December 17, 2008

An Account of Meditate NYC

[The following is a guest post from Jolie Gorchov that I was supposed to put up last week! Sorry. If your organization is mentioned here but not linked, and you would like to have it linked, please let us know - Phil]

A recent panel discussion in BuddhaDharma about The Future of Buddhism focused on “convert” western Buddhists without mentioning Asian Buddhists. This has kicked off a firestorm of web chatter about oppression and “Wonderbread” (western) Buddhists vs. Asian Buddhists.

In light of this debate that’s made its way to blogs such as Dharma Folk, The Worst Horse, Shambhala Sun Space and the Tricycle Editor’s Blog, I wanted to counter with a recent afternoon in New York that was spent with all sorts of different Buddhist teachers, speakers, and sects.

Meditate NYCOn Sunday, November 9, the Buddhist Council of New York presented its second annual Meditate NYC event.  Meditate NYC is a free week-long event aimed mostly at newcomers to meditation, and people who are interested in Buddhism. The Meditate NYC kick-off offered a wide-ranging program with speakers from America, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Tibet.

The afternoon event opened at the Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with the traditional Tibetan ringing of 108 bells. The event’s emcees, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, abbot of Village Zendo and Michele Laporte of Shambhala Center sat on stage as the Buddhist Council’s former President, Reverend T.K. Nakagaki of New York Buddhist Church opened the program and welcomed attendees.  Each speaker following gave about a 20-minute offering.

Kicking off the afternoon of speakers and performers was legendary Buddhist beat poet John Giorno, who performed three poems, including Thanks for Nothing, a work celebrating his 70th birthday. The poem profanely thanked a wide-ranging list of teachers in his life, including his “depression problem,” his “stupid grasping mind,” and “countless lovers.”  Venerable Yifa of Buddha Light Monastery, then spoke about the ripple effects of all our actions. Josh Korda, of DharmaPunx NYC, went to the heart of Buddhist teaching with the importance of the precepts. Master Sifu Teasely’s senior student Liz Connelly demonstrated Tai Chi movement while Sifu played a drum. Clark Strand, an author and former Zen Buddhist monk who is currently exploring the links between Christianity and Buddhism, spoke about “Green Meditation” (as in Eco-green.) Roshi Enkyo told a story from the Lotus Sutra about children playing inside a burning house. Myo Ji Sunim, abbot of Chogye Sa Temple, went directly to the notion of Buddhist emptiness: “Who hears? Who sees?” Judy Seicho Fleischman, of Buddhist Peace Fellowship, talked about engaged Buddhism. Stan Grier performed a short ceremony paying homage to spiritual ancestors in many traditions, and presented Qi Gong—it was nice to get up and move for awhile! Reverend Wisdom of Middle Way Meditation Center, and Lama Pema Wangdak, of Vikramasila Foundation taught meditation and shared their own Buddhist journeys.  Finally, Michele Laporte told a story about sending metta on the New York subway; on the long ride from her home in Far Rockaway to her meditation center in Chelsea, she often says to herself: “No one gets off this train without some lovingkindness!”  The afternoon closed with a metta chant and offering of merit from Bhante Kondanna, abbot of the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara, and current president of the Buddhist Council of NY.

Meditate NYC hosted a separate tea room where dharma center representatives could meet attendees and share information about their centers. These centers included Bodhi Monastery, Still Mind Zendo, Chakrasambara Buddhist Center, Community of Mindfulness, New York Insight Meditation Center, Diamond Way Buddhist Center, and Manhattan Won Buddhist TempleThe Rubin Museum of Art also presented a prayer flag-making activity for children.

Meditate NYC LogoIn the week following Meditate NYC, about 24 Dharma centers in the New York area opened their doors for free open houses, programs, and meditation instruction.  The open houses gave the opportunity for attendees to sample many different teachers and traditions directly, in the hope that they would find groups to join to start a meditation practice. About 250-300 people participated in Meditate NYC.  At my own meditation home, New York Insight Meditation Center, I talked to two visitors who came to Meditate NYC without much knowledge of meditation. They were both inspired to go to a few open houses and appreciated seeing such a wide range of offerings, something they felt they wouldn’t have been able to do without the program. To my eyes, this open sharing of the dharma is the future of the Buddhist Community in America.

I learned from Meditate NYC that Buddhist monastics and the roots of traditional Asian Buddhism are essential for American Buddhism to not only grow but to maintain its true and clear voice. Trungpa Rinpoche liked to tell the story of his teacher packing him off to teach the “savages” in the West.  He found he did have to hone the teachings to appeal to Americans, particularly to address our attachment to ego, our mistrust of authority (including teachers and gurus), and our aversion to dana (generosity.) These traits continue to bedevil the American Buddhist experience, and we need all the help we can get to work with them without diluting the teachings.

The Buddhist Council of New York was formed over 20 years ago to foster dialogue, cooperation and unity within the Buddhist community in the New York area. As a western delegate to the Buddhist Council (and as one of the organizers for Meditate NYC) I’ve seen at close hand the various issues facing Buddhists groups today, no matter whether they are convert, immigrant, Asian, traditional, people of color, queer, or youth-oriented sanghas. These issues cover everything from addressing dwindling finances, to helping practitioners become more socially engaged, to including children in our practices, to supporting monks in Burma, to creating more diversity within our sanghas, and beyond. Through conscious adherence to Buddhist precepts and teachings, the Council is working to address these issues with compassion, wisdom and a grounded levity. An important mission of the Council is to create programs that brings Buddhists together. The Buddhist Council wanted to reflect all of this at Meditate NYC.

This was the second year that the Buddhist Council of NY presented Meditate NYC.  Supporting organizations were The Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and NY Insight Meditation Center.  Next year’s Meditate NYC event will be in October, 2009.  Visit for more info.

[Image: Lama Pema Wangdak and Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara. © 2008 A. Jesse Jiryu Davis]

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Rosemary's picture

For someone who is no longer living in NYC, this was an informative post followed by Jesse's comment. It's nice to know that the community is inclusive, inviting Zennists, Tibetans, et. al.

Meditation zeitgeist, Dec 22, 2008 | Wildmind Buddhist Medit's picture

[...] An account of “Meditate NYC” [...]

Tricycle By Numbers « Dharma Folk's picture

[...] been giving Phil Ryan enough credit for standing up for Buddhist diversity, both in this recent post and also in comments elsewhere where he points out Tricycle’s recent interview with Daisaku [...]

Rinchen Gyatso's picture

Opps. That's "Soka Gakkai."

Rinchen Gyatso's picture

I was one of the bloggers who wrote about the Buddhadharma article. I'm glad to learn there there is more happening "on the ground" to bridge the various divides within the larger American Buddhist community than meets the eye. I just wish the mainline Buddhist press did a better job of doing the same (although I'm aware of the recent article on the Soka Gakka in Tricycle).

Nils's picture

I think that this event was great. It doesn't hurt at all to step out of our shells a little bit and invite the world in. How else will it ever change?

Shell Fischer's picture

Thank you, Jolie, and all the others who put together this wonderful event. The West (and the world) seems to need mindfulness and compassion more than ever right now.

A. Jesse Jiryu Davis's picture

A beautiful post. I'm Jiryu, another organizer of this year's Meditate NYC, and I want to add a point about recruiting people to Buddhism.

The Buddhist Council struggled with the question of recruiting
as we planned the event. Some councilmembers said "This seems like proselytizing and Buddhists don't proselytize." (If any readers can point me to chapter and verse on why Buddhists don't proselytize, please tell me!) One member said, "People whose karma is connected to Buddhism will be led to it, and we shouldn't interfere with that process."

Some thought that we were focusing too much on marketing, or said that it'd be "un-Buddhist" to count the number of visitors, because we shouldn't be attached to attainment.

My own opinion is that Western Buddhists can be too precious about the ongoing founding of Buddhism here. It's going to take some advertising, some persuasion. When I take the Bodhisattva vows, I promise to save all sentient beings. That will require setting goals and measuring results.

Besides: sharply rising rents in NYC over the last decade have forced
many sanghas, particularly the small convert sanghas, to give up their permanent homes and meet in borrowed rooms. We felt that gaining new Buddhists wouldn't just help people transform themselves, but also sustain the sanghas by helping them pay rent.

Where does this fit into the Asian versus convert Buddhism controversy? Meditate NYC was a joint effort of all kinds of Buddhists here, to benefit all kinds of Buddhists, and all kinds of people. The sangha in NYC is normally quite divided: the Tibetans don't know about the Zennists don't know about the Chinese don't know about Soka Gakkai. But through the Buddhist Council we are starting to understand each other and cooperate, for everyone's sake.