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The story of a Pacific Grove Tibetan monk and his fawn friend.

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Karma Shawa

Karma Shawa.

Christopher Neely here, thinking about a recent morning I spent at the Manjushri Dharma Center in Pacific Grove. 

The morning light shone through the front windows of the dharma center and highlighted the damp cheeks of Tibetan monk Khenpo Karten. Submitting to the steady stream of mournful tears rolling down his face, Karten recounted for me the story of Karma Shawa and how the last three weeks etched a permanent mark into the monk’s soul. 

“This deer had such a big heart,” Karten says. 

As the sun began its descent one evening in early May, Karten watched a doe and her infant fawn exit Forest Avenue and approach the garden in his front yard. The fawn, still figuring out balance and control over its awkwardly-sized limbs, browsed Karten’s blooming shrubs. “Welcome to my garden, but don’t eat my flowers” Karten says he warned the pair from his living room. He thought it a fleeting comment as he expected this to be a brief encounter. After all, it was the height of deer season and moments such as these occurred daily across the region. 

When he began his day at 4am the next morning, he was pleasantly surprised to find the doe and fawn sleeping next to one of his garden’s three Buddha statues. The same happened the following morning and the morning after that. On the fourth morning, he awoke to find only the fawn. The mother had moved next door to his neighbor’s lawn protected by a roughly four-foot tall white picket fence; distant but still able to keep an eye on her baby. 

Over the next two weeks, Karten closely observed the pair’s behavior from his window and picked up on their schedule: Between 8am and 9am, the mother comes over to feed the fawn milk before they head off for a daily adventure. At 6pm the two re-emerge from their day of exploring and the fawn finds its place in Karten’s garden, alternating between two of his three Buddha statues, and the mother returns to her bed next door. During the deer’s daytime journeys, Karten would walk out to his garden to leave fruit and water mixed with nectar pills blessed by the Dalai Lama for the pair to find after their commute home. 

Karten tells me he began to develop a strong connection with the fawn, which he named Karma Shawa. The Tibetan phrase “semchen tamche” translates to “all sentient beings.” Earlier this year, when I spoke with Karten about meditation, part of his practice is dedication, or devotion, to all sentient beings—any being that has a mind—during which he meditates on all the suffering of the world. “While sentient beings have different bodies, shapes and colors, some with two legs like us and some with four legs like Karma Shawa, the minds of all sentient beings are the same because they all possess Buddha Nature,” Karten wrote on his blog. “Tibetan Buddhists believe in past life connections and reincarnation. I have so many students and he might even be a reincarnation of one of my students.” 

One evening as Karten was cleaning his garden, he found Karma Shawa asleep behind a flower bush, with the mother close by in his neighbor’s yard. Karten quietly performed a ritual chant for his new friend and Karma Shawa suddenly shot awake, Karten says, and jumped into Karten’s lap, where it stayed for 15 minutes. “It was a magical moment,” Karten says. 

On May 27, Karten, as he usually does, awoke at 4am and, after his morning meditation, went to greet his friend as he had faithfully done each morning for two weeks. But Karma Shawa was missing. Karten checked the fawn’s three favorite spots only to find the empty impressions of Karma Shawa’s body. Slightly concerned, Karten retreated inside to perform his morning rituals but couldn’t shake the nagging worry. He cut his ritual short—a rare event—and raked his property for any sign of his friend; however, the search quickly ended as he approached the white picket fence dividing his and his neighbor’s yards. 

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Karma Shawa’s body hung lifeless from the fence, its head caught between two posts, its neck clearly broken. “I broke down and cried, my friend,” Karten says, battling tears as he shows me the exact spot where he found Karma Shawa. “I couldn’t believe that he died in such a tragic way. I touched his body but he had already turned cold.” Weeping, he removed the body from the fence and placed it under a bush. This is where the story begins to turn. 

Karten called a friend for advice, who told him to call animal control. Karten felt this too cold of an exit for a friend with whom he held such a deep connection. Tibetan tradition says, if possible, the body of a loved one should be kept in the home for 49 days. Karten did this when his father died. The Bardo Thodol, a sacred text commonly known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes the Bardo, which is the intermediate state after death and before rebirth. In the Bardo, the deceased being will stay near its body for a while and Tibetans believe that prayers and practices by loved ones can benefit the deceased if the body is kept close. With the help of his friend, Karten brought Karma Shawa’s body into his home and resolved to keep it there for at least one day. 

With a protection cord, blessed by the Dalai Lama, placed around Karma Shawa’s neck, Karten surrounded the fawn’s corpse with flowers and 100 lit tea lights. Then, he hopped on the phone. He called dharma centers, monasteries, temples and Tibetan monks across the world, as well as the office of the Dalai Lama, and asked them to recite prayers on behalf of Karma Shawa during their evening rituals. “I knew I had to do something for Karma Shawa, my friend,” Karten tells me. “This was the least I could do.” 

Karten says he received confirmation that over the course of two days, more than 9,000 Tibetan monks across the world, from places such as Nepal, Tibet, and Thailand, including even the Dalai Lama himself, prayed for the spirit of Karma Shawa, a fawn from Pacific Grove, California who died a tragic death. Karten says he was overwhelmed by this outpouring of global support.

The day following Karma Shawa’s death, Karten held an emotional ceremony at the dharma center. Afterward, members helped lower Karma Shawa’s body into a grave in the dharma center’s backyard—which is legal according to Pacific Grove municipal code—and covered the body with flowers before burying it. Today, the burial site sits under a lush display of flowers, Buddha statuettes, and a plaster mold of Karma Shawa’s hoof print. 

“Karma Shawa will live forever in my heart,” Karten tells me.

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Christopher Neely covers a mixed beat that includes the environment, water politics, and Monterey County's Board of Supervisors. He began at the Weekly in 2021 after five years on the City Hall beat in Austin, TX.

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