Yesterday I performed the Namcho Amitabha sadhana for the practice of the pure land of Dewachen for a friend whose father and brother are close to death, and to honor a number of people who have recently passed away.
Earlier in the week six patients who I worked with as a chaplain died, and I also dedicated the performance of this sadhana, and the offering of all the appropriate tormas for them as well.
The body of this text was revealed and composed by the first Karma Chakme, Raga Asey (1613-1678) and includes prayers by the terton Mingyur Dorje (1645-1667). It includes a longevity practice associated with Hayagriva and Amitabha by Nedo Sanje, an Amitabha tsok composed by the 14th Gyalwa Karmapa, and a selection of prayers, offerings, and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort: protectors of the practice of the pure land of Dewachen.
I was lucky enough to receive the transmission for this practice from the present 7th Karma Chakme (Karma Tenzin Trinley Kunchab Pal Zangpo, b. 1926) himself at his recently completed monastery in Pharphing, Nepal in 2008. Half way through the lung (reading transmission) he paused to enthusiastically say, “I wrote this, I wrote this!”.
It was a great honor to have had the chance to recieve this practice directly from the reincarnation of its originator. Perhaps it was the result of meeting Rinpoche in 2001 when he was giving the blessings of the transmission of Raga Asey’s The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen: The Direct instructions of the Compassionate One, a seminal text written by the first Karma Chakme Rinpoche.
The dharma lineage of Karma Chakme is pithy, inspiring, and bare bones; it is essential in that it is oriented towards the essence, essence dharma, and not so much concerned with the trappings of form and institution. It is bare bones in that it is a root lineage, it is all that you need.
I have found much guidance in how Raga Asey modelled his path; there is so much beauty in his simplicity, his deep practice and his sense of personal empowerment creates life within me. This personal empowerment in particular reflects his heartfelt conviction in his innate buddha qualities, the essential spaciousness of his mind, and the presence of connection to his lineage, both physical and non. Raga Asey’s writings are a balm for me; a soothing reassurance that it’s all okay. Things are fine- they are what they are; rich and luminous (they are apparent) and they are empty of essence; no different in reality from anything else that occurs/appears.
Raga Asey was a great mahasiddha of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, I pray that he inspires us in the west to take our seats and claim our own natural liberation and nurture its growth with sensitivity and creativity!
Namcho Amitabha is a wonderful practice. The intimate blessings of Amitabha feel woven throughout the text, as does the purity and power of practice demonstrated by Raga Asey, the 14th Karmapa Thegchock Dorje, as well as the prodigious Mingyur Dorje.
Personally, I felt happy to offer this practice to the patients whose lives I recently became part of in the hospital as they came to the end of their respective lives. As I made offerings to Amitabha I also offered my own tenderness, caring and concern for those whom I was performing this practice. As visualized ambrosial nectar descended from Amitabha to myself, and those whose presence I was holding in my mind, I felt that they were bathed with soothing awakening, heightened awareness, and self-empowerment.
The recitation of Amitabha’s mantra became their armor; melting any hinderance to rebirth with full clarity of mind; dissolving any lingering anger, hatred, jealousy and weariness; warming and massaging their hearts that compassion may arise with ease and joy.
As I performed the long-life practice, I offered the blessing of longevity of Hayagriva to everyone present, my patron and her daughter, and all of their family, as well as that of all the family and friends who I came to meet as we gathered around their dying loved ones.
During the practice of making offerings and supplications to Shingkyong and his consort the power of Namcho Amitabha practice became evident.
As Shingkyong approaches, his body black, and his face that of a black lion, he rushes forward upon an enraged black stallion armed in one hand with a banner, and red tormas in the other that he hurls at his enemies. Approaching with symmetrical wrathful power is his consort Dzakadza, red in color, upon a red demonic steed; she wields a trident and a human heart. Their power is both burning and haunting. Any and all distractions; the inner blockages of fear and attachment, lingering worry, ill-will, and impotence are completely destroyed. Through the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue, the efficacy of Amitabha’s vow to benefit all beings in the buddha-realm of Sukhavati (Dewachen) is bolstered and becomes even more magnificent. You can read more about this vow as it is explained in the Sukavativhuya sutra here.
Indeed the commitment of Shingkyong and his retinue around the activity of transitioning from this life to the next, and perhaps by extension the commitment to those who aid others in their own transition from this life to the next, is clearly described within this practice. They will clear all obstacles that make the journey treacherous, bring those stuck in the background all the way to the fore: Dewachen. They will ride with, and accompany them with their terrible retinue.
The text is explicit in how all obstructions will be destroyed, that all who get in the way will be slain, their hearts removed, and their abodes destroyed by fire; that all spirits and ghosts, all who torment, will be subjugated, and that all curses and black magic will be reversed. Indeed when performing this part of the practice I can really feel their powerful presence!
As the session closed, I found myself feeling connected to Amitabha and confident that benefit was created for everyone who I was practicing on behalf of. They were protected in their transition from this life to the next, and seeds of auspiciousness were planted for their experience during the bardo and for the journey ahead of them…
Additionally, I have become very curious about how Shingkyong and Dzakadza and their retinue of bamros relate to chaplains. I feel connected to them, and I feel their ever-present watchful eye, and when skies darken, perhaps it is they who come to dispel fear, doubt and tentativeness in all we do.
May they guide us as we serve others!
In the quest to explore Chod sites in New York City, I came across a unique place; a site with a long varied history as a slave burial ground, the site of legendary street battles of the late 19th century gang The Bowery Boys, a crossroads for the homeless, and now the site of recent gentrification and the boutique galleries, nightclubs and restaurants that follow. Unknown to many, the very earth that supports Bowery Mission, The Salvation Army, the famous/infamous Sunshine Hotel and a variety of other SROs and temporary housing for the homeless once held the remains of hundreds of slaves. Indeed, during the excavation for the foundation of the New Museum, the remains of a number of these forgotten people, nameless and homeless, had been unearthed. This area is memorialized by the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden (pictured above) in Sara D. Roosevelt Park which has been built on the eastern portion of the former burial ground.
I’ve wanted to practice Chod here for a while with the specific goal of dedicating the offering of my body to all of the local spirits and protectors of these specific four square blocks. Anyone who has spent anytime on Rivington or Stanton Streets between the Bowery and Forsyth Street can attest to the intensity of the place. People in various states of suffering wander across this area; they struggle with the demons of mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse and many other terrible sufferings. In a way these people resemble zombies; they are here, but they are living within another world, possessed by intense feelings that may keep them somewhere between the everyday world and one of pain and terror. Whats worse, these people are invisible to most who walk by them; they are disregarded and ignored, their suffering is easily explained away or rationalized by sophisticated social theories that diminish and abstract their pain, their suffering, and their deep-rooted desire to escape the pain they feel.
I cannot seem to separate the fact that these few square blocks have been so intense, home to so much destitution and violence (inner, outer and secret), and that this area was once a slave burial ground. It does make sense though. It’s easy for me to feel open to the anger and rage, the numbness and depression, and the chaotic reaction that qualitatively remains in this area; it feels powerful, and it feels very interwoven with the very brick and mortar, the cast iron and wood, and the glass and tar that make up all of the structures that have been constructed over this site.
When visualizing the local gods and demons approaching the offerings that I was to make; enemies hostile to us, obstructing spirits who harm, demons who create disruptive conditions, the mara of the Lord of Death, and demons of the body, I summoned my own inner demons of anger and rage, of numbness and depression, and especially chaotic reaction. All of the feelings of what it means to be endlessly disrespected, tortured, enslaved, made fun of, spit on, beaten, and then ignored and disregarded perhaps even abstracted. In my mind’s eye I visualized these demons and their attendant entourage rising above me, finally heard and seen, bringing the raw reality of what this place means, as well as it’s present constellation of past and present occurences, their interaction, and the momentum that has been created here.
As I sounded the kangling, a horn made of an old human femur bone, I invited these demons… …it felt as if they were truly there.
This burial ground came into use after the one near city hall was closed in the late 1700′s. That burial ground was re-discovered in 1991 during an excavation of a site that was going to be used for an office building for federal government offices; human remains were discovered and a larger study was done. All building was halted and the site was designated a national landmark known as African Burial Ground. I remember reading an article about some of what was found. Much of it included bodies found in coffins shorter than the individuals who were placed within them. Those who were buried there had their legs broken so that they would fit into more conveniently sized coffins. In a very real way, an act like this, seems like it would easily anger the consciousness of someone who had recently died. Indeed, in most Buddhist traditions, it is suggested that if possible, the body of someone who has just died should be left for three days (if that is possible). What happens if some people were to come and break your legs to fit you into a cheaper box? It seems like a final indignity; other than being completely forgotten, which subsequently happened. Perhaps the trajectory of such a hard life, the habitual mistreatment and pain, complete disrespect and deliberate torture can remain, a psycho-physical ruin, and crumbling landmark that can be felt by those a century later?
Last summer a Tibetan monk friend of mine was telling me of a place near to where he was raised in Tibet where a family was brutally murdered. The place, so he said, became a place where misfortune befell may other people. It became a place to avoid, a place to fear, a place of dread. Needless to say, he never went to that place, but in performing Chod, these are great places to visit. Places of fear and horror are ideal places to make offerings to the beings who reside there. It’s a way to touch those same beings with us.
There are many stories of chodpas (people who practice chod) who are able to completely pacify the local god or demons who live in such sites. Perhaps that can only be done by pacifying those same demons within ourselves; within the same psycho-physical matrix of our being.
It may be that the only way that we can pacify these demons, especially the ones encountered on Rivington and Stanton streets, is through knowing our own urine soaked alleys of destitution, our sense of deep emotional pain of addiction and neglect, of how it feels to be belittled and ignored, beaten and left behind, an insignificant ghost of anonymity. Perhaps it is only in making offerings of compassion and joy to these haggard aspects of ourselves, witnessing and honoring them, allowing them to come to the ganachakra of appearance, that we can bathe them, clothe them, and see that they are no different from any other aspect of the misapprehended notions of who we are.
With that said, I would like to close with a passage from a related text:
Until full awakening, I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the supreme assembly. To accomplish completely the benefit for myself and others, I give rise to the mind of awakening. Once this supreme bodhicitta has arisen, I invite all beings to be my guests. I will engage in the pleasing and supreme conduct of a bodhisattva. To benefit all living beings, may I attain awakening. Just as the protectors of the three times gave rise to unsurpassable bodhicitta, which surely brings about perfect awakening, I will generate genuine bodhicitta. All that is generated I will remember. All that is remembered, I will make vast.
At the end of my post on performing Chod at Greenwood Cemetery (which you can read here), I wondered about doing Chod at the Gowanus Canal; the recently designated superfund site that divides Carrol Gardens from Park Slope in Brooklyn. This toxic body of water is an artery of death and decay that is both close to my home as well as my heart. As a legendary repository of dead bodies (the detritus of organized crime), flood waste from higher elevations in Brooklyn, and just about every kind of heavy manufacture imaginable, the Gowanus canal seems a ghost-like symbol of where we put things that we want to forget.
Before I packed my bags with the things needed for the practice, I spent some time contemplating the Gowanus as a symbol. It is a body of water, a canal specifically, connected to the larger harbor by Buttermilk channel. The water in the canal stagnates as a result of a broken ventilating pump system at the far end of the canal. It is a remnant of the larger heavy industry that once existed in this part of Brooklyn and received all of the shipments of brownstone from up the Hudson that made most of Park Slope’s beautiful brownstones. The canal also became a dumping-ground; it is not uncommon to find all manner of things floating in the water that at times resembles muddy anti-freeze. It is a miraculous canal as well, several summers ago I came to notice that dozens of red jelly fish made the canal their home.
As I began the sadhana (ritual text) I felt that I wanted to offer myself to the inner-demon who most represents the Gowanus Canal. In fact, I specifically tried to make this session an offering to the local gods associated with this area. I imagine that the god-demon of this particular place is one of the lords of places that are ignored; places where we leave, or even dump things that we no longer want, places of stagnation, where oxygen is literally consumed by the waste that we store; of things unwanted yet unable to be fully let go of, a ghostly world of secrets. For me, the god-demon of the Gowanus Canal is the lord of inner-wastelands.
The wonderful thing about Chod is the way in which we can access, face, and pacify all of our internal demons. It is very powerful, if that is, you choose to try to really look for these painful and frightening demons. It is also possible to do the practice while not particularly looking that hard; and then while you may make nice sounds with your bell and damaru, not much else happens.
The term “demon” is mostly taken to represent an internal neurosis or emotional focal point that distracts and provides an ability to obsess in a way that makes direct experience of the mind very difficult. These demons, while self-creations, can feel so real that they tend to paralyze and create huge amounts of suffering, indeed they can be considered the agents of samsara. They exert great power upon us in the form of fear, jealousy, hatred, pride, and in this case, secret internal toxicity.
Machik Lobdron, the female 12th century Tibetan founder of the Chod lineage, created a practice based in prajnaparamita literature as well as within tantric Buddhism. Part of this practice involves offering a mandala offering of one’s body:
The trunk and head serve as Mt. Meru in the center, the four limbs serve as the four continents, the sun and moon are the right and left eyes, the ground is our freshly flayed skin, and the fingers and toes are arranged as a great mighty chain of iron mountains that encircle the whole mandala.
The more realistic the visualization the better- we are after all butchering this prized body of ours, ornamented with the pearls of ego fixation, self-nature, and pride. But after the reluctance, and after the discomfort, what is there? What remains? In offering freely to the assembly of god-demons who terrify us most so that they may benefit, so that they may turn their minds to the dharma and become buddhas in their own right there is a chance to experience our original nature. This is a way of experiencing prajnaparamita.
So how do we touch the inner demon of stagnation? Where is the place within ourselves where we dump things that we don’t want, the place that holds our secrets, our inner wasteland? This place exists. It is in all of us. Like a black pearl made from an initial irritant that has grown many protective layers meant to distract and soothe the oyster that is it’s container. How can we bring this to light? These fears are in reality great strengths- they are pearls…
So here I found myself, in a modern charnel ground surrounded by condom wrappers, dead rats, crushed beer cans, and other things left behind. While at first glance it may appear different from the charnel grounds of old, where bodies were burnt or left to decay, places frequented by wild animals, a place that elicits fear, but upon looking a little closer, this place is no different. It is a place where illicit things are done, where illicit things have been done- it is a dangerous place. It is a place of fear. The canal is off the radar. Once a place of great beauty it is now easily overlooked, as if we don’t want to have any personal relationship with it.
Perhaps the Gowanas Canal is one of the eight great charnel grounds of India reflected in our daily lives here. In the New York area I am certain that it is. In my post on sacred geography (here is a link), I mentioned the historical importance of internal and external geography as it relates to the practice of Buddhist tantra. It seems that the Gowanus Canal occupies a place internally that can offer real growth and healing. What does it feel like to make an offering to, and thereby appreciate the parts of us that we have very willingly forgotten, the parts of us that are stagnant?
As I performed the chod sadhana, made sang offerings (smoke offerings) to the beings that live in the canal and all the beings that the canal represents, and while I hung prayer flags, I found myself recalling all that I have tried to hide, the parts of me that lay stagnant internal dumping grounds; my own inner pollution. I also recalled patients who I have met as a chaplain for whom these dynamics were in play, and prayed that we could all, every sentient being, bring honor and offerings to the inner demon that presides over this type of activity. May they be satisfied. May this offering pacify these demons. There is a line at the end of the sadhana which speaks to chaplaining these demons:
The roots of virtue from this practice of freely offering my body, the roots from caring for god-demons with my bodhicitta, and further however many roots of virtue that have been accumulated throughout the three times-all of this I dedicate for the benefit of living beings in the three realms, malevolent god-demons, and others.
With this kind of caring in mind, our own inner chaplaincy, may we know our inner demons and plant the seeds of buddhahood in our own inner wastelands so that they become purelands!
May any merit from this blog post be dedicated to all beings, especially those who are suffering in Japan after the recent earthquake and tsunami.
As part of my CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) training with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care we have been exploring aspects of Jungian psychology especially as it relates to symbols and images. We recently finished a great week of classroom experience which included a conversation with Morgan Stebbins, the Director of Training of the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association, a faculty member of the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York, and a long time student of Buddhism. Stebbins’ presentation on Symbol and Image was dynamic and quite moving- he embodies a depth and conviction that I find compelling. In addition to this, Stebbin’s visit to our class came at a point when I’ve been playing around with writing a blog post about sacred geography. Very timely indeed.
“What does sacred geography have to do with me?” one might ask. I would answer, “Everything”.
Within the framework of Buddhism geography and therefore pilgrimage, has come to be something of an important phenomena. Certainly this is not anything unique to Buddhism; we have a tendency to want to return to places that are significant for us. Sometimes there is spiritual significance, sometimes it is societal, and most often it is interpersonal. An example of these would be making the Hajj if you were Muslim, perhaps visiting Washington D.C., or taking your children there so that they could appreciate the way that our nation governs itself, and perhaps the place where one’s parents were born, or where they died. Geography allows us to honor the meaning that we value in our lives. We live within time and space, and within the latitude and longitude that time and space afford us, we intentionally (and even unintentionally) plot the course of our lives and identities within their dynamics. How many times has a particular season or even date reminded us of an event that occurred in the past around the same time? My root teacher passed away on Christmas eve over a decade ago, and I am always reminded of that great loss whenever Christmas approaches. On the other hand, the Fall months feel like a time of rich growth for me- they always have, and for some reason these months continue to prove to be significant for me. These are two examples of how I plot meaning within my experience of time.
In most faiths pilgrimage has become something that one engages to touch the past; it is a means to feel the link of those who have come before us and charge the present moment with their power. It can be the Wailing Wall, St. Peters, the Kabba, Bodh Gaya, a sacred mountain, river, the ocean, a tree and it can also be imagined- something symbolic, a living pulsating image such as a mandala.
According to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha predicted that students of the path would visit the place of his birth, his enlightenment, where he first taught, and where he would die. He stressed that this may be something that one does if they want to, if it brings meaning, inspiration, and context to their path. It was a suggestion, not a directive, and ultimately a very insightful reading of how we relate to time and space.
Within Vajrayana, or tantric Buddhism, pilgrimage appears in a more visionary manner. In addition to the four major sites associated with the Buddha’s life, various pithas, or ‘seats’ (places of power and meaning associated with the dissemination of Buddhist tantra) became included into various lists of sacred places. For example, there are twenty-four pithas throughout the Indian sub-continent that are associated with the places where the Buddha revealed himself as Chakrasamvara and taught the cycle of Chakrasamvara and related practices. The pithas, while relating to actual places, also correspond to places within our bodies that have an internal energetic significance. The exact location of these pithas vary from tradition to tradition, but there is a relative constancy of the mirroring of external and internal meaning in relation to these sites. In some ways, and according to some teachers, pilgrimage can be done without ever leaving where you are as all of the major pithas exist within the matrix of our energetic body. This approach is touched upon by the Buddhist Mahasiddha Saraha who in once sang:
This is the River Yamuna,
This is the River Ganga,
Varanasi and Prayaga,
This is the moon and the sun.
Some speak of realization having traveled and seen all lands,
The major and minor places of pilgrimage.
Yet even in dreams I have no vision [of these].
There is no other boundary region like the body;
I, virtuous, have seen this for good and with certainty.
Stay in the mountain hermitage and practice self-restraint.[i]
In his book Sacred Ground, Ngawang Zangpo has addressed in a very detailed manner the thoughts of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye on the importance of sacred geography. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye lived in Tibet from 1813 to 1899. He was a famous meditation master of the Kagyu, the Nyingma and Sakya Lineages. Through his wide and open attitude Kongtrul helped define and spread the Rime, or non-sectarian view of the dharma, in response to a general atmosphere of sectarianism amongst all schools of Buddhism in Tibet at the time. He was a compiler of termas (revealed treasure teachings) and was a terton (treasure discoverer) in his own right. A real renaissance man, Kongtrul not only helped shape and preserve the Kagyu lineage, but all forms of Dharma in Tibet.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye identified a variety of places in Tibet as reflections of the twenty-four pithas in India. This change in perspective had the effect of being quite dynamic in that it placed Tibetans directly in the center of their own world of sacred geography. Of course some brave souls still made the journey to the twenty-four pithas in India, but many visited the sites that Kongtrul and his dharma friends Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa and Jamyang Kheyntse Wongpo felt were equivalent. For some, this type of translation/re-orientation was too much; indeed the great Sakya patriarch Sakya Pandita took issue with the possibility that several pithas could be located in Tibet.
Sacred Ground is an excellent book for exploring the thoughts and teachings of Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye on the subject of pilgrimage and inner spiritual geography. Ngawang Zangpo translates Kongtrul Rinpoche’s Pilgrimage Guide to Tsadra Rinchen Drak [or Pilgrimage Guide to Jewel Cliff that resembles Charitra (the union of everything)]- an amazing text that treats in great depth the nature of that particular pilgrimage location as well as it’s inner and secret significances as it relates to various energetic centers found throughout the body. Zangpo includes a chart listing the manner in which the pithas correspond to the body according to the Chakrasamvara tantra, an appendix that includes three fascinating texts one by Kongtrul and Khyentse Wongpo, one by Chokgyur Lingpa, and a compiled list of sacred sites in Tibet by Ngawang Zangpo. Of particular interest is a reference to a note found in Mattheiu Ricard’s translation of The Life of Shabkar:
It must be remembered that sacred geography does not follow the same criteria as ordinary geography. Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-91), for instance, said that within any single valley one can identify the entire set of the twenty-four sacred places. Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche (1903-87) also said that sacred places, such as Uddiyana, can shrink and even disappear when conditions are no longer conducive to spiritual practice. The twenty-four sacred places are also present in the innate vajrabody of each being. (p.442, n.1)
A similarly fascinating book on this subject is the collection of essays edited by Toni Huber entitled Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture. These essays offer a rich exploration of issues surrounding pilgrimage sites, sacred geography and geomancy. Of particular interest is the essay by David Templeman entitled Internal and External Geography in Spiritual Biography in which he explores the relationship that the mahasiddha Krishnacharya with the twenty-four pithas, especially that of Devikotta. Templeman considers the importance of these sites as internal locii and suggests that while pilgrimage to these sites was indeed important, there is little evidence to support that many siddhas visited all of them. In fact, Templeman suggests that some sites more than others are of particular significance and have been over time, while others are dangerous, home to subtle harmful beings (wild flesh eating dakinis) that need to be appropriately tamed before one can occupy that particular location. In the case of the mahasiddha Krishnacharya, his untimely end occurred at the site of Devikotta, as this site had a reputation for incredible unpredictable volatility that was well known throughout India at the time.
I tend to wonder where this place of volatility, with beings that need to be subjugated, resides within me. A three paneled chart provided by Templeman in his article listing the twenty-four pithas according to the Chakrasamvara Tantra, the teacher Jonang Taranatha and the Sakya master Kunga Drolchok, indicates that Devikotta -this very powerful site- is located within my energetic body around both of my eyes. I wonder where it’s mirror locations are?
What I find most compelling about these books, and this subject in general is that it has a lot to do with how we relate to the world around us, how we import meaning to this world, and what we allow of ourselves in being in relation to time and space. The essays in Huber’s book and the work by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye describe both the Tibetan cultural, as well as the general vajrayana approach to sacred geography- these two are not by all means identical as Huber points out in his essay. Huber suggests that Tibetan culture influenced vajrayana making it distinct from the Tantric Buddhism that developed in India which then spread to Tibet. While the distinction is subtle, it speaks to how meaning is translated. It is arguable that there can never be a one-for-one translation of a text from one language to another, and perhaps, a one-to-one translation of a religion is similarly unlikely. That said, without straying into the soft edges of hermeneutics, I would like to wonder out loud, “How does Buddhist sacred geography translate to Buddhism in the ‘West’?” I think that a great response to such a question is, “That’s a silly question, Buddhist sacred geography is as present in the west as it is in Tibet or India”. I’d also add that we should map it, live within it in a more open way, and make it ours.
If Jalandhara is a site that corresponds to the crown of my head, Oddiyana a site that corresponds to my right ear, and Devikotta my two eyes, all the while representing sacred places reflected upon the Indian Sub-continent and or the Tibetan Plateau, where would they be reflected upon the geography of the United States for example? Or more playfully perhaps, Brooklyn? It seems that some of this has to do with fully owning and bringing vajrayana home. In so doing, I would love to see how this type of re-orientation occurs. Can we do for ourselves what Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye did for Tibetans?
As Buddhism takes root here in the U.S. and continues to flourish I would love to see all of the twenty-four pithas of the India subcontinent reflected here. Perhaps as we learn to slow down and notice our relationship with our surroundings this will be more evident. I’m very curious to see how this aspect of vajrayana in particular translates to western culture; it seems like there is great potential.
[i] Schaeffer, Kurtis R. Dreaming the Great Brahmin: Tibetan Traditions of the Buddhist Poet-Saint Saraha. Oxford University Press, 2005. Pg. 151.
It has always felt to me that if Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche was the essence of Milarepa, then Kaybje Bokar Rinpoche was the essence of Gampopa. While I never had the chance to meet Kalu Rinpoche, I have met many Tibetan, American, British and French students of Rinpoche who often spoke of his direct orientation towards practice, his passion for transmitting instruction, and his easy going trust in the dharma- these seem to be qualities that I associate with Milarepa.
Similarly, Bokar Rinpoche with his purity of heart, emphasis upon transmission of the lineage teachings and stainless vinaya, truly does remind me of qualities that were emblematic of Je Gampopa. In expressing the direct simplicity of mind, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche was known as a great master of Mahamudra.
That they both maintained, preserved and expanded the Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya is important. Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche can be credited with establishing the Kagyu monlam in Bodh Gaya. When he began the monlam it was a small informal gathering. After his passing, Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche continued the practice of maintaining and further developing the Kagyu monlam; it slowly grew and grew. I attended several of these earlier monlams where Bokar Rinpoche and Yangsi Kalu Rinpoche presided over a much smaller number of monks, nuns and lamas than those that attend present monlam celebrations. They were a combination of grand and intimate, which seemed just right for reciting aspiration prayers and receiving inspiration.
After His Holiness the 17th Karmapa escaped from Tibet in January of 2000 and was allowed to travel inside of India, he presided over the monlam. Its as if Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche and Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche were keeping his Holiness’ seat warm under the bodhi tree. Since the sudden death of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, the monlam has been run by Lama Chodrak (the lama he appointed to organize the monlam) and the monlam committee. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has also taken a strong role in monlam planing, and feels strongly about its mission and goals.
With their activities in mind I offer this song of supplication written by Kaybje Bokar Rinpoche. May it be of benefit!!
Wide Wings That Lift Us to Devotion: A supplication
A Vajra song by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche
Spiritual master, think of me! Think of me!
Source of all blessings, root spiritual master, think of me!
Spiritual Master, think of me! Think of me!
Epitome of all accomplishment, root spiritual master, think of me!
Spiritual master, think of me! Think of me!
Agent of all enlightened activity, root spiritual master, think of me!
Spiritual master, think of me! Think of me!
All refuges in one, root spiritual master, think of me!
Turn all beings’ minds, with mine, towards the Teachings.
Bless me that all stages of the faultless path-
Renunciation, the mind of awakening, and the correct view-
Genuinely arise in my being.
May I dwell untouched by the faults of pride and wrong views
Toward the Teachings and the teacher of freedom’s sublime path.
May steadfast faith, devotion and pure vision
Lead me to fully achieve the two goals for others and myself.
The Human tantric master introduces my intrinsic essence.
The master in the Joyful Buddha’s Canon instills certainty.
The symbolic master in appearances enriches experience.
The ultimate master, the nature of reality, sparks realization of the abiding nature.
Finally, within the state of the master inseparable from my own mind,
All phenomena of existence and transcendence dissolve into the nature of reality’s expanse;
The one who affirmed, denied and clung to things as real vanishes into the absolute expanse-
May I then fully realize the effortless body of ultimate enlightenment!
In all my lifetimes, may I never be separate from the true spiritual master.
May I enjoy the Teachings’ glorious wealth,
Completely achieve the paths and stages’ noble qualities,
And swiftly reach the state of Buddha Vajra Bearer.
In 1995, in response to requests from two translators, Lama Tcheucky and Lama Namgyal, on behalf of my foreign disciples, I, Karma Ngedon Chokyi Lodro, who holds the title of Bokar Tulku, wrote this at my home in Mirik Monastery. May it prove meaningful.[i]
[i] Zangpo, Ngawang. trans. Timeless Rapture: Inspired Verse of the Shangpa Masters. Snow Lion Publications. 2003. Ithaca, NY., Pg. 215-217.
A couple of days ago I learned that in 1860 Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn attracted 500,000 visitors, rivaling Niagara Falls as America’s greatest tourist destination. This monumental 478 acre cemetery is home to 560,000 graves including that of Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Boss Tweed and many other illustrious artists, politicians and inventors. It’s also an amazing place to practice Chod.
Over the years we have very effectively averted our eyes from death; we love to avoid the topic of death as well as that of illness and old age. Perhaps there is convenience in this as it allows ourselves to feel ever young and invincible. However a visit to Green-Wood (or any cemetery) helps to shake loose the taboo nature that death occupies, effectively reeling it in from the periphery of our experience of daily life. On a recent trip with my son and girlfriend we meandered through the beautiful grounds of Green-Wood observing the memorialized names of those who are no more. The comparatively young age at which many of Green-Wood’s residents passed away- at least a third of the grave we saw that day were those of young children or young women who died in child-birth, is particularly striking. As one would expect to find, there is a wide variety of ages and cultural back grounds represented, further demonstrating with basic simplicity the fact that death does not discriminate.
It is easy to gloss over the recognition of impermanence that the Buddha came to recognize so early in his spiritual quest. The realization that all beings are subject to birth, sickness, old-age and death serve as the core existential foundation-stone upon which the rest of Buddhism in all of its forms is based. Perhaps over time this can seem to feel a little stale, as just as in his day when the Buddha was still Prince Siddhartha, we are so adept at hiding sickness, old age and death from our immediate view; death and even illness for that matter has become somewhat abstracted, and aging is something that we are told by media to avoid as best as possible. Talk about suffering! Nevertheless, we are born, we will experience illness, most of us will experience old age, and all of us will experience death- there’s no real hiding this fact. However there is joy to be had, and this joy can be found when coming to terms that these profound events affect everyone, that we are all linked together by these similar existential events, and there is a certain beauty in knowing that not only are we not alone, but we are surrounded by countless other beings who share similar existential circumstances.
Earlier today I went to Green-Wood cemetery to practice Chod. I went because I had the day off and it felt like a personally meaningful means through which I could resolve a certain anxiety that I felt regarding my upcoming clinical placement at New York Presbyterian Cornell-Weill as a chaplain-intern. It’s a new beginning for me- one that I would like to approach in a thoughtful and centered manner. Chod is an amazing form of meditation that was developed by Machig Labdron, a female Tibetan Buddhist master who lived in twelfth century Tibet. As a child she was precocious, and grew up to become an accomplished yogini who, in formulating the meditation practice known as Chod, yoked prajnaparamita literature with elements of tantric Buddhism into a system of meditation that has the unique reputation as the only dharma that was formulated in Tibet and then spread southwards into India. As the inspiration behind the synthesis of Chod lays within both the Mahayana tradition (through the prajnaparamita sutra, or the perfection of wisdom sutra) and aspects of Vajrayana (tantric Buddhist practice, most notably the practice of Vajravarahi), it is a very well balanced and multifaceted practice. Indeed, Chod can be approached as a complete path.
Traditionally Chod was practiced in charnel grounds and other fear inducing sites. Such sites were common in India and Tibet as many mountain passes, cross-roads, trees, and other sites were thought to be inhabited by malevolent spirit beings. Charnel grounds in particular were regarded as frightful not only because one commonly found bodies in various states of decay and decomposition, but because wild scavenging animals were easily found feasting on human remains. They are excellent places to face your fears. In fact, it is said that the Buddha had instructed many of his students to go to charnel grounds in order to contemplate impermanence amidst the decaying bodies of other humans.
Needless to say, such places aren’t really easy to find here in 21st century America- so, one has to be creative. Some of the beauty of Green-Wood lies in the fact that many of the grave markers are themselves quite old. Marble doesn’t hold up to elements as well as granite and other masonry material- it is soft and as it ages it slowly wastes away leaving eerie images behind. Some marble grave markers become hard to read thereby reinforcing the point that this is a place where people are left with very few to continue to witness the fact that they were ever there. Even the stone memorial markers are subject to impermanence.
One of the central features of Chod is the practice of visualizing that one chops oneself into pieces that then form an offering. We slice off our skin and chop up our body, remove the organs, cut out the eyes, perhaps smash the skull, and allow the marrow to slowly flow. In varying configurations we offer this mandala offering to all of the Buddhas, our lineage masters, dakinis and the wisdom protectors as well as to our own personal demons that represent our fears, our attachments, our insecurities, as well as to local gods, demons and spirits, as they too need care. In essence, we offer every aspect of the matrix of our being to all other beings that we can conceive of, what remains is liberated Buddha-essence: non-referential and timeless. It is a means of dramatically looking at where and what the “me” that we constantly tend to self identify with actually is. It’s also a means of facing the attachment that we all too naturally tend to develop towards our bodies, our personalities, and other ways in which we self-identify as independently existing entities.
What was striking today after having made a certain ruckus in the cemetery with my chod drum, bell and thigh-bone horn as any good chodpa is willing to do, is that just sitting in a state of open reflection of the impermanence of life while at Green-Wood is particularly profound. It became evident that one need not only do Chod to necessarily feel the supportive reminder of how fragile and relatively short this life of ours may be. The contemplation of impermanence as well as the Four Noble Truths in a cemetery is a wonderful way to find freshness in the joyously simple truths-by-extension that flow effortlessly from such meditations. In fact, I was left with the feeling that we need more cemetery practice- more excitement. There are many places that tend to be avoided or simply glossed over that occupy great seats of power as places through which we can challenge and confront those things that are inconvenient.
It seems important to make the time to do such practices. It seems even more important to find powerful places to do such practices; it’s apparent to me that in the heart of Brooklyn such a powerful place exists- I look forward to finding other such sites. Gowanus canal?
This post is intended to address the disturbing reactions to the Islamic cultural center that is proposed to be built near the world trade center site. The anger and “islamaphobia” that has arisen as a result of the proposal to build the center acts as a direct challenge to the ideals that America as a nation ideally represents. That some New Yorkers are participating in the protests and exhibitions of intolerance seems provincial and pedestrian given the fact that they live in what is an international city, home to people from countries all over the globe, who in turn represent and practice a wide variety of the world’s faiths. Needless to say, the intensity of these reactions seem to be based upon fear of difference and or fear of the unknown.
Despite my own personal feelings on this issue, I thought that this is the perfect time to share a picture I took at an exhibition of Indian Sufi art titled Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam that was held at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from June to September of 2009.
The painting depicts three sufi mendicants and one Buddhist yogin (practicing what I would assume is a Vajrayana completion-stage yoga based upon his asana as well as the use of the meditation belt). Even though the exhibition gave very little information regarding the subject of the painting, the moment I saw the portly yogin I was convinced that an interfaith meeting of some sort was underway.
I brought this image with me to India to show H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche as he has a passionate interest in history, especially regarding the overlap between Buddhism and Islam. By most accounts Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) was born somewhere in or around the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. Other portions of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and northern Central Asia figure largely in the development and dissemination of tantric Buddhism. Many great buddhist teachers spent time in this region- generally refered to as Uddiyana. Such illustrious figures include the Mahasiddhas Tilopa and Kambala, and more recently Orgyen Rinchen Pal (1230-1309 CE) who brought to Tibet a unique system of meditation based upon the Kalachakra Tantra. It is also said that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) was said to be born somewhere within the Swat valley- the same valley that over the past year has seen terrible devastation in relation to the war in Afghanistan.
In response to the photo of the painting that I brought, H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche told me the story of a Buddhist teacher who was described in a historical treatise by Gendun Chophel. There was once a yogin (Rinpoche never gave the name) who wandered through Afghanistan and some of what is now Iran, and after some time started to teach. According to Rinpoche, this very realized teacher interchanged Buddhist philosophical terms such as Dharmakaya and nature-of-mind with Allah when he taught as a means to appeal to his audience. The sensitivity and depth of his teachings were eventually recognized by an elder Sufi teacher who came to name this Buddhist as his successor. When the elder teacher passed away, this Buddhist teacher took over teaching the sufi congregation and when he in turn passed away was eventually recognized as a great Muslim saint. It seems that the attachment to Buddhist dharma or Islamic dharma wasn’t an issue for this great and now unfortunately relatively forgotten teacher; the play of appearance was a means to express something beyond any particular cultural reference.
I am reminded of the story of Taranatha and one of his teachers named Buddhaguptanatha. Buddhaguptanatha (1514-1610? CE) was an Indian Buddhist yogin who also held and practiced several Hindu yogic traditions. Taranatha apparently discovered this fact while Buddhaguptanatha was in the midst of bestowing a series of empowerments that he himself had received from his guru, Shantigupta. Taranatha was particularly challenged by the idea that his teacher also practiced Hinduism. Sensing his student’s sectarian reaction Buddhaguptanatha became upset and abruptly left Tibet leaving the series of empowerments incomplete. It is humbling that even for a teacher as great as Taranatha, the notion of “pure” Buddhism being mixed with Hinduism was a challenge- that on some level his own sense of distinction got the better of him. It seems that as Buddhists we must be willing to let go of the “Buddhism” in the Dharma- relaxing into appearance as it comes. However, maybe this isn’t something that just Buddhists should try to do- what if we just let appearances arise and not be too concerned with their comparative characteristics?
From the standpoint of meditation I am particularly fascinated by how we naturally fall back into habits based upon the conception of time and definitions. There is a certain convenience to viewing the world in terms of borders, of ideas as separate and in contrast to one another, and of faiths as distinct and at odds with one another. However, when we really look, especially at ourselves and the way we interact with things around us, the sense of separation isn’t as distinct. When we allow ourselves to slip out of the me/mine self/other dynamic, things blend together in a way where perhaps all the distinctions become unnecessary and overly unimportant- or at the very least, less distinct. Appearance just is, and need not be elaborated upon.
Now might be a good time to examine just how and why we react so strongly against the things that disturb us; the things that cause fear are often not fully seen for what they truly are.