Holy Waters

Spiritual Life Returns to New York Harbor

The beaches of Staten Island, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and Sandy Hook are the sites of large Wiccan, Yoruban, and shamanistic celebrations. It is also from these places, Pritchard thinks, that Lenape people may have revered the "Red Road," the sun trail path by which the dead return to the creator.

The idea of the sun trail guiding souls to the afterlife is something Reverend Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church on Riverside Drive immediately grasps. He hopes to perform an Obon ceremony this summer on the Hudson River downtown in honor of those who died in the World Trade Center attacks, "to let all of the spirits go back home to Buddha's land." Worshipers face the setting sun and place upon the water shoe-box-sized boats bearing rice-paper lamps marked with the names of the dead and with prayers.

After 9-11, America's most prominent island people, the Hawaiians, were moved to provide comfort to the grieving and make offerings to the dead. In October, the Pohala Foundation and others went to the Chelsea waterfront, lit torches, danced, and from kayaks and outrigger canoes set 6000 flowers strung into leis onto the southward-running Hudson, carrying bright, fragrant petals past the smoking ruins.

During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.
photos: Rebecca Cooney
During Rosh Hashanah, Jews turn to the water for the washing away of sins.

The power of that terrible event still consecrates the waters for Milton Hoolulu Desha Beamer, an ethnic Hawaiian living in New York. When a beloved mentor died back home, Beamer paddled an outrigger into the Upper Bay to offer up prayers and flowers. "His spirit was in the ocean and will always be in the ocean. It really doesn't matter which ocean you go to, to offer myself up to him because all are protected by the same gods," Beamer says. But he carefully chose a space "between the tremendous loss of life at the World Trade Center, and Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It was a point of welcoming, and hopes, and dreams. People were willing to be fulfilled." The opposing emotions of those sites give the water between them powerful "mana," or life force.

Long before 9-11, New York's waters received our dead. "Sleeping with the fishes" is a standard Gotham punchline, and more deaths on the water have occurred through personal accident and disaster than can be recounted here. But how many New Yorkers realize more soldiers of the American Revolution died in the East River along the Brooklyn waterfront than in all of that war's battles combined? Hunger and disease tore through as many as 11,000 men and boys held by the British on dilapidated prison ships, with the bones of the dead consigned to the river and its muddy shores. If a secular ideal like liberty has a sacred water, it's not the Delaware River Washington so famously crossed. It's the East River's Wallabout Bay, where the general strategically abandoned his ragtag grunts rather than free them in a swap for his own prisoners, the enemy's well-trained troops.

These days, the East River is entrusted by associates of Sri Chinmoy to guard the memory of U Thant, a devout Buddhist who served as the third United Nations secretary-general. Across from the Secretariat building, hardscrabble Belmont Island holds a "oneness arch," a time capsule of the international civil servant's personal items, and nothing more. Leased from New York State and unofficially renamed U Thant Island by the group Sri Chinmoy: The Peace Meditation at the United Nations, it was dedicated in 1977. Hurried currents and riprap rock make the island nearly unlandable, assuring reverent quiet.

"The silence is the power. The silence of U Thant's memory will bring his ideals forward," explains a Sri Chinmoy spokesman, who asks not to be identified.

That kind of contemplative abstraction, a sensing of the energy without personifying it, is the heart of feng shui, which translates to "wind and water." Elderly Chinese go down to the East River at the South Street Seaport each morning at dawn to practice tai chi. Water is the most powerful conductor of chi and the best place for such practices, explains Zaihong Shen.

Believers from each tradition say that energy must come from waters that are healthy and alive. Faith inspires environmental action, but prayers have value in themselves, too, they say. "Most people crap, piss, and throw garbage in water," says Mondesire, the Yoruba-Lukumi priest. "The Mother side of God gives all this goodness to us, and so a small group is giving something back."

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