The Jewish mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once told the story of a king and his prime minister, who was also his good friend. The king told the prime minister, “I see by the stars that everyone who eats from this year’s grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think I should do?”
The prime minister suggested they set aside a portion of good grain so that they would not have to eat from the tainted wheat. But the king objected: “If we do that, everyone will be insane but us. They will look at us and say that we are the mad ones. No. What we must do is this. We, too, shall eat from the tainted grain, but we will each place a sign on our head. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine, and when we see the sign, at least we will remember that we are mad.”
When I told this story last May at the funeral of the former New York patent attorney Harvey Mark Rogosin, everybody laughed. Doubtless, some caught the allusion to wheat ergot, the hallucinogenic fungi said to have resulted in the occasional “Woodstock” at various points throughout European history. But my guess is, most people just thought it described what it felt like to be with Mark.
Mark was crazy. You knew that. At the same time, he was a good bit saner than you were. You knew that, too. It was like that figure-ground image of the vase and the two faces. If you looked at Mark standing there on the street in his baggy pants and sweater, with hair looking like it hadn’t been brushed in years, and beard maybe never, then sure enough, he stood out as just the kind of person you never wanted to become. But if you looked at the background image instead—at the culture at large, with its madness for money and its catastrophic disregard for the evils of consumption— then you saw a very different picture when you looked back at Mark. Still, it was impossible not to go back and forth.
Those who knew Mark well often despaired over him, only to find themselves confronting in the very next moment a spiritual beauty that took their breath away. This wasn’t the didactic one-part-crazy/three-parts-wisdom you read about in books on Tibetan Buddhism. Mark was genuinely crazy, and he was genuinely wise. One moment you’d think, “OK, I get this!” The next you’d realize you didn’t have a clue.
Over the years many things bothered me about Mark. It was difficult to accept his mental illness, or even to decide what it was. In a town like Woodstock, where the mentally infirm are tolerated, the eccentric awarded a plaque, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the two apart. There was the fact that Mark had abandoned his wife and infant daughter, not to mention an extremely lucrative career, to live in abject poverty. There were the envelopes from his family stuffed to bursting with twenty-dollar bills—gifts he never thanked them for simply because they remained unopened until he died. And then there was the hoarding.
Mark didn’t like to waste things and so saved what others had no desire for—broken things that could still be fixed or appropriated to some other use. Even things beyond reuse. Maybe he got so accustomed to looking through garbage to see if there was anything worth saving that he decided, finally, everything was worth saving—which meant garbage wasn’t garbage anymore. Or at least not to Mark. The rest of us were appalled. Though even here it got confusing.
If Mark collected useless junk in one pile, from another he was constantly giving real treasures away. After Mark died, I learned that His Holiness the 16th Karmapa had once given him the Buddhist name Jinpa, meaning “Great Generosity,” a pretty spot-on description of a person with an uncanny knack for finding the very thing you needed from his pile of so-called “junk” when you least expected it: the 14th-century manual on contemplative prayer he once gave me, which became the basis for a book; or the unopened box of Cascade dishwasher detergent, which was on our list one night but we couldn’t afford to buy it. People showed up at his funeral wearing shoes he’d given them years before. And, of course, they all showed up with his stones.
Beginning in the early 1980s, when he moved from Manhattan to Woodstock, New York, Mark handed out little stones inscribed with the Sanskrit characters for “Om” or “Om mani padme hum” to many thousands of people on the streets. Sometimes he wrote these mantras on leaves and sometimes on hickory nuts. He would write on the backs of business cards, on grocery store receipts, on scraps discarded from the local framing shop, on the countless and varied objects that piled up like mountains inside his house. But mostly he wrote on stones.
His fame for this simple act gradually spread beyond Woodstock, as tourists who received a stone took it back to wherever they came from. Sometimes people even took them on journeys. It is difficult at this point to separate truth from legend—for instance, one of his stones is rumored to have reached the peak of Everest, while another is supposed to lie hidden somewhere in the White House—but I know for certain they made it to Kamakura, London, Beijing, Bodhgaya, and Kathmandu. Just yesterday I gave one to my teenage son and daughter before they boarded a flight to Israel, telling them to hide it someplace special, as a blessing, in Old Jerusalem.
People loved Mark for his “mantra stones,” even those who had no idea what a mantra was. Most had a vague notion that Mark was some kind of spiritual practitioner, but few saw the elaborate Tibetan thankga paintings, painstakingly diagrammed with a compass pencil, that he worked on privately in his breathtakingly cluttered, derelict little house overlooking the Mill Stream on Old Forge Road. Last spring I helped his daughter, Nila, sift through the plethora of paintings, signs, prints, and other artifacts that, had he sold them, might have established him as a genuine American Buddhist folk artist. But then it was hard to imagine Mark having anything to do with agents or galleries or formal showings of his art.
A few months after he died, I proposed a town holiday for April 30, Mark’s birthday. I was afraid people would laugh at the idea of an annual “Mani Day” for making and distributing painted stones. It was shocking how much pride I had to swallow to do this. I was never embarrassed to be seen with Mark, but that was different from trying to convince people that his life had meant something special, especially when I was having so much trouble explaining, even to myself, what that special something was.
I needn’t have felt self-conscious, as it turned out. The Woodstockers I talked to shared my befuddlement. Even so, they had no trouble filling in the blanks. “That dude was completely selfless,” said a stoned but sincere teenager sitting with his guitar and girlfriend on the Village Green. “I never had time for him, but he always had time for me,” said Dharmaware founder Erik Holmlin. “There was no one Mark didn’t have time for.” I walked from one end of Tinker Street to the other with flyers for the event, and at our first Mani Day everyone from the town drunk to the town judge came out to make a stone. A local ceramics dealer summed up the spirit of the day: “I don’t know how he did it, but that man was the soul of this town. Wasn’t he some kind of Buddhist?”
One day in the mid-1970s, the Manhattanite Elise Frick was at an event where the 16th Karmapa was to be in attendance. Sitting on a bench directly across the street was an intense-looking man with a long scraggly beard staring fixedly at the door. He did not attend the function, Elise noted, or make any attempt to enter the building. “But there was something compelling about his sitting there like that, so perfectly still for hours and hours on end.” She saw him again a few days later, at the Karmapa’s Black Crown ceremony, this time wearing a suit that had seen better days. She decided she had to meet him and soon learned that he had been living on the streets.
Eventually, his story began to emerge. Born Harvey Mark Rogosin in 1941 in Brooklyn, he’d grown up as the first of three siblings in a Chicago suburb. Pressured to choose a viable career by his father, a salesman who’d made a fortune at Fruit of the Loom, he earned a law degree from Northwestern University, then came to Manhattan to practice as a patent attorney. He’d been to the Woodstock Festival with his wife, Yona, in 1969, after which they had traveled for some months in Nepal, where he became “Mark” because his new Tibetan friends found “Harvey” too difficult to say. Until a year or so before then, he’d been wearing Brooks Brothers suits to work each day, debating philosophy by night over drinks with his friends at the Harvard Club. He’d fathered a daughter and called her Nila, Sanskrit for “indigo blue.” Then something happened. He stopped practicing law, began painting Buddhas, and eventually took up eating from garbage cans on the street.
“Mark, it’s no good living like this,” Elise told him. “You need to have a home.”
“I do have a home,” Mark said, explaining that he owned a co-op just off Fifth Avenue, free and clear. “Why don’t you live there?” Elise asked. But Mark said simply, and with unshakable conviction, “I can’t ever go back there again.” Knowing this, he’d told a friend of a friend that she could live there for as long as she liked. She was still living there rent-free more than 30 years later when he died.
It was another New Yorker, the monastery fund-raiser Norvie Bullock, who arranged in 1981 for Mark to move to Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in Woodstock, the North American seat of the Karmapa. It seemed a logical place for him to go, given his strange affinity for the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism and his fluency with its teachings and iconography. Mark originally went there to paint the monastery, and to embellish parts of the foundation. He never told me why he left, so it wasn’t until the funeral that I found out from Elise what had really happened. She told me that when anyone else would try to paint, Mark would break their brushes. He became so fixated on the task, so convinced that he was the right one to do it, that he wouldn’t share the work. And so eventually he was asked to leave.
It’s hard to imagine someone as peaceful as Mark doing such a thing, but then it’s equally hard to image him living in an institutional religious setting. In Tibet perhaps they’d have given him a cave to live in and someone to bring him tsampa and tea. In Woodstock, he managed to create a life that wasn’t far from that. Pia Alexander of the Woodstock Library brought him lunch every day. My children brought him cookies. His brother Steven rented him a house that he occupied much like a yogi living in a cave. And the whole town received his teaching, for the most part never quite sure what it was.
Regardless of all this, it was the town that made that teaching possible. It was the town that made Markpossible. Most anyplace else in America he’d have been a nuisance. But not in Woodstock. We likedsupporting someone who improvised Buddhist folk art right on the spot, distributing it for free on the streets of the town. It might not have made sense elsewhere, but it made sense here, to us.
Mark was a kind of symbol of the reason we’d moved to Woodstock in the first place, following our post-Sixties vision of a psychedelic Pure Land where the rule of law was flexible and mostly benevolent, and money wasn’t the only bottom line. And once we got here, Mark was the reason we stayed. Mark was the kindly, unlikely Buddha at the center of a Pure Land of our own imagining, even if supporting Mark was as close as we came most of the time to making that land a reality. If it was true that he brought out something special in us (our kindness, our compassion, our sense of what it meant to be part of a community), we also brought out something in him. Mark could not have become what he was outside of Woodstock, just as Amida Buddha couldn’t live anyplace but the Lotus Land of Bliss.
Once when it was very cold, I drove to Mark’s house on the Mill Stream to check up on him. We Woodstockers felt more than a little ownership of our eccentric resident Buddha, and with ownership came responsibility. The door to his place wouldn’t close properly, and he frequently left it wide open anyway, regardless of the time of year. He was getting older, and the cracks in the foundation of his house had widened of late. We’d actually begun to fear that one night the house itself, with Mark in it, might slide into the stream.
But according to Mark we needn’t have worried so much about the cold. He once told my wife that he got chilly only at the very end of winter, when the weather began to change. “Maple trees don’t get cold until March, when their sap starts to run. Then they shiver like crazy in the wind for a week or two. After that, they can relax again. I’m like a tree.”
It was easy to forget that until the day of his death, Mark was still a lawyer and a member in good standing of the New York Bar Association. But then one day he’d place a meticulously researched environmental impact brief in the hands of a volunteer fighting to protect the local wetlands, or you’d see him offering advice to a local ne’er-do-well on how best to represent himself at his upcoming court date.
To my knowledge, only once did Mark have the need to defend himself in a court of law. But on that occasion he refused to do so. This was the infamous “hole incident,” commemorated in a short YouTube documentary by Damon Marlier and reported on by The New York Times in August 1991. True to the moniker he’d earned years before by going on talk fasts for unspecified periods of time, “Silent Mark” said not one word in the documentary, and little more than that to the Times reporter. And, of course, the whole incident hinged upon his refusal to explain why he had dug a perfectly round 2½-foot-deep, 6-foot diameter hole through impacted gravel (allegedly with a teaspoon) in a private parking lot off Old Forge Road.
When he was arrested on July 7, Mark refused to state his name or to be fingerprinted. He refused even to speak to Town Justice Jules Viglielmo, who was left with no choice but to charge him with fourth-degree criminal mischief, remanding him to the Ulster County Jail pending the payment of $50 bail. This was posted by a friend the following day, and the matter was quietly dropped. No one in town—not the police, not Viglielmo, not even the owners of the parking lot—wanted to see Mark in jail. When it was over, all anyone wanted to know was why he had dug it, but Mark steadfastly refused to explain.
A legend grew up about the “Holy Hole”—which, incidentally, was left in place for a long time afterward, the locals feeling strangely reluctant to fill it in. Some insisted that it was a commentary on the “spiritual hole” at the center of modern life. Others, knowing that Mark frequently worked with unorthodox media, said it was a kind of spiritual performance art. The matter remained unresolved until Mark’s funeral, when the Woodstock artist Paul Haran, who had returned to town after an absence of almost 20 years, revealed that Mark had dug the hole as a protest to Paul’s eviction from the studio/storage shed where he lived just adjacent to Mark on Old Forge Road. But in that case why not admit to the protest? Wouldn’t that have been more to the point?
After the funeral some were convinced, but many more were not. Sometimes a mystery is more lasting than an explanation. And so, to this day, symbolically at least, the Holy Hole remains unfilled.
About six or seven years ago, someone from Karma Triyana (not a rinpoche, Mark said, but someone with authority) told him that his ritual of writing mantras on stones was not a legitimate form of Buddhist practice—that it was, in fact, wrong. Whoever said this ought to have been corrected by the rinpoches, since making “mani stones” is a practice as old as Tibetan Buddhism itself. But if that happened I never heard about it.
Perhaps the authority in question was referring to Mark’s practice of handing the stones to people, mano a mano, rather than mortaring them into walls or leaving them in piles at the roadside as pointers on the Bodhisattva Way. Or maybe it was the Sharpie markers or the other nontraditional materials Mark used. My guess is, it was a lot simpler than that. Here was this funky-looking guy handing out mantras indiscriminately at the bottom of the mountain while, at the top of the mountain, there were monks trying to transmit a serious religious tradition. Discouraging Mark from distributing his stones made an institutional kind of sense.
Mark’s practice visibly faltered after that. At one point he asked me what I thought, whether he should continue making the stones or not, and I told him he ought to answer that question for himself. Had it been me, I’d have ignored the prohibition. But Mark wasn’t made that way. He was implicitly trusting of those in spiritual authority. In many ways it was the thing that was best about him. If you told Mark something, he would believe you and take it to heart, and that made most people pretty careful about what they said. You wanted to protect that kind of holy innocence, not shatter it.
Mark refused to say who’d told him to stop making the stones. After he died, I asked everyone I could think of, but they didn’t know either. By then half the people in Woodstock had them on their altars anyway. Even those who weren’t religious told me they ended up with altars because of Mark, just out of the need to have someplace special to put his stones. Mark’s stones created altars. Maybe that was their point.
Mark made fewer altar stones after that and finally couldn’t make them even when he tried, as if restrained by an invisible hand. “Why don’t you make some anyway?” I suggested as gently as possible one day as we sat together in the sun outside Catskill Mountain Pizza. But it was too late. I’d lost my chance, if there ever was one, to prevent what people around town were already beginning to think of as a small but significant spiritual tragedy.
When Mark died, the tragedy suddenly seemed bigger. In his full-page Woodstock Times obituary, the Buddhist author Tad Wise suggested that being told not to make mani stones killed Mark Rogosin. For those of us involved in moving him from Old Forge Road to the house on Pine Grove, however, this was never more than a convenient fiction. We knew exactly what tipped Mark over the edge. Tad knew it too. In his obit he cited clinical studies that showed how traumatic it was for a hoarder to have his stuff taken away, sometimes fatally so.
It didn’t seem practical to move Mark’s stuff with him, and so a huge trash container—the ultimate anathema where Mark was concerned—was brought in to haul it all away. He insisted on giving a lot of it to me and my family, though we didn’t need or want it. Still, I’m glad we have it now, particularly our bluecream tortoiseshell Fujiyama—because, like 90 percent of Mark’s other stuff, his collection of feral cats and kittens never made the move.
It was only three blocks from the Mill Stream. But for Mark it was a lot farther. Why was that? If I’m honest, I know the answer. As desirable as it might have seemed from a relatively civilized, do-gooder point of view, the house on Pine Grove was a lot less like a cave. Sure, it had garbage pickup, a front porch, and a lock that worked. And a year later Mark had jammed it with almost as much stuff as before. But there were no longer the raccoons I’d once discovered accompanying him in meditation, and I no longer found Mark sitting atop his own personal charnel ground to the accompaniment of stream water bubbling its way toward the Hudson in the middle of the night.
It’s strange to me that I was called when Mark died. I hadn’t been close to him for over a year and had no idea where he was. I hadn’t exactly abandoned Mark in his final illness, but it was certainly true that it had worn me and my family out. I’d had the feeling for some years that it was only a matter of time before he ended up in a nursing home. And then, for reasons no one understood, he’d lost the ability to talk—as if, having shut it too firmly behind him on multiple occasions, he could no longer locate that inner cognitive doorway that led back to the world of speech.
The call came from a local artist, Ronnie Spaziante. I wasn’t aware she even knew Mark, but it turned out they’d been close for the past year. Closer than close, she said. It was hard to imagine Mark being romantically involved with anyone, but there it was—another mystery (this one a blessing) unfolding at the very end of his life. “But how did you know to call me?” I asked when we arrived together at Lasher Funeral Home. She seemed at a loss. Some books I’d written were on Mark’s altar, along with the mala beads I’d made for him years before. As if that explained anything. Finally she just shrugged, and I let the matter drop.
In the end I decided it was the power of a promise. I’d once told Mark that when he died I would chant over his body and make sure everything went as he would have wanted it. But we’d never actually talked about what he wanted.
Those first two days Ronnie and my wife, Perdita, sat with him for a long time. And Mark’s old friends Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and his wife, Sonam, came down from the monastery to chant for him. Apart from that, we had the viewing room to ourselves, me and Mark. So I talked with him for a long time. I told him I still had the last best Om stone he’d ever made—the one he called “my masterpiece” and told me to keep for him because he was too attached to it, and because he’d made it after he’d been told not to.
Even then, I’d begun to understand that, without any of us actually realizing it at the time, Woodstock had become the birthplace of a local legend. Like most legends, the more deeply you looked into it, the more complicated it became—a little like discovering that Johnny Appleseed, familiar since childhood from countless picture books, was really John Chapman, disciple of the Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. But complicated didn’t make it less of a legend. If anything, it made it more. Already, a week after he died, people were calling him “Mani Mark,” a designation I’d never heard while he was alive. That day I heard it from the lips of three different people in a single afternoon.
Mark’s Buddhism was primitive, like all good folk art and folk religion. It didn’t have many working parts. But what parts there were, if you took the time to look into them, were thousands of years old. Mark knew the teachings behind their working, and he seemed to believe in them with all his heart. Whether he presented you with a mani stone, or with a grocery bag he’d covered in its entirety with a meticulously executed vision of the Pure Land, what you were getting was something you couldn’t buy anywhere, no matter how far you traveled or how much you were willing to pay. In Woodstock, we took this for granted while he was alive. When he died, we began making the stones for ourselves, realizing with a mild shock of self-recognition that we already knew how to make them. Because of Mark, that knowledge was now simply “in the air.”