When 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? Sometimes 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.
Images: The Village Zendo’s current location; Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. Images courtesy the VIllage Zendo