How a Harlem zendo is fighting to save lives
Koehler calls what he’s teaching “street meditation.” Figueroa finds the ability to control thoughts—his own and others’—useful in interacting with the police in East Harlem, where “stop-and-frisk” is routine for people of color. “These cops aren’t from the neighborhood, they can’t tell the difference between me and a drug dealer or a gangbanger,” Figueroa says. “So you’re constantly being checked out and harassed.” When that happens, he’s learned to stay quiet and go into “state” or simply withdraw his energy—“take myself out of there,” as he puts it. When there’s no energy fueling the cops’ fear and aggression, they back off.
“That’s Ninja consciousness,” Koehler says. “It’s the first level of survival in the inner city.” He sees it as the mental equivalent of what Garcia teaches in the dojo. “He could teach fifteen different grappling locks, or he could teach you the three-point principle of putting a person in a lock: you have a base, you have something to move, and you move it some way that causes the person to tap out—signal they’re giving up because they’re in unspeakable pain. Once you understand the principle, you can use it wherever you want.”
Here again, everyday Zen. “We’re teaching people how to practice control and slow their thoughts so they can see what’s real on the street—what’s really going on in society, what’s really going on around them,” Koehler says. Clear seeing allows them to go into the community and take appropriate action. Two summers ago, Peace on the Street spearheaded a successful effort to get stores in New York to stop selling baseball caps decorated in the colors and motifs associated with gangs. Neighborhood youth were being attacked when they wore the caps, unaware that they were “flagging”—showing gang colors. A demonstration organized by Peace on the Street brought the issue to the attention of local lawmakers and community leaders. Not only did stores pull the offending caps from their shelves, but the manufacturer, New Era, agreed to stop making them.
Sensei Richard Garcia, director of Ultimate Karate USA and a lay ordained Rinzai Zen teacher, with his family (clockwise from upper right): Alejandra, Selena, and Brandon Vargas. RIGHT: Peace on the Street staff member Jonathan Figueroa is Stan Koehler’s teaching assistant
BOTH KOEHLER AND GARCIA see their role as helping students develop to their full potential. “We try to expand them spiritually vis à vis education and getting jobs,” Garcia says. Koehler has even established a dojo residence, a house he owns twelve blocks from the center. He shares one floor with Figueroa and Acevedo, Garcia and his family live above them, and the other floors are rented out, sometimes to students. The semi-monastic arrangement has been life-changing for Figueroa and Acevedo, offering them stability and support they’d never experienced, along with Koehler’s 24/7 tutelage. “My family was negative about everything,” Acevedo says. His brother’s murder when Acevedo was six left him with a simmering rage that only started to lift when he found Peace on the Street. “I thought the world was a lack of abundance,” he says. “I never thought this world existed, where people are so nice.” Figueroa’s family, though loving, never believed he’d succeed. With Koehler’s mentoring, both young men are in college: Acevedo as a junior at Hunter, taking radical philosophy and the history of the city, and Figueroa in his last year at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, studying such courses as the sociology of the African-American family.
There could be no better advertisement for meditation than these two young men. Their personal experience speaks volumes to their peers. “I don’t go out and recruit people,” Acevedo says. “If they express interest, if they see something in me, I just speak about the struggles of my own life.” Twice he and Figueroa accompanied Koehler to teach meditation and demonstrate martial arts at an inner city high school in Oakland, California. Each time, their informal sessions drew over a hundred people. It’s no mean feat, getting young people with no framework or patience for meditation to give it a try. Or to believe it can make a difference. “I just say to them, there are people who live with less pain,” Figueroa says. “So how are we gonna do this—live a less painful life? And it all plays out from there.”
At Ultimate Karate, more than twenty martial arts from around the world are offered, and Garcia is constantly adding to his repertoire. A few years ago he and Acevedo went to South Africa to study Zulu stick fighting and other techniques, and Koehler is now raising funds to send students to Japan to train. But in the end, it isn’t just fighters the school is turning out—though there’s a lot of talent on that score. To Garcia, the most important part of his job is “building self-confidence and getting people to believe in themselves. I have people who can punch through bricks. If they can do that, what can’t they do?”
Something similar is going on in the zendo, where Koehler’s students are learning to punch through psychological bricks. Everyone in the advanced Zen training is required to study martial arts, and although they’re all impressively resilient and fit, what’s most striking is how conscious they are.
For Acevedo and Figueroa, Peace on the Street has provided the container for their growth, while Koehler plants the seeds. He’s the good father, encouraging them and teaching them the ways of the world and the importance of responsibility and keeping their agreements.
Ever the Zen “true man of no rank,” Koehler brushes off suggestions that his round-the-clock supervision is anything but ordinary. “I’m just having fun,” he insists. Still, if the best way to teach is by example, Koehler’s message is clear. Darrin Harris Frisby sums it up nicely: “Lovingkindness heals a lot more than you think.” It could be an unofficial motto for Peace on the Street. ▼
Joan Duncan Oliver is Tricycle's reviews editor and the author of, most recently, Coffee with the Buddha.
Darrin Harris Frisby's photography can be seen at his website, www.10pointproductions.com