Buddhist leader of millions visits West Baltimore

The leader of 30 million South Asian Buddhists walked the streets of West Baltimore on Thursday with more than a dozen local ministers and other peace advocates, offering prayers, blessings and words of encouragement in the aftermath of last week's unrest over the death of Freddie Gray.

Jigme Pema Wangchen, a spiritual master known worldwide as the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, strolled with the Rev. Jamal Bryant, philanthropist Harriet Fulbright and others through the Penn North and Sandtown-Winchester neighborhoods.


Clad in gold and maroon vestments, he stopped to pray in front of the CVS drugstore that was torched during rioting, paused at a makeshift shrine set up where Gray was arrested, and placed a white shawl at the base of a mural of Gray at the corner of North Mount and Presbury streets.

He placed the shawl, a ceremonial offering that represents the beginning of a new journey, across a box of black sneakers someone left at the mural as a memorial.


"We all must work together hand-in-hand, to get something done, to get educated, to get transformed so that we can live in harmony with a greater sense of love, faith and devotion," he said. "As a spiritual master, it is my privilege to share some of my prayers with you on this crucial occasion."

He is believed to be the 12th incarnation of the Gyalwang Drukpa, a phrase that serves as the honorific title of the head of the Drukpa lineage, a succession of spiritual masters that began in India in the year 1206. It is a sect of Buddhism commanding a large following in the Himalayan region that subscribes to the spiritual importance of putting faith into action, said Nayyera Haq, a spokeswoman for the visiting cleric.

The 12th Gyalwang Drukpa has been a model of the belief, traveling the world in support of environmental causes and women's and LGBT rights.

In 2010, he launched an initiative to plant a million trees in the Ladakh region of India, an action that led followers to break the Guinness Book of World Records for the most trees ever planted simultaneously, and he has won humanitarian awards from the United Nations and the president of India.

He was in Washington advocating for those suffering in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in Nepal last month when he came across news reports of the unrest in Baltimore.

"I felt very pain[ed]. It seemed unbelievable," he said. "I have no words to [describe] how this felt," he said.

The Buddhist priest got in touch with Bryant of the Empowerment Temple, the pastor who has become a spokesman for the Gray family.

Their tour Thursday began at Simmons Memorial Baptist Church, which stands a block south of West North and Pennsylvania avenues. Bryant rattled off statistics illustrating the racial and economic inequities he said have been prevalent in Baltimore since the riots after the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

"Your Holiness, we've been accustomed to poverty and injustice since 1968," Bryant said, adding that "the overwhelming majority" of the recent Baltimore protests had been nonviolent.

"I want to express my condolences — my sadness — over what your community has been through, especially the last few weeks," the Drukpa said.

He then offered a three-minute prayer in Sanskrit before the walk began, with Bryant serving as his informal tour guide.

The group stopped in front of the closed CVS, where Mayor Stephanie-Rawlings Blake had just finished a news conference announcing the creation of One Baltimore, an initiative she hopes will bring religious, business and nonprofit leaders together in a spirit of unity and rebuilding.


Palms pressed together, the Buddhist leader prayed again, surrounded by the noise of midday traffic, as passers-by stopped to look. The group then proceeded down Mount Street to the site where Gray was arrested April 12.

Bryant made a point of showing him the many boarded-up homes along the route. "And we're just 40 miles from the White House," he said.

Throughout the walk, the Drukpa placed white shawls around the necks of those who came up to greet him, offering smiles and handshakes in the process.

"It's a great honor for us to meet one another, and great for him to meet the wonderful people of this community," said one recipient, Derrick Compton Jr., who described himself as a longtime community organizer. "It helps create the kind of hope that is so crucial for people in this town."

Elvin Owens, a minister at Simmons Baptist, agreed.

"This getting-together of different faith leaders is long overdue," he said. "The visual alone of his being here is such a statement. You don't have to hear people talk about unity. You can see it."

Before climbing back in the car that brought him, the Drukpa stopped to chat with a representative of Rawlings-Blake, several Christian leaders and a local Muslim imam. He told them he believed his brief visit was more than symbolic.

"I'm happy to be here to help, in my small way, to reconnect and rebuild," he said, "to where this community can be a beautiful place again."

Recommended on Baltimore Sun