This afternoon, I clipped my fingernails and toenails after a long time. On one hand, I did it intentionally, but on the other hand, I did it not knowing what else to do because of this useless prison life. Like other prisoners, I held a clipper, placed its blades on the smiling line of my nail, and carefully cut each of the nails, one at a time. For me, cutting my nails is a somewhat trivial pleasure. From cutting my nails to filing them afterwards, I get a lot of time to contemplate. However, after finishing the nail cutting, I was not sure if I should consider the scattered clippings on the ground as nail-trash or not.

This place is full of shady prisoners, so a high standard of morality is rare here. In this iron-fenced panel, armies of black shadows can be seen everywhere. Nail clippings are something we are not required to worry about or take responsibility for and they can be left on the ground or thrown away. Come to think of it, if someone cuts their fingernails at home, they only care to pick up the clippings out of concern for their house’s hygiene. If someone cuts their fingernails outside, they may not worry about the clippings and might possibly leave them on the ground. There is a tradition, one that’s thousands of years old, in which people pay no heed to nail clippings as they think there’s no harm in it. They also think, “What good would it be to pay attention to this.” That is their way of thinking. Perhaps it is also their cultural trait.

However, I’m different from them.

My nail clippings are also different from theirs. So, what am I going to do with my nail clippings? Am I going to leave them scattered on the concrete without a second thought? Should I leave them there as if no one is watching me? No, that’s not how I think.

I remember the cultural imprints that my late grandmother passed on to me and the good habits that I learned from my late mother. I shouldn’t leave those rough-edged nail clippings on the ground like that. If I do, the birds might peck at them. The nails might get stuck in their throats or even injure them. So, it’s important that I pick up every clipping and bury it in the earth. If I bury them, the birds won’t be able to eat them. But where can I find a piece of earth in this prison to bury them? The whole ground of the prison is covered with this merciless concrete.

Under these circumstances, there’s no way for me to bury them in the earth as we Tibetans traditionally do. So, I gathered them all and wrapped them in tissue paper and dropped them into the dustbin.

I think my ancestors are correct about what they say. Today, from the bottom of my heart, I felt the depth of their noble saying, “One should not forget one’s homeland even if it is just a cliff of clay”. Although it is not preserved in the volumes of great manuscripts, this clear and simple saying is as strong as a vajra rock.

One’s home is definitely not just a bare cliff.

Rather, this overly modest saying about a cliff of clay really refers to the vast grassland. This cliff is also a range of snow mountains. This saying is derived from a long-lived culture and tradition. Culture is not merely found on paper and in ink. Culture is not just grandiose qualities like exposition, debate, and composition. Rather, culture is an irresistible and invisible force, which is equal to an awe-inspiring seasonal wind that effortlessly penetrates the nine-floored iron fence panels of this dark prison. Because of this cultural courage, no one has been able to strip me naked to date.

Because of having that cultural imprint within me, no one has been able to isolate me. In this dark and remote prison, the thing that consoles me every day and night is the idea of the cliff of clay called home. The notion of the cliff of clay back home serves as a spine for my body; the idea of this cliff of clay back home is like giving my body a new neck.

The reason why I was cautious about my nail clippings is because I am a part of my ancestral culture. It is clear that my nail clippings won’t harm the birds hovering in the sky over the prison. However, every time I see the cluster of barbed wire thorns placed on top of the prison walls, I worry deeply about the foolish birds. I worry they might get caught in the barbed wire.

Excerpted with permission from “The Awe-Inspiring Culture”, by Nyen, translated from the Tibetan by Dhondup T Rekjong, from The Penguin Book of Modern Tibetan Essays, edited by Tenzin Dickie, Penguin India.