SALT LAKE CITY — While millions of Americans are enjoying the relaxing benefits of a long holiday weekend, a handful of Tibetan Buddhists and their friends from other Utah faith groups are focusing their time and spiritual efforts on the most compassionate cause imaginable: compassion itself.
“In the same way that every individual church is a beacon of light in a vast sea of darkness, we are lighting a candle of compassion from this place,” said Lama Thupten Dorje Gyaltsen, a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, as he anticipated this weekend’s annual Prayers for Compassion event at Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa, a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple on Salt Lake City’s 300 West.
The event began Thursday evening and continues nonstop, 24 hours a day, through 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 7. During that time, Lama Thupten and his fellow Tibetan Buddhists, along with any who wish to participate, will gather to chant the mantra: “Om mani padme hung hrih,” which Lama Thupten says is “the sound of compassion itself.”
“The power of the word embodies the essence of the quality of spirituality,” he said, sitting cross-legged in his temple office. “With this chant we invoke the presence and the blessings of the quality of compassion.”
And so they will be chanting the mantra over and over again, 24 hours a day, from Thursday evening until Sunday afternoon. They hope to accumulate more than 1.2 million recitations of Om Mani Padma Hung Hrih during that time as a way of filling their little piece of the universe with compassion.
“We do this for the sake of generating the compassionate nature that is within us all,” Lama Thupten said. “There needs to be a great abundance of compassion in this world, an aspiration to reduce the suffering and the causes of suffering. To this end, we try our best to act toward one another and all beings as though they were our mothers.”
To accomplish so great a task as 1.2 million recitations of the mantra, Lama Thupten and the other Tibetan Buddhists of Salt Lake City are soliciting help.
“We invite anyone who is interested to join with us at any time that pleases them to join us in this ceremonial ritual practice invoking an offering of the spiritual qualities that live within each and every one of us,” Lama Thupten said. “We are there night and day from the beginning of the event until the end. It can be very peaceful in our temple at 3 o’clock in the morning!”
The temple, located at 740 S. 300 West in Salt Lake City, was originally built as a meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For a number of years it was the home of the LDS 5th Ward, one of the first LDS congregations to be organized by the Mormon pioneers in Utah and a neighbor to the 6th-7th Ward, which had a young bishop by the name of Thomas S. Monson (now president of the 14 million-member LDS Church).
In 1978, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Eventually the LDS Church sold the building, and through the years it has been a nightclub, a photography studio, a real estate company and the home of an escort service. Lama Thupten, then known as Jerry Gardner, first saw the building in 1984 when he was teaching meditation, Tai Chi and martial arts. Even then he noticed that it would be a perfect space for a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple.
That dream became a reality in 2005, and since then Urgyen Samten Ling Gonpa (which means, loosely, “the Master’s place of meditation”) has been hosting Buddhists and others who are searching for enlightenment, which, according to Lama Thupten, is the heart of his faith.
“Tibetan Buddhism involves meditation, offerings, the recitation of prayers, the chanting of mantra and the visualization of that which represents the enlightened qualities,” he said. “We surrender ourselves in our search for those enlightened qualities.”
Part of that enlightenment, he added, is to be aware of other religious traditions and to know how they are like Buddhism and how they are different. “We want to build bridges of understanding through our commonality,” he said. “That is how we can live together in peace and understanding.”
Part of living together with people of other faiths includes inviting others to join them in this weekend’s Prayers for Compassion, which is held in honor of the Dalai Lama’s 79th birthday (Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama is “the manifestation of the essence of compassion,” Lama Thupten said. “He is Om Mani Padme Hung Hrih”).
“Through these opportunities we embrace our similarities and our differences,” Lama Thupten said. “For those who follow Jesus, I say ‘You follow in his way, while I follow in the way of Buddha.’ That is our commonality. By praying together we invoke the blessings of that which is most sacred to us, and we are all blessed as a result.”
There is no set time at which people should come to participate in the Prayers for Compassion. “We will be there 24 hours a day,” the lama said. “Whenever you come, there will be someone there to greet you.”
Visitors will receive brief instruction and explanation of what the Buddhist congregation is doing and they will be invited to join in the prayers in any way they choose.
“They will be given a card that has the mantra ‘Om mani padme hung hrih’ printed on it; if they feel comfortable in joining us in chanting that mantra, we would be delighted to have them do so,” Lama Thupten said. “But if they are not comfortable with that, they can do whatever it is that feels comfortable to them. They can recite a rosary, they recite scriptures or parables, they can pray in whatever way they choose. The important thing is to just be present with us, to experience it and to feel what we’re doing.”
However people of faith experience the Prayers for Compassion, Lama Thupten believes they are motivated by the very thing that is the focal point of the weekend’s activities: compassion.
“We will all be engaged in a practice to invoke compassion,” he said. “In order to pray for compassion, we must first be compassionate ourselves. Compassion, like peace, comes from within. Jesus taught that. So did the Buddha. This is how we rise above the ordinariness of our mundane existence. This is how we experience peace and harmony.”
And compassion — 1.2 million mantras worth.