Community Ecology Growing Practice Spirituality Wilderness

Chenrezig and the Mani Mantra

Mount Shasta

In June 2018, which it marvels me to reflect is now six years ago, researching my book “Retreat” I travelled to a retreat in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California. The region itself is completely mind-blowing as it is.

I was interviewing the legendary hippie guru Bhagavan Das, who is most famous for coining the expression “Be Here Now” which was popularised by Ram Dass.

I stayed on after our interview and took part in the retreat’s closing ceremony, at which the beloved “Baba” gave me the Mani mantra. He whispered it into my ear and gave us some instructions in how to use it with a mala.

Each time you mutter the six sylabbles, “OM-MA-NI-PE-MAY- HUNG”, you move a single crystal bead around the mala, a kind of rosary. The mala has 108 beads, and you are encouraged to circle it in this manner ten times each day.

Evidence of a early receptivity to these ideas. A drawing I made in Durbar Square in Katmandhu in August 1990.

As documented in “Retreat”, I subsequently kept coming across the mantra in my research, from the writings of Jack Kerouac to those of Carl Jung.

I had the definite sense that I had been drawn towards it and its surrounding teachings. It was as though the fascination I had for certain music and that era was leading me, through inexorable logic, towards the ideas enshrined in the mantra. Certainly, that’s the substance of my book, “The “S” Word.”

The mantra in a screenprint by Jung Associate the Dutch Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn in 1930

You don’t need any religious qualification to give someone the Mani mantra. Parents give it to their children, which is no surprise, as using it is tremendously reassuring. There’s nothing exclusive about it. In Tibet, which is its adopted country, men use the Mani mantra (Om Mani Padme Hung) and identify with the bodhisattva Chenrezig. Women use the Tara mantra (Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha) and identify with Green Tara.

My little Chenrezig statue. The four-armed version holding his crystal mala and white lotus flower.

The bodhisattva Chenrezig (the Tibetan nomenclature) is known by many names, but primarily they are Avalokiteśvara (in Sanskrit), Kannon (in Japan from which we get the brand name Canon), and Guānyīn (when they take the form of a woman in China).

The original Canon Camera Logo from 1933.

Possibly the most important mention of the bodhisattva comes in roll eight of the Lotus Sutra, which has the reputation of being the most important sutra (scripture) in all Buddhism.

In it the Buddha explains, “Good man, if incalculable hundreds of thousands of myriads of millions of living beings, suffering pain and torment, hear of this bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World and single-mindedly call upon his name, the bodhisattva He Who Observes the Sounds of the World shall straightway heed their voices, and all shall gain deliverance.”

One celebrated translation of the Lotus Sutra.

This act of listening and being heard relates to the legend of Chenrezig, once a young man, who vowed “May I not attain enlightenment until every last being has been liberated.” This renunciation is the essence of the Mahayana Buddhist proposition of the bodhisattva – it’s very different from the arhat of Theravada Buddhism, wherein the focus is upon the individual’s own liberation.

In the course of his endeavour to achieve this liberation of all beings, owing to the effort, Chenrezig shattered into a thousand pieces. The Buddhas pieced him together after this attempt, whereupon he had a thousand arms – the better to achieve his aims. This is why he sometimes depicted as having a thousand arms.

The thousand-armed Chenrezig. This painting from the Dalai Lama’s residence at McLeod Ganj.

Even by Buddhist standards, the complexity of ideas around the Mani mantra are involved. Literally every single aspect of the process of its recitation, and the individual syllables themselves, have intensely ornate symbolism.

You couldn’t pack more meaning into a single phrase if you tried. A great example of this is Leary, Metzner, and Alpert’s idol, the German Lama Anagarika Govinda‘s classic book “Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism”. This goes into dizzying detail about the meaning of mantra.

Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism has the six syllables in clockwork on its cover with, as is common, the magic word HRIH in the centre.

Another great book on the Mani mantra is Alexander Studholme’s “The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum: A Study of the Kārandavyūha Sūtra” (2002). Studholme recounts the mantra’s supposed inception at the holy Indian city of Varanasi, and makes a cogent case for its use as being a twin of the Pure Land strain of Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism revolves entirely around chanting the words “Namo Amituofo” (in essence, the Amitabha Buddha’s name) or just “Amituofo”. It is itself a very elegant reduction of a myriad of ideas.

The mantra on the cover here as it appears in Karandavyuha Sutra written in the Lantra script not the more common Sanskrit.

The more one researches the mantra, it seems, the more one finds out about its meaning. This is how it has been engineered as a vehicle of boundaryless absorption. The yogic mechanism of bhakti, a spiritual union in the way of all yogas, inculcates its “high” through this loving devotion, to which the mantra brings only intensification.

If you think about it, most focal points of our obsessions have definite boundaries. Take record collecting as an example, in my own opinion, there are delineated boundaries beyond which point it ceases to be productive behaviour. There are limits to the amount of music to which one is naturally receptive, there are limits too to the amount of time one can devote to listening, and certainly in own experience there came a moment when I just “got it” – as though, still a tasty dish, it were a kind of food I had gorged on to the point at which I found the returns were diminishing. Something like the mantra, or other spiritual “technologies” like the worship of deities, work around this problem and offer boundless vistas for our meditation and preoccupation.

Although by now I have, to some extent, popped out the other side of this intense fascination, for a while I was very wrapped up in it. And loving it, frankly! Here for instance are two high-resolution renditions I made of the magic syllables and one of its corresponding colours.

From the Sanskrit
In the Lantra text
The Mantra’s coresponding colours.

A very central part of the Chenrezig mythology is the idea that the Dalai Lama, the “Ocean Lama”, is the emanation of the bodhisattva on this plane of reality.

Therefore, as part of my research trip to India in December 2019, moments before the COVID shutdown, I went to Bodh Gaya in Bihar to witness the Dalai Lama giving Chenrezig Initiation at the Kalachakra Teaching Ground. Participants in this ceremony are able to claim themselves to be emanations of the compassionate bodhisattva!

Where’s Woebot? I am visible in this wonderful photo of his holiness holding my mala aloft.

I took a lot of pleasure in discovering that this picture of the 14th Dalai Lama, the first internationally propagated image of him, was commissioned by, and printed in our family’s newspaper, The Illustrated London News.

As nebulous as the meaning of the mantra is, we can, I believe, simplify it somewhat. In Sanskrit, sandwiched between the two divine sounds “Om” and “Hum”, we have “mani” meaning jewel, and “padme” the locative of lotus.

Academics have many takes, they refer to the bodhisattva as a “Jewel-lotus”, or “She of the Jewel-lotus”, or describe “a lotus that is a jewel”, or a “jewel in the lotus”, or celebrate “O, she with the jewel in her lotus” (sounds like vajazalling…), or (according to the aforementioned Studholme) think that it is best rendered as following, “in the jewel lotus” or “in the lotus made of jewels”.

However-which-way one interprets these words, even if they are a description of the bodhisattva, they remain a conjunction of two ideas. The idea of the jewel and, crucial to my own interpretation, the idea of the Lotus flower.

A lotus in the swamp

Within the context of Hindu thought, the Lotus flower is meaningful because its pristine architecture rises from the swamp. There’s even a punchy slogan in contemporary Buddhism which picks this up: “No Mud, No Lotus.”

In comparing or equating the Lotus to a jewel, there is a further intensification of this conceptual underpinning of immaculate beauty arising from a base material, for just as the lotus arises from the mud, the jewel arises from the lotus. But it’s especially interesting, I believe, to put ourselves in the mindset of the agricultural society of the 4th and 5th century when the mantra was coined. This society would have been preoccupied with the miracle and importance of plant growth and vitality, and an understanding of the worth, not so much of “mud” but soil, and seen the mantra in that context.

Buddhism, with its emphasis on total interconnectivity, is the original ecological philosophy. Of course, the other famous plant in the Buddhist cosmology is the Bodhi tree. It was seated under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya that the Buddha had his satori.

The author at the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in 2019.

Back from India, and parsing all these ideas about compassion and ecology, I started working more and more on growing. Here for instance is my experiment of growing Lotus flowers on Old Street in 2021.

For a long time, sensing in a way the threat of this boundaryless activity, I was quite keen to place it within some framework. We did discuss these ideas subsequently, but ultimately it was unfortunate that Bhagavan Das lived way across the Atlantic, where it wasn’t possible to be in his physical presence.

Consequently, I decided it was an idea to take refuge, the Buddhist equivalent of confirmation, and so through the Kagyu Samye Dzong organisation in London I made the pilgrimage up to Samye Ling. This experience crucially took me, not to the subcontinent, but Dumfriesshire in Scotland. Fascinating for me was the order’s decision to put the statue of Chenrezig in the middle of their Organic Herb and Vegetable Garden overseeing the kale, spinach, and potatoes.

Indeed, Buddhas are often a feature of gardens. Placed there usually without great consideration.

I don’t know if it’s a common phenomenon, but more and more with Buddhism (and this is in no way a criticism of the philosophy), I found it was meaningless to describe myself as one.

Buddhism itself doesn’t mean anything. By which I’m suggesting that, at its purest, it is practically invisible; is no more than common-sense. Its principles of dependent origination, impermanence, and compassion are nothing more than the evidently correct order of the universe. To become fixated on its glittering imagery and exquisite ritual, as I tremendously enjoyed for a period, is somehow to miss the point – even if it’s something I would never wish to entirely leave behind. On my own journey, I started growing plants as a form of “practice” before eventually, by no means superficially, I found myself just growing them.

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Leaf Mould

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Cow Parsley

Such a beautiful pentagonal structure.

Not to be confused with Yarrow. I never could get this to grow from the seed I picked up at Samye Ling.

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The World About Us

Created by David Attenborough “The World About Us” was a BBC Two television documentary series. Its central topic was natural history, but it had a wide remit covering people and geography. Running from 1967 to 1986 its list of contributors is remarkable.

“The World About Us” was the only TV show which, as children, we were allowed to stay up late to watch. It aired on Sunday evenings in the mid-seventies. I trace my fascination with animation back to The Pink Panther and The Rescuers, but before them “The World About Us” title sequence, commissioned by Attenborough, was the first thing that entranced me. What was this, this golden latticed globe, with its eerie aftertrails? Where was it?

My initial hunch was that the sequence was the work of Bernard Lodge who made the first Dr. Who title sequence, and I was correct. Blogger Tim Dickinson Pink for Your Actual Pterodactyl has a wonderful breakdown of it.

Lodge designed a skeleton ‘globe’ from bands of metal. The bands intersected both vertically and diagonally… Filming on 35mm, the globe revolved on a black background, and the camera tracked from one side of the screen to another. This negative was later replicated with the bands rotating in the opposite direction. The key ingredient was the duplication of the film six times, with each frame shifted by 2 or 3 frames. The resulting dupe (negative) consisted of a swirling array of bands.

An additional negative of the globe zooming into the screen was recorded, again using the same process. This faded out as the two tracking shots (the ‘pan from left to right, and right to left) cleared the frame. This left the sans-serif title caption to fade in, before the sequence fades to black in time with the final flute motif. Lodge used a simple and effective technique, using multiple exposures to create a world rich in mystery and intrigue. The repeated imagery fits perfectly with the swirling, echoing, multi-layered soundtrack.

The title sequence to ‘The World About Us’ (BBC, 1967, Bernard Lodge)

The cue by John Scott was, I know now, straight out of the Paul Horn playbook. Jazz as it sheared into the New Age. The sequence has all the hallmarks of Hauntology, because (and this is my own definition), this was TV as a conduit of the countercultural current.

Animation is a very etheric pursuit, but refreshingly these metaphysical graphics and music were tethered to a TV show on… the world about us. As above, so below.

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Shanin Blake

[Thanks to Jeff for the heads-up.] It seems like Shanin Blake is attracting as much attention as hate on TikTok, her native platform. She’s being slated for having parents who work for Lockheed Martin [this, I am informed, is apparently a meme], being a perpetrator of cultural appropriation, spreading misinformation about health etc.

I’m just totally fascinated that she’s bringing all these subjects dear to my heart to the centre stage. I do think, however, that Blake should be careful not to burn out on the weed, acid, and shrooms. She’s starting to look weirder and weirder to the extent that I’d be concerned if she was my daughter. This concern comes from a place of love though. It would be a pity to squander all that positive energy.

Shanin’s horny, verging on the softly pornographic, videos appear to come from that hippie quarter where naturism meets the erotic. They remind me of the Fidus pictures and the Lebensreform photos.

What’s her music like? Well actually I think it’s nice! It’s a perky, super-intimate take on the modern R’n’B of Erykah Badu, Solange, SZA, and Janelle Monae. Black music, yes. But therefore she’s sitting in what used to be a perfectly respectable tradition peopled by the likes of The Box Tops, Hall & Oates, and David Bowie. “Senses” below from two years ago is a pretty piece of ear candy which would sit well with the clockwork mouse music.

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Twin Oaks Fire

Our  industrial center, Emerald City, is on fire

One of America’s legendary communes, Twin Oaks, originally modelled on ideas from B.F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” (1948) book, has been badly damaged in a fire. I haven’t written extensively about Twin Oaks in my upcoming book “The Garden”- but they are close on the heels of Tennessee’s Farm for being North America’s most famous and successful commune. Anna writes:

On Wednesday afternoon March 20th 2024, tragedy struck Twin Oaks when a nearby wild fire spread to our property, completely destroying our warehouse complex, our sawmill and our conference site. Over 200 acres burned through the night, forcing the entire community to evacuate. Luckily, no people, pets or residences were damaged. While we do have a disaster fund, the damage we’re facing is devastatingly huge. The structures destroyed include our large warehouse complex, our sawmill, 4 vehicles, our kilns, a hoop-house, a functioning outdoor kitchen and pavilion at the conference site, countless storage structures including 3 barns and 2 trailers, and many other small structures. We are estimating a loss of more than a million dollars. This loss also means the end of our 57-year old hammocks business, which was Twin Oaks’ beating heart for many decades since its foundation in 1967. Other Twin Oaks businesses experienced losses as well, but will most likely recover.‍

The Leaves of Twin Oaks #132
Vehicles and buildings destroyed
Destroyed wood-working machine with ruined workshop / warehouse in background
Ropemaking Twister ruined

[Photos by Anna and Jane]

One is able to make a contribution here.

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Geodesic Dome Patent Drawings

Every communard’s favourite. The template for many a green house. Look! You can inspect Buckminster Fuller‘s patent application for the Geodesic Dome!

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Moonlight on Vermont


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Berries from Cape Cod, Upstate New York and Maine. The Raspberries (totally delicious) on Four Season Farm, the Huckleberries (which Picture This! mistook for Deadly Nightshade) from Soul Fire Farm.

Ecology Growing Organic Wilderness


Mushrooms from the woods of Massachusetts, Upstate New York, Vermont, and Maine. The Shitake on the apple tree logs cultivated, the rest, wild.