Remembering Charles O’Hara – Purveyor of Buddhist Art and Artifacts

I first met the late Charles O’Hara in the late 1980s to early 1990s. My Buddhist friend back then, Dave K, and I would drive the 150 miles or so from Harrisburg to the little town of Susquehanna Pennsylvania, just south of the border near Binghamton NY and along the thin northern branch of the Susquehanna river. It is an old railroad town that has seen far better days, as has most of northern PA, and was depressed with the drop out back then of the coal industry and the RR system.

We would park in the back and walk up through the yard to the back porch which had huge crates from Nepal stacked all over. It turned out he was a major purveyor and importer of mostly Tibetan Buddhist items from Nepal and northern India, and was a major supplier for Snow Lion, some people there still remembering him. We would go into the kitchen down a path just wide enough to walk through, surrounded on each side by piles of statues and artifacts of all kinds. In his living room was a huge old Chinese lacquered altar with the main Buddha rupa being about the size of a small  child. His incense bowl was always burning. He lived in front of it sitting crossed legged on the floor on a small mattress with a small TV and his eternal cigarette and cup of tea.

Charles was a small man, about 5 foot 6 inches and maybe 120 pounds at the most. He was either from NYC or lived there long enough to still have his accent. When he lived there he had been married once and as far as I knew did not have children but did have some nieces and nephews. I think he started his import business there before moving to the sticks of rural PA.

One time we went to his little local restaurant, and it was obvious everyone knew him and liked him. He said about half the town was either unemployed or retired and I got the impression he helped fuel the local economy somewhat by hiring people to help with this and that around his properties.

There were altars everywhere in his house, from the bedrooms to the hallways to the attic. I remember a Shingon altar at the top of the second floor stairs. Up on the attic there was a Hindu altar with various deities, and on the floor a pile of kapalas and kanglings he had imported back in the 1970s.

Charles had traveled extensively in the far east, from Japan to China to India and Nepal. He told of living as a Buddhist monk on some mountain in China which was full of caves that monks had practiced in for at least a thousand years. He showed us pictures of that area and of himself there.

He had gone to India and Nepal on buying trips trying to line up good reputable dealers in rupas, thankas and artifacts so he could get what he ordered. He often expressed frustration at being shipped items he did not order, or items that did not quite meet the iconography or standard of what he requested. My first small Rahula thanka was a specific order which they fulfilled. And I often benefited when he did not like an item and sold it to me cheap. I asked for him to look for some Chitipati statues and he received an primitive bronze pair of skeleton dancers that were oil lamps and he hated them but I loved them so he only charged me $25 for the pair! One time he had some kapala bone malas and one of his rothweiler had gotten into them chewing the one up, so there were only 99 disk beads left, so he sold that to me cheap too. He knew I was not rich, but knew I was a serious practitioner, so I probably paid about one half of what he could have gotten even wholesale back then.

Charles also had some relics of Sariputra that were from the stupa the Brits had opened at the end of the 1800s, and he did an empowerment with them for me and Dave, and I can tell you it was a powerful experience as he led us through the visualization and meditation. I know he eventually donated them to the KPC temple down in Maryland where they were enshrined.

Towards the end of his life, as he suffered from COPD probably from his chain smoking, I went up and he just gave me the keys to one of his other houses full of artifacts, trusting me that I would not rip him off. I always appreciated that trust. He also sold me the old Kham phurba that his grandmother had personally brought back from Tibet in her travels, and a favorite small khatvanga phurba that I cherish to this day.

I do not know when he died, but it was some time in the mid 1990s. I was told after his death a retinue of traveling Tibetan monks was passing through and stopped at his place, and on finding of his death they read the Bardo Thodol to speed him on his way. Now talk about perfect karmic timing there.

I do not know what happened to his two houses full of treasures, just that a niece inherited most of it, and that some of it ended up in a little store down in Maryland which I visited a few years later.

I consider myself very lucky to have met Charles O’Hara, whom I consider to be a wizened little Bodhisattva full of wit and wisdom. One of his lessons I remember well. We were talking about the paths of “self power”, like Zen which I had practiced before, and “other power” like path of Amida Buddha. Charles said both worked and the former was probably more what the Buddha taught, but that the latter path was easier for sure. After all these years, I do agree with him and still chant the Namo Amida Budsu.

Why am I writing about him here 20 years later? Because I think about him often, and I am surrounded by items I purchased from him, and I was recently going through a photo album and found these pictures.

If anyone who reads this remembers Charles O’Hara, or even has a picture of him, I would love to hear from you.

These pictures are from a visit to his house in 1991 and are copyright 2012 by G.L.Hoke and David K.

6 thoughts on “Remembering Charles O’Hara – Purveyor of Buddhist Art and Artifacts

  1. Pingback: Not Remembering Charles O’Hara | Atomic Geography

    • Wow. I am so glad you contacted me and sent me that blog post on your meeting him at the end of his life. The only other people who i have contacted who knew him were some of the older people at the now defunct Snow Lion Publications. To me he was a good, generous and wise man, and that is how i will always remember him. If you wish to communicate further my public email is shawnuscoc@gmail.com and from there i can give you my private email addy. Thank you.

  2. Oh wow. I cried when I saw this post.
    I met Charles quite by accident in 1988 after I had made a trip to Snow Lion from Mississauga Ontario where I still live today. I am not so sure I really think it was an accident. It was in upstate New York and I was lost driving around. Here was this man tending to some vegetables in the front and just more or less sitting there. I got out of the car and walked up to him to ask for directions and didn’t leave until 8-10 hours later. We had great conversations, tea and more conversations. I was a student of Penor Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingmapa Palyul lineage at the time and he knew many of the same people.
    I too think of Charles a few times a year when he just kind of pops up in my mind.
    What made me think of him this time is being quite tight for money at this later stage of my life I was looking to sell the eight Thangkas that I bought from him so many years earlier. They are the beautiful eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. I thought he would know where to sell them. Anyway thank you so much for your kind words of Charles. This is exactly how I remembered him as well.
    James McDonald

    • James – I am so glad someone else got the privilege to meet Charles, who was truly a Bodhisattva sitting at the local diner or on his floor drinking tea. I first met him about the same time you did, and his house was so packed with Buddhist items you could barely navigate a path through it, then later he rented another house he filled also. Its a shame towards the end some distant relative sold it off to who knows whom, though i know some went to Bauer and David at Tibetan Spirit down in Maryland, which has changed ownership and is somewhere in the Carolinas now. I still order incense from them. I too am older and ill and poor and am trying to sell some rupas and artifacts off on eBay http://www.ebay.com/usr/nagaloka as i could find No One on the east coast who was interested, not even that store. Many of the large rupas are sealed and blessed, and i will keep those. Towards the end of his life he sold me a Kham phurba his grandmother collected when she had been in Tibet early last century. Those 8 manifestations of Padmasambhava sound marvelous. I had my thankas framed so if they sell i will probably have to unframe them as they would be too expensive to ship otherwise. I am glad you got to see and remember those old pictures from his altars. I was blessed to receive empowerment into the one-faced Vajrakilaya of Yeshe Tsogyal from the late Jigmey Phuntsok of the Palyul lineage and feel very connected to the Kham lineages. If you want to email i am at leeshawnus@embarqmail.com Blessings.

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