elderly lama had recently gotten into a fistfight with a young Chinese man who worked for a local family. Once again it involved some sheep or cows being where they shouldn’t have, and Shuddup started throwing punches. I asked who had won the fight. “Well, you might say Shuddup Lama did. Remember, he’s 77. The other guy was afraid one good punch might be fatal. It kind of kept him on the defensive.”
Shuddup Lama generally avoided the advice-to-the-lovelorn type of fortune telling—he said that people didn’t want to hear the truth—but occasionally he made an exception. A young woman from a local family moved to a distant city and married a man she met there. She returned with him to the desert for the New Year holiday. The young couple had been quarreling constantly since their wedding, and the husband decided to consult Shuddup about their problems. The lama was blunt: “This marriage won’t work out. There will never be any children. If a child is born, you won’t be the father.” The man returned to his in-laws’ house and accused his wife of adultery—in the future! Later the woman revealed that Shuddup had divined her husband’s secret: he was impotent. The following New Year she came back alone; they had divorced.
Back at home in Tokyo, I asked Sarengowa if she had ever consulted Shuddup Lama. “Just once,” she said. As a teenager who dreamed of a career in classical music, she wondered if she would ever be able to escape the desert and move to Hohhot, a three-day bus ride away and the only place she knew where her dreams had a chance of coming true. (When I first met her, in Hohhot, she was a cellist in the Inner Mongolia Radio-Television Orchestra.) “So I asked him: Will I ever get to Hohhot?”
And he said, “Oh, you’ll get to Hohhot all right. And then you’ll keep on going. You’ll keep on going!” Shuddup Lama died in his sleep last year at the age of 83.