This summer, I traveled to Ladakh and was struck by the omnipresence of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. Flags bearing its syllables were everywhere. The saying is carved into prayer wheels, bricks, and rocks. Its beat infuses everything. I found myself chanting it as I walked down from the Thiksey Monastery to the inn where I was staying.
Months later, in New York City, a miniature prayer flag bearing the mantra laces around other relics on my home alter. I continue to practice with it. But the rhythm of New York is so different than that of the Himalayas. On the subway, “Stand By Me” is frequently sung by pan-handling quartets. Or, “I’m homeless, can you help me out?” signs grace cardboard boxes in front of matted young people sitting on the sidewalk. To get customer attention, tip jars at coffee shops post trivia questions so that underpaid baristas can buy a cup of coffee for themselves.
These are the mantras of NYC. Requests for cash by those in need. I wonder what would happen if we all said Om Mani Padme Hum.
The mantra is associated with the bodhisattva of compassion, and the Dali Lama says that the translation of the mantra is “praise to the jewel in the lotus.”
Like all mantras, there are layers upon layers of meaning to what at first is a seemingly simple saying. These meanings reveal themselves as you repeat, recite, and live with them.
One layer—the jewel represents the method or the practice and the lotus represents the wisdom or knowledge. Another layer is that you cannot live in compassion without having both. And yet, a third is the unification of opposites—male (represented by the jewel) and female (represented by the lotus) achieves an end to suffering.
You can practice all the time, but without wisdom, your practice is empty. You can have an abundance of knowledge, but without a process it is useless.
The people I met in Ladakh were financially very poor by U.S. standards and yet extraordinarily generous with their limited material goods and wealth of awareness.
As I ponder the ancient mantra’s meaning, I wonder how the needs of NYC’s poor, homeless, and hungry would be better served if each one of us practiced compassion and empathy every day. Can our political and business institutions be transformed by our actions, speech, and thoughts? Instead of looking at ourselves as have and have-nots can we view ourselves united in a desire to spread kindness and generosity to all. Can we indeed find the jewel in the lotus?