I looked closely to figure out the deity depicted on the front of the amulet box: Was it Jetsun Dolma? - Hard to tell with only the head showing.
The Ga'u was probably as old as the hills with the holy image yellowed and weather-beaten. But Arya Tara would make sense. Placing your faith in her, and especially so in her green version, is said to effectively protect one from all kinds of obstacles and that's the whole purpose of a Tibetan protective amulet box after all.
While holding up the amulet box as I dusted my altar, fragments of an old conversation came to mind:
"What's this, Pala?"
"It's a Ga'u. I wore it for protection during the escape from Tibet."
"How did it protect you?"
"It has a holy content that protects the wearer against any harm. But Girls mustn't touch it."
"Why mustn't girls touch it?"
"Girls just mustn't touch it," was the laconic answer.
I must have been around seven or eight years old, just about starting to realise that humans come in two forms. An amulet box that loses its protective power when touched by a girl? Are girls so mighty they can disempower a Ga'u just at a touch? Innocent thoughts.
One day when no one was around I quietly approached the altar. The idea was too tempting. So I opened the glass cupboard and clandestinely poked the Ga'u sitting in a corner with one finger. After I had done what was forbidden, I expected something terrible to happen. But nothing happened for the longest time, neither to my dad whose protector was now wrecked, nor to me as some kind of divine punishment. Eventually, I concluded that the Ga'u must have been damaged. Soon I forgot about it and didn't think of "girls mustn't touch it" until much later when I stepped into a monastery in Tibet as an adult.
Many monasteries have a side-chapel housing so-called Dharmapalas or protector deities. Above the entrance are signs saying: "Ladies not allowed". Tibetans say it's because women are unclean and their presence would displease the Dharmapalas - or their jealous consorts to be precise. Only Tibetans can think of such an explanation. But most of the time there is no explanation at all. You just have to go with the flow, meaning you have to wait outside.
I was concerned what foreign tourists would think. "Women not allowed" could quickly slide into the same category as "Blacks not allowed" or "Jews not allowed". It could share the disdainful company with Apartheid and Anti-Semitism. Once in bad odour, it's hard to get rid of.
"Akhaa," I sighed, "I came from so far and now I am not allowed to go inside, adzeee, phanga-la!" The caretaker monk heard me. He had pity on me but still wouldn't let me enter. Instead he gave me the following word of advice: "Bumo, the Dharmapalas off limits in this monastery are on open display at the next monastery down the road. Just go there."
It was a well-meant insider's tip. It was also when I began to suspect that it's the monasteries which decide who displeases the Dharmapalas. My suspicion was reinforced during another occasion when I traveled in a group led by a Lama who "exceptionally authorised" women to enter a forbidden protector chapel. He simply overruled. All this seemed to suggest that barring women from entering certain parts of a monastery is probably just about putting on an air of great importance: "We have something so important here, that you cannot see it."
And there isn't anything to marvel that would justify the fuss in the first place. To all the ladies who have never seen a protector chapel from the inside and have been dying to see one: You haven't missed a thing! All you'd be able to find after stepping into what is usually a moldy, dark room are furiously looking statues drowned in loads of Khatas wrapped around them. Any ride through a tunnel of horror is more interesting. It's best not to even care about not being let in. It is most definitely specific monasteries in Tibet creating a fuss because in Tibetan monasteries abroad everyone can view Dharmapalas if they wanted to.
Only recently I learned the legendary Tibetan freedom fighters held similar superstitions about women's malignant and destructive powers. As they resisted the Chinese invader, many wore protective amulets. Stories of their lifesaving, bulletproof capacity abound. In "Histories Arrested", Carol McGrannahan writes that some Chinese soldiers deliberately dipped their bullets in women's menstrual blood to “override” the omnipotent armour. - No wonder we lost the war.
Behind my cousin's farm in the valley where my dad was born, rises a soft, forested hill. I always wanted to build a little house on its slopes. In the beginning my relatives smiled at the idea. I thought they were happy that I intended to come back and live with them. But with the years I learned that the hill was the home of a Shidag or local protector deity. Nobody in his right mind would build a house there, disturb the Shidag's peace and bring misfortune over oneself and the community. I bid farewell to the idea.
But when I was getting ready to join the others for a smoke offering at the very hill, my cousin pre-informed me that girls could only go up to a certain point and that the peak was off-limits. - Phew, what a busu dokpo Princess-And-The-Pea Shidag they had living behind their farm! But again I gave in out of considerations for local beliefs. After all I was an outsider. The last thing I wanted was for my relatives to get tired of that niece from abroad who keeps arguing with them about their outdated habits. And I had to grant them that in their eyes, there was no misogyny involved. They thought it's for the girls' own good.
There is something raw and wild about protector deities that strangely enough, I find fascinating I must say. Whereas the sophisticated construct of Buddhism for which Tibet has become a synonymous the world over, is an Indian import, protector deities are an autochthonous creation. Through Buddhism Tibetans were able to transcend the small, the local, the isolated and the strange. It has ennobled their culture by making it internationally compatible and respectable. Protector deities on the other hand are superstitious local relics of an ancient past. While Buddhism is the monks’ religion, making offerings to protector deities is the people’s religion. This is the Tibetan contribution grown under their own steam free from external influences. In other words, if anyone is unhappy with protector deities, we have no one to blame but our own genius!
I still see the five slightly haggard-looking Austrian climbers before me. They had dinner next to our table and my cousin whispered: "See those yang ren over there?" pointing at them discretely in Tibetan-style by pursing his lips and shoving forth the lower lip, "They're the ones who vanished at the sacred mountain!"
What had happened?
During a trek, these greenhorns disappeared from sight in plain daylight. That's what had happened.
The Chinese flew in a military helicopter and soldiers to search for them, but the Austrians remained lost for several days. When they miraculously reemerged by themselves, all they were able to explain was that the path between them and the rest of the group suddenly disappeared from view and then just as suddenly reappeared. To them it hadn't felt like days but hours. My cousin like other locals at our table, were convinced that the mountain Shidag had abducted the foreigners for intruding into his domain.
"Ré,ré,ré," I joked, "but after two nights, our Shidag discovered these guys didn’t understand Tibetan, so he kicks them out!" The Austrians had no clue why the people next to them were so jolly that evening. Yet humour couldn't disguise that something in us said protector deities are a force to reckon with. Even I felt a trace of doubt in the back of my head.
Girls are not supposed to touch it and here I am inheriting this thing, which now takes a seat on my altar. Eyeing the amulet box in my hands now, I'm actually all smiles. I wish my father could see me as a grown woman, with a profession, in an egalitarian relationship with a man I love, and two children we are raising together. I don't mind him anymore saying I mustn't touch it. It was the time. All these biased Tibetan stories used to bother the hell out of me. I used to be vocal about it and didn't leave out any opportunity to fight and argue against this kind of discrimination. But now it seems as if these are stories from another world. Because having to argue with someone over alleged female inferiority now feels as awkward as having to argue in all seriousness that the earth is flat: snows of yesteryear. But even when it seems like bygones, the question remains: How do you convince people of something they aren’t aware of, but they badly need?
A young man once asked the Lama how he could influence his non-Buddhist farming parents to stop making a living from raising animals for slaughter. What could he do so the parents avoid accumulating unwholesome karma? The Lama advised the young man not to mention "unwholesome karma. He said since the concept of the law of cause and effect was alien to his parents, their first reaction could well be disbelief followed by rejection - a dead-end in other words. Instead, he recommended the young man turn himself into a shining role model of a Buddhist so that the parents realise all by themselves what they do for a living is not good.
Perhaps this is also a valid approach for us Tibetan girls and our well-wishers? From my early experience with Tibetan youth and women's groups, girls who push too hard for women’s rights are quickly perceived as feisty and dogmatic to people caught unprepared. Once this unfortunate impression is created, we have the dead-end situation. In the Tibetan case, feminism is the alien concept provoking disbelief and rejection and society is the ignorant parents. Rather than debating then, perhaps we ladies could try to transform ourselves in to a peach of a girl: Outwardly non-threatening and gentle, inwardly dedicated to work towards change. How could it cross someone’s mind to slight such people?
Factually speaking, the situation of Tibetan women today is already fundamentally different from fifty years ago. More and more are overcoming their "bad" karma of being born into an allegedly inferior female body, even in Tibet. There is no longer any compelling reason to be born as a male when one can accomplish the same in a female body. More and more girls can afford to ignore the nonsense because they have an education and with it come choices. Not everyone is in this fortunate situation yet, but the trend is irreversible: girls are getting on track and sooner or later society will find itself before a fait accompli.
Sometimes when I look at myself however, I wonder whether the cultural prejudice sits deeper than I prefer and perhaps is also unintentionally internalized. Because after all these years, I am somehow still impressed with not being allowed touch it. I had to gather all my courage to open the amulet box in order to take a look at the so holy content forbidden to girls. What came to light were a tiny, well-preserved peacock's feather and a small heap of what I took to be soil crumbs wrapped in a piece of cloth.
From the Mind Training text "Peacock in the Poison Grove" which the Lama taught a while back, I deducted the feather stands for protection against all kinds of poison and dangers. The text uses the symbolism of the peacock, which is said to be immune against bites from poisonous snakes. I don't know how zoologically accurate that is but in a transferred Buddhist sense one's delusions rooted in egoism are the "poison". The peacock represents the power of Emptiness and Universal Compassion, which cuts through the delusions and destroy them.
What I naïvely mistook for soil crumbs were parts of a disintegrating Tsatsa, a small clay image of a Buddha or a saint. The Tibetan government handed them out to Tulkus and government officials on the eve of the Chinese invasion. And how did this exclusive gift end up in a regular guy's G'au and now sits on my altar in the West? It turned out the amulet box belonged to my uncle, my dad's Tulku-brother. He gave it to my father for protection amidst the turmoil. Lhasa was under heavy fire when they escaped. Those must have been crazy times. If only the Ga'u could speak!
Still unclear is the deity depicted at the front of the amulet box. Could it really be Jetsun Dolma? My little one refers to her as bumo sangye, that's "girl-Buddha". That would beat everything. Have a girl-Buddha on an amulet box that girls are not supposed to touch, hilarious!
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet