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.
When my first teacher, and spiritual mother, Ani Dechen Zangmo, taught the text for the prostrations and refuge part of the Karma Kagyu ngondro (Four Foundations practice) she spent a great deal of time talking about the different ways in which beings have been our mothers in the past.
In the most classical aspect of this practice, we make our prostrations to the wonderful field of refuge: our lineage forefathers and foremothers. In this way we seek to enter and become part of a lineage. We join our lineage through repeatedly receiving the blessings of the lineage; in fact, we are instructed to help lead all sentient beings in the meritorious activity of supplicating and joining our specific lineage with us. Why do we do this? It is said that all beings have at one point in time been our mothers, having cared for us with selfless beauty and having made endless sacrifices, protected us, nurtured us, and also supported and enriched us. Through time immemorial, through the various combinations and permutations of the manifestations of karma, all beings have been, at any given point in time, our mothers. Indeed every person we meet has done this for us. Every animal. Every friend. Every enemy. Every being, seen and unseen, has done this for us- and in this way we are all inextricably linked. What better way to repay these countless mother-beings than to act as a raft to lead them to the banks of spiritual realization?
And so, as is the case within the Kagyu lineage, when we visualize the field of refuge and as we make each prostration while reciting the refuge prayer, we doing so with each being who has been our mother. We keep their desire for well-being and happiness in our heart. In this way, in a manner similar to Indra’s Net, it becomes impossible to locate a source or an end with regard to our connection with others.
Where is the border between myself and another? Where are our points of overlap?
Indeed, in taking a moment to check in and notice this we can very naturally, perhaps effortlessly, find ourselves left with a deep feeling of connection and an awareness ornamented with the jewels of empathetic concern.
Suddenly the well-being and quality-of-experience of others becomes a natural concern.
That we are all interdependent is also driven home in the practice of Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. There is a portion of this practice in which one imagines oneself moving throughout the six realms of existence (illustrated above). In the practice we engage in helping to alleviate the suffering of beings in all six realms.
Within this practice, and in many others we make the vow to do this; to benefit all beings who have been our mothers as an expression of gratitude and gentle concern for all those who suffer and who have provided us with the selfless love and support that only parents could. These beings who have loved us unconditionally, may be experiencing the anger and depression of the hot and cold hell realms, the dullness of the animal realms, the jealousy and infighting of demigod realms, or the perfect complacency of the gods’ realm.
How can we be there for them, how can we cool the anger, warm the depression, enlighten the dullness, sooth the jealousy and enliven and express the immediacy of the present moment to perfect eternalism?
In another sense, perhaps in a way that differs from the classical presentation of how all beings have been our mothers at one point in time, all beings are our mothers in another way: they give birth to our identities; the way we present and imagine ourselves to be.
It seems we cannot exist in a relative way without existing in relation to others. The acceptance of our wonderful qualities and our faults, the very perception and even projection upon us of what we appear to be, is a birthing of an identity. The quality of our being in a horizontal sense, as it pertains to our diverse qualities, is defined and experienced through others, through the way that they experience us. We are given context and we are given meaning. What we do with that and how we react to it is up to us.
While we like to think that we are the architects of our appearance, and in many ways we are the often unintentional archtect, it may be that we are only ever known through the experience of others. Perhaps this way of looking at the manner in which we have created our identities, the way that we are animated by, and get carried away with our experience of self, a fleeting momentary illusion, can be best seen reflected in the eyes of another.
I find that whether I am at the hospital acting the role of a chaplain, on the subway on my way to the hospital, or going about my daily activities as a parent or partner to another, I am always humbled when I have the chance to notice how I am engaged in an interpenetrating relationship with others. What an amazing thing to just meet and reflect the pure appearance of another, the fleeting transience, and the deep connection that we all share; and what a difficult thing to do. I find it especially humbling when I catch myself caught in the midst of reacting and judging, of comparing and compartmentalizing the spontaneity of occurence. But when I can rest in naturally meeting others, the sheer simplicity and profundity of that experience remindeds me of how extraneous our elaborations of dharma can become.
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.
The other day I posted about the importance of the spiritual teacher in a general kind of way. The three texts that I drew from, by the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, Milarepa, and Gampopa respectively, all highlight different approaches to how we benefit from out teachers. These are our ‘ecstatic’ or extraordinary teachers. What I would like to focus on today are the ordinary teachers, our everyday teachers.
Recently I met a patient in the hospital where I’m doing my clinical chaplaincy training. He had undergone extensive surgery several months ago to remove cancerous tissue that was spreading throughout his abdomen. He had also received radiation to help destroy any last bit of the cancer. He was young, only forty years old, and had only recently had the chance to experience life outside of the hospital. His cancer had gone into remission, he went home for the holidays and spent them with friends and family. All of the sudden, quite recently, he had begun to feel pain in his abdomen and went to his doctor to have it checked out. His doctor suggested that he come into the hospital for some tests. This is where I met him. He was laying in bed, his mother sitting by his side expectantly. As we started talking he described all of the tests that had just been done on a variety of his organs all of which presented the possibility of cancer. He was thin and animated despite being hooked up to a morphine drip to control his pain. As our conversation continued he started to cry and describe how angry he was with god about his present situation. As we spoke I asked him how not knowing, how the uncertainty of his present situation made him feel, and this lead to his anger with god or whatever force put him in his present situation. I asked him if he could share with me all the ways in which he was pissed off, to which he offered a lengthy, articulate and powerful list of feelings that lead to his anger. One of the feelings that he described involved his relative youth and what the reason for his being on earth actually was. He was afraid that he would never truly help others, that his desire to be a positive force for change in the world would be cut short by his illness. I was struck by his openness and the kindness with which he shared his fears, his pains, and also his joys, his hopes as well as his dreams. I felt so included by him in his life and in his story that I told him that I found him to be a graceful, compassionate and caring teacher- someone who I will never forget, who has touched me with gentle simplicity. I also mentioned that his mother may feel similarly, at which she started to cry as she said, “Yes, yes, he is wonderful.”
This patient has become a profound teacher for me. Part of his impact may have come from his circumstances, his illness and vulnerability, as well as his clarity and honesty with which he could share his feelings with me; but I tend to feel that we connected. His heart was open towards me, and mine towards him: we entered into relationship. It was meaningful for both of us. Towards the end of our meeting we seemed connected and full, we gave to, and supported one another.
There are an estimated 6,897,395,150 people on Earth, and the person who I just described above is just one of them. How amazing it is that we feel transformed in connecting with just one person, and yet there are so many others that we don’t or can’t open up to. I find this very humbling. Perhaps this is what an open heart truly is.
I am reminded of a portion of a text on mahamudra that was composed by Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche; it was his distillation of a much larger text by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, entitled the Ocean of Certainty. In his text (Opening the Door to Certainty) Bokar Rinpoche describes the different types of lamas, or teachers. These are, the lama as a human being belonging to a lineage, the lama as awakened word, the lama as appearance, and the lama as ultimate nature. The lama of appearance is described as appearance as teacher; that all that we see, hear, touch taste, and smell, all of our thoughts are all our teachers. How do we react to them? What do they cause to arise in us? There is a beautiful simplicity in appearance as teacher; it is loose and freeing; it allows us to go out and interact with the world around us; it allows us to enter into relationship with everything around us. This is wonderfully special. We are constantly surrounded by countless ordinary, everyday teachers, all of whom offer us the possibility of connection and growth.
I recently attended a long weekend retreat on the Five Remembrances held by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. It was wonderful to have time at the Garrison Institute to reflect upon these five essential points:
I am of the nature to experience old age, I cannot escape old age.
I am of the nature to experience illness, I cannot escape illness.
I am of the nature to experience death, I cannot escape death.
I am of the nature to experience loss of all that is dear to me, I cannot escape loss.
I am the owner of my actions. They are the ground of my being, whatever actions I perform, for good or ill, I will become their heir.
The Five Remembrances come from the Upajjhatthana Sutra which could be translated as The Sutra of Subjects of Contemplation. You can hear the teaching of the Five remembrances as found in the Upajjhatthana Sutta read by Kamala Masters here, or read a portion of the sutta translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu here.
The Buddha’s discourse on the Five Remembrances resembles the realization that young Prince Siddhartha had concerning his recognition that we are all subject to birth, sickness, old age, death, and all of the forms of suffering associated with each phase of our existence. In the reading of the sutta by Kamala Masters, the Buddha points out that the first four Remembrances serve us well to return our focus onto the primacy of impermanence; doing so is a remedy towards arrogance, over-confidence, and conceit.
I will become sick. I will become old. I will experience loss. I will die. There is nothing that I can do to change this. When that happens, as this whole existence plays out, my only companion who remains with me throughout is the collection of my actions.
The Fifth Remembrance, which relates to our actions, the quality of our actions, or karma, colors the experience of each facet of our being. It can be the root of our liberation, or the hard kernel from which our suffering manifests. I’d like to take a moment to explore the Fifth remembrance, our actions, in a general sense and then look a little more specifically at action from the Vajrayana buddhist perspective, especially as it relates to actions of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating.
Action, movement, friction, trajectories, potential energies. These can easily refer to different forces and dynamics involved within the study of physics, which at close glance looks like a wonderful symbolic structure parallel to aspects of Buddhism, and yet as qualities they easily also connect to our behavior. Our behavior is composed of reactions or responses to the events around us, how we see the play of phenomena unfold before our very eyes. The quality of our perspective acts to determine the flavor of our actions, and the quality of our actions affects the continuum of our perspective. The more self-involved our perspective is, the more our actions involve the preservation and protection of self interests. The more we act to preserve and protect self-interests, the more easily we may think that others or events may be hindering our self-interests. Likewise, a more expansive perspective affords us the ability to act in a more expansive way. When we act with a larger concern for others’ well being, our ability to see the interrelatedness of self and other allows more clarity and more peace.
As we pass through this life, a conditioned existence that has been flavored by past events, the habits of reacting to the display of phenomena around us (our daily lives) often become stronger and more ridgid. The phrase goes: Actions speak louder than words. This seems right, but it’s amazing how we use thousands of words to hide or cover up and beautify our actions. Such elaborate verbal adornments so that we can feel okay about how we are right now.
The above image is that of Senge Dradrok, or Lion’s Roar, one of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche took this form in Bodh Gaya when he came to debate and challenge a group of five hundred non-Buddhist teachers who were trying to disprove the Buddha’s teachings. Guru Rinpoche won the debate and “liberated” all of them with a bolt of lightening- most of the village where the non-buddhists were staying was destroyed, those who survived became converts to Buddhism. This type of story is not so unique. The life story of the Mahasiddha Virupa and many others contain descriptions of such events- they are powerful descriptions of activities that certainly appear to run counter to the typical notion of what buddhist behavior is thought to be. This energy of wrathful subjugation, while not generally an everyday occurrence has it’s place- this hot humid searing energy is needed from time to time to remove impediments towards our spiritual growth.
How can we touch the quality of Senge Dradrok within ourselves? What does it feel like to be him, or Mahakala, Vajrakilya, or Palden Lhamo? What is the focus of these energies? How can we completely liberate the hundreds on non-dharmic impulses within us like Senge Dradrok?
In another form, that of Nyima Ozer, or Radiant Sun, Guru Rinpoche displayed himself as Saraha, Dombi Heruka, Virupa, and Krishnacharya, some of the most well-known Indian proponents of tantric Buddhism. While in this form Guru Rinpoche spent time in the eight great charnel grounds and taught Secret Mantra (tantric Buddhism) to the dakinis, while binding outer gods as protectors of his secret teachings. This is an act of magnetizing, drawing towards him the dakinis and protectors of his treasured teachings, spreading the dharma in the form of may important masters. In the form of a tantric master his intensity and use of whatever arises as a teaching tool captures the great energy deeply-seated within through which magnetizing activity becomes manifest. It seems that essential to the quality of magnetizing is the general awareness of skillful means; knowing just when to act in a way to be of the most benefit in any given situation.
Yet another activity form of Guru Rinpoche appears as Pema Gyalpo, or Lotus King. In the form of Pema Gyalpo, Guru Rinpoche taught the inhabitants Oddiyana the Dharma as he manifested as the chief spiritual advisor for the King of Oddiyana. His selfless dedication and compassionate timely teaching activity enriched all who came into contact with Pema Gyalpo such that they became awareness-holders in their own right. This enriching activity has untold benefits; the effects of the nurturing support that Pema Gyalpo displayed through his teaching activity caused an incredible expansion of the Dharma in Oddiyana.
This final image is of Guru Rinpoche as himself, who among most Himalayan Buddhists is considered the second Buddha in the sense that he is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet. While he wasn’t technically the first, he was the first to introduce tantric Buddhism in a way that took hold, and is credited with helping to construct the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. A dynamic teacher, Guru Rinpoche embodied all of the qualities of his eight manifestations and countless others. Through the expression of his life Guru Rinpoche was able to display pacification, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugation both in Oddiyana, India, Bhutan, Tibet, and even now.
Within tantric Buddhist literature we often find references to the importance of adopting the behavioral modalities of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating as illustrated by the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche. These activities were seen as extremely important as they pertain to embodying the qualities of a variety of tantric buddhas as well as the essence of Buddhahood in all emotions. Furthermore, they are utilitarian activities, they support and enrich and massage us as we travel the path of enlightenment. References to these activities can be found in the translations of various tantric texts by a variety of outstanding Buddhist scholars such as David Snellgrove, David B. Gray, Christian K. Wedemeyer, and Vesna A. Wallace to name a few. One can also rely upon the namthars (liberation stories) of many Indian and Himalayan Buddhist Siddhas to feel the range of possible human action on both inner and outer levels of being. Finally, our practice sadhanas contain a wealth of wisdom and guidance- the words in sadhanas are not arbitrary- and they often capture with great clarity the essence of dharma being.
We are aging. We will experience illness. We will die. We will experience loss. Our actions are our ground and we are the owners of our actions. That this is the case is undeniable. We cannot change the first five certainties, but we can change our actions. Our actions, and the related ability to perceive, directly determine how we relate qualitatively towards aging, illness, death, and impermanence. Let’s apply the depth and range of possibilities as exemplified by Guru Rinpoche and other Buddhist Siddhas- lets refine, strengthen, expand, and deepen our relationships with ourselves, with the world around us and with our experience of mind. We are completely capable of manifesting in this way- it doesn’t matter if we wish to embody Tilopa, Virupa, Tsongkhapa, Taranatha, Machik Labron, or Garab Dorje, we are all capable of touching their essential being. No one can do this for us. At the end, as we lay dying, who can really blame for our shortcomings?
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.
From the nature of emptiness wind and fire arise.
I remember very clearly the cold late November afternoon in Gangtok, Sikkim, fifteen years ago when I was taught Milarepa guru yoga. It was one of those incredible experience of being shown something for the first time: electrifying, new and magical. One of the things that instantly spoke to me about the practice was the imagery of the inner offering of the five meats and five nectars that appears in the beginning of the text. Indeed, in looking back at it I think that the inner offering in Milarepa practice (as well as in many other tantric Buddhist practices) has been something that has held great meaning for me. Part of it may be the fact that this prelude to Milarepa practice is a wonderfully clear metaphor for Mahamudra; one of the central forms of meditation passed down through the Kagyu Lineage. The inner offering presents a different form for approaching the mind’s essence from other meditations- chod involves cutting and offering, samatha/vipassana is quiet and still, some practices involve fiery wrath, others still, a warm familiar tenderness. Each of these emotive backgrounds illustrate a modality, an emotion, a style, or an outlet through which we may we express and experience ourselves within the context of awakened activity; the union of clarity of being and luminosity of mind. Within the context of the inner offering, the metaphor is that of boiling and melting (not unlike the athanor which refines the prima materia in Alchemy). This burning and melting is so powerful that a sublime blissful nectar is produced, a non-dual nectar that confers the blessing of the Buddha. This part of Milarepa guru yoga came to be, and remains, an exciting fun part of my practice, instilling a sense of dynamic power that seems to illustrate the potential “atomic” nature of Vajrayana.
In a skull on a tripod of skulls GO KU DA HA NA become the five meats and BI MU MA RA SHU become the five nectars.
The inner offering is a product of medieval India (roughly between the 6th through 12th centuries), when both Tantric Buddhism and Tantric Hinduism were taking shape. This was a time of immense social upheaval throughout the Indian sub-continent. In both Hindu and Buddhist circles, groups of siddhas broke away from the orthodoxy of their respective majorities in order to develop, practice and teach tantric forms of Hinduism and Buddhism. One of the principal causes of such a move was a the adoption of an antinomian attitude towards the strictures of Indian society with its caste system, its brahmanic tendencies towards “purity”, and the establishment of Buddhist monasteries so large and wealthy that their leading teachers often lived very comfortable lives of scholastic celebrity. This shift was often exemplified by the lives of the 84 mahasiddhas, some of whom left their teaching positions at the famous monasteries of Nalanda, Somapuri, and Vikramashila to practice in jungles, others were kicked out for their outlandish behavior, while a few were kings or princes and princesses afraid to give up their wealth, and many were of low-caste status. Disregard for the religious and cultural status quo led to a shift towards the charnel grounds as gathering places, frightening “dirty” locations, where wild animals scavenged the remains of the recently dead. It was a time where meditation instruction was sung in vernacular so that the everyday person could be touched, not just those who were ordained or occupants of a higher social station. This time also marked a focal shift (as far as practice goes) towards cities where the concentrated hustle and bustle of everyday life revealed itself as a ripe field of opportunity, a place where one is faced to deal with a full range of emotions. For some it was also a shift into the seductive luxurious courts of both major and minor royalty. Human experience, in all of its forms was recognized as embryonic in nature allowing most anyone who exerted themselves in practice to become pregnant with realization. This became the birth right of all, not just those born into one caste, and certainly not just those who were literate or educated. Perhaps one could go so far as to say that this period was a time of spiritual anarchic-democratization.
One of the most interesting aspects of this time period was the apparent looseness of sectarian divisions between the then Saivite sub-sects that represented the forefront of Hindu tantra and the Buddhist equivalents who ushered in Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Candamaharosana, Guhyasamaya and other early tantric deity practice. The shared iconography between Saivite Kapalika Hindu tantra and Buddhist tantra is clear evidence of some common direction and praxis orientations. Such symbolism makes use of skulls, flayed animal and human skins, invocations of the more wrathful nature of these deities, and sexual union with their consorts. Similarly, the dual identities of the siddhas Matsendryanath, Gorakanath, Jalandhara, and Kanhapa who are counted as four of the eighty-four Buddhist mahasiddhas as well as founders of the Hindu Nath lineages suggests that there was much more dialog between the more iconoclastic progenitors and practitioners of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra. These four siddhas are credited with the development of Hatha Yoga, which has many applications within Buddhism and Hinduism. David Templeman, in his fascinating paper Buddhaguptanatha and the Survival of the Late Siddha Tradition has suggested that the interaction between Buddhist and Hindu yogins was more common than most Tibetan scholars had assumed. This was a perplexing and fascinating subject for the erudite Tibetan scholar Taranatha, and according to Janet Gyatso, in her book Apparitions of the Self, the great Nyingma terton Jigme Lingpa was very curious about such points of contact. In some way it appears that the assumption of difference seems to be a convenient projected organizational tool used to try to clarify such a difficult topic of study. A way to try to define that which tries to defy definition. The Centre for Tantric Studies offers a forum for exploring the history and development of tantra in and around the Indian Sub-continent.
Much debate and uncertainty surrounds the issue of how tantra came into being, even more debate surrounds how we should approach understanding tantra. The works of scholars like Geoffrey Samuel, Roger Jackson, Ronald Davidson, David Gordon White, Elizabeth English and Christian Wedemeyer (to name a few) have helped to illustrate some of the more pertinent issues surrounding the subject of Buddhist tantra.
They are melted by wind and fire.
As a means of throwing open the gates of ultimate realization, the Pancamakara: madya (alcohol), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (edible foods) and maithuna (sexual intercourse) were included in Hindu tantric rituals as a means to effect a eucharistic understanding of non-duality. In essence, by consuming that which is culturally regarded as impure in ritual context, one undermines the very notion of the purity/impurity dualism that keeps us trapped in feeling fragmented and lacking expansiveness. These particular objects, when handled and offered by practitioners of this more radical form of Hindu Tantra were held with the left hand, the hand reserved for handling impure substances. In adopting an enthusiasm and greater equanimity towards these violations of cultural mores regarding cleanliness (spiritually as well as otherwise) one was directly contradicting the rules of conventional Hinduism. It should be noted that the use of the left hand in offerings is also prevalent in one form or another in Buddhist Tantra. This dynamic was central to the Kapalika sect whose influence upon the corpus of Yogini Tantas was considerable. While few scholars can agree who influenced who, the most important thing is that these traditions arose.
Light from the three seeds attracts wisdom nectar. Samaya and wisdom become inseparable and an ocean of nectar descends.
In Buddhist sadhanas the five meats and the five nectars share a certain equivalency to the Hindu Pancamakara. Rather than the transgressive five M’s (madya, mamsa, matsya, mudra and maithuna) we have the five meats: the flesh of cow, dog, horse, elephant and man, and the five nectars: semen, blood, flesh, urine, and feces. The five meats are representative of the five skandhas: form, feeling, discrimination, action, and consciousness. Likewise, the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, correspond to the five nectars. Depending on the explanation lineage of the inner offering, these associations may vary, but generally the essence is the same. In this practice we join the five wisdoms with the five elements to produce a non-dual intoxicating ambrosia that has the capability of revealing the qualities of awakening and in that sense provides a powerful spring-board of potential realization. In other words we are joining our perceptions with the objects of our perceptions- entering into direct relationship with phenomena; uncontrived and expansive. We boil perceptions and the ability to perceive in a five dimensional way thereby naturally releasing our habitual confused samsaric reaction for a more aware equanimous relationship with the world around and within us. This is the very mechanism of samsara/nirvana! What’s more, as this mechanism unfolds, it reveals the don-dual vastness of Dharmakaya, a spring-board for sacred outlook. For a moment everything is okay, relaxed into ease.
These substances emanate from their specific syllables and are brought together to be mixed in a kapala (skull cap bowl), one then generates a flow of prana which strikes syllables for fire and wind underneath the kapala to make its contents boil and in a sense unify. This now ambrosial nectar (amrita) emits the syllables Om, Ah, Hung, dispersing the blessing of pure Buddha body, speech and mind. This simply radiates. It is used to bless torma offerings and nectar used in offerings, or in a more general way tsok offerings as well as the general environment.
Om Ah Hung Ha Ho Hri Hung Hung Phe Phe So Ha.
There is another side to this as well; it seems an importantly powerful thing to keep in mind at some level that the five meats and five nectars were intended to be transgressive repulsive substances. Shocking and caste destroying, they arose directly out of the charnel ground culture that figures so largely in Buddhist Tantra. There is power in our response to disgust, to fear, guilt, lust and all those emotions that lurk around the edges of our movement through the world; we all have our own relationships to purity and impurity, and they are a lot more complicated than we like to assume. Guilt, fear, self-righteousness, abandonment, woe, depression, anger, disgust- an army of emotions- are related to how and why we connect to/react to purity and impurity- we carry these reactions with us wherever we go as we label the things around us as clean and or unclean, desirable and undesirable.
A few years ago I was speaking with the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in India about the historical development of tantric applications of using impure substances. In his reply he said that things are so much more different today in trying to connect with these practices. It’s hard to see rotting corpses, scary wild animals feasting on human remains, lepers, one can’t go down to a charnel ground these days to do a puja around bodies in various states of decay. With the use of toilet paper, some of the stigma of the use of the left hand in India is less powerful, and in western countries there never really was the same kind of stigma in this regard. This he suggested that this is one of the reasons why we use/rely upon visualizations- they can be quite powerful.
However, I wonder where these places of fear are- we all have them- perhaps they are more individualized, or abstracted. Homelessness, illness, mental illness, terrorism, and death, perhaps these are some of the newer “untouchables” of our times. It is important to locate them for ourselves, touch the fear or terror that they bring, and then offer them up- the essence of fear and terror is mind, and mind’s essence is primordially pure. If we can take these sources of impurity and throw them in a pot and cook them with wind and fire, energy and exhaustive passion, they can be seen for what they are, not much different from the purity and wholesomeness that we so easily cling to. What then is the difference? And why to we always run from one towards the other?
This weekend a segment of the television show Religion and News Ethics Weekly will broadcast a taste of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care chaplaincy training program on PBS which you can also watch here. NYZCCC is a rich and rigorous CPE training program that is truly unique. I am constantly challenged by the depth of the curriculum as well as that of the instructors, Koshin Paley Ellison, Robert Chodo Campbell, and Trudi Jinpu Hirsch. Currently I am half way through my first of two units of CPE through NYZCCC’s year long extended unit program, was a participant in their Foundations in Contemplative Care program last year, and look forward to more training with them in the future. I can’t say enough wonderful things about the program and how wonderfully rare it is.
I invite you too to explore NYZCCC here…
A friend and classmate in my chaplaincy training program recently alerted our class to a newly conducted study led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University on the efficacy of prayer for people who are ill. Dr. Benson is no stranger to the world of prayer and meditation, in fact he has built an entire career around studying the physiological effects of meditation and prayer. His findings have generally supported the belief that beyond the spiritual benefits of meditation, the meditator experiences a whole host of benefits ranging from a decrease in stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a general slowing of the body’s metabolism.
In the past Dr. Benson studied a variety of Tibetan monks, including the meditation master Bokar Rinpoche, while they meditated. Dr. Benson focused upon meditators who were practicing Tummo, a vajrayana completion stage yogic meditation that fuses a form of pranayama (breathing exercises) with visualizations of the body’s internal energy matrix. He relates in a documentary based upon his findings, that he could not believe what he discovered: breath and heart rates decreased dramatically, and measured brain activity appeared completely unlike that of a person in waking state. Recent interest in exploring the relationship between meditation and neuroscience by the scientific community, especially in collaboration with H.H. the Dalai Lama and H. H. the 17th Karmapa will undoubtedly clarify the benefits of meditation, and thereby help many people who may become interested in including meditation within their daily lives.
Here is a link to a Harvard Gazette article on the subject:
Additionally, I would like to share a link to a short video clip of Dr. Herbert Benson’s research: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WajTafbG7II.
The efficacy of prayer seems much harder to measure than that of meditation. The results of the study of meditation upon the physiology an individual meditator seem clear; they are easy to quantify, and allow for useful comparison of data recorded in studying a variety of meditators. The study of prayer in this way seems immensely difficult by comparison. Here is the link to the article that my friend emailed us last week:
Many salient points are raised by this study, and perhaps the most important one revolves around how such studies are structured. Prayer is a mysterious subject and it seems that it will take a number of attempts to be able to skillfully measure it’s effects. I do tend to agree with Dr. Richard Sloan’s warning in the New York Times article linked above that we must be careful not to destroy what prayer is about by deconstructing religion to “basic elements that can be easily quantified”. It would be ideal if future studies could honor the place and importance of science as well that of religion and sensitively examine where and how they overlap.
The vajrayana perspective on prayer is fairly clear: prayer is vital. Generally, ritual is included within prayer- often they are interwoven. The performance of prayer in this multi-dimensional way helps to form an active identification with the historical transmission lineage (from the Buddha directly to you), and allows you to rest in your basic-state as a particular buddha in body, speech, mind, as well as in essence. All of these coalesce around acting to benefit others (based upon our pledge to liberate all sentient beings). So important is this type of activity that most recensions of the Hevajra Tantra and Chakrsamvara Tantra, as well as most other root tantras, have chapters dedicated to engaging in the actions of Pacifying, Enriching, and Subduing. These kinds of actions can be best described as psycho-spritual activities to alleviate suffering, promote peace, and plant the seeds of liberation for others; prayer in this context, I would suggest, is quite important. Within the framework of Tantric Buddhism there is an active application of visualization, prayer, ritual and mantra recitation that help the individual to loosen up their conception of the ordinary identification of oneself as an independent being living in opposition to the external world with which they interact, so that one can glimpse the rich wealth of their buddha-nature which is deeply interconnected with the world around oneself. The tools: meditation, prayer and ritual help to clarify the recognition of our basic-state. In this context, prayer is a means to center oneself, to remain intimate with one’s teacher, a particular buddha or protector, or as a means to rest in the mind’s essential nature. It is also an offering; an act of generosity and kindness. Prayer also focuses the mind, making it a support of meditation, it can function as a means of clarifying doubt, as well as a means to receive inspiration. I am sure that this is not unique to vajrayana, or even Buddhism, but lies at the core of prayer regardless of one’s faith.
From the perspective of chaplaincy, specifically around the application of pastoral care in which prayer is requested, the exact physical result of prayer may not be the central goal as much as what the prayer does for the individual requesting it. The relationship between the person conducting the prayer and the person receiving it is a sacred and intimate relationship. Prayer may be directed towards aspects of the self that have little to do with the individual’s physical condition. Prayer can help relieve fear, a sense of separation from others, or help reinforce the inner ground that provides greater support for dealing with one’s particular situation. These factors, and a great many others may indeed lead towards an ability to heal more effectively, but it might have less to do with the actual prayer and more to do with the inner process that prayer energizes, relaxes, empowers, or clarifies. Perhaps it is this inner process that contributes to recovery from illness. Prayer and the use of ritual for a person who is actively dying may also help promote a greater sense of connection and meaning to a life that is transitioning into the experience of death- this can be profoundly important. Ultimately, prayer may not be best approached from the perspective of what it can do with regards to only physical responses, for surely prayer is mysterious, and some of the beauty involved in prayer is how it can return deeper meaning to various moments in an individual’s journey through life, creating a point of orientation that is more imaginal, timeless, and transcendent.
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?