Peter Doobinin has spent the past 20 years starting two successful New York City meditation centers with the philosophy that refuge is possible amidst the city’s stress, traffic, and noise. So what’s a lifelong New Yorker with a rent-stabilized apartment to do during a period of transition and curiosity? Leave it all behind.
“This is a real leap for me,” said Doobinin, 63, who moved to Berlin in July 2018. “I figured if I’m going to do this, I’ve got to do this while I still have a chance and am relatively young.”
There’s no shortage of Buddhist offerings in Berlin, and the city is home to Europe’s first Theravada temple, Das Buddhistische Haus, which was established in 1924 and opened to monks after the Second World War. But Doobinin identified an important need when he realized that there weren’t any Insight teachers offering regular classes in English.
Doobinin sat down with Tricycle to talk about his move, as well as his new and growing endeavor, Berlin Dharma, which offers weekly sittings, daylong retreats, and courses.
How did you end up in Berlin?
I was in a period of transition. There was a sense of wanting and needing change in my life. I’d been doing the same thing for about 20 years in New York, and I’d been teaching many of the same people for that time. I started traveling late in life, and I was very interested in living in a different place. My mom had died, and I’d been taking care of her. I turned 60 and wanted to see about having a different, maybe better, quality of life. I’d visited Berlin for a few months at a time, and it was a really good experience, so I figured I would give it a shot and moved here.
Did you start a meditation group right away?
Pretty much. I rented a space in western Berlin, kind of on the outskirts. People didn’t know me, or know that I was here, and I was only getting two or three students a week. There were a couple of weeks when I didn’t have anybody, which was humbling because in New York I could get 50 people in a class. I decided to move the class to my apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, which is the epicenter of the expat English-speaking community. It’s easy to get to, and people want to come here.
At this point there are a good dozen people who I’d call regular students. It’s growing slowly but surely. My apartment is getting too small for all of them, and I’m looking for a place for the weekly class to meet.
What do you want people—in Berlin and beyond—to know about you as a teacher?
I co-founded the New York Insight Center, which grew to be a pretty big center, and then I started the Downtown Meditation Community. As far as I can tell I’m the only English-speaking person in Berlin who is teaching the Insight tradition in the style that comes out of Spirit Rock [Meditation Center in Woodacre, California] and the Insight Meditation Society [in Barre, Massachusetts]. This was part of the reason I felt somewhat confident coming here; I thought there was an opportunity.
What do you want to offer students in Berlin?
I have always tried to teach the dharma to householders in the 21st century. When I started New York Insight, some prominent Buddhists told me: “You can’t do that in New York. People can’t learn to meditate in New York.” That was always my challenge. What I realized over the years was that yeah, people aren’t going to be able to learn to meditate in New York if they practice what they learn in retreat.
I realized I needed to, without sounding too presumptuous, design a curriculum for householders to meditate for half an hour a day and develop strong concentration and skillful intention, maintain present-moment awareness, and learn to take actions that are in support of the heart. Teaching these skills is what I have to offer. I don’t have a vision of starting another center in Berlin, but a small community with a regular group of dedicated students. And maybe I’ll start teaching at other places in Europe, too. This is a work in progress.
How does Berlin compare to New York in terms of energy?
I don’t think it has the same level of stress and intensity of New York, or the same vibration or noise. Maybe this makes Berlin a little more conducive to meditation. People here seem really interested in meditation and yoga, but maybe there isn’t that same sense of urgency or need for a refuge that people have in New York. Berlin seems very quiet to me.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Check out “The Buddhist Traveler in Berlin” to learn more about the German capital’s dharma scene.