Erica could hardly believe her luck. Her talents were needed to track down a gang of thieves who were stealing Buddhist treasures.
Her knowledge of the Tibetan language would be put to use and she would be returning to a part of the world that fascinated her.
Everything looked so straightforward at first. Then she realised she was being drawn into a web of intrigue that threatened everyone around her.
3rd April 1963, Zhongdian, China. Nawang Dolma hid behind the prayer flags and choked back tears. Blood spattered the steps of the shrine and dripped onto the earth below. The monk’s cries had died down. Nawang wondered if he was dead. His twisted body lay in the dust and blood flowed from a gash across his shaven head.
The old man had tried to stop the Red Guards from taking the holy scriptures and burning them. At first they taunted him, calling him a silly old fool and an enemy of the people. Then one of them threw a stone and that started the rest off. Even when he collapsed they didn’t stop.
Now they were smashing the statues of the blessed saints. The sacred images had stood beside the shrine for centuries. They were proof that the land belonged to the Tibetan people and not to China. Perhaps that was why the Red Guards were destroying them. They weren’t Tibetan. They had arrived on trains and were Chinese.
An old woman emerged from a doorway. Nawang had known her all his life. She was bent double from years working in the fields and walked with a stick. The Red Guards screamed insults. Stones began to fly. She ignored them and hobbled towards the monk.
Tears poured down Nawang’s face. He had been too scared to intervene when the Red Guards attacked the monk and he was too scared to help the old woman now. He knew that the shame would hang upon him like a black cloud for the rest of his life and follow him into the next.
The Buddhist faith had taught Nawang many things. Life was a journey. It was to be marvelled at and enjoyed. But there was more to life than enjoyment. Life was a test. How you behaved in this life decided what happened to you in the next.
At the age of sixteen, Nawang wondered about his next life. That was, hopefully, in the far distant future. What troubled him now was what people would think of him when he returned home. He was Tibetan like a lot of people in Zhongdian.
He had friends who were not Tibetan. They were Chinese and they thought of Zhongdian as home just like he did. And they didn’t like what the Red Guards were doing … it was totally crazy.
The communists ruled China. They had come to power following the civil war at the end of the Second World War. Their leader was Mao Zedong. He was chairman of the party’s central committee and people called him Chairman Mao. In other countries he would be called president or prime minister.
Mao was having trouble getting the older people to do what he wanted and he told the school kids to become Red Guards. That meant they could go around smashing things. They had special uniforms which looked a lot like the uniform Mao wore.
There was a special pocket in them. It was where the Red Guards kept their little red book of Chairman Mao’s thoughts. They were told to wave it at teachers and people like that. If they didn’t agree with everything the book said then the Red Guards were meant to beat them up.
The Red Guards, who beat the monk, came in a special train from Shanghai. There was a political commissar with them and he told them what to do. A band played the new national anthem. The Red Guards waved their little red books and lined up on the platform.
The station master was there and they made him read from the book. When he joked about Chairman Mao’s thoughts they shaved off his hair and smeared him with axle grease. After that they went round to the senior school and did the same to the head teacher.
Some of the students thought that was a big joke but many were upset by what was happening. They didn’t like the way their teachers were being treated and they got very angry when they were told to join in. Those that refused were called counter-revolutionaries and had their heads shaved.
Then the Buddhist shrine came in for attack. That was just the start. Another train was about to arrive and it was packed with more Red Guards. There would be enough to attack the big monastery on the hill and destroy its treasures. Priceless relics would be lost. Nawang thought of how the history of his people would be swept away.
His mind was filled with hatred and anger. Then he remembered his Buddhist teachings. Hatred and anger are destructive forces. Those who follow the way to enlightenment banish such thoughts from their minds. They think about how evil might be overcome.
Nawang recited a sutra. His mind cleared and a plan began to develop. He would harness the forces of evil and turn them back upon themselves. Evil would fight evil and the holy treasures would be saved.