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.
Today I’d like to share an essential instruction of mahamudra by the great Indian mahasiddha Maitripa. Maitripa was a student of the mahasiddha Shavaripa, an early master of the Mahamudra lineage, and originator a mahakala transmission lineage based upon his visionary experiences in a cave on a mountain just north east of Bodh Gaya. This site is also the location of Śītavana charnel ground, also known as Cool Grove charnel ground. It was commonly believed that Cool Grove was a place frequented by ghosts, a place where strange things happened, and where wild animals would come and eat the remains of people who were brought here after death. Śītavana is listed as one of the eight great charnel grounds. It was a place for profound meditation, but also a place of danger.
Maitripa was one of the central teachers of Marpa Lotsawa, the great Tibetan translator who brought the early Kagyu lineage instructions from India to Tibet. Maitripa’s mahamudra instruction was unique and goes back to the great siddha Saraha, who is credited with being the source of the Mahamudra lineage. It is believed that Maitripa spent a good deal of time in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, near the town of Mirik, in West Bengal.
Maitripa’s Essential Mahamudra Verses
To innermost bliss, I pay homage!
Were I to explain Mahamudra, I would say—
All phenomena? Your own mind!
If you look outside for meaning, you’ll get confused.
Phenomena are like a dream, empty of true nature,
And mind is merely the flux of awareness,
No self nature: just energy flow.
No true nature: just like the sky.
All phenomena are alike, sky-like.
That’s Mahamudra, as we call it.
It doesn’t have an identity to show;
For that reason, the nature of mind
Is itself the very state of Mahamudra
(Which is not made up, and does not change).
If you realize this basic reality
You recognize all that comes up, all that goes on,
The all-pervading dharma-body.
Rest in the true nature, free of fabrication.
Meditate without searching for dharma-body—
It is devoid of thought.
If your mind searches, your meditation will be confused.
Because it’s like space, or like a magical show,
There is neither meditation or non-meditation,
How could you be separate or inseparable?
That’s how a yogi sees it!
Then, aware of all good and bad stuff as the basic reality,
You become liberated.
Neurotic emotions are great awareness,
They’re to a yogi as trees are to a fire—FUEL!
What are notions of going or staying?
Or, for that matter, “meditating” in solitude?
If you don’t get this,
You free yourself only on the surface.
But if you do get it, what can ever fetter you?
Abide in an undistracted state.
Trying to adjust body and mind won’t produce meditation.
Trying to apply techniques won’t produce meditation either.
See, nothing is ultimately established.
Know what appears to have no intrinsic nature.
Appearances perceived: reality’s realm, self-liberated.
Thought that perceives: spacious awareness, self-liberated.
Non-duality, sameness [of perceiver and perceived]: the dharma-body.
Like a wide stream flowing non-stop,
Whatever the phase, it has meaning
And is forever the awakened state—
Great bliss without samsaric reference.
All phenomena are empty of intrinsic nature
And the mind that clings to emptiness dissolves in its own ground.
Freedom from conceptual activity
Is the path of all the Buddhas.
I’ve put together these lines
That they may last for aeons to come.
By this virtue, may all beings without exception
Abide in the great state of Mahamudra.
This was Maitripa’s Essential Mahamudra Instruction (in Tibetan: Phyag rgya chen po
tshig bsdus pa), received from Maitripa himself and translated by the Tibetan translator
Marpa Chökyi Lodrö.
© Nicole Riggs 1999. Reproduction welcome
if not for profit and with full acknowledgement.