Witness to Community Response to Suicide
It was the 15th of February. The day after Valentine’s day. There was a grueling drive to Trongsa through the road block. Gordie, Steve and myself arrived to town ahead of schedule and stopped for breakfast at the Norling Hotel. Simple fried eggs and some black coffee. We were happy to be in ghos and kira; happy to be fed and a little joyous at the chance to witness the mask dance which we had each come to Bhutan, so eager to see.
After breakfast we walked down the road to the Dzong and came upon Needup, the election officer who we had been introduced to just a few days prior. He was with he wife and two daughters and he was ready to play host to us for that day. After he parked, he greeted us and ushered us into the Dzong where the dance would be taking place.
Just as we reached the gate to go in, a bossy SUV pummeled into the parking lot. It was the governor of the Dzonkhag. He stepped out of the vehicle and thrashed to put his cabnye over his shoulder. It was colored to his stature - red with two bordering cream stripes. He was certain of his importance and he was happy that we were there to “learn the meaning” of the mask dance, and not just come to take it in as entertainment. We followed him and his entourage into the facilities. Soon, he turned off and fled up a flight of stairs. The three of us stood for a few moments and took in the visual beauty of this first corridor of the Dzong. The doors were elaborate and gigantic, the light off the white walls reverberated the warmth of the sun, and it was breathtaking.
After a few moments of stupor, we strolled the walkway to the main courtyard where the dance was going to be held. We were some of the first people to arrive. Slowly, the Trongsa public tricked in and took their seats atop scraps of cardboard and cloth, lining the square, knee to knee, overlapping like feathers. After some time, the dance began. And after some time more, it concluded. By invitation of the Election Officer, Steve Gordie and I joined the post dance luncheon where we sat and took ema datsi with the monastic dancers and the public officers.
When the luncheon was complete, Needup offered to drive us back to campus. On the ride there, he played us some American tunes. The first of which was Love Will Keep Us Alive by the Eagles. We sang along.
Once dropped off, back in my dorm room, I was visually arrested by the bunkered bodies on every surface, from the table to the bed, to the floor. Nearly 11 girls in all. I could tell that just before I had opened the door, they were fully achatter, but once my presence was made known, they scattered past me, on one side and the other, returning to their own rooms in a hurried hush.
When I asked my roommates what was going on, they promptly told me that a boy had committed suicide that very morning. Pema, one of my roommates, had gone to see the body. It had been hanging just near the prayer temple, up the hill from hostels. No more than 400 yards away. As she tells the story, Pema pulls her hands from her lap and demonstrates how high his feet were off the ground as he hung. The smudge of inches seems like a margin of error. “His hands were in his pockets.” she says to me. She explains how he had had a date with his girlfriend who had possibly been seeing another boy. Pema expresses that she suspects foul play.
A German lecturer, who also attended the sighting, describes:
“I saw the last part of the proceedings, where he was tied up like a very small bundle of misery and put on the back of the truck alongside his two bags of belongings. By his brother. Everyone looked very brave, but it was awful. The sight os a broken young body bundled up like that is not easily forgotten. Nor the face of his brother, who looked like a dazed deer.”
In the weeks the follow, there is very little observable grieving from the students on campus. There aren’t any tributes or tears. No trace of sentiment, save the scoff that reveals an attitude of “how could one be so stupid?” Some days later the stick from which the boy had hung himself was anonymously burned. And a few weeks after that, six prayer flags were hoisted at the same site.
During a “Crime Prevention” mandatory assembly, the head police dasho from Trongsa goes on to include a slideshow about “Life” which is, ironically, about suicide. The first slide says “A Ghost Called Suicide” and the second contains a quote by Churchill about staying courageous and never giving up. The speech all but shames the boy who committed suicide on campus; stating repeatedly how foolish it is to “waste a precious human birth.” The sentiment feels widely agreed upon, for the beliefs around Karma and reincarnation mean many other lifetimes of suffering for the boy.
Like all cultures, the Buddhist response to death calls for specific rituals. A traditional Buddhist burial is done by cremation. In the case of suicide, there is no specific alteration to the rituals, but in the instance at the CLCS campus, in spite of the cool communal response, there was a lingering and collective belief that some evil spirits were over due for subduing and that they must have been, at least a part of, the cause of the suicide. So, with the timing advised by a high lama and astrologer, a Puja was arranged.
The day before the puja, classes were let out early to allow students to participate in the gathering of tree branches for the ceremonial fires. All along the hill side, small groups were thwarting the lowest branches of cyprus trees and bringing the bows temple side for the proceedings. When a huge pile accumulated, the children from the village came around to take turns jumping atop the vast heap. One by one, bouncing in and out.
Near by, tents were pitched. They were white with beautifully decorated Buddhist and Bhutanese symbols; dragons and samara wheels and a lovely pleated yellow hem, which is found in so many celebratory circumstance and space.
For two days, the students gathered together from 7am to 7pm and offered their prayers. Every two and a half to three hours they would take a break and enjoy suja or a meal, then return to their seated position on the floor of the temple and return to praying.
At each new session of prayer, a slip of scripture would be passed among them. I over hear a lecturer aghast at the paper, “The slips of paper should be so beautiful, but now a days they are only on printer paper. The paper used to be smoothed by hand with a small river rock. Circles, circles [he makes the hand gestures] circles to make a fabric like paper, ready for ink.”
The prayers are conducted quite casually. People were free to get up and down as needed, and they did. Some individuals are on the law using their cell phones. Some people stopped chanting when their voices were tired, some seemed trance like. In-spite of a lot of motion and moving pieces, there was a stillness to all the activity. Not being culturally adapted at that time, I could not say if it was purely peaceful or just bluntly apathetic, but overall, it seemed to me that the mood was temperate if not chilly.
On the evening of the second day, just before the evening meal, students were observably fatigued. They had been sitting for 16 of the last 42 hours and their bodies were visibly stiff. In the last half of this session, counselors began walking down the aisles carrying thirty pound sacks of seeds: corn, rice, lentil, buckwheat and more. As they passed, each person held up their hands to receive a share of the loot. Scoop after scoop, the counselors passed out all of the grain and then waited.
At the front of the temple stood a tall tsatsa (wheat flour statue made as an offering). This particular tsatsa was of a man on a horse in front of the house of Tara. The horse’s mouth is calked open; teeth blaring. The tsatsa was surrounded by a low barrier made of the same putty as the statue itself; actings as a garden wall of sorts to the over all scene. Pierced into the putty wall were hundreds of sticks, some of them decorated like arrows, some with flags of the image of Tara. Contained within this fence were the collections of monetary blessings which the students had donated to the cause. One by one, over the past two days, they had come to this statue and offered a prayer and a financial token in gesture to the cause of blessing the campus and subduing the evil deities. I observe a family coming all together to make their offering. One by one, the father take a bill from his wallet and holds it to the forehead of each member of his family. Lastly he presses the bill to his own brow and takes a few moments to offer his prayer. Then he folds the bill in half long wise and places it into the scene of the tsatsa.
A small team of selected students, all male, noted for being “open-hearted,” according to one teacher, came to the table and circumvented it’s perimeter. When the time came, an assisting lama indicated to the team to hoist the table over shoulder and carry it to the door of the temple. As they did this, the other students (about eight hundred in total) took their handfuls of grain and aggressively threw it at the statue. Piercing grains went flying in every direction accompanied by boisterous shouting and forceful whistling.
When the blessing came to a climax, the tsatsa was carried over the threshold of the temple and out into the fresh air. All around the temple, stacks of smoke were billowing at the other three entrances of the temple. The smoke was there to call the evil deities by smell and entice them to be attracted to the tsatsa. The fires were made from the collected cyprus branches and a mixture of wheat flour, incense, butter, scraps of prayer flags and paper scriptures. The smoke was pillowy white and had a very charismatic gesture. It was softer than that of an all dried wood campfire, like you might see in the Rocky Mountains. This smoke was dancy and had a very gentle sweet aroma.
In due course, the students carried the table out to the sight where the boy had been hanging. They let the tsatsa rest there. They removed the donations and placed them in plastic bags. They seemed hurried, deeply eager to get away from the tsatsa and the energy it had accumulated. They were careful never to stand directly in front of it, always to the side or behind.
After returning from a meal, the students were all instructed to go into the temple and sit. After all were accounted for, a string of four mask dancers carrying torches entered the temple.
Eventually, the dancers started dashing to the door. A second tsatsa was revealed, this one of a man ridding a tiger and a second man leading the tiger by a ring through it’s nose. This second tsatsa was carried behind the dancers, out the door, up the stairs and cresting the ridge of mountain side campus a mile and a half to the academic block. This started a fierce and fiery parade during which the dancers consistently threw a flammable powder on their torches to make wild sparks fly. Just behind then, four men each carried thirty pound sacks of small white pebbles. Behind them, hundreds of male students followed shouting and hollering in a required on-going fashion. Mixed in with the students was a pair of ceremonial horns and some drums. In staccato, they bleated and bleated without stopping for any cause.
The parade circled the entire academic block. Down major hallways and through the official front door. Afterward winding back down to the hostel block, weaving through the homes of faculty, raining the white pebbles into each open room.
After about an hour and forty-five minutes, the parade came to a stopping place on the far corner of the soccer field near a roughly patched arch of kindling-like branches. The mask dancers completed their dance in trance like repetition. Then exiting the stage one by one as the thatched arch was splashed with gasoline and then set on fire.
At first, one by one, and then in small bursting groups, students pierced the semi-circular thicket and ran through the ring of fire. All the while, the sky became a flue for the starlike amber embers.
In the morning that followed… it was as if nothing had happened.
As of today the prayer flags where to body was found have been taken down.