Tibetan Buddhist Meditation in the Upper West Side

Men in suits, ears glued to their phones, shuffle by the inconspicuous door at 410 Columbus Ave. on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Teenagers anxiously line up at the Shake Shack on a nearby corner while taxis blare their horns.

The neighborhood is humming with energy. It’s bustling, it’s hectic, it’s New York City.

At 410 Columbus Ave., the mood is different. Hidden in the basement, 18 steps below ground, seven people — six men and one woman — gather for a traditional Dharma practice and Buddhist meditation at the Kagyu Dzamling Kunchab center, which follows the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism.

Kagyu, founded in 11th century Tibet, is known for its system of meditation, mysticism and speedy attainment of Enlightenment. Unlike other schools, celibacy or association with a monastery are not required.

The participants are casual dressed. Among them are a middle-aged man in faded jeans with a thick, black beard and a blue button-down shirt and a woman with short gray hair and a green scarf to protect from the chill outside.

They sit, barefoot, on a red rug with an illustration of a fierce dragon breathing flames. To the left of the room, the image of Chenrezi, the Bodhisattva of compassion, sits above a shrine with offerings for the Buddhas and deities: white orchids with a fleck of pink, sticks of incense in bowls of rice, three Oreos placed on a metal plate, seven bowls of water and two candles flickering below the colorful image in a gold-rimmed frame.

The leader of the service is Lama Karma Dechen Wangmo, 38, who is dressed in a red and orange Tibetan robe. She was trained at the Kagyu Thubten Choling Monastery in upstate New York under the guidance of Lama Norlha Rinpoche and has been a Lama for almost 10 years.

Before beginning, Wangmo explains the seven-point posture of meditation: straight back, right hand inside the left with the thumbs lightly touching, chin slightly tucked, tongue on the back of the mouth and eyes looking down four finger widths in front of the nose.

“A lot of people, including myself, find that feels too cross-eyed and makes me feel nauseous,” she adds with a laugh. “So just a little way in front of yourself and down. And the eyes are open in a relaxed way.”

She explains the purpose of meditation: to bring the mind to the present. The past is finished and the future hasn’t yet come. Wisdom comes from being aware of the now, without distraction. It’s a major contrast from the chaos just beyond the center’s door.

She rings a golden gong and the meditation practice begins.

The room is quiet. All eyes are on Wangmo, as the devotees slowly absorb her teachings. She discusses the four classes of objects of meditation taught by the Buddha, negative patterns that can arise from emotion and the power of habituation from past lives.

“In Buddhist teaching, our present life originates from a previous life,” she says. “During our present life, we can experience physical pain and mental suffering or we can experience happiness and bliss. So most of us have alternating experiences, both of those. Those experiences are from our actions in the previous life.”

She continues with an example: “Say in our former life we got angry a lot, that was kind of our habitual reaction to situations. Then in this life we already have that habit very engrained.”

Buddhist teaching, she adds, provides a solution. “Through the dharma, we may learn methods that cut through the hold of anger on us or the hold of desire that causes us to act in a mindless way,” she adds.  Likewise, it’s possible to remedy negative emotions caused by great attachments, anger, ignorance, jealousy and pride.

She asks the devotees to take a few minutes to experience this letting go. “This space extending out is full of sentient beings that are suffering and just want to be happy. And for a few moments, let’s just feel that. What does that feel like?”

Wangmo rings the gong as its piercing shriek echoes across the room, followed by complete silence. Within the quiet, everything is louder: the people walking above ground, the air conditioner hissing in the background, a man’s heavy breath as he meditates. The group meditates to earn positive karma, attain enlightenment and try to rid the world of confusion. In this windowless room under fluorescent lights, surrounded by tankas — images of the Buddha, nothing else matters beyond the breath.


Living and Learning Shi'a Islam in Woodside, Queens

Forty small children, ranging in age from four to nine, file into the vestibule at the sprawling Shi’a mosque right off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Woodside, Queens. The kids hand their backpacks, covered in images of Ninja Turtles and the princesses from “Frozen,” over to their mothers before taking their seats in one of the richly carpeted assembly rooms.

This morning, they’re learning about akhlaq, or the correct manner and behavior of Muslims. Sabira Pirmohamed is leading the conversation, which is mostly her trying to persuade the shy children to answer her questions. “You should all know what akhlaq is,” she chides. Pirmohamed is strict, but it’s only because she wants the children become the best Muslims they can be.

On the other side of the room, the older children are learning a similar lesson, but with a bit more depth. A visiting cleric from Maryland, Sheikh Ahmad al-Haeri, shares a lesson on empowerment. “Look for an important position in society,” he says. “Don’t underestimate yourself. You are like a well, with so much underneath! You can be President, if you were born here; you can be a minister, you can be a Congressman,” he says.

In light of President Trump’s recently contested travel ban against seven predominantly Muslim countries, this lesson seems particularly timely. Not only are the children encouraged to behave in ways that will bring them closer to Allah—things like being trustworthy, kind, and devoted--but they’re also encouraged to engage in civic life to bring honor to Islam. The two assemblies kick off an entire day of Sunday school at the religious center, formally known as Ithna’asheri Jamaat and located at 48-67 58th Street.

 

A total of about 80 children and teenagers will come from as far away as New Jersey and Staten Island to attend classes all afternoon. Sausan Merali Salehmohamed, a volunteer at the school and the mother of two of its students, tells me that children take four classes: Akhlaq, or morals and ethics, aqaid, or beliefs, tariq, or Islamic history, and Qur’an, where children learn the holy book in Arabic as well as learning the meaning of the verses, and how they apply to daily life. The aqaid class, she noted, is especially important for Shi’a children. It helps them understand how their beliefs and practices differ from Sunni beliefs, and how they can explain their faith to others who question it.

Ummul Baneen Mohammedali teaches a Qur’an class for children ages seven and eight. She is finishing her bachelor’s degree at Queens College, and hopes to be a special education teacher. Today, her class is looking at the Al-Kawthar sura, which is translated as “The abundance.” It’s short—only three verses. Mohammedali’s 14 students were expected to practice the sura in Arabic over the past week. Some of them were successful; others, not so.

The school, known as a madressa, is structured very much like a grade school; it’s more than the casual Sunday school of my Episcopalian youth. There’s a bell between periods, weekly homework assignments, exams, and a graduation. Although they’re young, the students in Mohammedali’s class are expected to be disciplined about their schoolwork; those who don’t complete their homework will receive a zero for the missed assignment.

Mohammedali has high standards for her students. She asks each one to recite the sura in Arabic, correcting their pronunciation—“That’s a saad, not a siin!”—as they go. “I can tell who practiced and who didn’t,” she says.

Mohammedali leads her students through a conversation about the meaning of the sura, too. Kawthar, she explains, is the fountain of Rasul Allah, the messenger of God, in paradise. “We want to drink from the fountain of Kawthar,” says Mohammedali. But how? Through prayer and sacrifice. She asks the class what they can sacrifice. Money, of course, is suggested--charity, or zakat, is one of the pillars of Islam. “Through being nice?” suggests a little girl. “Sure, we can be good people,” Mohammedali responds, “we can sacrifice our lives—not physically, of course.” But she notes that another important way to sacrifice is through time. “Saying this sura is like making a sacrifice,” one that’s maybe a bit less painful than other forms. As an added benefit, says Mohammedali, “You’ll also get to meet Rasul Allah.” This strikes a chord with a student in a white hijab. She gasps and exclaims, “Cool!” Mohammedali nods and says, “I think it’s pretty cool, too.”

The final line in the sura refers to Muhammad’s lack of male heirs with his wife, Khadija. While she bore him two sons, both are to have died in infancy. Because he lacked male progeny, Muhammad was taunted by Abu Jahl and his Qurayshi tribesmen. In order to explain why this is important, though, Mohammedali must first explain the concept of bloodlines. “So when a boy and a girl get married, right, what happens to the girl’s name?” she asks. “The girl takes the boy’s name, right? The boy doesn’t take the girls’ name, right? Unless she’s really lucky. How many of you have your dad’s last name?” Every student except one raises their hand. “So Muhammad didn’t have anyone to carry on his name,” Mohammedali explains, leading to the abuse from the Qurayshi tribe. But Muhammad is promised, in this sura, that those who taunted him will be punished in the worst way possible--by being cut off from God.

As students progress, they obviously have more nuanced conversations about the Qur’an and other aspects of Shi’a life; teenagers in their final year of madressa debate the nuances of the word wali, which can mean guardian, helper or friend, depending on one’s interpretation. But the foundations of Islam start early for these students. The goal, says Salehmohamed, is to teach the children that Islam is not just something to be “boxed off and reserved for Sundays.” Rather, madressa education prepares children to engage in Islam “as a way of life.”

 


Aarti Acceptance: Family Moments in a Hindu Temple

His eyes closed, a Hindu priest sings Sanskrit mantras praising Ganesh, the elephant-headed god that The Hindu Temple Society of North America worships above all others. Through the approximately hour-long service at the Temple, at 45 Bowne Street in Flushing, New York, the chanting never ends and only the occasional verse is repeated.

In the crowd of approximately 50 devotees, several sing along, rhythmically matching the rising and soaring melodies that accompany the hymns. Many, however, simply watch and listen as the priests conduct the rituals.

Two small children run back and forth outside of the tight crowd of worshippers, dashing in front of the many smaller statues lining the temple. These statues represent gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, resplendent in their tiny gowns and garlands. The children stand out in the temple, not only because of their lack of concentration on the service, but also due to their age. Most present for the Ganesh puja are middle aged or elderly. The children laugh and play tag until their father – who has been sitting silently through the puja – rises from the crowd and corrals them back to the group as the service begins to reach a conclusion. The smaller child, a boy, drapes himself limply across his father’s lap, protesting his boredom at the proceedings.

Then, a small silver bell in the hand of the main priest begins to ring. The priest holds aloft a silver lamp, burning with a tiny flame started with sesame oil, and passes it in front of Ganesh three times. The priest then turns and holds up the flame to the congregation. As one, the group holds their open palms to the flame and ceremoniously touches their eyelids, ritually symbolizing receiving a blessing from the god. As one, that is, except the small boy.

As the devotees reached for their blessing, the father held his son’s tiny hands in his own, raising them up for him. “Now touch your eyes,” the man instructed. The boy looked to his sister for guidance. Clearly a practiced worshipper, she demonstrated by rubbing her small fists to her face. The boy carefully copied the gesture. “Is that right?” his high voice asked, rising above the muted intonations of the crowd. His sister and father both nodded.

When the time comes again, the entire family is ready. This time, the receiving of the smoke is preempted by the worshippers tapping their temples or foreheads – an action thought to awaken the mind to the god’s presence. The children are clearly both familiar with this ritual action: both rap on their heads, out of sync with the congregation, and laugh at each other. The lamp is then raised aloft, and as the congregation’s hands rise to the altar, the boy’s hands are among them, unaided by anyone. His eyes, however, are on his sister. As her hands travel back to her eyes, receiving the blessing, so do his.

A triumphant grin covers the boy’s face at the correct, individual completion of this ritual portion. The father, his lap long since vacated, squeezes the boy’s shoulders with both hands, gently shaking the small body. The siblings touch their shoulders together and the girl pets her brother lightly on the head. Though the service only lasts for a few more minutes, the aarti ritual – where the lamp is waved first to the deity then the congregation – is repeated several more times. The boy’s gestures become more confident each time; it isn’t long before he doesn’t look at his sister at all when the bell begins to ring. His eyes are soon firmly fixed on the priest in front of the altar and the statue of Ganesh. His smile, though, continues to grow.