Outside the abbot’s door was a deep wooden box with an undecorated lid. It was locked. He kept the key in his sleeve. On the side facing the wall, there was open carving in a delicate design. Why the latticework faced the wall was unclear. Perhaps it seemed immodest? Perhaps it was a distraction. At any rate, no one moved the box to examine it. It was forbidden and it wasn’t all that interesting, anyway.
I slept inside the box every night from the time I was 5 until I was twenty.
No one knew this except the abbot. Women were forbidden at Maha Kunzang Osel Ling. There were one hundred and twelve monks living there and not even the cat was a girl. Women did visit on occasion. They came from the village at the foot of the hill and brought offerings of tsampa and ghee. (It was on one of those visits, people later speculated, that I had been left in the temple.) But at sundown, the gates were locked and women could not enter until daylight. I was, they were to say later, the only exception in three centuries, at least.
When the kunyay came to clean the shrine, he found me sitting in the great hall, in front of the Buddha Shakyamuni, still and silent. This was not owing to spiritual precociousness as much as it was to the fact that I had not eaten in three days and that I had some sense that if I moved, I would fall over. Looking the golden Buddha straight in the eye seemed as good as any other means to stay awake.
The kunyay carried several small lumps of tsampa in his sleeve and he gave me some. It was stale but not unpleasant.
I was too afraid to say thank you or anything else. The kunyay was not unaccustomed to new arrivals being speechless, nor was he aware that I was a girl. When he carried me to the abbot’s room, I saw that the abbot, in his wisdom, or possibly just his vast experience, knew immediately.
He was reading a text to a small group of Khenpos. They were sitting on the floor cross-legged, leaning towards the abbot with an appropriate amount of interest and respect. The abbot was reading, at a remarkable rate, a long passage that included a fair amount of Sanskrit. Without missing a syllable, he motioned for the kunyay to seat me on a cushion near the wall. He looked at me (while continuing, somehow, to read) over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. His eyebrows were raised and I knew he knew. He looked left and right, as if to see if anyone else knew. They did not.
This was the beginning of our friendship and a wonderful secret.