Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ritual, red cords, and Rimbaud's fork

So I have this red string around my wrist. At the NY Shambhala Center last weekend, I stood in line, bowed to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche -- we smiled at each other -- I stepped to the left, and some high-ranking person draped a red string around my neck. The line kept moving, and outside the shrine room, people were tying them on with a certain amount of fussiness about how it was done. By eavesdropping I learned that the pre-existing knot was supposed to be in front if you tied it around your neck.

Some research turned up this from Lama Surya Das:

The red string is called a "protection and blessing cord." Traditionally, a lama ties a knot in the cord, then prays over it and blows the power of his mantra into it. Then he places it around one's neck as a blessing. When I first asked my own lama, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, about this, in 1973, he told me the cord is symbolic of remaining within the protection of his compassionate embrace even after departing from his physical presence. Other lamas have told me they take the protection cords off only to have dental work or surgery, and then put them on again afterward, as the strong protection field might impede the medical procedure.

I was wondering whether I would need to take antiobiotics before some planned dental work. But maybe the combination of a weak immune system and a protection cord arrives at a middle ground.

If I believe in the power of a piece of string.

Last weekend the question of Buddhist relics arose in an IDP teacher training weekend. I once went to a Buddhist center where they talked about relics and gave me a 10-page set of instructions on how to set up a home altar. A little too high church for me. That's the extent of what I know on the subject.

Surya Das goes on:

The Tibetan blessing practices remind me of the tradition of blessed protection medals, amulets, as well as relics of the saints commonly used in many religions, such as Catholicism and Hinduism. Objects touched or prayed over by holy beings are believed to be imbued with their spiritual energy and blessings. The practice of relic worship found in Christianity, such as around pieces of the cross or bones of the saints, finds common ground in Buddhism's tradition of venerating the teeth of the Buddha or pieces of bone or ash from his cremation pyre, which were divided up among his main disciples and enshrined in stupas--reliquary monuments around India.

It does, indeed, remind me of my Roman Catholic childhood. It makes even less sense to me in the context of Buddhism -- the Buddha was a mere mortal whose message was that all us mere mortals can achieve enlightenment ... just like him. He was not the Son of God or a divine being. We don't need to be blessed by something outside of ourselves; we have, within us, everything it takes to become enlightened.

Back to Surya Das: All these spiritual traditions of healing and enlightenment help deepen our spiritual development. But of course, that development depends more on the faith of the individual than on the material substances themselves.

On Thursday, I went to the opening of an exhibit of photography by Patti Smith at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. The photos are prints of Polaroids she took, mostly of items -- Rimbaud's fork and spoon, Jim Carroll's bed, Nureyev's slippers. Relics of people to whom she felt connected.

In the exhibition catalog, she is interviewed by the Atheneum's director, Susan Talbott, who curated the exhibit.

"As a child I had great respect for the inanimate object," she told Talbott. "Both my grandmothers died young. So a mandolin or a lace coverlet belonging to them seemed very precious. Their objects were the only way I could invoke them. I guess that sense of things extended to the poets and writers I loved."

She describes shooting Virginia Woolf's bed: "I only had two shots and really wanted to take a nice picture. … I sat down in a chair and asked for her counsel. I didn't want to fail. I pushed it to the darkest setting and concentrated on her single bed. The crease and the eyelet of the coverlet formed a cross. I felt her with me."

The exhibit also contains a display with a rock from the river where Woolf committed suicide by drowning after filling her pockets with rocks, along with a thangka for Woolf. (A thangka is a Tibetan devotional painting.) The power of the items was extraordinary -- from outside the glass, I could feel the weight and smoothness of the rock, the weight of depression, the connection that flows through a line of introspective women.

Another display case contained a cracked cup Smith had given to her father and separate photos of her father and mother as young adults with the year written in the white margin at the bottom -- just as my mother dated our family photos. Again, the connection is palpable.

The Polaroid photos are black and white and grainy -- none of the fine detail we've come to expect from digital cameras. But they convey so much. I wanted to touch them -- I didn't -- even though I knew the photos themselves had no texture.

The Polaroid is part of the point, Smith says: They are pictures of a moment. They develop over a minute or two. And they fade.

A reminder of the ephemeral nature of life.

(Confession: I own a Polaroid, which I love for the same reasons.)

At one point, I noticed Smith standing in the gallery. I talked to Lenny Kaye, her guitarist, about how practicing guitar is like meditating. I told Smith that looking at her photos gave me the same experience as listening to a great talk by a Buddhist teacher; it brought me to a place of presence within myself that is presence with all beings.

She paused for a moment. Yeah, she said, they came from a place of deep presence.

To go back to my red string, I don't feel that it has any protective powers of its own. Wearing it is not like having Wonder Woman's bracelets; I can't deflect bullets.

But it brings me to a place of presence, the deep, still liquid center of shared humanity that lies under the waves we ride through most of our days. It connects me to the lineage of wise beings of the past and present and future who are doing their best to recognize and live from that place of inherent richness -- and it reminds me that I am one of them.

Maybe that is the power of relics and rituals -- not veneration but connection.

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