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How a Harlem zendo is fighting to save lives
Photographs by Darrin Harris Frisby
It’s Sunday afternoon, and two flights above 107th Street in East Harlem, four men and a woman—two women, if you count this writer—are sitting on chairs in a circle, meditating. Twenty minutes later, one of the men, 21-year-old Jonathan Figueroa, strikes a Japanese gong to end the meditation. Then the leader of the group—Stan Koehler, a 66-year-old Rinzai Zen priest in the Hollow Bones order—launches into the next phase of a prescribed routine. Going around the circle, the group members “check in” with a
word—or a few—describing how they feel. The second time around, they report their “highs” and “lows” for the past week. Preliminaries done, Koehler tosses out a topic for discussion and asks if anyone has an issue to raise—a conflict at home, perhaps. For the next ninety minutes or so, the group engages in a free-wheeling exchange that’s part dharma discourse, part group processing, and part graduate seminar—with a dash of therapy and a lot of avuncular wisdom thrown in.
Welcome to the weekly advanced Zen training at the Uptown Meditation Center. If it doesn’t sound like any zendo you’ve sat in, that’s probably the point. This is El Barrio—Spanish Harlem—not exactly the land of sutra chanting and zafus lined up neatly in rows. But don’t think there’s no dharma here. Quite the contrary. “As a Zen priest,” Koehler says, “my mission is to distill the Buddhist canon to its fundamental essence so that it can be made available as an authentic American teaching.”
What better place to start. The Uptown Meditation Center is half of the not-for-profit organization Peace on the Street. The other half is Ultimate Karate USA, a traditional and mixed martial arts school directed by Richard Garcia, a 31-year-old ranked master in Karate and Tae Kwan Do, and certified instructor in Jeet Kune Do and Filipino Knife Fighting, as well as a sensei—lay ordained teacher—in Hollow Bones. Since it opened in late 2003, in a 5,000-square-foot loft across the street from a public housing project, the zendo-cumdojo has been transforming lives in this corner of upper Manhattan with an innovative mix of meditation and martial arts.
In a neighborhood where barely half the young men finish high school and a high percentage end up behind bars, Peace on the Street has carved out a pivotal mission: providing physical, emotional, and spiritual training— along with practical support—to empower individuals in the inner city. It’s all aimed at arming a new kind of urban warrior: strong, to be sure, but also compassionate, socially committed, and self-aware.
To all appearances, the formula is working.
Take Kris Acevedo. At 17, he was angry, failing school, living by his fists—on his way to becoming another neighborhood statistic. Then he started studying meditation with Koehler and martial arts with Garcia. Life was looking up. He graduated from high school and moved up through the ranks in the dojo. Then one night after class, he got into an argument on the street. When one of the men—an ex-Marine— attacked him, Acevedo retaliated with a pair of brass knuckles. He was charged with felony assault. It all could have gone terribly wrong, but Koehler intervened. The assistant district attorney reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and placed Acevedo on parole. If he stayed out of trouble and continued meditation practice with Koehler, the ADA agreed to seal his record.
Today, Acevedo is no longer that angry teen. Now “Monster Boy,” as he’s affectionately called, is putting his fists to better use as an accomplished martial artist. A rising star in cage fighting—a brutal blend of kick boxing, wrestling, and more—he’s also assisting Garcia in teaching classes for kids. Above all, Acevedo has found a more effective vehicle for settling scores—his mind. These days if he encounters trouble, he can draw on his Zen training and drop into “state”—a calm, centered mental space— and defuse the situation without throwing a punch.
“I truly believe,” Acevedo says, “that a battle that’s not fought is a battle won.”
If Acevedo’s hard-won equanimity owes a lot to Peace on the Street, he’s not alone. With over thirty classes a week and countless hours of private instruction and informal guidance, Koehler and Garcia are working nonstop to help their students counter violence, drugs, low expectations, and other challenges endemic to inner-city life.
“This is real Zen—the practical realization of Zen consciousness and training discernible in our lives,” says JunPo Denis Kelly Roshi, abbot of Hollow Bones. “They’re dealing with real people, real situations, and real problems.”
Like Acevedo, Jonathan Figueroa was adrift before he found Peace on the Street. A high school dropout, Figueroa earned a GED—high school equivalency diploma—at 16 but was unprepared for college. After a chance meeting with Garcia on the subway, he landed a marketing job at the school, quickly becoming a key member of the “street team” bringing in new students. Meanwhile, Koehler took Figueroa under his wing. “He kind of showed me the way the world worked,” says Figueroa, who’d been more or less on his own since his early teens. “He made me see why meditation was useful in a real, practical way.”
Today Figueroa carries that message to others as Koehler’s teaching assistant. He has led meditation classes in two juvenile detention facilities and joins Koehler in community outreach. Recently, the two began a new series of classes at the Union Settlement Association on East 104th Street. Melissa Nieves, director of adult education there, says the classes are helping her GED students deal with test anxiety and “quiet the voices in their head telling them they’re no good and they’re not going to make it.”
At 37, Nieves knows those voices intimately—and also the value of meditation in silencing them. A member of Koehler’s Sunday Zen training, she credits meditation practice with totally shifting her outlook on life and helping her tackle a lifelong weight problem.