It’s Sunday afternoon, and two flights above 107th Street in East Harlem, four men and a woman—two women, if you count this writer—are sitting on chairs in a circle, meditating. Twenty minutes later, one of the men, 21-year-old Jonathan Figueroa, strikes a Japanese gong to end the meditation. Then the leader of the group—Stan Koehler, a 66-year-old Rinzai Zen priest in the Hollow Bones order—launches into the next phase of a prescribed routine. Going around the circle, the group members “check in” with a
word—or a few—describing how they feel. The second time around, they report their “highs” and “lows” for the past week. Preliminaries done, Koehler tosses out a topic for discussion and asks if anyone has an issue to raise—a conflict at home, perhaps. For the next ninety minutes or so, the group engages in a free-wheeling exchange that’s part dharma discourse, part group processing, and part graduate seminar—with a dash of therapy and a lot of avuncular wisdom thrown in.
Welcome to the weekly advanced Zen training at the Uptown Meditation Center. If it doesn’t sound like any zendo you’ve sat in, that’s probably the point. This is El Barrio—Spanish Harlem—not exactly the land of sutra chanting and zafus lined up neatly in rows. But don’t think there’s no dharma here. Quite the contrary. “As a Zen priest,” Koehler says, “my mission is to distill the Buddhist canon to its fundamental essence so that it can be made available as an authentic American teaching.”
What better place to start. The Uptown Meditation Center is half of the not-for-profit organization Peace on the Street. The other half is Ultimate Karate USA, a traditional and mixed martial arts school directed by Richard Garcia, a 31-year-old ranked master in Karate and Tae Kwan Do, and certified instructor in Jeet Kune Do and Filipino Knife Fighting, as well as a sensei—lay ordained teacher—in Hollow Bones. Since it opened in late 2003, in a 5,000-square-foot loft across the street from a public housing project, the zendo-cumdojo has been transforming lives in this corner of upper Manhattan with an innovative mix of meditation and martial arts.
In a neighborhood where barely half the young men finish high school and a high percentage end up behind bars, Peace on the Street has carved out a pivotal mission: providing physical, emotional, and spiritual training— along with practical support—to empower individuals in the inner city. It’s all aimed at arming a new kind of urban warrior: strong, to be sure, but also compassionate, socially committed, and self-aware.
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