Interview with Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara

The Village Zendo celebrates 25 years

Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara Village ZendoSometimes in the West, it seems like we want to get rid of all of these rituals and as with mourning when someone dies, we just sort of let it go. Rights of passage and old forms can be very helpful in allowing us to feel. Like seeing a body being cremated, when that happens you know that that person is not here. It’s not like in the coffins and with the makeup and everything. It’s a very different feeling. The body goes in. You press the button and whoosh and it’s just amazing. It would be really great for people, families, to do that. It’s the most amazing kind of acknowledgement of what it really is. That’s a form I really love. I also love bowing, I haven’t been able to let go of it. I don’t require it but I think it’s really good for us. I think Westerners are so arrogant. We absolutely refuse to put our head down. It’s a tremendous release from ego. I find that people are very troubled and then eventually come around to practice and the bowing practice is great for them.

How do you pick the rituals that you keep? I’m afraid it’s very intuitive. It’s pretty much and trial and error. If I get feedback that something is difficult, I want to investigate that. It’s curious. It’s interesting. Why? Why is this a difficult practice? I have a good cadre of senior students that I’ll discuss these things with. There’s disagreement. I have a couple of lay teachers and I have a few people who are kind of refugees from other traditions, Western traditions that are very anti-ritual. It’s healthy to have people talk about that in the group, in the community. I don’t privilege ordained people over lay people in any aspect of our group. You can be a dharma teacher in our organization and not be a priest at all. And I choose to use the phrase priest not monk because we all live here in the city.

If you want to practice with me the first thing you have to do is find a job, and then find a place to live, find a life and practice. The monastic core is a good thing for some people, but it’s not what I’m about and it’s not what the Village Zendo is about. Every summer we go away for five weeks and we have a “monastic retreat” at a Catholic women’s center. We do have very intense practice for those five weeks. I try to get people to find time to be able to practice and do that with us because that kind of communal life is a fast way to see your stuff. But as a life practice for the Village Zendo our real core is right here in the city and it’s not a priest practice or a monk’s practice. Having Buddhism operating in a functioning life in the marketplace is really what Western Buddhism is about.

So what are the challenges and maybe rewards of having a community like this in the city as opposed to… On a mountaintop somewhere?

…or some larger piece of land. I do love nature. I love birds, I’m a bit of a bird watcher and I love being in nature. But I’ve just always had a passion for how discovering how Buddhism functions in a city. How does it function in what I think of as the real world? So much of the world that lives in dense cities like we do and sees the kind of anger and grasping that there is and stupidity. I’ve always felt that if we could just practice here and have a community where people just in their lives are expressing the dharma or they’re enlightening beings when they come here in the morning many of them and then they go off to work. That is a beautiful way to spread the dharma for me. We don’t have a lot of social action programs. Instead what I do instead is really encourage people to do it in their lives. It encourages social action but it has to come from the heart. So many social action projects fail because people are involved with their ego. They’re involved with the three poisons, which is driving them rather than the needs of the people.

You mentioned the AIDS crisis was going on when you started the Zendo. That must have been a very challenging time to start out. Did people come in looking for answers from you? Robert, whom I was talking about, started a meditation group at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). And then he was too sick to take care of it, so I took it over for five years. Once a week I would ride my bike with a zafu on the back over to GMHC and lead a group of meditators. Most of those people were not Buddhists at all, but they were men facing death and later men and women facing death. Trying to answer those questions about what’s going on, how to be with that, how to work with the mind when one is frightened and sick, I think that made an enormous difference in my life and in the life of the Zendo. It was like it made us very serious very early on. Suddenly it became more about life and death. And there was such sadness. It was such a difficult, difficult time everywhere in the world and in New York City, in particular. We were very strongly hit. We lost a lot of people in our little Zendo. But Zen is about life and death, and how to be with those things. To sit with someone who is suffering and to be able to offer some kind of mental way of being with that is a gift, a wonderful gift. A sad gift.

The whole time we’ve been sitting here there has been been noise outside. You said it’s necessary to have a community here in the city but do you think that things like buzzing instead of hearing chirping birds while you’re sitting can be helpful? Or do you think it gets in the way? I think it’s helpful. I used to think that chirping birds were good and buzzing was bad. And as a matter of fact that first apartment we had I was kind of a struggling. I bought this really expensive air conditioner so I could block out the sounds. And now I use the sounds as my wake-up. And, of course, there’s a fire engine company just about two blocks away. This is where we live. We want to isolate ourselves and pretend like we don’t live here. Neuroscientists say that the sound is one of the first triggers of waking-up for us. So, that’s the way we wake up here in New York City.

It must be hard to stay in this neighborhood. It is, but somehow we’re able to manage. It’s like when I first came to New York and I was riding a bicycle—this was before bike lanes and I was scared to death—and somebody said don’t worry, there is a place for you on the street but you have to find it. It’s the same with the Zendo. There is a place for the Zendo. For 25 years now we’ve been able to manage. I keep waiting for a sweetheart to come along and give us a loft and maybe that will happen and maybe it won’t. I’m very proud of the 25 years. I’m more proud of the people that have gone through here even those that are all over the country and of my dharma successors. But if the Village Zendo disappeared it would be okay. I mean there are all of these wonderful people who’s lives have been touched, who are touching lives. There’s no there there.

Visit the Village Zendo online here.

Images: The Village Zendo's current location; Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara. Images courtesy the VIllage Zendo

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