In New York With No Mobile

So, partly at Mr. Greenleaf’s urging (“you have to see the show at the Guggenheim”), and partly from Mitsu‘s invitation to her performance, and partly from the encouragement and offer of a place to stay from a college friend I’d not seen for … years, and partly from the desperate need for a vacation (having not been outside of Vermont and New Hampshire for I think nearly 3 years), I took a long weekend in New York City.  Living as I do in an area of Vermont with limited cell phone coverage, I have never been tempted to obtain such a device, which however seems eminently practical in the city.  Also, the folks I was staying with were moving, so I had no internet: computers had been dismantled in the old apartment, and not yet reassembled in the new one.  This disconnection from the electronic umbilical suggests I make comments about being in the present without distractions, but mostly it just meant that there were a couple of friends whom I might have connected with but didn’t due to missed communications.  I was in New York, after all, and had plenty of distractions.  Or, the present moments I found myself in were generally more than full of sensory stimuli, and the only time I noticed the lack of electronic distraction was over the morning coffee.

Now, the Guggenheim is not a place to go to escape the energy of the city.  The slope of the floor gives one the constant urge to move forward.  Other than the side galleries on each level, one is always in the one big booming room with all the other people and all the other artwork, and there are very few places to sit down.  One can never quite settle.   So it is a very New York kind of atmosphere in many ways.   The exhibit (which is only on until the 19th, so hurry up and get there) is an overview of American artists from 1860 to 1989 drawing inspiration from Asian art, culture and philosophy.  Which, as Buddhist Americans, is right up our alley.  Of course we know about the “Beat” writers and John Cage, but the scope and variety of this show are something else:  from Whistler and Mary Cassatt, mctl to Georgia O’Keefe, to abstract painters such as Mark Tobey and Franz Kline, to Cage and his circle, to the Beats,  to minimalists, to 80’s performance artists.   As a Buddhist American I sometimes feel like a cultural anomaly, but this exhibit shows Asian influence in American culture to be a perhaps often unobserved but powerful current.   John Cage and the Beats may have become somewhat canonical in American culture but they are sort of the fringe canon.  In connecting the somewhat disparate dots represented is this show there is a tangible sense of consistency and  continuity to Asian cultural influence in America and it gave me the sense of not being such a weirdo.   The surprising feeling of familiarity at seeing Jack Kerouac’s leather-bound collection of Buddhist texts, displayed open at the Heart Sutra, was quite sweet.

I particularly enjoyed Brice Marden’s mock-calligraphic paintings and I really want to know what kind of stylus Cage used in – I don’t know what verb to use – writing? penning? painting? inscribing? the manuscript score of his Water Music.  Both of these inspired me to break out the calligraphy supplies and do some sumi brush practice when I got home.  The room (off to the side, behind the elevator, in the “spine” of the building to the “ribs” of the circular ramp, but the vibrations bled out into the main gallery) containing an installation by LaMonte Young and Marian Zazeela was another favorite: two tones, very harmonically close to each other, were generated and sustained, creating vibrational beats – anyone familiar with instruments slightly out of tune with each other knows what I mean – which changed depending on where one was standing in the room.  lmy Mobiles hanging from the ceiling with lights of various colors created a similar visual effect: depending on the light and one’s angle of view, the dangling letter e (and the shadow behind it) could change colors, could appear solid, or faint, or nearly invisible.   And it was nice to see some old friends, such as an animation by Harry Smith, who is probably best known as the compiler of the world’s most famous mix tape, the Anthology of American Folk Music, and who lived as “resident shaman” on the Naropa University campus when I was a student there.  Harry didn’t teach any classes as far as I know, he just provided an extraordinary and eccentric presence.  There are a gazillion artists represented in this show whom I’m not naming; the catalogue is a ginormous 400+ page coffee-table book.

The upward-spiral geography of the Guggenheim suggests a journey of some kind, and I reached the top with some kind of expectation of a beautiful and glorious fruition.  But the last room, past the workstation for Ann Hamilton’s installation where texts were being cut up and rebound and sent on runners and pulleys up and down the rotunda, was the documentary evidence of Teaching Hsieh’s 1980-81 yearlong performance.  Wearing an industrial-strength work uniform, he punched a timeclock and had a photo taken standing next to it once an hour on the hour for the entire year.   All the photos were printed and displayed on the wall, alongside all the timecards, and the photos were also projected from film, time-lapse style.  Which all gave a sense of the passage of time, but also of continuity, of dedication, concentration, devotion, discipline, and of work.  I was reminded of the way Cage abandoned the formal attire of the classical music world and adopted the blue jeans of ordinary laborers: when he spoke of the work of art, he meant work as a verb, not as a noun.  So there was my fruition: back to work, back to the path, back to restoring a dozen reel-to-reel tape players, back to the meditation cushion, continuing the daily practice of returning to awareness, again and again.

Our Staff Reads II

Editor’s Note: To look at the breadth of what we might have read to support our meditation practice, we asked staff members to talk about books that inspired them at the beginning of their sitting meditation career, as well as books that freshly inspire them today. These selections reflect our Buddhist heritage, but can be enjoyed by anyone exploring the practice of meditation.  We asked Mrs. Greenleaf, who is in France at the moment visiting her family, to share something of her life in France when she was younger.


Then: The Way of the White Clouds

The time was the 1970’s.  I was in New York City working for the welfare department.  I ran across The Way of the White Clouds by Lama Govinda. I had begun to wonder about reincarnation.  Lama Govinda covered reincarnation in a direct, plain-spoken way that, for the first time, made the idea real to me.

Since a child, mountain people and things Asian had fascinated me. The lives of the Native Americans also captivated me. “Peau Rouge” — literally  “red skin” — could be seen on American movies about the Wild West, which played in the one theater of my little French Village.  My father, who worked as a stable hand since he was a boy, would be less interested in the plot of the movie than the beautiful horses and horsemanship he saw on the screen.

If I think about my village, I can’t help but remember my grandmother.  She lived alone (her husband died early) like a hermit in a little stone house in the woods.  When I was seven or eight years old, my favorite thing to do with her was mushroom hunting, which we would do very early in the morning in the town forest.  I had to have trusted my grandmother a lot, since the forest was home to wild boar which loomed in my consciousness as something that could put a quick end to little girl’s life.

“MéMé” (pronounced MAY-MAY) was renowned for her ability to find and identify mushrooms.  Individuals and chefs would come from many towns away to get her opinion on the edibility of a mushroom.  All in all, life as a child in a small, rural French village was very earthy.  Maybe for this reason, Lama Govinda’s descriptions of Tibetan nomadic life were not so foreign.  They awakened in me the inquisitiveness and curiosity for life that I had experienced as a child.

Anyhow, at the time of White Clouds, I was doing hatha yoga pretty consistently.  This included a little meditation and chanting (Om Shanti/Shanti Om, if you must know).  Since these sessions were short, I didn’t think about a meditation cushion.  Later, I learned mindfulness meditation from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  To sit up straight a bit longer, I grabbed a cushion off of the couch.  At a group sitting, I saw a cushion called a Zafu.  A friend had one of these (they were hard to find back then).  I borrowed it, figured out how it was made and made my own.  Now I help make them for a lot of people.  In the beginning we didn’t sit on Zabuton mats, so our legs just rested on the floor.  As sitting periods got longer and we started to do retreats, this was uncomfortable, and I started to make Zabutons as well.

rywNow: Ruling Your World

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s amazing book is realistic about the challenge of practicing meditation in this age, and at the same time poetic and inspiring. The book is also empowering:  first pointing out how we let the circumstances of our world “rule” us, and then clearly laying out the path of meditation, which leads to reclaiming our inherent nobility.  The descriptions are vivid and seemingly simple. In “Shambhala Fashion”, no aspect of life is exempt from the requirement to wake up and transcend the “me plan”.  Even after many years of meditation practice, this book was a fresh reminder to me that every aspect of life requires intention and mindfulness.

The book includes “Six Ways of Ruling” which I understand as a teaching on how to “rule” your own mind first, before attempting to work with others.  Because it is so accessible and applicable, this is a great book for beginning students of meditation who would like to lead a full and joyful life.   I have been fortunate to be able to work with and serve Sakyong Mipham a lot over the years.  He is an earthy person like me, who really embodies the principles that he teaches about.

These days I don’t sit on a Zafu cushion.  I practice meditation on the Low Cloud Bench with a 2” Gomden.  All on a Zabuton mat.  A few years ago, I broke my left leg pretty badly. By giving me some extra height, the Low Cloud Bench allows me still to keep a cross-legged posture.  I also like that there’s room to bring one of my heels in under me, which supports an upright posture and makes it easier on my back.