The Unfinished Chapel


I live on a pinnacle of rock that overlooks the holy lake. Up here it is hard to breathe. It is always cold. The eagles cast themselves into the wind and I watch from above. They spread their wings, their muscles coil, their back feathers stream. They are gone. From here, they say, we may ascend directly to Heaven, unless we are already there.

I am not in Heaven. Nor am I a monk. I am a painter. I paint the Lord Buddha into life. It is an important job but the salary is not enough. The monks say nothing is ever enough; we must satisfy ourselves with sufficient. I will never be a monk.

I build my fire directly on the floor of the monastery’s chapel, using goat dung. The monks do not like this but, being fatalists, they understand it is necessary. The chapel is never, ever warm. My coloured oils are frozen hard and every day, day after day, I have to melt them before I can paint the statues, and the chapel walls, and the prayer wheels. Goat pellets are hard and round. They do not burn for as long as yak dung but they make less smoke—which is important; smoke has to be painted away again. One side of my hand blisters from the cold, the other from the heat.

Our chapel is unfinished, still under construction. New beams of rough wood are stacked outside its door, smelling strongly of resin and sawdust. The cultural revolution was a long time ago but we are still rebuilding from it. Each time we get close to completion, some patriots come in the night and burn the chapel down again. Building one chapel can take your entire life.

What a waste.

The old lama, Pinzo, comes by every few days to shout at us. I do not blame him. We have only done a dozen statues before this, never a whole chapel, and artists are not as mindful as monks. Our work space is a mess. Toasted barley crunches underfoot. Bowls of paint and bowls of tea are mixed up and scattered. Some get knocked over and leave long dark stains on the dirt floor. Others have chunks of dried paint at the bottom. More waste. As we work, Nanjar chews tobacco. Guru sings Hindi pop songs in falsetto. Sometimes—I cannot deny it, the evidence is there—we prepare our watercolours with tea.

My brothers are indifferent to Pinzo’s complaints. They discard them, kick them like pebbles downhill, a small movement that provokes so much more.

Falling into the unknown.

Our chapel is not on a hill one can easily kick pebbles down. This is a cliff. It is a refuge for pariahs, and plumed birds, and hermits who have lost themselves between the holy lake and the holy mountain and the sky. When my back is cracking from the work I like to stand on the edge of the cliff with my hands on the rocks and watch the lake waters change from aqua to magenta to black. Watch the villagers hustle to and from the barley fields and line up at the hot springs, their laundry buckets cocked against their hips. Watch the ravens turn in circles. Their shadows ripple like scars down the terraced slopes.

Before, I would look over this edge and think of greatness or good food or going home. Simple thoughts. Before.

My father has a shop back in Amdo. I used to have to wake up early to grind the tsampa. In between customers I would sketch what I saw. Red cardboard bowls of instant noodles. A cracked saddle with silver tassels. A strip of single-use shampoo packets, floating in the breeze in the shop doorway. By the time I was of age, I had taken small commissions—a sign, a room, a shrine—but had yet to break out as an artist. When I would complain, my father would remind me I needed the proper conditions. My original cause, my karma, had created my present, and now I must be patient with my earlier selves. I would be successful when the time was right.

And if the time was never right, then I had my mother’s treasure box.

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