Interview with Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

The Village Zendo celebrates 25 years

Village Zendo New York CityWhen is the actual anniversary of the Village Zendo? You know, who knows? 25 years ago. I can’t remember the exact date because it started just with a handful of people sitting in my apartment.

What attracted you to Buddhism initially?
I’m a child of the 1960s and for me the beginning was reading Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and D.T. Suzuki, I was excited by the artistic expression of Zen. I was a teenager and I thought “Wow, this is wonderful.” I read about Zen Buddhism for many years without practicing, I became one of these people that talks about Zen and but has no idea. I thought of myself as kind of a Zen woman.

And then at a certain point in my life I was in my mid ‘30s, my son was old enough to go away for the summer and I went to a Zen monastery and finally sat down to practice. Huge difference. Huge. Everything that I thought I knew about Zen just went away. It was like, 100 percent this is what I must do. I was teaching at NYU and I was able to bring what I was learning by the mind training and the meditation and the practice into the way I was teaching.

I realized that I didn’t have a good practice at home and I wanted the Zen to be in my life and not a separate thing. I never had the desire to go to a cave for three years or anything like that—it’s about being with people and being in the world. But I would start to sit in the morning, sit zazen and then suddenly I’d find myself on the street on my way to work. I’d be sitting and suddenly I’d think oh well, if I get to the office early and I can get all of these things done and there will be nobody there. I wasn’t able to structure my meditation practice at all. So I thought, If I get some people to come over then I won’t be able to get up and leave immediately. And really that’s why I started the Zendo. It was for my own selfish reasons. And now it’s 25 years later and we have 125 members plus other people who come all the time.

This Zendo always been very collective. I was not a teacher at the time we started. The teacher that I was working with said, “Okay, go ahead and start a center but you’re not a teacher.” So from the very beginning it was more collective organ growth rather than my being a missionary from Japan officially. At that time I had no credentials and that was the seed, no one appointed me to transmit the dharma. It was like we were all searching together. That metaphor still holds here. We’re all doing it together. I have five successors now, and these successors have fulltime other jobs. Two of them are professors, two of them are psychotherapists. There’s a potter. There are very different kinds of people who are now dharma teachers in our lineage.

Where did you meet originally?
It was in my two-bedroom faculty apartment on Washington Place. I took the living room and dining room and made it into a Zendo that would fit 20 people or so.

And who were the early members? They were people that just heard about the Zendo. The name Village Zendo was given by this one fellow named Robert who used to practice with us—unfortunately he died of AIDS years ago. Robert used to go to the Chelsea Zendo and he said, “You should be called the Village Zendo because you’re on Washington Place.” We liked the name because it also gives that collective sense rather than some hierarchical sense of the Zen.

What was the Zen scene like in New York at that time?
There was a Chelsea Zendo and there was Eido Roshi’s place on the Upper East Side. That was about it. We weren’t conscious—or I certainly wasn’t conscious—that I was part of a whole wave, a whole change in Zen. I was just trying to get free and get free with other people. Then, gradually, the more aware you become of our own stuff, you the more you want to serve people— to help others find that path. It’s just the way it is. You’re very busy just making the Zendo work for everyone. Everybody was doing this in this country, it was the Westernization of Buddhism in general but we weren’t connected. I didn’t know Sharon and Joseph. I didn’t know people associated with Shambhala tradition. I was just moving through this world. And this Buddhist wisdom is coming but it’s settling in receptors that have been formed by Judeo-Christian psychological scientific—I mean these are our minds. These are the minds that these little seeds are settling in. So naturally it’s going to be very different, but I wasn’t aware of that for a long time. I was just practicing and making decisions about forms that I thought were unique to me and to Zen. Now, I look around I see other people making the same kinds of decisions. How do you allow the spirit of Buddhism to enter without—you can’t keep it the same because it wouldn’t be the same even if you tried to cross all of the T’s and dot all of the I’s.

Are there forms here that are idiosyncratic or specific to Village Zendo that you wouldn’t see anywhere else? We do counsel. It’s really kind of a Native American thing that is done, done with the mind of being aware of what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing in the moment and sharing that in the group. It seems to me to be a very Zen or Buddhist idea. But it’s the form is definitely not traditional at all. And yet when I meet monks from Japan, they’re interested in counsel. They like counsel. It’s like this is a very skillful way to bring a group together.

We do keep a few forms from the East that are useful. There’s a repentance ceremony we do once a month. A lot of people like to come and see it for the first time because there’s a lot of bowing and so forth. The real name of it is abbreviated repentance ceremony because it doesn’t go on and on and on. It lasts about an hour. There is a place for devotion and devotional kind of practices. We don't insist that everyone do them, certainly not, but we have a lot of repentance ceremonies in the West too in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Recently we had-- it just happened that our all-day sit fell on Yom Kippur. So we decided to fast which is not the Zen tradition by why not?

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