I first encountered the om prayer in the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s British Colonial picaresque novel, Kim, in which the protagonist teams up with a wise and seemingly guileless Tibetan monk to foil Russian gun runners in the Khyber Pass.
Apart from being a writer with Dickens’ touch in depicting the varieties in language and manners across social classes, Kipling was interested in morality tales with happy and noble endings. He was a Freemason, a Christian, and a royalist, so he wasn’t welcome in English department class syllabuses in the late ’90s, when I went to college. If his name came up at all, it was so that we could deconstruct his basic assumptions about other cultures and his blindness to the colonial caste systems he benefitted from, and, eventually, so we could unravel his morality and ruin his play.
In that window between the Cold War and the global war on terror, I caught the impact of postmodern theory full force. Not a single class of mine in criticism, comparative literature, English, anthropology, or history failed to touch on Foucault, Said, or Barthes. The darlings of the canon, at that point, were theoretical technicians of the subject/object relationship, authors like Nabokov and Proust, or those modernists, like Hemingway or Vonnegut, whose morals reflected the complexities of the wars that inspired their stories.
You will detect, thus far, some feeling of regret about my college experience, but that is only because so much of my childhood reading material was Anglophile and wonderful, and I had to lose it to find it again. Postmodern and postcolonial theory are important. They equip us to deal with the world’s global realities, force us to shed naive assumptions about the other, and teach us not to project our cultural morality without a bit of care. They were a 100-year response to the horrific depravity of the New World endeavor, but they failed to stop us going back to war in Afghanistan.
The ‘I’ is always the actor. And then there is the lama, clicking his beads through his fingers reciting the prayer, om mani padme hum, a part of the whole. This week’s feature, on our area’s unique and thriving Tibetan Buddhist community, gets at the tension and beauty involved in seeking understanding across cultures. Are we hardwired, through language, into our systems of morality, philosophy, and spirituality from an early age? Or are we all following our own rivers to the same ocean? Compassion is the only way to see.