Heart of Tibet celebrates 25th anniversary

Heart of Tibet co-owner Thupten Dadak demonstrates a singing bowl, one of many authentic pieces at the shop. Photo by Michelle Bruch

It’s a slice of Tibetan culture, with a toy section.

Heart of Tibet is celebrating 25 years in business and approaching 10 years in Linden Hills, and it carries a significance that can’t be seen from the street. Co-owner Thupten Dadak is a former Buddhist monk, and he’s co-founder of the Tibetan-American Foundation. His wife and co-owner Nancy has studied under the Dalai Lama. Both maintain a relationship with the Dalai Lama, working on projects to build a school in Tibet, lead Western doctors to Tibet, and host U.S. programs focused on Tibetan cultural preservation.

“It has been a funny thing to see how things have evolved and the time has flown,” Nancy said.

Thupten was born in Tibet near Mount Everest.

“They had to run for their lives when the Chinese invaded,” Nancy said.

When Thupten first arrived in Minnesota in 1986, he opened a toy store in Stillwater. He said it was a bit strange to sell toys. When he was seven years old, he lived in a refugee camp and didn’t have shoes, let alone toys. He recalls explaining to the Dalai Lama that he had opened a “nonviolent” toy store. He didn’t sell toy guns or GI Joe’s, he said, to avoid planting violent thoughts in young children’s heads.

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He still keeps a toy section in a corner of the shop, stocked with unusual stuffed animals like porcupines and anteaters. They also keep groundhogs on hand, available to newscasters looking for last-minute Groundhog Day props.

The shop’s furniture, which comes from Tibetan monasteries, has been shown at the Smithsonian, and some of the pieces stood alongside the Dalai Lama in 2000 during a speech on the National Mall before 20,000 people.

Much of Heart of Tibet’s jewelry is created by Tibetan artists in exile. Some of the jewelry is imprinted with the Tibetan blessing “body-speech-mind.” Nancy said she’s often selling to professionals with high-stress jobs.

“It reminds them to take a break, re-center and think about their personal values,” she said.

Yoga teachers and students stop in to buy products like malas (used for mantra prayers) or meditation pillows.

Thupten often demonstrates how to use authentic singing bowls that send vibrations down the spine. He speaks about the interconnectedness of humanity — the thousands of people that contributed to the shirt he’s wearing, for example, and the ripple effect that comes from the kindness of customers.

“Since Tibetan culture is endangered by the Chinese occupation, Thupten has long been an advocate for Tibetan cultural preservation,” Nancy said. “…Tibetan culture promotes universal peace, and the world really needs that.”

When he was about 5 years old, Thupten’s parents chose him to become a monk, a wish he had expressed. Because his family fled Tibet in 1959, he studied in India, and he joined the monastery by age 12. He described the experience as “intense.” He said it’s a scholarly life full of memorization and meditation practice. His monastery was famous for multiphonic harmonic chanting (or throat singing). Though monks are traditionally isolated from society, this wasn’t the case in the refugee camps. Thupten said he admires monks who are able to maintain the values and the practice, despite external influences.

“When monks come to the Twin Cities … I take care of the monks, whatever they need,” he said.

Thupten was one of the first two Tibetans to arrive in Minnesota in 1986. As visas opened up to 1,000 Tibetans in 1990, Thupten was commissioned by the office of the Dalai Lama to prepare Minneapolis as a resettlement site. He secured jobs and lodging prior to the refugees’ arrival, finding houses with extra bedrooms and securing jobs at the Hyatt, local hospitals, and the Aveda Institute.

In 1991, he helped coordinate a permanent sand mandala art installation made by Gyuto monks on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“They are very intricate paintings literally made out of sand,” Nancy said.

When monks create sand mandalas, they are traditionally dismantled as a symbol of impermanence and poured into a body of water as a blessing for the earth, Nancy explained. The Dalai Lama and Gyuto monks agreed to preserve the Minneapolis sand mandala to honor more than 1.2 million Tibetans who lost their lives to political and religious persecution.

Heart of Tibet was originally located at Hennepin & Lake above an all-night pizza joint. The couple worked near a pet store, and when business was slow they found themselves in danger of purchasing another kitten or puppy.

“It happened several times,” Nancy said.

On one occasion, Thupten came home and said, “I’ve got good news — I bought two yaks!”

The news came as a surprise to Nancy, as they live in a Minneapolis condo.

“Thupten wanted to own the yaks and allow them to live out their lives peacefully in the Tibetan tradition of gaining merit by saving an animal’s life,” she said.

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They brought the yaks to Linden Hills for the store’s grand opening.

“There was a little petting zoo by the bus stop,” she said.

Nancy said she and Thupten love Linden Hills, and they appreciate how the neighborhood has embraced the store.

“We get to see our community of friends and customers every day at the shop, and it is a very lucky thing,” she said. “…Whatever success we have is shared all the way back to Asia. It crosses all the way from Upton Avenue to India, and to Kathmandu, and all the way to Thupten’s birthplace in the Tibetan Himalaya.”


At a glance: Heart of Tibet & Sky Door

What: A shop featuring goods from the Himalayas.

Where: 4303 Upton Ave. S.

Website: heartoftibet.com