Tenzin Dorje (pronounced Ten-zin Door-jay)
Zheng-po Monastery, Tibet
I am alone in the sacred stillness of the temple, lighting butter lamps at the Buddha’s feet, when I first realize that something is very wrong.
“Tenzin Dorje!” Startled, I turn to glimpse the spare frame of my teacher, silhouetted briefly at the far door. “My room. Immediately!”
For a moment I am faced with a dilemma. Making offerings to the Buddha is considered a special privilege, and as a sixteen-year-old novice monk I take this duty seriously. Not only is there a particular order in which the candles must be lit, each new flame should be visualized as representing a precious gift—such as incense, music and flowers—to be offered for the sake of all living beings.
I know that nothing should prevent me from completing this important rite, but is obedience to my kind and holy teacher not more important? Besides, I can’t remember the last time that Lama Tsering used the word “immediately.” Nor can I remember a time when anyone shouted an order in the temple. Especially not Zheng-po’s highest-ranking lama.
Even though I am only half-way through lighting the candles, I quickly snuff out the taper. Bowing briefly to the Buddha, I hurry outside.
In the twilight, disruption is spreading through Zheng-po monastery like ripples from a stone thrown into a tranquil lake. Monks are knocking loudly on each other’s doors. People are rushing across the courtyard with unusual haste. Villagers have gathered outside the abbot’s office and are talking in alarmed voices and gesturing down the valley.
Slipping into my sandals, I gather my robe above my knees and, abandoning the usual monastic code, break into a run.
Lama Tsering’s room is at the furthermost end, across the courtyard and past almost all the monks’ rooms, in the very last building. Even though his status would accord him a spacious and comfortable room directly overlooking the courtyard, he insists on living next to his novices in a small cell on the edge of Zheng-po.
When I get to the room, his door is thrown open and his floor, usually swept clean, is scattered with ropes and packages I’ve never seen. His lamp is turned to full flame, making him look even taller and more disproportionate than ever as his shadow leaps about the walls and ceiling with unfamiliar urgency.
I’ve no sooner got there than I turn to find Paldon Wangpo hurrying towards me. The pair of us are Lama Tsering’s two novices but we have an even stronger karmic connection: Paldon Wangpo is my brother, two years older than I.
We knock on our teacher’s door.
Lama Tsering beckons us inside, telling us to close the door behind us. Although the whole of Zheng-po is in turmoil, his face shows no sign of panic. But there is no disguising the gravity of his expression.
“This is the day we have feared ever since the Year of the Metal Tiger,” he looks from one to the other of us with a seriousness we only usually see before an important examination. “Messengers have just arrived at the village with news that the Red Army has marched on Lhasa. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has been forced into exile. A division of the Red Army is traveling here, to Jangtang province. At this moment they are only half a day’s travel from Zheng-po.”
Paldon Wangpo and I can’t resist exchanging glances. In just a few sentences, Lama Tsering has told us that everything about our world has been turned upside down. If His Holiness has been forced to flee from the PotalaPalace, what hope is there for the rest of Tibet?
“We must assume that the Red Army is coming directly towards Zheng-po,” Lama Tsering continues quickly. From outside we hear one of the women villagers wailing. “If they travel through the night, they could arrive by tomorrow morning. Definitely, they could get here within a day. In other parts of our country, the army is destroying monasteries, looting their treasures, burning their sacred texts, torturing and murdering the monks. There’s little doubt they have the same intentions for Zheng-po. For this reason, the abbot is asking us to evacuate.”
“Evacuate?” I can’t contain myself. “Why don’t we stay and resist?”
“Tenzin Dorje, I have shown you the map of our neighbor China,” he explains. “For every soldier they have sent to Tibet, there are ten thousand more soldiers ready to take their place. Even if we wanted to, this is not a struggle we can win.”
Paldon Wangpo reaches out, putting his hand over my mouth.
“Fortunately, our abbot and the senior lamas have been preparing for this possibility. Each of the monks has a choice. You can return to your village and continue to practice the Dharma in secret. Or you can join the senior lamas in exile.”
He holds up his hand, gesturing we shouldn’t yet reply. “Before you say you want to join us in exile, you must realize this is not some great adventure. Traveling to the border will be dangerous—the Red Army will shoot dead any monks trying to leave. Then we must try to cross the mountains on foot. For three weeks we will have to travel very long distances, living only off the food we can carry. We will have to endure much hardship and pain. Even if we finally arrive in India, we don’t know if the government will allow us to stay, or send us back over the border.”
“But if we return to our villages and continue to wear our robes,” interjects Paldon Wangpo, “the Chinese will find us anyway, and punish our families for keeping us.”
Lama Tsering nods briefly.
“If we disrobe, we would be breaking our vows.” Paldon Wangpo has always been a sharp debater. “Either way, we would lose you as our teacher.”
“What you say is true,” Lama Tsering agrees. “This is a difficult decision even for a lama, and you are novice monks. But it is important that you choose, and do so quickly. Whatever decision you make,” he regards each of us in turn, “you will have my blessing.”
From outside comes the pounding of feet as people hurry past. There can be no doubting the crisis we’re facing.
“I am getting older,” Lama Tsering tells us, kneeling down to continue packing a leather bag, which is lying on the floor. “If I had only myself to think about, I might go into hiding and take my chances with the Chinese—”
“No, Lama!” I exclaim.
Next to me, Paldon Wangpo looks sheepish. He has always been embarrassed by my impetuousness.
“But the abbot has asked me to play an important part in the evacuation.”
“I want to come with you!” I can’t hold back any longer, no matter what Paldon Wangpo thinks.
“Perhaps you like me as a teacher,” Lama Tsering is cautioning. “But as a fellow traveler it will be very different. You are young and strong, but I may become a liability. What happens if I fall and hurt myself?”
“Then we will carry you across the mountains,” I declare.
Beside me Paldon Wangpo is nodding.
Lama Tsering looks up at us, an intensity in his dark eyes I have seen only on rare occasions.
“Very well,” he tells us finally. “You can come. But there is one very important condition I have to tell you about.”
Moments later we are leaving his room for our own, having promised to return very quickly. As I make my way through the turmoil in the corridor outside I can hardly believe the condition that Lama Tsering has just related. This is, without question, the worst day in the existence of Zheng-po, but paradoxically for me it is the day I have found my true purpose. My vocation. The reason I have been drawn to the Dharma.
Opening my door, I look around the small room that has been my world for the past ten years: the wooden meditation box, three feet square; the straw mattress on the baked-earth floor; my change of robes and toiletry bag, the two belongings monks are allowed at Zheng-po.
It is hard to believe that I will never again sit in this meditation box, never again sleep on this bed. It is even more incredible that I, Tenzin Dorje, a humble novice monk from the village of Ling, have been accorded one of the rarest privileges of Zheng-po and of our entire lineage. For together with Paldon Wangpo, and under the guidance of my kind and holy teacher, we are to undertake the highest and most sacred mission of the evacuation. It means that our flight from Tibet will be much more critical, and more dangerous.
But for the first time ever, at sixteen years of age, I feel in my heart that I have a special part to play.
My time has come.
Imperial Science Institute, London
I’m sitting in the cramped cubby-hole that passes for my office, late on an overcast Friday afternoon, when my whole world changes.
“Harry wants to see you in his office,” Pauline Drake, tall, angular and not-to-be-messed with, appears around the door frame two feet away. She looks pointedly at the telephone, which I’ve taken off its cradle, before meeting my eyes with a look of droll disapproval. “Right away.”
I glance over the paperwork strewn across my desk. It’s the last Friday of the month, which means that all timesheets have to be in by five. As research manager for Nanobot, it’s my job to collate team activities, and I take pride in the fact that I’ve never missed a deadline.
But it’s unusual for Harry to dispatch his formidable secretary down from the third floor. Something must be up.
A short while later I’m getting out from behind my desk. It’s not a straightforward maneuver. You have to rise from the chair at forty-five degrees to avoid hitting the shelves directly above, before squeezing, one leg at a time, through the narrow gap between desk and filing cabinet. Then there’s the walk through a rabbit’s warren of corridors and up four flights of a narrow, wooden staircase with its unyielding aroma of industrial disinfectant and wet dog hair.
As I make my way across the open plan section of the third floor, I’m aware of people staring and talking under their breath. When I make eye contact with a couple of the HR people they glance away, embarrassed.
Something’s definitely up.
To get to the corner office, I first have to pass through the anteroom where Pauline has returned to work noiselessly at her computer. She nods towards Harry’s door. Unusually, it is closed. Even more unusually, an unfamiliar hush has descended on his office, instead of the usual orchestral blast.
When I arrive, it’s to find Harry standing, staring out the window at his less-than-impressive view over the tangled gray sprawl of railway lines converging on King’s Cross station. Arms folded and strangely withdrawn, I get the impression he’s been waiting especially for me.
As I appear he gestures, silently, to a chair across from his desk.
Harry Saddler is the very model of the mad professor, with a few non-standard eccentricities thrown in for good measure. Mid-fifties, bespectacled, with a shock of spiky, gray hair, in his time he’s been an award-winning researcher. More recent circumstances have also forced him to become an expert in the area of public-private partnerships. It was he who saved the centuries-old institute, and all our jobs, by completing a deal with Acellerate, a Los Angeles-based biotech incubator, just over a year ago.
“A short while ago I had a call from L.A. with the news I’ve been half-expecting for the past twelve months,” he tells me, his expression unusually serious. “Acellerate has finished their review of our research projects. They like Nanobot,” he brushes fallen cigarette ash off his lapel. “They really like Nanobot. So much that they want to move the whole kit and caboodle to California. And as the program originator and research manager, they want you there, too.”
The news takes me completely by surprise. Sure, there’ve been visitors from the States during the past year and earnest talk of information exchange, but I never expected the deal with Acellerate to have such direct, personal impact. Or to be so sudden.
“They’re moving very quickly on this,” continues Harry. “They want you there in six weeks ideally. Definitely eight. Blakely is taking a personal interest in the program.”
“Eight weeks?” I’m finding this overwhelming. “Why do I have to move to California at all? Can’t they invest in what we’re doing over here?”
Harry shakes his head in weary resignation. “You’ve seen the new shareholder structure,” he says. “As much as Acellerate talks about respecting our independence, the reality is that they hold a controlling interest. They call the shots. They can strip what they like out of the institute and there’s really not a lot we can do to stop them.”
I’m not thinking about Acellerate. I’m thinking about my fiancée, Isabella.
Harry mistakes the cause of my concern. “If you look at what’s happened to the other research programs Acellerate has taken to L.A.,” he reassures me, “they’ve gone stratospheric.” Pausing, he regards me more closely for a long while before querying in a low voice, “Isabella?”
“She’ll go with you!”
“It’s not that simple. She’s only just been promoted. And you know how close she is to her family.” I glance away from him to the where a commuter train is chugging slowly into the station.
Harry and I go way back and he knows a lot about Isabella and me—he’s been there since the beginning. But the main problem with Isabella leaving London is something that’s only happened very recently. Something I haven’t told him about. The truth is, Isabella and I are still getting to grips with the enormity of the news ourselves.
“A girl like her,” Harry has met her at institute functions over the years, “she’ll get a job like that in Los Angeles,” he snaps his fingers. “And you’ll be giving her family a good excuse to visit Disneyland.”
As always, Harry is trying to focus on the positive. I understand, and I’m all the more appreciative because I know how hard this must be for him. Nanobot has always been one of his favorites. It was Harry who brought me into the institute when he discovered the subject of my master’s thesis. Harry nurtured the program through its early stages. He and I enjoy a close relationship—more than my boss, he’s also my mentor and confidant. Now, just as the program’s starting to get interesting, he’s having it taken off him. What’s more, who’s to say it will end with Nanobot? It seems that Acellerate can cherry-pick whatever they like from the institute and leave Harry with all the leftovers. Small wonder he’s in no mood for the Three Tenors.
“Try to see this as the opportunity that it is,” he tells me. “With Acellerate behind you, you can ramp up the program way beyond what we can afford here. You could get to prototype stage in two to three years instead of seven or eight. The sky really is the limit.”
I’m watching the fingers of his right hand rapping the desk.
“You’ll be working at the heart of nanotech development for one of the best-funded scientific institutes on earth. Plus you can catch a suntan.”
I look up, eyebrows raised. Tanning is not a subject in which I’ve ever had an interest. As Harry well knows.
“Think of it as a great adventure!”
His phone rings, and we hear Pauline answering it outside. Evidently Harry has told her we aren’t to be disturbed—something he’s never done before.
There’s another pause before I finally say, “I guess whatever way you package it, I don’t have much choice do I? I mean, Acellerate isn’t going to leave the program in London just because of Isabella and me.”
Harry regards me significantly, “Of all the programs we’re running, yours is the most likely to make the most revolutionary impact. You’re the first cab off the rank, Matt. It’s flattering that Acellerate is so keen to take you off us.”
“It’s a bit sudden, that’s all,” I’m nodding. “I mean, ten minutes ago, my main concern was getting the time sheets in.”
Harry regards me with a look of benevolent expectation.
“I’ll have to get used to the idea.”
“And speak to Isabella.”
“Of course.” Harry reaches into a desk drawer, takes out a large white envelope which he hands me across the desk.
“Before you make up your mind, you might like to study the terms and conditions,” he says.
A short while later I’m heading back to my office in a daze. Not only is Harry’s announcement life-changing, the conditions of my appointment are way beyond anything I could have imagined. Almost too much to believe.
As I return through HR, I’m so preoccupied I don’t notice anyone. Even the reek of the stairs passes me by. I’m trying to get my head around the paradox that this is terrible news for the Imperial Science Institute, but an amazing opportunity for me. It’s even more confounding that Isabella is about to be upset by what is an opportunity for me beyond my wildest dreams.
I have to speak to Isabella.
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