Postcard 9 from Robina: New York City, Wednesday June 29, 2011

Jun 29, 2011

A big city again, this time New York. I got here last Tuesday and leave Thursday June 30.


New York City. Getty Images.

The moment I landed here for the first time, in August 1974, I felt I’d come home. Its pace seemed to be in sync with my own. My sister Jan felt exactly the opposite and couldn’t wait to leave. Our mothers would say that this proves that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Lord Buddha would say that it proves there’s nothing in a thing that makes it what it is; that everything is merely what we call it, what we buy into believing about it.


New York City. Getty Images.

We don’t need to look into the sky or some holy place to see emptiness, Lama Yeshe would tell us. It’s right in front of us, in everything we see. The emptiness of the tissue – Lama would have a box of tissues at hand when he taught, so it was either that or the flower that he’d pick up and use as his example – is the same as the emptiness of ourself and everything else, including, of course, New York City.


New York City. Photo

It seems to me that big cities are not only good for understanding emptiness – all those delicious dependent arisings! – they’re also not bad for remembering bodhichitta. Who’s in all those tall buildings? Who’s driving all those cars? Who’s making all that noise? People. We can guarantee that their minds are just like ours: anxious, angry, yearning for this or that, putting themselves down. They need us more than trees do, so I’d rather stick around cities.

In 1974 the city was going broke, but I didn’t pay attention to such things then. I was at the tail end of my feminist days, moving towards the lamas. It’d be nearly two years before I’d meet them, but I had a powerful sense of something coming, like the calm before the storm. This was the year that the lamas visited the US for the first time, including New York. Even if I’d heard about their teachings, I probably wouldn’t have gone: I just wasn’t ready for them yet.


New York City’s High Line. Brian Rose.

I picked up my martial arts again, which I’d begun in Alice Springs earlier that year. I wanted to be around women still, so I found a women’s dojo downtown near Chambers Street (opposite Dyke’s Lumber!). I met Fran there and moved in with her and Sandy on Christopher Street. I didn’t involve myself in anything political any more: I was reading and thinking and working out what was going on inside me, and paying my bills by doing typing jobs on Madison Avenue.

Soon after I arrived and before Jan left, we got held up by some guy with a gun while we were walking home at 2 in the morning from an Irish bar on the East Side. There he was, sticking his gun into my chest, demanding my money. My fear quickly turned into focused indignation: how dare he! I suggested, and not politely, that he should give me HIS money as I was just as poor as he was. Back and forth we went. I could see in his eyes that he was more afraid than me. In the end he shrugged and walked away empty-handed. It wasn’t a big deal, finally, because there was no fear. I learned that even then.


Mary, Robina and Sarah. Photo Sarah Pool.

This time around, I’m here because Shantideva Study Group invited me. Mary Esbjornson (left in photo with myself and FPMT’s Sarah Pool), the coordinator, organized an apartment one floor above hers on the corner of Bank Street and Bleecker: perfect. Most recently Mary was director of development at Garrison Institute upstate. Before that for 5 years she co-directed with her brother, theater director David Esbjornson, Classic Stage Company in New York. And these days she sings in a choir as well as helping grow Shantideva virtually full time.

Shantideva is a small group. Mary and her leadership group of Charlotte, Jeff, George and Mila as well as Gus and Jennifer and others coming on board: they’re sweethearts. They invite teachers regularly throughout the year: Geshe Soepa, Ven. Fedor, Ven Amy. They haven’t got their own place so use Gelek Rinpoche’s Jewel Heart downtown on West Broadway. But for our opening talk last Tuesday they used the big room at Tibet House on West 15th Street: a lovely venue. They’re hoping to hold more classes there in the future.


A packed Tibet House. Photo by Jeff Caspari.

We did a weekend retreat on Tara. Last night we did Medicine Buddha for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. And tonight, my last night, we’ll talk about compassion uptown at the Union Theological Seminary.

As always, I’ve been enjoying the dependent arisings of New York. Walking, walking, walking. And listening to jazz. Last night Sarah Pool from FPMT International Office took me to Jazz Standard, a club on East 27th Street. The Charles Mingus Big Band played Mingus songs: that’s their main thing. And last week John Sutton, an old friend from upstate, who came on one of our Chasing Buddha pilgrimages, took me to Village Vanguard: I think it hasn’t changed since the 1940s! The only difference was that Miles wasn’t up on the bandstand.


The Jazz Standard on East 27th Street. Photo Sarah Pool.

I’m just back from lunch with Mary. She took me for a walk on the High Line. What a lovely, lovely thing to behold. It was an elevated rail track built in the 1930s used by freight trains to deliver goods to warehouses the length of the west side, from 14th street up to 34th. It’s been transformed in the most creative way into a public park: masses of green and flowers and seating. People seems to love it: it was full at noon on a hot day.


New York City’s High Line.

One place I didn’t go this time round is the cemetery downtown at Trinity Church on Broadway at the top end of Wall Street where Alexander Hamilton is buried. I like to circumambulate it. According to a mirror reading that Ven. Pemo did at Nalanda Monastery for Jimi Neal years ago, Hamilton was one of Lama Yeshe’s former lives and Jimi was his wife. So, I have a soft spot for him. He’s behind the commercial orientation of New York City.


Alexander Hamilton (1755 – 1804), one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, famously killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. “Hamilton fired a chivalrous shot into the air, but Burr, an expert marksman and a bitter, vindictive man, deliberately inflicted a mortal wound.” Life, July 7, 1947.

It says on the gravestone: “The corporation of Trinity Church has erected this in testimony of their respect for the patriot of incorruptible integrity, the soldier of approved valor, the statesman of consummate wisdom, whose talents and virtues will be admired long after this marble shall have mouldered into dust.” Sounds like Lama Yeshe to me.


Hamilton’s grave (center, white, stupa-like) at Trinity Church on Wall Street.

Tomorrow I fly to Santa Fe to see my old friends at Thubten Norbu Ling.

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