I have been in New York City for the last ten days, on the occasion of attending the city Temple opening for Kadampa Meditation Center NYC and the North Eastern Dharma Celebration in upstate New York.
The new Buddhist Temple in Chelsea is a three-dimensional peace-space, refuge from the busy streets and lives outside. An enormous
Buddha Shakyamuni seems to float in mid-sky, surrounded by the most ethereal looking statues I have yet seen in the New Kadampa Tradition. I loved seeing a blissful Great Mother Prajnaparamita next to a knowing, smiling Tara. There are a lot of women in this city, and a lot who attend the Buddhist center, and it seems timely and inspiring to have these female enlightened beings in pride of place, perfect role models both.
I love being in New York City. It keeps me on my toes. New York is full of intelligent, creative people who actively decided to come here. I don’t always get that sense in other places I’ve lived and visited – people perhaps end up there by accident, or because their communities and families are there, or because they are relatively content with their lifestyle, or because they have not got a sufficiently strong desire to get up and move away. In New York, it seems people are dedicatedly pursuing their dreams. People come here to ride the formidable energy, but the challenge can be a loss of a sense of privacy or space.
In a way, although people everywhere are trying to get a foothold in samsara, in New York many seem to be attempting an ascent of the entire mountain. They have come here to do just that, to become masters of their universes, or at least scale greater heights, harnessing their often formidable intelligence, creativity, energy, or modern derring-do. How, this has been making me wonder, do New Yorkers interested in Buddhism most skillfully relate to and use the teachings on renunciation, on giving up on samsara? (I’m still getting to the bottom of this – so, New Yorkers, please tell me what you do in the comments.)
Waves of humanity
I have been really enjoying practicing Dharma in New York this week, particularly trying to unite the wisdom practice of seeing the wave upon wave of humanity (and their dogs) as mere appearances to my mind, with no depth other than their emptiness, with the method practice of understanding that I have a long, rich, deep history with each and every one of them that goes back through countless lives. According to Buddhism, they are not inherently friends, enemies, or strangers – what they are depends on how I look at them, and there are many ways to do this, some helpful, some not. One helpful way of looking is to remember that they have all been my own caring mother, another is to understand that they are always exactly the same as me in wishing to experience happiness and freedom so we have a lot in common. I have microseconds to develop a connection of love and/or wisdom with the people I pass or see, before they are gone – in Florida I like to contemplate the ocean waves of impermanence, here it is the people waves. If I don’t succeed in using those precious seconds — distracted by what they are wearing perhaps, or buying into their apparently alien differences — whoof, they’ve disappeared, and I remain surrounded by anonymous strangers.
Right now, for example, in 56th street below this apartment there is an ear-splittingly loud revving of Harley Davidsons as thousands of people with red and white flags take to 5th and 6th Avenues to celebrate Polska Day, hundreds of whom seem to be on motorbikes. Now there is loud Polish music pounding in through the windows, even though I’m on the fifth floor. We’re having a Polish PARTY!! So, today, how do I feel connected to an anonymous Pole on a Harley? How much do we have in common? It is so easy to see how, without a concerted effort to view each person, not just the mess of humanity, through the lens of love or wisdom, people can end up feeling most isolated in the places where there are the most people. But with a little bit of effort, the opportunities to make spiritual progress around here are as endless as the lovable human beings coming and going all around us all the time.
On my way in on the bus from La Guardia last week, I sat next to a young actress who was returning to New York from San Diego for a wedding. She was excited to be home. Just as we were driving up 37th Street, she pointed at (to me) a total stranger crossing in front of our bus, and exclaimed: “I know that girl! I was at school with her!” She was beaming as she turned to me and said: “What are the chances of that?!” She felt connected, I could see it in her eyes, even though her friend had come and gone already; and the remembrance made her happy. Later on the subway, I thought that it would be wonderful if we could have that happy shock of recognition of the past we share with all coincidental strangers, including the Coptic Christian sitting next to me absorbed in a religious book, and the woman with two young children sitting opposite.
It’s a start
Last Wednesday I climbed eagerly onto a half-empty car on a full subway, only to smell why people had moved swiftly on up the carriage wrinkling their noses. There was a poor woman bent over herself, head between her knees. She had soiled herself and seemed to be attempting to rock herself into some comfort. Throughout the ride I wondered what to do, how I could help her, where I could take her. I am still wondering. Sometimes, practically, it is really hard to know what to do, and that can cause an inertia not wanting to do anything, just wanting to move on up the carriage. But I could still start somewhere, mentally at least, by sitting as close to her as I could stomach, and trying to put myself in her shoes by using the contemplations on equalizing and exchanging self with others and taking and giving, the kinds of things taught at the new Temple. There is always something I can do, and even and especially if it did not seem enough at the time, it incentivized me to hurry up along my spiritual path to Tara’s enlightened state.
Super samsara, super nirvana
The beautiful new temple seems to be entirely in the right place at the right time, a symbol of modern Buddhism. “Super samsara, super nirvana”, I once heard a Buddhist Lama say. This city thinks big, so, by New Yorkers learning to transform its world-renowned, energetic activity into ever-increasing compassion and wisdom, I think amazing things might be on the verge of happening and spilling out to other places.
Next time you come to New York, try this for me. Take a square block and walk around it, and see how many people are still there by the time you get back to the beginning and start to walk around it again. It feels like it is changing at the speed of a dream and, guess what, maybe it is a dream? And, guess what, even slower-paced places may be a dream too. Even the quietest suburb in middle America may be a dream. A good friend of mine says there is nowhere he feels closer to the dream-like nature of phenomena than in the Big Apple. Its very speed reveals its impermanence, and its impermanence reveals its emptiness. Hence, in all the potential claustrophobia, there is only space, and therefore, paradoxically, being in the middle of 8 million people living on a rock is where he feels at greatest peace.