Mani walls are like generous mounds of pause buttons in and along the paths of the Himalaya. So called because each flat stone has been carved with the mantra “Om mani padme hum,” they are meant to be walked around, a momentary 360 degrees, a freely offered chance to take an intentional breath and get a glimpse of how wide the world really is between all the various point A’s and B’s.
I was twenty-four, sitting on a backpack and leaning back upon sacred words, but ruminating on how my father, in response to this little revelation, would likely mutter that I had been wandering around a bunch of mani for close to three years now. Twelve time zones away, so young and trying so hard to “get” somewhere in my life, and with the amazing good fortune to even be there at all, and I was still in Houston, Texas. Running away, but arriving nowhere.
Then, I arrived at page 27 of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. One word, like a flashlight in the daylight, leapt up. “Gnaskor.” In Tibetan, it means “going around places.” It describes the intention of a pilgrimage. It means that the journey is the destination. It means something good. “How easy it feels to be superfluous on this expedition, in no haste and without gainful destination,” mused Mr. Matthiessen. Without gainful destination? Toto, I have a feeling we are not in America any more.
I began asking our trek leader questions about the walls, about Nepal, about how happy everyone here seemed. Between that book and those people, I began to learn the very first things I’d ever heard, positively, about another religion. I asked if Buddhism predominated, and if so was that by fiat, was this a theocracy? (I would learn, as I learned more, what a ludicrous question this was, and how very Judeo-Christian of me.) No, Buddhism was embraced, never imposed. I even discovered that proselytizing was ILLEGAL in Nepal! I was flabbergasted… but deliciously so. So, there were places on this Earth where people, lots and lots of happy people, completely upended what was considered axiomatic by so many of the people where I came from.
I had graduated from Texas A&M University three years before, a kind and warm place filled with many good Christians filled with many good intentions. I admired them, and only felt at that time inadequate in my spiritual malaise. And yet, I also felt something else, still so far out there, but something, some faith that though I didn’t have such assuring answers, my questions were valid. That an answer’s assurance was not necessarily proportionate to its validity. And, that the answers I had been given did not always embrace the rest of the world, and I wanted answers that did.
Just after graduation, a classmate who had been very friendly, had been really reaching out to me, invited me to lunch. By dessert, I realized that his warmth came with a mission. He had been telling me about how his Christian faith had filled his life with light and purpose. Then, he began telling me how smart I was, what a “catch” I was, that Christianity needed me, that “we have just got to get you on our team.” My stomach clenched. I’d been taught that this was good, but at that moment, seeing unseen people I hadn’t yet crossed paths with, and wanting to embrace them all, all I could say was, “Who is on the other team?”