Traffic streams past as the Rev. Mulcogi Seng adjusts a big yellow sign outside of the Lotus in the Sun natural healing center in downtown Nogales, Ariz. Occasionally, passers-by lean out their windows to gawk at the aging hippie and his shop of medicinal herbs, which both seem incongruous to this bustling hub of international commerce south of Tucson.
But Seng, a U.S. Army veteran and long-recovering alcoholic, has been in the business of Buddhism and natural healing for 30 years. He says his calling eventually led him right here, looking straight into the complicated maw of the U.S.-Mexico border, just two blocks away.
"Everybody goes to Sedona for the red rocks and the vortex energy," reflects the 61-year-old Seng, a friendly but businesslike man who says he came to the border on advice from his astrological charts. "You know, though, we've got a very strong vortex right here in the hills of Nogales. It's always drawn people, whether it's Geronimo or Pancho Villa."
Seven years ago, it drew Seng. That has largely been a blessing for his roughly 400 customers from both sides of the line, who come looking for natural medicines and a few good vibrations. Indeed, Seng's little shop acts as a gentle antidote to the growing militarism of this port city, which in turn helps provide him with a loyal and growing clientele. "I draw from the whole region," he says, "from as far away as Phoenix and Hermosillo (Sonora)."
Sometimes, Seng's work is more accepted south of the line, where he says Mexicans "are closer to the tradition of natural medicine. And there's quite a bit of sophistication. These people aren't just seeing the curandero (Mexican folk healer) and then going to the marketplace to buy some bulk herbs. They want the latest—the best pills, the highest quality."
They also crave a bit of refuge. Stepping through the door of Lotus, you're suddenly removed from the border bustle, and ensconced in the rich scent of Chinese healing oils and jasmine incense. Seng's alternative pharmacy, with its 100-herb inventory, results in medicines he crafts for each of his customers. The center also offers bodywork, ranging from shiatsu and Reiki to reflexology. Treatment is offered regardless of someone's ability to pay, and about 10 percent of Seng's treatments are given away. He relies on the generosity of others to fill the gap.
"The profits that would normally go into somebody's pocket," he says. "... We've got enough donations to make sure we have medicines for people when they come in. We're getting geared up because of all of the fears about a possible pandemic flu this season. We're stocking up on our anti-virals and Chinese medicines and things like that, before we get a run on those things."
Seng's personal journey to the border is a long one. He began practicing Buddhism in 1968, when he was stationed in Korea with the U.S. Army. He was later ordained by a Christian minister who saw him feeding people and taking care of the sick at a gathering in Colorado. "He told me I must be some kind of saint," Seng says with a grin. "I told him he didn't know me very well."
Nonetheless, the minister allowed Seng to use his church's tax-exempt status to continue his good works. "I operated that way for a few years," he says, "and then just decided that I couldn't keep operating under a Christian ministry." So Seng wrote to the Universal Life Church Monastery for a ministry certificate.
"Of course, over the years, I've done all my formal training, so that I can actually do what I say I'm going to do for people," he says. "Now I can perform marriages and officiate at funerals. I can bless people. I can do all the things any other minister in any other type of religion can do."
Now he practices a brand of Buddhism called "Nichiren," which he says means "sun lotus" in Japanese, and grew from the work of a 13th-century priest. Of course, this is all sometimes a bit too exotic for his Arizona neighbors. "The only resistance I've gotten here is religious bigotry," he says. That included vandalism, such as broken windows and damage to his religious displays. "But it stopped after the first couple of years. It seemed like people became really accepting. They realized that we were here to help people. And they know we help the poor."
Still, he says this work only scratches the surface—something he came to understand while feeding Hurricane Katrina survivors in Mississippi, and flood victims in Wisconsin. Those experiences led him to espouse a sort of new-age survivalism. "Our government systems of helping people are breaking down," he says. "They are not working well."
He also traces his border journey to legendary 19th-century mystic and healer Teresita Urrea, known as "La Santa de Cabora." Born an illegitimate child to a wealthy Sinaloa rancher, she eventually garnered a huge following across Mexico and the United States before her death in 1906. It's said that up to 10,000 pilgrims would be camped at her childhood ranch, just waiting for an opportunity to touch her.
Today, La Santa's devotees include Seng. "She really took me by the hand and led me here," he says. "People will tell you that she still manifests and helps people to this day. There is a continuing, living legacy of her miracles, which lie on both sides of the border. I read her story, and it wasn't long after that I was led right here to Nogales."
The timing was good. Seng says he was planning to relocate from Safford, Ariz., anyhow. "So I started looking at places, and the only town where I could afford to move into was Nogales, and it was the only town of all of those where she actually lived."
After a while, Seng finally gets his sign for Lotus in the Sun perfectly situated. Then he gazes south at the endlessly buzzing border. "There's something that draws people here," he says. "It kind of chews you up and spits you out. And if you survive it, you're a better person. And if you don't, I hope you believe in reincarnation, because you're going to have to come around again to make up for it."