Campus Authors: Geoff Childs, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociocultural anthropology in Arts & Sciences

*Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal*

(University of California Press, 2004)

Tibetan Diary evolved from assorted notes that began to coalesce while Childs was doing fieldwork in Nubri, an ethnically Tibetan enclave in the remote highlands of Nepal. The catalyst for the book was one particular event.

“While confined to my host’s humble abode during a three-day blizzard, our neighbors — encouraged by our supply of local distillates — would drop by to relieve their boredom,” Childs said. “They exchanged stories of other difficult situations, times when they knew that their lives could be easily snuffed out by the forces of nature.

“During one of these conversations, I remembered an event from the life story of Pema Döndrup, a lama who had lived in Nubri three centuries ago. I always kept a copy of his biography handy, so I extracted it from my trove of documents and began to read aloud Pema Döndrup’s recollections of a blizzard that trapped him for weeks inside a mountain hermitage.

“As Pema Döndrup watched his food supply dwindle, he ruminated on the impermanence of life.

“When I finished reading the passage, my elderly host was visibly shaken. He then retold the story of how his only sister, a nun, had been killed by an avalanche at her winter hermitage during a blizzard in the 1950s.”

When later recalling such stories, Childs thought about the connections between the past and present, between the lives of lamas preserved in sacred biographies and the lives of the people who live today.

“In rereading my field notes, I discovered other continuities, some relating to childhood and others to the experiences of old age,” Childs said. “I therefore decided to write the book and structure it around the concept of the life course, hence, the subtitle.

“Furthermore, I decided that this could be a good introduction to Tibetan society, and so provided a scholarly perspective through the lens of ethnographic analysis.”

Whereas other books tend to treat Tibetans as timeless folk whose every thought and action is dictated by Buddhist principles, Childs prefers to treat culture as an environment that informs but does not predetermine human behaviors.

“With this in mind, I took the opportunity to explore many of the issues that arise when individual aspirations conflict with social expectations,” Childs said. “My intent was to move beyond normative descriptions of Tibetan society by exploring the decisions that people make to resolve such conflicts, and the consequences of their decisions.

“As a result, the book is more hard-hitting — and less flattering — than many accounts of Tibetan societies.”

Instead of focusing exclusively on Pema Döndrup’s religious accomplishments, Childs also includes translations from Döndrup’s biography that show how he essentially abandoned his elderly parents — leaving them to fend for themselves without a caretaker — in order to pursue his desire to be a hermit and concentrate on spiritual endeavors.

In response to his parents’ heart-rending pleas that he remain at home, marry his deceased brother’s wife and help support them in old age, Döndrup composed a verse in which he encouraged them to say their prayers and meditate on the emptiness of human existence.

They were not consoled.

“I contrast this with caretakers of the elderly in contemporary Nubri society,” Childs said. “Parents often designate a daughter to be a nun who is then permanently beholden to her natal household (she cannot marry out, and there are no convents). As her parents age, she becomes their primary caretaker.

“But who takes care of the aging nun? These, and other questions, are explored in relation to decisions that are made during various stages in the life course.”

— Neil Schoenherr