Cemeteries for “Lunatics & Criminals” Chod Tour
October 11, 2011
The first cemetery where I practiced Chod was located up on a hill somewhere between the Rainbow Ranch Retreat Center where Lama Tsultrim was giving the transmission, and the quaint, historic tourist town of Calistoga Springs, Ca. Electrified by the Chod transmission, in the middle of the retreat during a break, I ran off with a friend to the cemetery I had noticed the day before when driving up to the retreat center. With my papers all a jumble, my bell and damaru vibrating a fabulous surely entirely ineffective rhythm, I offered my tiny, messy and as yet unskilled concentration to the energies pooling around the cemetery stones, and the neat, tidy, and peaceful atmosphere of the picturesque resting ground of Calistoga Springs’ elite dead.
Like the fearless and foolish novice I was, I ran after the “experience” of what Lama Tsultrim’s teachings had stressed as being vitally important – namely, that of concentrating not only on overcoming fear, but also all mental concepts. The importance of diligent behavior was stressed, like practicing with others in places outdoors such as cemeteries. So there I was, running after an “experience”, either good or bad. I was grasping at a “manifestation” as something real, rooted in this new “truth” I had so carefully listened to and so carefully opened myself to receive. The truth was that the experience of practicing in the Calistoga cemetery was not real; what was real was what I needed to learn to be free from the bondage of my “self”. Essentially, I needed to annihilate my fantastic ego-based notions of fearlessness, compassionate commitment, skill, intellect, etc. To abandon one by one the many fictional stories my mind had manufactured to distract, conceal and betray the vast, empty, luminescent sky I knew to be within me, only this gradual surrender, integration and transcendence would free me to generate a true offering through Chod practice.
Until I learned to surrender my willful righteous “stories” about who i am, what i think, what i feel, what i need, my Chod practice would be a meager effort, at best. Here was a non-western, non-performance, non-shock & awe, non-task-brings-result-and-credit path to liberation. To be an effective Chod practitioner, I was informed that the “performance” was never important, instead, the primary goal was that of cutting attachments and concentrating upon the offering of my “body (that) I hold to be so dear.” Oh, at that point I surely had such a long way to go!
Transmitted from her master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Lama Tsultrim’s Chod teachings conveyed the fundamental notion that my individual suffering is created, fed, maintained, and expanded through my mental, emotional and physical “attachments”. All my attachments are rooted in my (false and distorted) consciousness which is rooted in the belief in my (false and distorted) self.
I soon learned that Machig Lapdron calls the demon of obsessive thinking an “intangible demon”. This particular demon was kept alive by my mind’s obsession with memories, pleasant and unpleasant, good and evil, beneficial and vicious. Along with learning about the 3 other demons that ruled my life, the Chod teachings made clear that the path to liberation was entirely rooted in my attitude and my behavior, not in the world around me. This path showed me the truth of seeing that belief in an independent and lasting “Jennet” was not real, nor honest. This delusional notion of self was to be destroyed. So then what remained, perhaps for fleeting moments, was an honest (i.e. not delusional) self. No, that self was to be destroyed as well. Machig Lapdron said: “Belief in a self is the root cause of all evil, the cause of all erring in the course of your life.” Machig also taught that, “…all mental activities are simply…the shining lucency of the great expanse of the mind.”
With the Chod transmission, Lama Tsultrim’s instructions, articles, books, bell and damaru, I merrily returned to our home and Sangha in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had new tools and fresh willingness, a new path! Some modest primordial awareness previously awakened via the Simhamukha Dakini practice had been further expanded through the Chod transmission. I practiced Chod daily, frequently visiting Catholic cemeteries and Native American ruins with a fellow practitioner, Mari Selby. Sangha practices were primarily indoors, and so essentially my primary practice of Chod was alone anywhere, both outdoors and indoors.
Thus some small yet steady mettle and intermittent but useful fearlessness was developed. Subsequently relocating to the Shenandoah Valley, this awareness of my true and relative condition followed along. Upon our first visit to the valley, even before moving to the area, it was impossible to be unaware of an enormous complex of old abandoned buildings at the intersection of two the main access roads into the small town of Staunton, Virginia. I later learned that the complex had been originally built in 1820 and named the “Virginia Lunatic Asylum”. In 1960 it was renamed “Western State Hospital”, and in the 70’s became a prison.
So then it was easy to understand why the pervasive energy of catastrophic loneliness and great and ghastly suffering was so prevalent. Almost 190 years of unimaginable torment…of the body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Considering the size and number of buildings, a running population must have numbered in the many hundreds, over the years, in the thousands. It was not hard to wonder if the nature of the population housed might have meant that when inmates died, the bodies may not have been claimed. Being located in the Bible-Belt, as well as the age of the complex, probably meant that cremation was disregarded or, perhaps, frowned upon. So I asked, pray tell, where are all the ded bodiess?! Where were the corpses laid to rest, if rest it was they were laid to…
The next chapter leads neatly to the discovery of the abandoned cemetery. Located some good distance behind the complex of buildings the cemetery is fastened onto a very steep hillside. This is a patch of earth that had, primordial millennia ago, for eons been slaughtered by two continental tectonic plates colliding, and then much more recently, glacially-crushed and carved into a pleasing curvaceous and fertile hillside. Befriended by towering 2-3 hundred year-old black oaks, the cemetery seems to be tilting itself up into the mouth of the sky, yearning to be swallowed by light. Unlike most cemeteries that seem populated in some way, this enormous cemetery initially felt well and truly abandoned. In a sense, the message was –“do not visit, do not interfere, do not look at us, we want nothing you have, Indeed, initially it was very difficult to overcome a strange physical inertia that prevented me from climbing up the hill into the rows of stones. I have since completely discarded any task of “looking” into anything or “dealing with” the appearance of anything. These illusions have been surrendered in favor of simple Chod practice, just getting the job done.
The 1000+ gravestones are small and identically shaped with not a single mark on them, not a single name, date, or reference of any kind. To add absurd to lurid, each stone has on its front side a raised 3×6 inch phlange where a name would normally be carved. Finally, among the 1000 or more stones in the cemetery, there are four gravestones that are, let’s say, normal-sized. Those four, only, are chiseled attractively showing a name and a date. I have noticed that those four, only, receive silk flower arrangements that are changed with the seasons.
Beyond that, if one sensibility might be added to loneliness and suffering to an unimaginable degree, to the same degree would be – abandonment. These were the three sensibilities manifest in the spiritual atmosphere of the cemetery when I first visited and practiced the Chod. Settling down to practice for the first time under one of the oaks near the bottom of the hillside, not twenty feet away out of my line of vision, but not out of the line of my spaniel’s nose, was a complete corpse of a full-grown deer. It may have been a week old, not much less, not much more. I sensed the possibility of an auspicious offering…lots of food, a primordial banquet for the starved ones! Indeed, that first practice at the prison cemetery yielded, and every subsequent Chod practice thereafter still produces the shiniest, snow-white, cleaned down to the atomic level, not a micron of me left still hanging in the skull-cup, skull-cup.
In contrast, my home is located directly contiguous with a “very, very nice” much larger cemetery. This cemetery with a name, (Thornrose), hosts the elite and notable dead of Staunton! As well, atop the main hill in Thornrose cemetery there is a Civil War memorial that marks, (as so inscribed on the memorial), the resting place of some 1100 unidentified, honored – neither forgotten or abandoned, complete and incomplete bodies of Confederate War heroes. Practicing Chod next-door to the possibility of offering my body to all of that hunger is good work. But Chod practice at the prison cemetery feels entirely different, before during and after. And if comparison can be further drawn, I sense in the practice at the prison, after the main Chod offering, an always absolutely sparkling clean skull cup. Maybe due to unimaginable hunger or, perhaps, grateful guests who clean their plates!
From the prison cemetery Chod practice I seem to walk away with a deep and pervasive calm. This calm reveals a still-limited primordial awareness that, nonetheless, liberates me, even momentarily. This calm is born in giving of my whole body as a boundless offering. It comes from modest realization beyond old dualistic ideas of self and other. Me and the criminally insane, me and the bones under my feet that once had tortured flesh that lived through “evil”; those “other” people that are not “other”, they are me, before and now. This calm is alive in me when I help all beings to find this same state…that form is nothing other than emptiness, emptiness is nothing other than form. This ever so fleeting state of “prajnaparamita” is a profound gift of practicing the Chod, particularly in a cemetery for so-called “lunatics” and the criminally insane. For this gift I most humbly and especially give thanks and honor to my first and only instructor in the Chod, Lama Tsultrim.
In conclusion: I have had some dakini dreams since starting this work in Staunton at the abandoned cemetery for lunatics and criminals. Those dreams show me traveling to similar abandoned cemeteries on modest short tours here in Virginia and the surrounding states. I am not travelling to active prisons; I am going after the abandoned prison cemeteries. Then slightly longer tours up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Then long distance tours out West. There are some real “beauts” in Colorado, and Nevada, and Texas, in fact all over. I see myself alone practicing, possibly traveling with someone who has other spiritual or creative work to do. And of course Xena, my spaniel who never-leaves-my-side 10 pound medicine dog, would be on tour and attending the practices, as she does now.
I have also been shown quite clearly that I am to use Dakini money to fund the tours. Along this line, attached to this article are several “Dakini Medicine Portraits.”
Since receiving the ”Wisdom Dakini Simhamukha” and Chod practice from Lama Tsultrim, I have been commissioned (asked) by individual practitioners to paint “Dakini Medicine Portraits” of themselves. These portraits depict an Earth-based animal medicine they work with conjoined to their individual root dakini, (i.e. one of the 5 families of dakinis; Vajra, Buddha, Ratna, Padma, or Karma). To date I have painted around 15 portraits. On heavy-weight printmaking black paper, the dakini figure is drawn first with white pencil and then painted with dry pigment and a proprietary watercolor technique that produces a pronounced luminescence. The portraits are healing tools for the integration of the Dakini Principles in our daily lives. The portraits do not have to depict medicine-animals, they can simply be a portrait of the individual depicted in her/his root family’s color and body type. A discreet biographical depiction of the first place the individual recognized “Dakini” energy in nature, or a current dakini spot can be included.
Inquiries are always welcome and non-committal.
October 13, 2011