Like A Serpent

A Tibet the RPG Story

When Ngawang was 23, the abbot of his monastery sent him to paint a Buddhist mural in the home of a rich trader in Eastern Tibet. Ngawang had been a Sakyapa monk since he was five. He had studied the Buddhist teachings, learned meditation and logic. When it came time to determine his future career he had decided that it would be better for him to concentrate on painting than to continue studying (and eventually teaching) the dharma. Still, Ngawang knew that he was still gaining good karma. When he painted holy images, those who commissioned the artwork gained good karma. And he gave most of the money he earned to his monastery so they could continue to teach Buddhism, thus gaining even more good karma.

Ngawang was walking a long lonely road on the plains of Eastern Tibet. The last people he had met were nomads. They had happily allowed him to stay in their tent and had fed him and sent him on his way with tsampa and a sheep’s-stomach full of butter. Yet that had been more than a day ago. In the meantime he had seen only birds in the sky and wild gazelles on the plains. Neither had come close.

As he walked he said prayers, counting them on the string of wooden beads he held in his hands. He stopped when he saw something moving on the road ahead of him. It was very small, but appeared to be approaching rapidly. At first he thought it might be a bird, but he saw no wings flapping and it was too close to the ground to be soaring. Most alarmingly it seemed to be heading right towards him. He stopped walking. His only weapon was a knife. He knew that by the time he extricated the knife from the folds of his crimson robes the thing would be upon him. Instead, he readied himself to leap out of the way.

The thing zoomed up to him, then came to a sudden stop only a little more than an arm’s length away from him. Ngawang could see now that it was a phurba: a tri-cornered brass dagger, a descendent of the wooden tent-pegs of ancient Tibetans, with a handle in the shape of a vajra. Ngawang’s heart started pounding even harder than before. He had heard of such things: a cursed phurba, lost in the empty plains of Tibet, killing anyone it could find. “If it kills me,” Ngawang said, “nobody will know I have died, and there will be nobody to say the Bardo to help guide my soul. Therefore I must keep calm and concentrate especially hard on avoiding the fears and confusion of the Bardo state so I can achieve a good rebirth.”

Yet the thing did not plunge itself into Ngawang. After waiting at least a minute for it to do so, Ngawang said “if you hope to torture me with fear before killing me, I’m afraid I cannot oblige you. I am a student of the teachings of holy Buddha, and I know life is impermanent, therefore you cannot torture me with fear of death.”

Ngawang felt a presence in his mind. He quickly concentrated on blocking it. Yet it persisted, naggingly. Ngawang wondered what the phurba was up to. “Perhaps,” he thought, “it’s trying to communicate.” Ngawang carefully lowered his mental defenses against the alien presence in his mind.

Like smoke rising from a fire, a scene appeared before him. Ngawang knew it was an illusion, and if he concentrated carefully he could see the real world through it, but it was realistic in every detail. He saw the open mouth of a tiny cave, and in it a frail old Tibetan man sitting in a meditation position. He wore monk’s robes, but they were old, dirty and in tatters. The old man had obviously been sitting in silent contemplation for some time. His eyes were open and except for blinking occasionally he did not move.

Suddenly a phurba flew at the old man. With lightning reflexes he put up a hand and the phurba stopped in midair as if caught in an invisible net. The phurba spun and struggled, but could not get any closer to the old man.

“Greetings visitor,” said the old man, bowing his head. “Do you know what you are?”

The phurba only continued to struggle.

“You are a phurba, a ritual dagger. You have been used to save people from predation by malevolent spirits. Exorcists used you to send spirits on to their next incarnations. Yet for each spirit who was dissipated by you, you picked up a little bit of its bad karma. Eventually you became full of so much bad karma that the exorcists who owned you could no longer keep you near human civilization, so they took you far out into the wilderness. At some point your bad karma assembled itself into the desire to exist, which led to consciousness and then to intelligence. I imagine that the first thing you remember is being trapped in a box, perhaps buried underground, in the middle of nowhere, with a powerful desire to hurt and destroy sentient beings. Am I right?”

The thing stopped struggling.

“You are now a being with the desire to exist, and this desire to exist will keep you trapped in the wheel of reincarnation. You will be humans, animals, spirits, demons, even gods, many thousands upon thousands of times before your soul finds the ultimate liberation of enlightenment. I must warn you though: you have bad karma, your heart burns with hatred, and when you die you will be reincarnated in a hell realm, where you will suffer unimaginable torture for thousands of years. The only way you can escape this fate is if you resist your desire to harm and instead find some way to do good. If you help sentient beings, ease their suffering, you may gain enough good karma to reborn as an animal, perhaps even a human. I repeat: you must find a way to gain good karma by helping ease the suffering of sentient beings. Do you understand?”

The illusion faded.

“Is that why you haven’t killed me?” Ngawang asked. “You are seeking a way to do good so you can gain good karma?”

The thing just floated there.

“It is an interesting question. What can a cursed phurba do to gain good karma? If you stay near people, your bad karma will cause them misfortunes and attract malevolent spirits. If you kill malevolent spirits, you will pick up their bad karma, and it may make you unable to resist the urge to cause suffering.” Ngawang chewed his lip in thought. “I must ask my lama.”

Yet another illusion appeared. It was three nomads, two men and a young boy, sitting around a fire. “Have you heard the story of Palgyi Dorje?” asked the oldest nomad. The boy shook his head no. “Many centuries ago, Tibet was ruled by benevolent Buddhist kings. But one king had an evil brother, Langdarma. Langdarma assassinated his brother and took control of the country. Langdarma, was a follower of Bön and he persecuted Buddhists all across Tibet. Palgyi Dorje was a young Buddhist monk who could not abide this persecution of Buddhist teachings, so he got on a horse, rode up to Langdarma, and shot him with an arrow, killing him.”

The young boy interrupted, “I thought monks weren’t supposed to kill people. Isn’t that bad karma?”

“Usually it is, but you see Langdarma was a very bad man, he was causing so much suffering in the world by persecuting Buddhism, that it was actually good karma to kill him.”

In the brush outside the ring of nomads, Ngawang noticed a shape stirring. “It’s the phurba,” Ngawang thought to himself, “this was a conversation it witnessed. It seems it can only communicate by showing me its memories.”

The illusion vanished. The phurba was still floating there. “So…” Ngawang said slowly, “you think the only way you can gain good karma is to kill someone as bad as Langdarma?”

The phurba did nothing.

“And why do you need my help? Is it because you are lost? Is it because you need someone to tell you who the modern Langdarma is?”

Another illusion rose up. The cave and the ancient monk was back. “In order to help you along this path,” the monk said kindly, “I’m going to bind you to an oath to never kill a living being. This way your terrible urges will not gain control over your good sense.”

The illusion disappeared.

“Your dilemma grows even more difficult,” Ngawang said, “You think you can only gain enough good karma for a good rebirth by killing, yet the lama bound you to an oath not to kill. Is that right?”

Another illusion appeared. A young nomad girl, no more than twelve years old, was lying at the bottom of a steep hill. She had blood all over here, large rocks were piled atop her and her left leg was clearly broken. She was moaning softly and moving a little, but Ngawang could not tell whether she was conscious or not. Ngawang was about to say a prayer for this girl, when he saw the phurba float slowly up. The girl didn’t seem to notice as the phurba flew into her open hand. Yet a few seconds afterwards, her eyes seemed to clear. Her leg straightened itself, cuts seemed to close. She reached out and grabbed a boulder that was on top of her chest. Cautiously at first, she tested her strength against the thing. Although it must have been at least a hundred pounds, more than this little girl weighed, she was able to move it. With more confidence, she lifted it up off her chest and threw it to the side, then did the same with another boulder that had he hip and thigh pinned.

The illusion disappeared. Ngawang thought for several seconds about what he had seen. Then he clapped his hands “I see! You cannot kill, but you can give me strength and fortitude. If you can aid me in this act, you will share in the good karma I gain.”

The phurba did nothing.

“I don’t know who the Langdarma of this age is. I know the Chinese are the greatest threat the people of Tibet have seen in a long time, and I have heard tales of them persecuting Buddhism, and rumors that they are planning on disbanding the Tibetan government and outlawing Buddhism altogether. Yet most of the Chinese I have met are just soldiers, killing them would do nothing but provoke more Chinese anger. I don’t know who the Chinese Langdarma might be or where to find him.”

The phurba swiveled to face a new direction and jabbed at that direction insistently.

“You know where he is? You can lead me there?”

It jabbed again.

“Well then let us go.”

So the phurba led Ngawang off the road. They traveled into mountainous terrain, but whenever Ngawang came to a hill to steep to climb or a valley or ravine, the phurba nestled itself in his hand and suddenly Ngawang had the power to run up steep hillsides or leap across gorges. In fact, with the phurba’s help he traveled faster than he ever had in his life. “You should learn patience little friend,” he joked, but then he corrected himself, “No, of course, you are right to hurry. The longer we wait the more damage this Chinese Langdarma will do to sentient beings.”

Before long Ngawang came to a small Tibetan city. There were Chinese jeeps and Chinese soldiers in uniform everywhere. There were even vehicles Ngawang had never seen before: huge monstrous metal things, the size of a nomad’s tent, with a gigantic gun barrel on top. If the wheels of the Chinese jeeps had angered earth spirits, as Ngawang had been told, these machines must have driven them insane.

As soon as he came to the city, Chinese soldiers ordered him to stop and identify himself. Yet the phurba in his hand urged him forward, so he ignored them. They tried to grab him, but the phurba gave him strength and he pushed them away. The phurba led him towards a large house. It was a fine house, obviously once the house of an aristocrat of a rich merchant, except there were Chinese flags hanging from the windows and posters of Mao Zedong plastered all over the exterior walls of the house. A Chinese soldier from behind Ngawang ordered Ngawang to stop, but Ngawang ignored him. A shot rang out, and Ngawang saw blood erupt from the front of his chest, but before he could even begin to feel weak he felt the wound closing. Ngawang hurried onwards, entering the open door to the house, striding down a hallway, pushing soldiers out of the way as they tried to stop him. He stopped at a large wooden door, and with one hand he broke its hinges and it slammed to the ground. Inside, a young Chinese man in an army officer’s uniform was sitting at a desk with papers arrayed in front of him. He could feel the phurba tugging at his hand, pointing right towards this man.

Ngawang bowed. “I am sorry,” he said, “but for the good of all sentient beings, I must end your current incarnation. I will have the Bardo rituals said for you with hopes that you can find a better reincarnation than you would have achieved otherwise.”

The Chinese officer opened his mouth to respond, but Ngawang leapt onto the desk and buried the phurba in the top of the officer’s skull. The officer fell over dead and the phurba pulled itself out.

Then another illusion appeared before Ngawang. It was back in the cave, with the ancient lama, still holding the phurba with the power of his will. “I will make one exception to this oath, however. I will allow you to kill me. Do not worry, killing me will not be an action which will earn you more bad karma. You see, in my meditations I have seen glimpses of the future. Decades from now, a new power will take control of China, an aggressive power that will invade Tibet. It will also be a power that hates religion, and it will persecute Tibetan Buddhism. I want you to kill me so that I can be reborn in China. I hope to become a leader of the Chinese military, and if enough of my wisdom and compassion travels with me into the next life, I will be able to move the Chinese towards the side of compassion and tolerance. Perhaps I will be able to save Tibetan Buddhism, and if I do then you will share in the good karma I earn.”

The illusion disappeared. Ngawang stared at the thing, mouth agape. He could sense no emotion coming from the thing, but he imagined it was laughing at him. Then it flew out of the room. A second later, Chinese soldiers with rifles burst in.

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