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.
To all appearances, the formula is working.
Take Kris Acevedo. At 17, he was angry, failing school, living by his fists—on his way to becoming another neighborhood statistic. Then he started studying meditation with Koehler and martial arts with Garcia. Life was looking up. He graduated from high school and moved up through the ranks in the dojo. Then one night after class, he got into an argument on the street. When one of the men—an ex-Marine— attacked him, Acevedo retaliated with a pair of brass knuckles. He was charged with felony assault. It all could have gone terribly wrong, but Koehler intervened. The assistant district attorney reduced the charge to a misdemeanor and placed Acevedo on parole. If he stayed out of trouble and continued meditation practice with Koehler, the ADA agreed to seal his record.
Today, Acevedo is no longer that angry teen. Now “Monster Boy,” as he’s affectionately called, is putting his fists to better use as an accomplished martial artist. A rising star in cage fighting—a brutal blend of kick boxing, wrestling, and more—he’s also assisting Garcia in teaching classes for kids. Above all, Acevedo has found a more effective vehicle for settling scores—his mind. These days if he encounters trouble, he can draw on his Zen training and drop into “state”—a calm, centered mental space— and defuse the situation without throwing a punch.
“I truly believe,” Acevedo says, “that a battle that’s not fought is a battle won.”
If Acevedo’s hard-won equanimity owes a lot to Peace on the Street, he’s not alone. With over thirty classes a week and countless hours of private instruction and informal guidance, Koehler and Garcia are working nonstop to help their students counter violence, drugs, low expectations, and other challenges endemic to inner-city life.
“This is real Zen—the practical realization of Zen consciousness and training discernible in our lives,” says JunPo Denis Kelly Roshi, abbot of Hollow Bones. “They’re dealing with real people, real situations, and real problems.”
Like Acevedo, Jonathan Figueroa was adrift before he found Peace on the Street. A high school dropout, Figueroa earned a GED—high school equivalency diploma—at 16 but was unprepared for college. After a chance meeting with Garcia on the subway, he landed a marketing job at the school, quickly becoming a key member of the “street team” bringing in new students. Meanwhile, Koehler took Figueroa under his wing. “He kind of showed me the way the world worked,” says Figueroa, who’d been more or less on his own since his early teens. “He made me see why meditation was useful in a real, practical way.”
Today Figueroa carries that message to others as Koehler’s teaching assistant. He has led meditation classes in two juvenile detention facilities and joins Koehler in community outreach. Recently, the two began a new series of classes at the Union Settlement Association on East 104th Street. Melissa Nieves, director of adult education there, says the classes are helping her GED students deal with test anxiety and “quiet the voices in their head telling them they’re no good and they’re not going to make it.”
At 37, Nieves knows those voices intimately—and also the value of meditation in silencing them. A member of Koehler’s Sunday Zen training, she credits meditation practice with totally shifting her outlook on life and helping her tackle a lifelong weight problem.
Martial arts dojos are a fixture of the inner city, but meditation is a harder sell. Garcia doesn’t require his martial arts students to practice meditation, “but I try to give them as much as I can, embedded in the training,” he says. (Martial arts originated in the Shaolin temple, an ancient Chinese Buddhist monastery, as exercises to strengthen the monks’ bodies for the rigors of meditation practice.) Most of Koehler’s students start out at Ultimate Karate. “Nobody’s interested in this stuff,” he says of meditation. “They’re all going to come in to learn to fight. But when they learn to fight, they have to control up here,” he notes, pointing to his head. “Then they come across the aisle, and we do these mental exercises.” Not that there aren’t martial artists who grasp the connection on their own. After Koehler gave a demonstration at his dojo in the Bronx, 21-year-old Carlos “Flaco” Rodriguez came to the Uptown Meditation Center. “In order to be a com plete martial artist, you should know your mind as well as your body,” he says.
Unlike more buttoned-up zendos, Peace on the Street has no regular sitting schedule, although the zendo is open to anyone who wants to sit on their own. Mornings there may be one or two, and “our Jewish landlord comes up here and prays,” Koehler says. While the state-of-the-art dojo and cage room are a hive of activity, the zendo is an oasis of calm, with soft lighting and thick Tibetan rugs. But apart from the Japanese gong, there are few of the traditional Zen trappings—and none of the ritual. The zafus remain piled in a corner; everyone sits on chairs. There’s no bowing. No chanting. No statue of the Buddha. No calligraphy scrolls on the walls. Instead, the room is lined with an eye-popping multicultural array: a Green Tara thangka; a thangka depicting scenes from Jesus’s life (it was painted in Nepal); a portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe (with an inset of Mother Teresa); a photo of Koehler’s former teacher, Frederick Lenz, aka Zen Master Rama; and—in a nod to the dojo—a signed poster of Muhammad Ali in fighting stance and a rack of antique samurai swords. For his part, Koehler, who was ordained in 2004, doesn’t go by his dharma name, Hui Neng, or wear robes, or shave his head.
It’s all aimed at making meditation user-friendly in this Catholic and Evangelical Christian neighborhood, where anything Buddhist is viewed as too exotic, too Asian—even the devil’s work. “Instead of insulting their culture,” JunPo says, “we embrace it, and we talk about clarity of mind and transforming emotion.”
For Koehler, what’s important is to focus on the methodology and psychology the Buddha developed, without any cultural overlay. That extends to the language he chooses. “People from the projects will never use a word like ‘impermanence.’ The language doesn’t resonate. If we’re going to establish a rapport with people in the inner city, why say impermanence when we can say, ‘Did you ever notice that everything changes all the time? That if you get something it becomes something else? Is that real for you? What do you think of that?’ The person can then do an inquiry into it without dealing with the word impermanence.” Even the word “meditation” is often sanitized into terms like “mind training” and “mind control” that carry no charge in the neighborhood.
Koehler developed an ear for the inner city while teaching meditation at the Alianza Dominica and City College, and to prisoners at Riker’s Island. He and Garcia hatched Peace on the Street when both were working for New York City’s foster care agency, in information technology. It’s an odd partnership: Koehler the farm boy from northern California, Garcia the inner-city kid from the Bronx, separated by a generation. But “we shared similar visions,” Garcia says. Growing up, martial arts helped him avoid gangs and drugs, and he had long dreamed of opening a school in a Hispanic neighborhood.
Around the time they started Peace on the Street, Koehler and Garcia were ordained in Hollow Bones. JunPo’s pragmatic, nonsectarian, streetwise approach complements their goals for an urban center. Koehler and Garcia regularly take students to sit Hollow Bones sesshins—Zen retreats—and JunPo teaches at Uptown Meditation several times a year.
Even though he is dharma heir to Eido Shimano Roshi, one of the last of the Japanese masters who established Zen in America, JunPo has made a point of tailoring Buddhist practice to Westerners, down to modernizing koan study. “We couldn’t do what we’re doing here without his ‘protocols,’” Koehler says, referring in particular to a process known as “ego deconstruction.” JunPo based it on Mondo, an ancient Ch’an form of koan practice. In dialogue with the teacher, the student progresses through a sequence of koans—including questions like “Who are you?”— leading to a series of insights culminating in the surrender of the ego-based will. As Koehler describes it, ego deconstruction results in “a deep, meditative, unitive experience where the opposites are reconciled and the ego isn’t there, there’s just witnessing.” Samadhi to Buddhists, it’s “state” to the folks at Uptown Meditation. In “state,” we can choose how to relate to everyday reality: instead of reacting with fear or violence, JunPo notes, we can respond with intelligence and compassion. In Peace-on-the-Street parlance everyday reality is “the Matrix”—a term that speaks to the neighborhood in a way samsara never would.
It’s the seamless interchange between meditation and daily life that makes practice at Uptown Meditation so compelling. This is Zen on the hoof. Koehler teaches Buddhist techniques in his eight-week Basic Meditation course—though without sectarian reference. But the follow-up course, Psychic Self-Defense, departs from familiar Zen fare, to the point of including elements of Zen Master Rama’s teachings drawn from sources as farflung as Carlos Castaneda and kundalini yoga.
As out-there as the main themes—energy management, personal power, self-defense—might seem, “this isn’t some New Age, white thing,” Koehler says. It’s eminently practical. “The amount of energy that a person can acquire and utilize is the basis for their effectiveness in life,” the syllabus reads. (“Energy” here refers to chi orki, the invisible life force that can be cultivated through meditation and martial arts.) The course includes instruction in everything from identifying who and what drains your energy, to controlling conversations and “stopping invasive questions.” The Heart Sutra is required reading— for a module on detachment—but so also is Miss Manners, for a lesson in “creating respect.”
If all this sounds more like life coaching than Zen practice, so be it. At Uptown Meditation there’s no distinction between spiritual practice, psychological development, and practical living skills. “Sitting in Zen is being partnered with developing emotional maturity through doing their personal work,” observes Darrin Harris Frisby, a Zen practitioner and photographer who shadowed Koehler and Garcia and their students while shooting a portfolio at the school. Frisby remembers his initial impression: “When I heard about Zen and cage fighting … whoa. How do these things coexist?” But what Frisby calls “this dance between opposites” is the very essence of Zen.
At Peace on the Street, discontinuity comes with the territory: Koehler’s students face obstacles most Buddhist meditators never have to consider. “You might have six or seven Mexicans living in a studio apartment,” he says. “Then the bathroom at 5 a.m. is a good time to practice.”
Koehler calls what he’s teaching “street meditation.” Figueroa finds the ability to control thoughts—his own and others’—useful in interacting with the police in East Harlem, where “stop-and-frisk” is routine for people of color. “These cops aren’t from the neighborhood, they can’t tell the difference between me and a drug dealer or a gangbanger,” Figueroa says. “So you’re constantly being checked out and harassed.” When that happens, he’s learned to stay quiet and go into “state” or simply withdraw his energy—“take myself out of there,” as he puts it. When there’s no energy fueling the cops’ fear and aggression, they back off.
“That’s Ninja consciousness,” Koehler says. “It’s the first level of survival in the inner city.” He sees it as the mental equivalent of what Garcia teaches in the dojo. “He could teach fifteen different grappling locks, or he could teach you the three-point principle of putting a person in a lock: you have a base, you have something to move, and you move it some way that causes the person to tap out—signal they’re giving up because they’re in unspeakable pain. Once you understand the principle, you can use it wherever you want.”
Here again, everyday Zen. “We’re teaching people how to practice control and slow their thoughts so they can see what’s real on the street—what’s really going on in society, what’s really going on around them,” Koehler says. Clear seeing allows them to go into the community and take appropriate action. Two summers ago, Peace on the Street spearheaded a successful effort to get stores in New York to stop selling baseball caps decorated in the colors and motifs associated with gangs. Neighborhood youth were being attacked when they wore the caps, unaware that they were “flagging”—showing gang colors. A demonstration organized by Peace on the Street brought the issue to the attention of local lawmakers and community leaders. Not only did stores pull the offending caps from their shelves, but the manufacturer, New Era, agreed to stop making them.
Both Koehler and Garcia see their role as helping students develop to their full potential. “We try to expand them spiritually vis à vis education and getting jobs,” Garcia says. Koehler has even established a dojo residence, a house he owns twelve blocks from the center. He shares one floor with Figueroa and Acevedo, Garcia and his family live above them, and the other floors are rented out, sometimes to students. The semi-monastic arrangement has been life-changing for Figueroa and Acevedo, offering them stability and support they’d never experienced, along with Koehler’s 24/7 tutelage. “My family was negative about everything,” Acevedo says. His brother’s murder when Acevedo was six left him with a simmering rage that only started to lift when he found Peace on the Street. “I thought the world was a lack of abundance,” he says. “I never thought this world existed, where people are so nice.” Figueroa’s family, though loving, never believed he’d succeed. With Koehler’s mentoring, both young men are in college: Acevedo as a junior at Hunter, taking radical philosophy and the history of the city, and Figueroa in his last year at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, studying such courses as the sociology of the African-American family.
There could be no better advertisement for meditation than these two young men. Their personal experience speaks volumes to their peers. “I don’t go out and recruit people,” Acevedo says. “If they express interest, if they see something in me, I just speak about the struggles of my own life.” Twice he and Figueroa accompanied Koehler to teach meditation and demonstrate martial arts at an inner city high school in Oakland, California. Each time, their informal sessions drew over a hundred people. It’s no mean feat, getting young people with no framework or patience for meditation to give it a try. Or to believe it can make a difference. “I just say to them, there are people who live with less pain,” Figueroa says. “So how are we gonna do this—live a less painful life? And it all plays out from there.”
At Ultimate Karate, more than twenty martial arts from around the world are offered, and Garcia is constantly adding to his repertoire. A few years ago he and Acevedo went to South Africa to study Zulu stick fighting and other techniques, and Koehler is now raising funds to send students to Japan to train. But in the end, it isn’t just fighters the school is turning out—though there’s a lot of talent on that score. To Garcia, the most important part of his job is “building self-confidence and getting people to believe in themselves. I have people who can punch through bricks. If they can do that, what can’t they do?”
Something similar is going on in the zendo, where Koehler’s students are learning to punch through psychological bricks. Everyone in the advanced Zen training is required to study martial arts, and although they’re all impressively resilient and fit, what’s most striking is how conscious they are.
For Acevedo and Figueroa, Peace on the Street has provided the container for their growth, while Koehler plants the seeds. He’s the good father, encouraging them and teaching them the ways of the world and the importance of responsibility and keeping their agreements.
Ever the Zen “true man of no rank,” Koehler brushes off suggestions that his round-the-clock supervision is anything but ordinary. “I’m just having fun,” he insists. Still, if the best way to teach is by example, Koehler’s message is clear. Darrin Harris Frisby sums it up nicely: “Lovingkindness heals a lot more than you think.” It could be an unofficial motto for Peace on the Street.