I was recently in Wilmington, North Carolina in late October for my wedding. It’s a very beautiful small town that hugs the Cape Fear river, which, like most early cities and towns, was dependent upon a waterway as a means of transportation, both out to the Atlantic Ocean, and also further inland. We spent a week down in Wilmington trying to add a few days of relaxation to the planning and organization of the wedding. While there I was able to spend a morning practicing chöd on the beach during sunrise. For a brooklynite, the ability to spend time in meditation facing the rising sun on a beautiful quiet beach is something of a luxury.
While I was aware of the fact that there had been an active slave trade in Wilmington, I had not realized the extent of Wilmington’s strategic location in the trade of slaves. Fortunately, or unfortunately, due to the danger of trying to moor ships on most of the islands that make up North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the Port of Wilmington, situated inland on the Cape Fear river was much safer, thereby providing a major point of forced disembarkation of slaves. In fact, the black slave population of Wilmington out numbered the white non-slave population by 2 to 1 by the mid 1800’s. The skills and knowledge of black slaves was vital for the growth, success and expansion of the town; it is quite probable that Wilmington’s survival as a vibrant economy due to its being rooted upon a firm economic base built upon the blistered and broken backs of its former slaves.
In this respect Wilmington is no different from a variety of other cities, towns, countries, and empires whose success, basic stability, infrastructure, and rich cultural growth has been secured and “enriched” by its slaves. Indeed, like it or not, the history of humanity can certainly provide a variety of such cases of how the enslavement of other humans “benefitted” the culture of their oppressor. Sadly, in many ways this dynamic continues into the present day.
With this in mind, and as a means of returning to the sacred geography that I explored in a blog post last year, I decided to spend time doing chöd on the beach not far from the inlet of the Cape Fear river; all the while trying to remain aware of my inner slaves and all the ways that I enslave different aspects of myself. I wanted to touch upon all of the ways that I enslave myself, enslave aspects of my personality, how I project rigid ideas upon myself, and like a coy and brutal slave-master, how I benefit from such suffering. That Wilmington can act as the support for my practice of chöd, that its rich history of being a place where the dreams of humans were crushed and suffocated by a racist ruling class can offer a ground and support for practice is important. Perhaps Wilmington, as a reminder- or symbol- offers us the potential for great inner growth.
Slavery, especially inner-slavery is an important thing to contemplate. Even more, the way that many people disassociate from the history of slavery and all of the ways in which it still haunts us is something that I find disturbing.
There is so much terrible violence that we commit towards ourselves in a unconscious manner out of fear, or a sense of insecurity, or of flat-out self- hatred. There are so many ways in which we subjugate aspects of ourselves, be they qualities, propensities, or habitual reactions, with the same control of a slave master.
And so, with the warm rising rays of the morning sun as a witness; a glorious bindu drop amidst the crashing of waves of the atlantic ocean, and with the wind whistling though tall beach grasses, I invoked the mandala of Machik Labron and Prajnaparamita. With qualities of edgelessness, and without specific orientation within time or space, I wanted to stretch myself , so that the tragic history associated with the slave trade and all of its ghostly remnants could be included within my practice, that all of the terror and the brutal subjugation of others could be heard.
I tend to feel that with any particular spiritual practice it is important to blend what tradition dictates, the transmitted instructions of one’s teacher/tradition, with what is alive within ourselves. At the end of the day it is our story, the story that we carry with us, the story that we have made for ourselves that we bring to our practice. The way that we construct this story, it’s highs and lows, it’s holy sanctified ideals and its skulking demonic shadow beings are what we bring. Our desire to do, and be, good, as well as our fear of failure and being seen as failure.
In exploring slavery as a metaphor for the way in which we fail to notice our full selves I am reminded of course I took in college on African Philosophy taught by a brilliant Kenyan philosopher, Dismas Masolo. Some of what was touched upon within the curricula of this class included an examination of the early historical affirmation that Africans were in many ways sub-human.
For example, Immanuel Kant, one of the giants of western philosophy writes in Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent. The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.” Martin Cohen, the editor of The Philosopher, wrote in a review of D.A. Masolo’s African philosophy in Search of an Identity, “…Kant, for example, had argued that the ‘original human species was white, appearing as dark brown’ only as a result of oppressive climatic conditions, whilst Hegel wrote similarly that ‘the characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity’. In Africa, life was not a manifestation of dialectical reason but rather, as Hegel put it, ‘a succession of contingent happenings and surprises.'” The justification for subjugating others appears timeless- it is amazing how easily we demonize others, sometimes with shameless effortless ignorance.
Equally amazing is how we take credit for the fruits of the work of our inner-slaves. Just as the slave owner assumed ownership of what was tilled within, and born of his fields; or the madame at the brothel whose “hard-earned” wealth was collected upon the broken bodies and broken dreams of her two-bit whores (to quote Theodore Dreiser); it can be scary when we look at how much credit we take for the fruits of the parts of ourselves that we would rather ignore, the parts that we keep drugged, shackled, and subdued with cruelty.
While we assume our position at the head of the table, decked out in all of the fineries of our best projections of ourselves, dining upon the finest foods, receiving the accolades that deep down we feel we really deserve, entertaining our every whim and fancy- our self-hatred and inability to dynamically embrace the parts of ourselves that we may fear that others will come to know of often rules with the same tight fist as the cruelest slave owner. And just as such slave owners were known to rape their slaves, I wonder how we secretly rape the unintegrated parts of ourselves; secretly proclaiming love and acceptance of the parts of ourselves that we may indeed love, but fear, and perhaps secretly hate because we feel that we may know that they are integral parts of ourselves.
Ironically, it may just be that the most enslaved parts of our psyche may be the ones that we refuse to own; the ones of which we refuse to be conscious. They also may hold immense power and utility, if we could just be with them, just accept them…
As a chaplain I witness many people (patients, their friends or family, as well as staff) try to shackle their fears, to hide away their anger and sense of loss, to turn away from their sense of powerlessness, and to try to disguise their shame. I can see this in part because I try to explore these things within myself. It is not easy to notice things about ourselves that we are uncomfortable with- let alone loathe or fear. And yet in seeing this in myself and in others, I am often reminded of how naturally we create our own suffering.
I sometimes wonder about how as Buddhists it is possible to secretly hide away the slaves of aggression and anger, how easy it is to distract ourselves from truly knowing, exploring and interfacing with the way these feelings arise. That we might prefer studying the paramitas as a way of feeling good about ourselves but not really noticing, not taking stock, of how easy it can be to associate with a conceptual modality, a structural paradigm, rather than something that genuinely arises from our heart/mind complex. Even the idea of Buddhist practice offers a false sense of not being a slave owner. In this way, the overly friendly, overly compassionate Buddhist who is unaware of the horrors bubbling just under their surface can also become a slave owner by brutality repressing drives, emotional impulses and feelings. If not observed carefully, Buddhist practice affords wonderful ways of running away from oneself (if that is what you want to do).
In offering my steaming organs, the sun and moon of my eyes, the deep vital essence of my marrow, the mountain range of my fingers and toes, the ocean grasses of my hair, my flayed skin, the ground of the mandala offering, I contemplated what freeing a slave means. If I am to free my inner-slaves shouldn’t I do so in a way that allows for having a relationship with them in the future? Wouldn’t that presage deep growth and acceptance around just why I ghettoized an aspect of myself? And in having some sense of how and why I do this to myself, around my conception of myself, doesn’t this offer a wonderful means of connecting with others who find themselves with a whip in their hand, or fist raised in the air towards themselves?
In consciously releasing our slaves, with awareness, offering witness of how we maintained them for years, perhaps even a lifetime, I wonder if we can also allow them to remain part of us, in relationship with us, as liberated beings; liberated parts of ourselves? If this is the case, then the story of our aggression towards these ways of feeling is an important and powerful thing to honor. Knowing these stories around and within ourselves can create a natural sense of connection and intimacy with others in a way akin to the paramitayana. It may very well be that this awareness of our emotional history is central to honestly approaching the paramitas. Otherwise it can be very easy to inadvertently use the dharma as a tool to subjugate and maintain slaves. There may be the desire to release our slaves and “banish” them from our sight so that we never have to see our folly- this however prevents any honest growth and real witness of the story of our inner-ghetto beings.
I suspect that as we become more familiar with freeing our slaves and trying to maintain relationship with them, in accepting the hard truths which can become precious gifts, we can relax our grip around things specifically needing to be a particular way. In letting go, forgiving, and remaining in relationship, the dharma doesn’t become any one thing in particular; it becomes all things.
We, the creators of the new black generation,/ want to express our black personality/ without shame or fear/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ We know ourselves to be beautiful/ And also ugly/ The drums cry/ The drums laugh/ If this will please the whites, much the better/ If not, it does not matter/ It is for tomorrow that we are building our temples/ Solid temples we will ourselves know how to/ construct them/ And we will keep ourselves straight/ On top of the mountain/ Free in ourselves. -Langston Hughes
Recently, I decided to spend the early portion of a Saturday doing Chöd under the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn and Queens (connecting Kings county and Queens county), and crosses the infamous Newtown Creek. Newtown Creek, for those who are unaware, has the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted waterways in the United States, and is home to the second worst oil spill in America; an estimated 30 million gallons of oil flowed into the creek in the 1950’s, none of which has been removed. As a result of the oil spill, a century of raw sewage being dumped into the waterway, as well as the dumping of various wanted byproducts of heavy industry such as sulfuric acid, fertilizer and other chemical admixtures there is a layer of highly toxic sludge fifteen feet thick that blankets the floor of Newtown Creek.
In making the decision to head to the Pulaski Bridge and Newtown Creek three distinct criteria had to be addressed: there had to be a bridge, the place had to have some equivalence to a charnel ground, and it had to invoke fear/discomfort.
The latter two criteria speak to the nature of where chöd has historically been practiced: places that invoke fear and terror; places where there could be a direct mirroring of one’s own internal demons with the projected demons of haunted locales. Such sites have often included charnel grounds, and also places where terrible events have happened. A reader once commented on another post that I wrote about chöd that civil war battle sites seem to hold some relevance as chöd sites. This is a brilliant observation! Upon second glance, it is easy to notice a wide variety of places that invoke strong feelings of fear and terror. They surround us and yet we tend to drive or walk by them interacting with them in a way that lacks the direct depth of honest observation. Often we fail to interact with them at all. As I caught myself feeling slight dread in practicing under the Pulaski Bridge amongst the oil depots and industrial traffic that pulsates along the dead creek I realized that this was a great place to go practice. What better way to be curious about why I should feel discomfort in practicing there? What is the difference between practicing there and at home, or in a park, or even a cemetery?
That the site should have a bridge reflects a larger curiosity that I developed a few days before about bridges and trolls. In June I finished 2 units of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care, which in addition to being oriented around Zen Buddhism, is heavily informed by Jungian psychology. Reflection upon the symbolic meanings presented by patients, or a given patient’s particular affect, as well as our own perceptual reactions to what arises at any given moment is encouraged. While walking in Prospect Park, and with this training still fresh in my mind, I found myself under a bridge and for the first time in many years I reflected that trolls are often associated with the space under bridges. They live under bridges, and hide under the cross-roads-like environment that we commonly find under bridges. Somehow this space elicits discomfort, such spaces seem secret, hidden, perhaps the place where illicit things happen. I wanted to explore this in chöd practice.
I packed my kyangling and damaru, my pecha and bell and dorje, and brought along a bumpa vase with water blessed with many sacred substances including special pills made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for the express purpose of dispelling demons and “inner” hindrances. In addition to performing chöd, I wanted to offer these substances to Newtown Creek. With my bag packed, I headed to this industrial charnel ground, the site of an alchemical bridge that joins Kings County with Queens County (Male and Female, Salt and Sulfur) that crosses a body of water that deep under fifteen feet of unknown matter (unconscious mind) and may house inner trolls and local gods. Kye Ho!
Upon finding a suitable place for my practice, I considered how the place made me feel. What were its trolls going to be like? When I touched my “inner” trolls what would I find? I remember from childhood the story of the Three billy Goats Gruff; the story of three goats of ascending size who wish to cross a bridge so that they may feast on greener pastures, the only problem is that they must cross a bridge that is protected/owned, or the home of a nasty troll.
Bridges are places of vulnerability. Their structure is meant to carry us from one stable ground to another, in-between (a bardo), we are not standing on solid ground. Perhaps when we are experiencing the bardos of change; the invariable transition from one moment to another; one experience or feeling to another, we are vulnerable to being unseated in a more direct and profound manner. These bardos are bridges, and where there are bridges there are trolls.
In Norse mythology trolls are generally held to be large, slow, human-like beings. Trolls are not known for their intellects. They are impulsive, brutish, stubborn, earthy, and grounded. In a way, trolls seem to be a personification of the weight and anchoring qualities of the earth element, but in a self-defensive, perhaps self-protective manner or function. Indeed, the slow conservatism, the heavy reactive stubbornness that trolls are known for seem to be the prime emotions in opposition to the easy experience of transitioning across bardos; across our bridges from one moment to the next. They want to hold on. They try to exert the magnetism of discursiveness; the force of myopic focus that prevents us from seeing the larger picture. They want us off the bridge, they try to prevent us from making the transition; they will even try to kill us to this end.
It seems that trolls show their heads very frequently in my experience of everyday life; this stubborn stupidity, a dullness, and desire to not embrace change. I easily lose count in trying to reflect how often these trolls try to unseat me.
That Newtown Creek has a fifteen foot layer of toxic sludge separating it from the “real” earthy bottom seems particularly significant, if not essentially symbolic. What stagnation! It is as if the earth herself is being suffocated. Perhaps just as we suffocate ourselves when our inner-demononic-troll-like stubbornness, our hard-headed personification of gravity, our dull stupidity, and brutish reactivity arise, this poor creek-cum-canal is being suppressed and held down. Toxicity has many shades, and it’s easy to focus upon its generic staples: fear, anger, jealousy, greed, laziness. But what of toxicity in its more subtle and elusive forms?
How do we allow ourselves to stagnate? How do we dissempower ourselves? How do we allow ourselves to fail, to be imperfect? How do we let our trolls steal the vitality of our transitions (bardos)?
This is what I set upon to discover; these demons of Newtown Creek, the demons of stagnation and sedate subconsciousness as well as the army of trolls that seek refuge and feast underneath the Pulaski Bridge. They are not far, they arise from within ourselves…
In making an offering of myself to these beings, I feel that I was able to shed light upon them as they arise. It is a process of honoring and respecting the natural occurence of emotions as they arise. It lends itself to both a process of developing a greater awareness of the play of mind, as well as a means of offering deep witness to our unique inner constellations. Such constellations, wonderous displays, are already perfect- they arise with the same natural clarity and depth as the constellations that we see in clear night skies. There is nothing to add or to take away. The brilliance of their simple appearance is suggestive of immense wonderous beauty. Nothing to subjugate. Perhaps this is chöd-of-mahamudra: the offering of the suchness of our own minds as witness to it as it arises…
I visualized that the offering deities and the demons themselves came with great ferocity, like a howling wind, stealing portions of my torn flesh and warm organs. Those with more time and resources carefully selected prime sections, the liver and heart perhaps. Others still set up camps and carefully roasted various portions of the offering taking time to set up their own feasts. That these demons may be honored, and receive my offering helps to liberate them- my emotional habits, self-clinging and the like are allowed to loosen into non-referential emptiness.
As I was performing the chöd sadhana, on that day and at that location, the portion of the text that focuses upon offering the remains of the central ganachakra felt very salient and meaningful. I have come to try to allow myself to rest in sadhana practice while I am doing it, and in so doing, realizing that at different moments and for a whole host of possible reasons the pecha speaks with powerful clarity at different moments in different ways. There are so many secondary practices within each pecha that as our inner weather changes, there are many differing modalities of our practice that may be tailored to best suit ourselves at any given moment in time. If we can view the practice text as alive, full of endless vitality and imbued with the potential for constant unfolding compassion, then every time we sit down to recite a prayer or a particular sadhana we are really engaging directly with the text as a vehicle through time and space. Every time we read a pecha it can be as if we are reading it for the first time.
This is also another great place where trolls arise. They arise in our practice. Our mind can easily become the slow dense troll-mind where pechas feel boring and long, always the same and perhaps even a little dusty. The pecha becomes a thing, a book, a physical text, the warm humid breath of the dakinis, in this case of Machig Labdron herself dissipates. It is lost when we become dull. The full dynamic interpenetration of individuated hermenutic bliss fades; the electricity of the rich moment dies. The possibility for realizing “the lama-as-appearance” to use the wonderful term that the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche often used to describe the mind as lama (that appearance in all of its myriad display is the lama-as-appearance) becomes compromised.
In recognizing this, the offering of the remainder of the ganachakra felt timely, both within myself as well as within my immediate environment. So, as I sat under the bridge while trucks rumbled down Box Street I imagined that the slippery flesh of my ignorance, raw and painful, was mixing with a seemingly endless ocean of my own warm sticky blood, rich in iron: my desire; and my rattling bones, still moist and full of rich marrow: my hatred. I mixed these together and offered it in a vast torma vessel- my own skull. I offered this to the local gods, the local protectors, to the particular trolls that inhabit the Pulaski Bridge, as well as my own trolls. This ambrosial nectar, the very last remnants of my body, I offered to this particular place- this polluted earth, forgotten and ignored by many who speed by, is the same earth that supported the Buddha. Somewhere underneath that thick toxic sludge is the same earth that the Buddha touched, similarly, within ourselves is the same Buddha. The ability to recognize “the lama-as-appearance” is always part of us.
After the practice session I brought my bumpa vase filled with water blessed by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, blessing pills associated with Chenrezig, Amitabha, and Dorje Phagmo, as well as sacred medicinal substances, and pills specially made by the late Kyabje Pathing Rinpoche for averting the disturbances caused by ghosts, demons and the previously mentioned “inner” hindrances up onto the Pulaski Bridge. While reciting a variety of mantras I poured the amrita into Newtown Creek that there may be benefit. May the magic of this place be known! May the power of its local gods be appreciated, and may they, the local gods, the trolls and the great teachers of stagnation, of dullness and of forgetfulness never be forgotten!
Perhaps every place is imbued with wonderful symbolic representations- dynamic reminders- of our own strengths and our weaknesses. Whether it be Newtown Creek, the Gowanus Canal, or a former slave burial ground, if we look a little more loosely the lama-as-appearance is always present. It offers a constancy of potential liberating circumstances. The charnel ground of the chödpa is everywhere. I am reminded of something that I once read by the previous Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche in which he said that the mind is the essential charnel ground as it is here where thoughts come to die.
Perhaps then, we carry all of the eight great charnel grounds of India within our very experience of mind.
This being a possibility, I offer prayers that we all may realize the chöd-field of our own minds. May we be free of clinging to this body as real, may we recognize it as illusory. May the sound of Machig Labdron’s kyangling and damaru permeate the entire universe liberating all upon hearing!