Inside the spiritual gift store
A couple in matching, long leather coats eased beneath
the sign of the “spiritual gift store.” On a brief recess from a second or third date
at Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, the two decided to spice things up with a trip into the land
of prayer wheels, pungent incense and “Free Tibet” bumper stickers.
“Maybe you can replace your Buddha,” mused
the larger of the two coats.
The size-6 jacket giggled back, and arm in arm, the two
approached a large display case and peered over a sea of silver pendants.
“I spent a few months trekking in the Himalaya
eight years ago and had a talisman with this inscription,” the large coat boasted to more
Smelling a potential sale, the small Asian store-keeper
tentatively approached, carefully opened the case, picked up the pendant between two fingers and in
broken English said, “It reads, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum.’”
Arm now around the size-6, the adventurer announced,
“Just as I thought, ‘May you prosper.’”
The boasting grin vanished, however, when the soft voice
replied in less broken English. “Actually, the literal translation is ‘jewel in the
heart of lotus.’”
In a huff, the two leather coats exited stage left and
the pendant went back in the case. “Let’s go grab a burger,” the couple
Years later, I heard “Om Mani Padme Hum”
uttered again by a small voice in perfect Tibetan. Enveloped in saffron robes, the exile rested
comfortably on the floor of one of America’s easternmost monasteries, chanting the sutra
through closed eyes.
Lama Tenzen walked out of Tibet at the age of nine.
Since that arduous journey, he has devoted himself to better understanding reality and finding the
gate to nirvana. Above all, he has worked to share his discoveries with Westerners, most recently
in that one-room monastery on the North Shore of Maui.
One day, I chanced into a Buddhist service that Tenzen
opened with “Om Mani Padme Hum.” He and his congregation repeated it with lyric
precision, and heavy trance gripped everyone in attendance.
Through Tenzen’s mouth, Om, the sound and silence
of reality, opened the way for Mani, the jewel and reality’s absolute essence. Mani sat
within Padme, the lotus and the perceptible world and object of our desires. And Hum, in its
meaningless simplicity, gave the revelation closure.
Lama Tenzen briefly explained a hidden meaning –
the sutra invites us to peel back the layers of the lotus, cast them aside and seek life’s
essence. Abandon the material and seek truth. The lama then discussed the difficult path beyond the
lotus, saying that reaching the jewel entails a long, arduous journey fraught with temptation. A
far cry from buying a new Buddha, trekking for a few weeks in Nepal or setting a chance foot inside
a monastery, the task can span many incarnations.
Looking around the room, I saw a pack of predominantly
upper-class Americans in groovy clothes. Outside, the parking lot was loaded with new, oversize
sport utes and a group of middle managers and investors were rhythmically prostrating themselves
before the Tibetan man. “What are these imposters thinking?” I thought.
Just then, the lama flashed a hard look at me, an
upper-middle class, tequila-loving, meat-eating white guy on vacation. I realized that the only
thing missing was that leather coat.
Kneeling before the Lama filled me with unease, and
looking back, I’m afraid the experience was my own step into the spiritual gift
Many of us worship the icon of Tibet, just as we long
for a taste of the lives of the Bedouin, the Native American and the American farmer and rancher.
Unfortunately, we look for them in viewing cases, on glossy postcards and in images on silver
screens. The charm is broken.
A craving for the holy, the jewel in the lotus, so to
speak, drew me to the monastery that day. I assume it also brought that couple into the gift store.
Perhaps, we both peeled off a first layer. Maybe not.
I know that I decided to start looking for the answers a
little closer to home. I do believe that elusive jewel is out there. The good news is I think
I’ve even glimpsed it a time or two in the San Juans, overlooking town on the Hogsback
speeding along the trails of Horse Gulch and even in downtown Durango on a late afternoon patio,