April, 2661 Tibet
Sixteen thousand feet above sea level, in a small village in the Lhasa province of Tibet, the sun rises glistening along the snow-capped mountaintops as it has for as long as only God can remember. The air is brisk and sweet and smells of life itself, for here in the mountains, life is everywhere; yak, goats, and sheep with their offspring make it clear that spring has arrived.
Outside of a modest dwelling, a woman kneels in a vegetable garden, her hands and face grimy with soil, her jet-black hair escaping from the leather thong that ties it back. She leans back on her heels and calls in Tibetan to her young daughter, who is in the house, “Nyi ma, bring me some water, please.”
Within seconds the door opens, and Nyi ma, four, perhaps five years old, emerges carefully holding the cup of water with both hands as she makes her way across the small yard to her mother. Her round, dimpled face breaks into a smile as she releases the cup, knowing she hasn’t spilled even a drop. “Good job, my girl!” Her mother takes the cup and gives her daughter a quick kiss on her forehead. The mother takes a long drink from the cup, sets it down on the ground, then turns to Nyi ma and asks, “Would you like to help me?”
The child grins again and responds with a nod, and they begin. The work is slow and tedious, but the two don’t mind, because anything they are able to do together, they have always considered to be a blessing. Shortly after Yangtsho gave birth to Nyi ma, it was discovered that she had literally been born a “child without sound.” Initially Yangtsho thought that she had just been blessed with a contented child who never cried, but it quickly became apparent that her daughter could make no sounds whatsoever. After pressure from her family, Yangtsho and her husband, Dorje, bundled their quiet newborn up and travelled the necessary miles to get to the Lhasa Moinzekang. There she would have the opportunity to be examined by the finest medical professionals available. The outcome surprised everyone. Nyi ma was born with a deformity of her vocal cords, which the doctors told them could have been genetic or could simply have been fate. Without genetic testing, there was no way to know. But they said, more than once, that the child’s parents must understand that this condition was not something that could be repaired. Nyi ma would remain a mute for the entirety of her life.
News of this discovery reached the village before Nyi ma and her family had returned, and the significance of this verdict split their village almost evenly. Buddhists give every event in their lives special meaning according to their spiritual beliefs. When news of “the quiet child,” which was how she came to be called, and how her condition came upon her was known, the village called a spiritual war.
One side felt that Buddha himself had blessed Nyi ma. For what better blessing could there be than the gift of silence? Talking, chatter, noise, those things that regular people struggled with on a daily basis in order to quiet their minds and turn to a meditative silence, that was being touched by the One.
The other side was certain that the infant had been cursed. To be unable to speak, to raise her voice in songs of praise or even in quiet prayer to Buddha was an abomination, and she should be shunned. This group of villagers was also eager to heap shame on the child’s parents. “Why had Buddha only given them one child? What kind of a child doesn’t speak? And a girl? Just look at the mother, with those dark eyes and shining hair, who does she think she is? She’s the mother of a demon, that’s who she is!” And on the shaming went, until Nyi ma’s father left their home and for a short time joined with those insecure, sad and spiritually broken people.
One morning before dawn, Dorje quietly made his way to Yangtsho’s cottage and peered in the window. His wife lay softly snoring, her body curled around their silent daughter, Nyi ma. The shame he felt for having abandoned them filled him with a disgust that was visceral, and he felt bile rise in his throat. Dorje turned from the window and began walking the road that led out of the village and into the mountains. He was never seen or heard from again.
As the child grew, it became difficult for those in the village who saw Nyi ma and her mother as a spiritual danger to continue to feel that way, when faced with her cheerful and uplifting demeanor on a daily basis. It was true that she could not speak or sing or pray or even laugh, yet for a child who lacked such important abilities, she made up for it with something even more important. She could make anyone, even the most curmudgeonly personality, smile.
It was simply not in her nature to be downhearted. Her eyes seemed to be constantly filled with wonder and joy, her countenance one of bliss, and her face always seemed to be engaged in a smile of some sort. Whether the smile was one of wonder or excitement or pleasure or encouragement or just plain contentment, it spread across her face from dimple to dimple. People in the village, even the naysayers, began to believe that should they be flooded with torrential rains or baked in an everlasting draught, they would certainly get through it, because Nyi ma would still be smiling.
As she happily dug in the garden with her mother, the old grandmother who lived just down the road stepped into their yard. Every morning she walked three times around the village, greeting everyone she came upon. “Good morning, Yangtsho. How are you today, Nyi ma?”
“Blessings and good day, Kelsang. You honor us with your presence. Shall I get you a drink of water?” Before she could answer, Nyi ma had jumped up, run to Kelsang, and enveloped her in a warm embrace.
“Water, no. This,” and she indicated Nyi ma, “this is all I need. Thank you. So, what are you two planting this morning?”
“All of our favorites: radishes, turnips, peas, cabbage, a little red pepper and, if we have room, maybe some pumpkin.”
“Pumpkin! Now what would a little girl like Nyi ma do with pumpkin, I wonder?”
Nyi ma broke into what for her would be considered laughter. Her little face turned red and scrunched up, her eyes squeezed shut and her shoulders shook. For an outsider or someone who didn’t know her, they might think she was having a seizure or some sort of fit. But for those who knew and loved her, it was a gift to share in her form of laughing. When she was finally able to control herself, she attempted to answer Kelsang’s question. She cupped one hand into the shape of a bowl and then with two fingers of the other hand, she made a motion of dipping into the “bowl” and scooping out whatever was inside and putting it into her mouth, enjoying it immensely.
“Could it be pudding?” asked Kelsang. “Pumpkin pudding?”
Nyi ma’s head bobbed excitedly up and down.
“Well, then, I think we’d better get busy. May I help?”
“Of course. Many hands make little work.” Yangtsho smiled, and Nyi ma took hold of Kelsang’s outstretched hand and led her to the patch where they were working. She handed her the spade and showed her how to dig a trench for the seeds as her mother had shown her.
“Thank you, little one. I think this is something I can manage. Let me give it a try.” Kneeling, she placed one hand on the ground for balance and with the other hand she took the spade and dug it into the hard ground. Immediately she let out a shriek, sat back on her heels, and pulled her hands to her chest.
Yangtsho hurried to the old woman’s side. “What happened? Are you hurt? Let me see.” Kelsang held her left hand out and it was clear to Yangtsho that instead of the ground, the woman had accidentally driven the spade into her hand. There was a deep, bloody gash on the top of her hand between her thumb and her index finger. The cut was at least an inch-and-a-half long, but until she cleaned the wound, it would be impossible to tell how deep the cut had gone. “Nyi ma, quickly now, bring some water. Kelsang, I’m going to wash the dirt and blood away, and then we can take care of the cut. Are you going to be all right?”
The old woman just nodded. Her skin was ashy, and as Yangtsho held her hand, she could feel the woman trembling. “Ah, here’s Nyi ma with the water. Good girl. Thank you. Now let’s just carefully pour this over the wound.” As the dirt and blood were washed away with the water, Yangtsho could see that the wound was very deep, deeper than any cut she’d ever seen. Blood was continuing to flow from the wound. She needed something clean to wrap around it to stop the bleeding. But what? Then Nyi ma inserted herself between the two women and took ahold of Kelsang’s hand. “Nyi ma, what are you doing?” But with one look from her child, she stopped.
Nyi ma held the woman’s hand in hers, closed her eyes, and then for the first time in Yangtsho’s life, she saw her daughter’s lips move. No sound came out, but still her lips moved as if she were speaking. This lasted no more than perhaps a minute. Then she opened her eyes, smiled, embraced Kelsang and let go of her hand.
There were tears streaming down the woman’s smiling face. She was holding her hand out to Yangtsho and showing her that there was no longer a wound, no cut, no damage, and no blood. She had been healed.
“How is this possible?” She grabbed Kelsang’s hand.
Kelsang continued to weep, unable to stop. She was an old woman, and her faith had served her well her entire life. This had not shaken it, but only reinforced it. “We must take her to the monks. It’s the right thing to do.”
Nyi ma looked at her mother and she looked at Kelsang. She touched her mother’s cheek and she took hold of Kelsang’s hand. Then she smiled at both of them, shook her head No and put her finger to her lips as if to say 'Quiet'.