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 giggling.

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 agreed.

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 store.

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, sipping tequila.

-Will Sands




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