Recently, on a trip to India with my girlfriend I went to a state known as Sikkim, a small Himalayan kingdom which joined the republic in 1975. The culture is very different than the rest of India, with Tibetan Buddhism being the predominant religion and significantly more Tibetan, Nepali, and Chinese influence overall. It was both a particularly tranquil and beautiful place.
Main market street in Gangtok, the capital.
Prayer flags dotting the forest at the spot in which the kingdom was originally founded in the 1600’s.
Our journey was made logistically easy by a taxi driver who took us all around for the whole 5 days, a nice guy who seemed totally immune to anger, impatience or exhaustion. This is despite the occurrence every 15 minutes of a car coming in the opposite direction which forced us approximately 6 inches from the cliff which inevitably lay beside the road. Every morning he would play a particularly nice sounding mantra, almost a song but with only 4 words. It relaxed me and came to represent the tranquility of the place within 3 days.
One day in the capital city of Gangtok my girlfriend and I walked in to a Buddhist temple grounds, touring around briefly before continuing. On the side of a pillar we saw this:
|Syllable||Six Pāramitās||Purifies||Samsaric realm||Colors||Symbol of the Deity||(Wish them) To be born in|
|Om||Generosity||Pride / Ego||Devas||White||Wisdom||Perfect Realm of Potala|
|Ma||Ethics||Jealousy / Lust for entertainment||Asuras||Green||Compassion||Perfect Realm of Potala|
|Ni||Patience||Passion / desire||Humans||Yellow||Body, speech, mind
quality and activity
|Pad||Diligence||Ignorance / prejudice||Animals||Blue||Equanimity||the presence of Protector (Chenrezig)|
|Me||Renunciation||Greed / possessiveness||Pretas (hungry ghosts)||Red||Bliss||Perfect Realm of Potala|
|Hum||Wisdom||Aggression / hatred||Naraka||Black||Quality of Compassion||the presence of the Lotus Throne (of Chenrezig)|
“Om Mani Padme Hum”, a term I hadn’t ever heard before. However, I read it and contemplated for 5 minutes, primarily the first 3 columns as the deities and samsaric realms had little meaning to me. Eventually we continued on our way.
Next morning, we got into the car and heard the mantra song again. Suddenly I burst out with excitement; I realized what the words were!
I felt compelled to continue listening to the song after we left Sikkim, and after we left back to the states. It would be particularly nice to listen to for 20 minutes as I began work in the morning, or as running music. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I believe the idea behind it has particularly meaning in chaotic times such as these.
Here is the Dalai Lama’s words about the mantra:
He interprets “mani padme” primarily as one entity, a jewel in a lotus flower. Lotus flowers have many meanings in Buddhism, but I’ve understood the meaning to be something along this zen verse:
“May we exist in muddy water with purity, like a lotus.”
Likewise, jewels have a specific meaning in Buddhism, with the “three jewels” representing dharma (duty), teachings, and Sangha (community). By this simple picture, mani padme can be viewed as the growing brightness of correct actions, given time, and purity despite the excess of mud in the world. Let’s dissect it further, though, to the original chart:
- Om (Generosity): Om is a shared syllable throughout vedic religions, sometimes interpreted as the sound of the still universe. Hinduism associates the term with Atman (soul) and Bhraman (Ultimate reality, or God depending on interpretation). Here is the symbol in Devanagari, which I’m sure you’ve seen before:
The relationship of generosity, in my opinion, is that empathy is a the base of all meaningful action and decisions. The soul of a human being evolves by recognizing the value in other souls, and by holding this as the only foundation of our action we can choose rightly when we must make difficult decisions. It is not even a prelude to pacifism or absolute non-violence in this sense, as Ahimsa does not traditionally teach this. Instead it is a basis to go into a peaceful day with love and kindness and to go to war as a last resort, as if going to a funeral. Additionally, seeking stillness in our own body and mind is the basis for health and activity.
The opposite is pride and ego, where we draw ourselves according to something arbitrary, see this as the all encompassing good, and limit compassion accordingly.
- Ma (Ethics): I assume this traditionally means something along the 8-fold path for monks, but for us Westerners I believe ethics means something along the line of a concentrated plan of action driven from the base of generosity. This can be our commitment to work, loyalty to our friends, and the plethora of actions taken to keep our lives effectively in order (chores, working out, meditation, proper diet, management of money, etc). And of course, this is in thought, word and action.
- The opposite is of course jealousy and lust for entertainment, the emotions of impulsiveness which sacrifice the long term for the short term.
- Ni (Patience): Patience is meaningless without ethics, and visa versa. Patience is simply the fortitude required to go without reward for some period of time without giving in.
- Passion and desire are the opposites, for what I assume to be similar reasons to what is listed above. It’s notable that the more passion we have for something, the more we need to see the reward from it to sustain that passion.
- Pad (Diligence): This to me is interpreted as an important subset of awareness. Meditation, for example, simply asks us to become aware of our negative thoughts, notably those driving us away from our base and thus our duties indirectly. Diligence is neither confined to a specific timepoint nor to our thoughts, but is meant to be all encompassing. We can sometimes say things which have subtle undertones which we fail to pick up on, or experience tenseness in our body or fidgeting legs from discomfort. It’s solely our duty to account for this.
- Ignorance and prejudice are some of the first thoughts that arise in the subconscious mind. Look right now into your thoughts, count for 60 seconds, and it’s likely you’ll notice at least 1 prejudiced or ignorant thought arise against another person or group. And the correct response is not “well I’m right”. To be diligent is simply to acknowledge that it exists.
- Me (Renunciation): This evolves from diligence because it is the conscious choice to reject the ignorance and prejudice which you become aware of. It is also necessary to renounce excesses.
- Greed and possessiveness tell us that renouncing something will mean that we are at a disadvantage compared to others who are allowed to have it. People may feel subtly that they want to feel anger toward another person who is feeling anger towards them or even towards others. Possessiveness tells us not to give up what others want or have, even if it is harmful.
- Hum (Wisdom): Wisdom is the icing on the cake, whereas this particular cake tastes totally bland without icing. It is the deeper understanding of the world which enables us to elevate the quality of thoughts and actions beyond where they were before. It is also only truly possible to reach higher levels of understanding if we are working effectively and patiently while staying aware and pure from distractions.
- Wisdom relies on the base of generosity, and this understanding of the base is toppled through hatred. Hatred rejects the inherent existence of a soul in others, labeling them as a pimple to be removed. Yet still we see the world reflected accordingly.
This is my understanding after having contemplated the meaning and applied it to my life for the last few weeks. The jewel in the lotus flower is a thriving human being, growing only from compassion and shielded only by wisdom.
However, how does this apply in everyday life? Let’s take a brief look at 2 scenarios.
- One is sitting in work, doing the tasks required, but seeing little return, or no longer valuing the return which is coming. Bitterness is welling up, and productivity is going down as frustration and helplessness grow. At worst, a sense of ennui and nihilism begin to creep in.
- Om: What are your priorities, and who is this work benefiting? Focus on how the little things help the world.
- Ma: Focus on the task at hand and know that you are not only better than the impression your own weakness gives, but your decision to do your duty is standing alone anyway.
- Ni: Patience is not something you are inherently without. What is distracting you? Are meaningless pleasures and distractions across your life bringing you from focusing? Are you not, to a degree, using these as a pick me up in the first place?
- Pad: What exactly is it that you are thinking in work? What are you doing to procrastinate? What are your thoughts of disappointment saying, word for word? If you have 5000 negative or distracting thoughts in a day, endeavor to recite them all at the end of the day.
- Me: Which of these distracting or disconcerting thoughts that you have are actually helping you? Throw the rest away, fully. But keep any legitimate grievances.
- Hum: Why did you go into you job in the first place? Remember the little details, the big picture. In past and in future. Know what you are doing with your life and why, and if it no longer is worth it, given Om Mani Padme Hum, give it up for something better.
- The political scene is chaotic. The right wingers in the government and in the media are not all bad, but it seems to be split between out of touch ideologues and conspiracy theorists whose minds are on an infinite negative loop. The left wingers in power are generally much better in my opinion, but still largely ignoring cries from the populace while relying on political correctness and identity politics while this past election shows that this truly just masks people’s true feelings. And, everyone in the country is yelling, with a lot of people on both sides saying extremely nasty things.
- Om: Remember that the purpose of the government is to reduce human suffering, whether you like it big or small. Remember that your words should be motivated by compassion, and if you are putting people down on the internet or verbally you are not actually changing anything except the degree if compassion in yourself. That includes people saying useless things about muslims and hispanics, as well as white people and trump supporters (if you are comparing the weight of the two in your head right now, reread this paragraph.
- Ma: Your main life duties have not gone away. But, do you want to make a difference in politics? Consider carefully everything you do. Consider the outcome and the means at once. Don’t waste energy punching a wall, either. Consider that your inner turmoil may indeed be your inner roller coaster.
- Ni: Patience means doing what you can while your opponents in power rather than praying for anarchy in the mean time. It means doing little things like writing a representative even though they won’t write you back. Because civic duty is unrewarding.
- Pad: Keep an awareness of the actual intent behind what is published in the news and what leaders say. But most importantly, keep an awareness of every point that prejudice comes up in your own thoughts. What is this doing besides complicating things?
- Me: Renounce anger and prejudice. Renounce obsessive thinking. Renounce violent protest on the streets and in your own head. And renounce complicity as well.
- Hum: The crux. Educate yourself in history and economics. In religion and modern warfare. In geopolitics and in culture. If you have your head on straight after the rest of the chant, and you remember your base, you can have a solid opinion with the prerequisite knowledge. You can support a given war and not condone hatred, because you are coming from the right place. Or you can not. You can support stricter immigration policy without resenting minorities. Or not. Either way, you can enjoy your life and be content that you have walked the best path as well as you could.