Our Human Journey Chapter 12, The Skull Mantra

(In the remote mountains of Tibet, far from the gulag camp where Inspector Shan is a prisoner, his ruthless prison guard Sergeant Feng has confronted him while secretly  engaged in an act of ancient Chinese tradition. Feng’s reaction is not what Shan expects.)


Trinle had once told Shan that people had day souls and night souls, and the most important task in life was to introduce your night soul to your day soul. Shan remembered the talk of Feng’s father on the road to Sungpo’s gompa. Feng was discovering his night soul.

They moved back to the ledge where Shan had sent his letter. Feng lit a small fire and produced a pencil stub and several of the blank tally sheets from the 404th. “I don’t know what to say.” His voice was very small. “We were never supposed to go back to family if they were bad elements. But sometimes I want to go back. It’s more than thirty years.”

“Who are you writing to?”

“My grandfather, like my father asked.”

“What do you remember about him?”

“Not much. He was very strong and he laughed. He used to carry me on his back, on top of a load of wood.”

“Then just say that.”

Feng thought a long time, then slowly wrote on one of the sheets. “I don’t know words,” he apologized, and handed it to Shan.

Grandfather, you are strong, it read. Carry me on your back.

“I think your words are very good,” Shan said, and helped him fashion an envelope from the other sheets. “To send it you should be alone,” he suggested. “I will wait down the trail.”

“I don’t know how to send it. I thought there were words.”

“Just put him in your heart as you do it and the letter will reach him.”


 A complex context underlies this exchange, but the essential dynamic is that Sergeant Feng, brutal guard from Shan’s gulag prison camp, a soldier employed by the government that has destroyed Tibet and imprisoned Shan for exposing its corruption, is wavering. A month earlier he would have enthusiastically beaten Shan for a minor prison infraction. But now, separated from the prison and in the high Tibetan mountains he has witnessed Shan engaged in the traditional act of burning a letter to communicate with ancestors in the heavens. This isn’t about the tyranny Feng represents, it is about the soul crushing effects of participating in that tyranny. Its message is relevant in every part of our world today. Every chapter in our history, including that of the present, has seen ideologies invoked to suppress tradition, free speech, and eventually freedom. Sadly this seems a permanent part of the human journey. Our chronicles too often reduce them to soundbites and generalizations, as reflected in the words of one of the 20th century’s most notorious tyrants: “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” The dilemma for Shan is that he never sees the toll of the oppressed as a statistic, he just sees a million tragedies. He knows Sergeant Feng is an oppressor but he also knows Feng is a tragedy. A ruthless government claimed his soul decades earlier but now a small ember of that soul has begun to glow again.

My life grew richer, albeit more painful, when I realized how most histories and current commentaries confine themselves to trends, labels and sweeping summaries, allowing the writers to skim over the surface of profoundly important issues. By simply mentioning in passing that China annexed Tibet in the 1950’s, as is often the case, our chronicles ignore the painful lessons offered when a passive, spiritual culture is annihilated by a militaristic juggernaut ravenous for more land. In doing so historians become enablers of human suffering. It’s not a tribe or a population category that is suffering here, it is Inspector Shan and Sergeant Feng. We owe it to ourselves not to compartmentalize and file away dark chapters of our journey by simply referring to them as, for example, the “Holocaust” or the “gulag experience.”  The Holocaust was millions of Anne Franks and the gulag was hundreds of thousands of  Solzhenitsyns. The labels applied so relentlessly in today’s culture negate the lives of untold numbers of heroes and saints, who otherwise would have much to teach us. When humans practice intolerance and repression, humanity suffers.

Eliot Pattison