Peace on the Street

How a Harlem zendo is fighting to save lives

Joan Duncan Oliver

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Martial arts dojos are a fixture of the inner city, but meditation is a harder sell. Garcia doesn’t require his martial arts students to practice meditation, “but I try to give them as much as I can, embedded in the training,” he says. (Martial arts originated in the Shaolin temple, an ancient Chinese Buddhist monastery, as exercises to strengthen the monks’ bodies for the rigors of meditation practice.) Most of Koehler’s students start out at Ultimate Karate. “Nobody’s interested in this stuff,” he says of meditation. “They’re all going to come in to learn to fight. But when they learn to fight, they have to control up here,” he notes, pointing to his head. “Then they come across the aisle, and we do these mental exercises.” Not that there aren’t martial artists who grasp the connection on their own. After Koehler gave a demonstration at his dojo in the Bronx, 21-year-old Carlos “Flaco” Rodriguez came to the Uptown Meditation Center. “In order to be a com plete martial artist, you should know your mind as well as your body,” he says.

Unlike more buttoned-up zendos, Peace on the Street has no regular sitting schedule, although the zendo is open to anyone who wants to sit on their own. Mornings there may be one or two, and “our Jewish landlord comes up here and prays,” Koehler says. While the state-of-the-art dojo and cage room are a hive of activity, the zendo is an oasis of calm, with soft lighting and thick Tibetan rugs. But apart from the Japanese gong, there are few of the traditional Zen trappings—and none of the ritual. The zafus remain piled in a corner; everyone sits on chairs. There’s no bowing. No chanting. No statue of the Buddha. No calligraphy scrolls on the walls. Instead, the room is lined with an eye-popping multicultural array: a Green Tara thangka; a thangka depicting scenes from Jesus’s life (it was painted in Nepal); a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe (with an inset of Mother Teresa); a photo of Koehler’s former teacher, Frederick Lenz, aka Zen Master Rama; and—in a nod to the dojo—a signed poster of Muhammad Ali in fighting stance and a rack of antique samurai swords. For his part, Koehler, who was ordained in 2004, doesn’t go by his dharma name, Hui Neng, or wear robes, or shave his head.

Hui Neng Stan Koehler
Rinzai Zen priest Hui Neng Stan Koehler, guiding teacher at the Uptown Meditation Center, is executive director of Peace on the Street.

It’s all aimed at making meditation user-friendly in this Catholic and Evangelical Christian neighborhood, where anything Buddhist is viewed as too exotic, too Asian—even the devil’s work. “Instead of insulting their culture,” JunPo says, “we embrace it, and we talk about clarity of mind and transforming emotion.”

For Koehler, what’s important is to focus on the methodology and psychology the Buddha developed, without any cultural overlay. That extends to the language he chooses. “People from the projects will never use a word like ‘impermanence.’ The language doesn’t resonate. If we’re going to establish a rapport with people in the inner city, why say impermanence when we can say, ‘Did you ever notice that everything changes all the time? That if you get something it becomes something else? Is that real for you? What do you think of that?’ The person can then do an inquiry into it without dealing with the word impermanence.” Even the word “meditation” is often sanitized into terms like “mind training” and “mind control” that carry no charge in the neighborhood.

Koehler developed an ear for the inner city while teaching meditation at the Alianza Dominica and City College, and to prisoners at Riker’s Island. He and Garcia hatched Peace on the Street when both were working for New York City’s foster care agency, in information technology. It’s an odd partnership: Koehler the farm boy from northern California, Garcia the inner-city kid from the Bronx, separated by a generation. But “we shared similar visions,” Garcia says. Growing up, martial arts helped him avoid gangs and drugs, and he had long dreamed of opening a school in a Hispanic neighborhood.

AROUND THE TIME they started Peace on the Street, Koehler and Garcia were ordained in Hollow Bones. JunPo’s pragmatic, nonsectarian, streetwise approach complements their goals for an urban center. Koehler and Garcia regularly take students to sit Hollow Bones sesshins—Zen retreats—and JunPo teaches at Uptown Meditation several times a year.

Even though he is dharma heir to Eido Shimano Roshi, one of the last of the Japanese masters who established Zen in America, JunPo has made a point of tailoring Buddhist practice to Westerners, down to modernizing koan study. “We couldn’t do what we’re doing here without his ‘protocols,’” Koehler says, referring in particular to a process known as “ego deconstruction.” JunPo based it on Mondo, an ancient Ch’an form of koan practice. In dialogue with the teacher, the student progresses through a sequence of koans—including questions like “Who are you?”— leading to a series of insights culminating in the surrender of the ego-based will. As Koehler describes it, ego deconstruction results in “a deep, meditative, unitive experience where the opposites are reconciled and the ego isn’t there, there’s just witnessing.” Samadhi to Buddhists, it’s “state” to the folks at Uptown Meditation. In “state,” we can choose how to relate to everyday reality: instead of reacting with fear or violence, JunPo notes, we can respond with intelligence and compassion. In Peace-on-the-Street parlance everyday reality is “the Matrix”—a term that speaks to the neighborhood in a way samsara never would.

It’s the seamless interchange between meditation and daily life that makes practice at Uptown Meditation so compelling. This is Zen on the hoof. Koehler teaches Buddhist techniques in his eight-week Basic Meditation course—though without sectarian reference. But the follow-up course, Psychic Self-Defense, departs from familiar Zen fare, to the point of including elements of Zen Master Rama’s teachings drawn from sources as farflung as Carlos Castaneda and kundalini yoga.

As out-there as the main themes—energy management, personal power, self-defense—might seem, “this isn’t some New Age, white thing,” Koehler says. It’s eminently practical. “The amount of energy that a person can acquire and utilize is the basis for their effectiveness in life,” the syllabus reads. (“Energy” here refers to chi or ki, the invisible life force that can be cultivated through meditation and martial arts.) The course includes instruction in everything from identifying who and what drains your energy, to controlling conversations and “stopping invasive questions.” The Heart Sutra is required reading— for a module on detachment—but so also is Miss Manners, for a lesson in “creating respect.”

If all this sounds more like life coaching than Zen practice, so be it. At Uptown Meditation there’s no distinction between spiritual practice, psychological development, and practical living skills. “Sitting in Zen is being partnered with developing emotional maturity through doing their personal work,” observes Darrin Harris Frisby, a Zen practitioner and photographer who shadowed Koehler and Garcia and their students while shooting a portfolio at the school. Frisby remembers his initial impression: “When I heard about Zen and cage fighting … whoa. How do these things coexist?” But what Frisby calls “this dance between opposites” is the very essence of Zen.

At Peace on the Street, discontinuity comes with the territory: Koehler’s students face obstacles most Buddhist meditators never have to consider. “You might have six or seven Mexicans living in a studio apartment,” he says. “Then the bathroom at 5 a.m. is a good time to practice.”

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