This excerpt from "Sorrow Mountain: The Journey of a Tibetan Warrior Nun" was reprinted with permission from Kodansha America.
Twenty days before the new year began, we stocked up on oil. Roasting seeds of mustard, we beat them into a paste, then boiled the paste to get oil. For days, kapsey cookies spattered and fried in large pans of oil, and soon tables overflowed with the steaming crisp morsels, some red and green, some salty, some sweet.
As the first day of Losar, the new year's celebration, grew closer, other foods were stored in terra-cotta containers. Pickled radish, oatmeal and ground meat, potatoes and cabbage, the cooked heads of sheep.
On the day before Losar, houses were cleaned from top to bottom, the coverings on doors and windows were changed. Altars were decked in barley, with a sheep's head and rice set to one side. Fresh silk was put around the statues of each deity, pillars were covered with brocade. New mattresses and rugs were brought to the kitchen for the guests arriving over the next ten days. Even the good luck signs on the walls were given a fresh coat of white paint. And in the late afternoon, offerings of kapsey, fruit, sausages, and sheep's head were taken to the three local monasteries.
On that evening after all the decorating had been done, huge copper kettles of water and milk were lifted onto the stove, steaming the air with a milky fragrance. Later, the women bathed in the satin liquid, as the men had the night before, and while the water ran down their arms they turned east in the direction of purity and peace.
In the first morning of the Wood Horse Year I woke early, several hours before dawn. The air was so cold it stung as I breathed. I hastily put on my sheepskin chupa [over-dress], tied the straps around my boots, and ran down the stairs.
In the kitchen, Mama had taken the large copper bucket from the pantry and was headed for the door. Before she had time to protest, I snatched the bucket from her hand and was out the door, on the path to the river.
When I reached its edge, I stopped to catch my breath. Water flowed under a thin layer of ice at its shore, clinking and tinkling like small silver bells. Behind me, I heard a crunching on the path. Pema Gyaltsen's son, Dhonyu, not far away, ran toward me.
I grabbed my bucket and plunged it into the water before he could reach me, the ice splintering like glass. He arrived out of breath just as I lifted it back to my hip. His face was filled with disappointment, and for a moment, I thought he might knock the bucket from my hands. But then his mouth curled into a smile and he gave my shoulder a friendly push.
"You've got it! The golden water! The first water of the new year. It is fortunate for your family." I bowed, and turned in the direction of my house.
"Wake up, wake up," we called. "Papa! Ani Rigzin! Kunsang! Anya! Happy Losar!" We carried a wooden box ringed with gold paper banners, filled with buttered tsampa [barley meal] and wheat. In a silver pitcher, we carried the water.
I took my clothes and jewelry from beside my bed where I'd placed them the night before. Seeing the crisp new brocade of my chupa, I remembered the years in childhood when I woke to find that under my pillow, as if by magic, new jewelry and clothes had appeared.
In the chapel of our house, a golden thangka [painting] from the Tibetan government had been specially hung for Losar. On the altar in front, a golden statue of Guru Padmasambhava [the eighth-century saint and founder of Tibetan Buddhism] sat big as life. Two graceful female deities formed wooden cabinets at his side, statues of all sizes and colors crowded in close. Rose-colored pillars carved with gold dragons rose to the roof. Sacred texts lined the walls. And on benches nearby, bells, horns, drums waited to be used.
In the chapel's huge hall, smoke curled up from the hundred butter lamps. Light from their flames flickered across the face of Padmasambhava. At times it seemed he was actually breathing. We prostrated, bowing reverently to the ground three times in front of his image, placed a ceremonial white scarf at his feet, and folded our hands, palm to palm, in front of our hearts.
We prayed to be free of the graspings of our minds so we might attain the essence of our true nature, primordial wisdom. We prayed to be cleansed of the poisons ignorance, hatred, and desire. We prayed to develop a compassionate, gentle attitude toward others. We prayed to follow the path of liberation.
Papa had been drinking chang since morning and was laughing louder than usual. The chieftain's hat given him by the Tibetan government had slipped to the side of his head. His yellow brocade chupa sagged a bit to the left. He stood in the back of the kitchen near the basins of chang, his arms encircling his good friend Pema Gyaltsen.
My father was usually silent in groups unless he had something worthwhile to say, or unless he had been drinking chang, when the fermented barley loosened his tongue. On that second day of Losar, guests came throughout the day. They ate food in great quantity, drank basinsful of chang. They celebrated, dancing, singing, gaming, and by night all spirits were high. At one point, after drinking to his good friend, my father even burst into song.
The good steed is like a swift bird,
The golden saddle is like its feathers,
When the bird and its feathers are together
Then the great Highlands are easily crossed...
He threw his arms around Pema Gyaltsen again and embraced him, drinking once more to their friendship.