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Blood Brothers : Ani Sakya Left Behind a Successful Legal Practice and a Comfortable Seattle Life to Join the Tibetan Government in Exile. He Took With Him an Extraordinary Legacy, Western Ideals and a Never-Ending Tie to His Best Friend.

May 01, 1994|David Guterson | David Guterson's novel "Snow Falling on Cedars" will be published in September by Harcourt Brace. Guterson is a contributing editor for Harper's magazine

Curious about the new life he was forging, I traveled to Dharamsala in June of 1993, journeying from Delhi in a twin-engine Doernier low over the plains of India. In the near distance lay the snowy peaks of the Dhauladhar range, rising abruptly to 17,000 feet out of the Kangra Valley. The Doernier landed at an airstrip 20 kilometers from Dharamsala, where a driver, sent by Ani, waited. Our way was thronged with travelers on foot: men pushing overloaded carts; dark-skinned women in saris carrying ponderous loads of firewood on their heads; children wearing neat British school uniforms. My driver careened through narrow blind curves, narrowly missing cars, motorcycles, pedestrians and cows, constantly laying on his horn.

Beyond the heat and noise of the lower valley, the road climbed through chil pine, ban oak and deodar trees, their shadows cooling the hillsides. Yellow-footed Indian mynah birds, lapwings, bulbuls, blue-backed dragflies and finally vultures-- Gyps bengalensis --soared above the forested mountains, their serrated wingtips held wide to the wind, white bands prominent on their breasts. Clematis, galium and Daphne peprashia , whose white flowers already had expired, grew in profusion along the roadside.

Negotiating a series of hairpin turns manned by Indian soldiers in khaki shorts, we came upon what remained of the summer military cantonment founded by the Raj in the 1860s. At Upper Dharamsala, or "Little Lhasa," barefoot workers with rags around their heads installed plastic water pipes in the central street. A 6-year-old child squatted in the mud, filling a water bottle while a baby clung to her small neck. Boldly painted graffiti was everywhere: "Tibet for the Tibetans"; "Chinese Get Out Now!" Along the streets in the bazaar, sweater sellers and rug merchants sat implacably behind their wares, cross-legged on the ground.

I found Ani in his small single room, prayer beads wrapped around his wrist, on his wall a photograph of the Dalai Lama and another of his father, the Sakya Lama, a Tibetan calendar, a map of Tibet, a painting of the five founding fathers of the Sakya lineage and a drawing of the Shakyamuni Lord Buddha. He wore at his neck a gold and jade relic box inside of which rested fragments of the Buddha's teeth, preserved, he told me, for centuries. Beside his bed sat a framed photograph of his parents and the Buddha statue the Dalai Lama had presented to him in 1975.

Ani meditated daily, prayed before meals and made his way each night along the Lingkhor, which circles both the Dalai Lama's residence and the Tsuglag Khang, or Central Cathedral, that is today the highest holy site of his people. My friend resided 20 steps from this place, at the verge of a courtyard where monks engaged each night in stylized debate, slapping their hands and high-stepping ritually while asserting fine points of sacred texts. Nearby, pilgrims prostrated themselves and prayed beneath the soft glow of butter lamps.

Ani moved quietly in this world of the devout, among men dressed in sandals and saffron robes who greeted him with hands clasped prayerfully in front of them, sometimes ducking just a little or bowing their heads to the American attorney who was also a reincarnated high lama. At times, Sakya devotees sought him out, begging him to bless them or to name their babies, touch their foreheads, blow on their faces (his breath, they believed, might cure their ailments), or say prayers in their behalf. The former high school cornerback who led his team in interceptions, the attorney who wore impeccable suits and carried a briefcase and laptop computer, gracefully accepted these signs of reverence and awe.

On a Saturday, we walked the road to Bagshu, where the slate-cutters plied their trade and monks washed their robes in the river. We bought small gifts in the Dharamsala marketplace, modest remembrances I would carry home and distribute on Ani's behalf among his friends and relatives. We ate elaborate meals in depressing hotels; we took tea together. Each noon, I visited Ani in his meager office and each evening in his meager room. Late at night, beneath an expansive canopy of stars, we circumambulated the Lingkhor. In this way, we took up our friendship exactly where we'd left off.

Ani was deeply committed to his work, and we talked endlessly about it. The Dalai Lama, he said, had recently made world news, publishing his vision of a future Tibet that would, in His Holiness's words "uphold the ideals of freedom, social welfare, democracy, cooperation and environmental protection." He'd also announced that he would step down as head of state once Tibet regained its independence. "All sincere and right-thinking Tibetans," the Dalai Lama wrote, should "strive with a sense of pride and joy to attain the goals I have stated."

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