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.

Impermanence, or College Students Are Getting Younger

I assumed the group of students visiting our store here in Barnet were from a high school, but it turned out they were from Indiana Pennsylvania University.  This is one way I’ve noticed the passage of time lately: college students are much younger now than when I was in college.    However, photos recently posted to Facebook  show that I and my classmates were just as young then as today’s college students are now.   Curiously, when I see these photos there’s a lack of recognition: people look younger than I remember them.  I haven’t seen them for twenty years, but often their current (“after”) photos look more like my memory of them than the 20-years-ago (“before”) photos do.  (Except for those like myself with significant hair loss and weight gain.)



There was never a sense that I would age, and in fact I think I still don’t believe it.  Life would continue for sure, but I would – will – continue always to be as pretty and as energetic as 20-year-old me.  And since I don’t age, and death only happens to old people, that’s something else which never crossed/crosses my mind.  But a surprising number of my friends from college are no longer living.  People who were younger than me.  A dear old friend of mine died of a heart attack a few months ago; she was 41.   Can you see where I’m going with this?

Of course,  whenever I really start to contemplate my own impermanence,  thoughts begin flickering about things which I need to do before I die, and so I’d better get practicing to become a famous middle-aged bald rock musician, or getting in shape so I can experience the smells of Everest Base Camp first hand, or go bungee jumping in the Grand Canyon.  But the thing is, these thoughts don’t stay with me for long.  People usually apply the old saw “you can’t take it with you” to the accumulation of wealth or material objects, but it seems to apply equally well to the accumulation of thrilling, or entertaining, or mind-numbing, time-consuming,  experiences.  I can’t take them with me either.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with bungee jumping, or with owning a nice house, or watching Star Trek reruns on my laptop, or whatever.   Certainly if one is engaged in what seems necessary,  is doing what truly brings them joy, that joy will generally spread infectiously.  If I can apply another old saw, it’s not what you do but how you do it.

So the question  (besides “What is this thing called life and how do you do it?”) becomes, What is it that truly brings me joy?  Which some days is easy enough to answer and some days is not.  But the best way I’ve found of asking, or addressing, that question – both of those questions – is to sit down on my meditation cushion and simply look at this human life in this moment.  Sitting here between heaven and earth, at, as I think Thoreau put it, “the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment.”

Now all I need to do is take my own advice and sit my butt down on my zafu


We’ve put a Samadhi Cushions page up on Facebook.  So now if you’re on Facebook during working hours and notice that I’m online, that of course means that I am working diligently.

The slightly more exciting, if less time-wasting, news is that the Lojong Slogan Cards are back in print and back in stock and ready to ship.  So everyone who was missing a reminder to regard all dharmas as dreams, to self-liberate even the antidote, to be a child of illusion, to transform mishaps into the path of bodhi,  to be grateful to everyone, to always maintain a joyful mind, to abandon any hope of fruition, once again you can obtain this wonderful aid for training with slogans in all activities.

I Got To Do A Program!

The last meditation program I did was a year and a half ago when I staffed a dathun. But this time I got to be a participant, which hasn’t happened since…2001? Somebody correct me if I’m wrong.

Theree were other programs I might have done that weekend. In fact I was quite torn since Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche was teaching at his center in Vershire just 45 minutes away. But I ended up doing the program here at Karme Choling, over Labor Day weekend (and into the Tuesday): His Eminence Namkha Drimed Rinpoche gave the empowerment and taught and led us in the practice of a Yeshe Tsogyal sadhana.

A tiny amount of background for those unfamiliar: His Eminence is the father of Khandro Tseyang, the wife of our teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and while in Tibet prior to 1959, was close to the founder of Shambhala, Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche, from whom he received important empowerments, including the Rinchen Terdzo. So there are strong family and dharma ties among the teachers.

Among us students, however, we seem to be used to quite different practice styles. Chogyam Trunpga Rinpoche had a brilliant command of the English language (to the point of giving his American students elocution lessons), taught nearly exclusively in English, and liturgies used by his students are beautifully translated and printed by the Nalanda Translation Committee, and recited in English. So we always know what we’re saying (whether we understand the full meaning is of course another question). Now, given a Tibetan original which is often in verse and so has particular rhythms and melodies to it, and an English translation which is quite elegant but generally has an emphasis on meaning rather than on meter, the chanting style developed in the Shambhala community is a one-note unison, a monotone. Which can have quite an energy and drive and rousing quality to it in a group situation.

Pretty much any time you see a documentary on Tibet or on Tibetan Buddhism, or come across one of those old Nonesuch recordings of Tibetan monks, you hear melodious chanting, you hear cymbals and drums and various blaring wind instruments. If you come to a Shambhala Center, you hear some monotone chanting, sometimes with a drum. So it can be hard not to wonder sometimes, what are we missing?

Well, here I was part of that full treatment. Most of the practice was chanted melodically in Tibetan, with the occasional bursts of cacophony on drum, cymbal and conch-shells. Salient sections were repeated in English, and for the most part there was interlinear translation in the text so with a little back-and-forth glancing we could know what we were saying (at the risk of losing one’s place in the text). And, doing four sessions a day, it wasn’t long before there was a general familiarity with what was going on anyhow. Certainly a good deal of the immediacy of the meaning was lost, but a whole other dimension was added, an added emotional quality, a further sense of immersion, clarity, and heartfeltness to the practice. Often when we switched back to the English text there would be a sense of, “Oh, so that’s what I’ve been saying,” but it would also suddenly sound very flat.

At the end of the day, Rinpoche’s daughter, Semo Sonam Palzom, would sing the Yeshe Tsogyal mantra with a haunting, spine-tingling melody.

With the before-breakfast sessions starting at 6:30, and the after-breakfast and after-lunch sessions running usually around three hours with no break, after four days of this I was pretty wiped out but also amazingly energized.

And then I had to go back to work. The next day I was talking on the phone to someone who asked, “Are you sick? You sound different.” And I said, “Oh, no, I’m fine, I’ve just been chanting in Tibetan for four days.”

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