City:
Caimito, a semi-rural mountain area south of San Juan
Tradition: Rinzai Zen
Abbot: Kigen Raúl Dávila
Year Founded: 1982 by Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi’s Puerto Rican students
Number of Members: 25
Meeting Place: A retreat center

Tricycle talks to Kendo José Díaz de Villegas, vice-abbot of Centro Zen de Puerto Rico:

The Centro Zen de Puerto Rico is on the outskirts of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. Do most of the sangha members live in the city?
A lot of people come from San Juan, but there’s a woman and her husband who come from Mayaguez, which is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away. We are the only long-established Zen center in Puerto Rico.

How long have you been practicing with the Centro Zen de Puerto Rico?
I sat my first sesshin [intense meditation retreat] at the center in 1994 and was ordained three years ago. Three days before Hurricane Irma hit,  Seido Félix López Román and I were named vice-abbots, which means we’re responsible for taking care of the practice schedule, finances, communications, and just about everything except the direct teaching. And we talked about revamping the Zen center, fixing it up to rent out to other groups to use it for retreats. Then Irma hit, and Maria came a few weeks later. We had to hit the ground running.

Hurricane damage at Centro Zen de Puerto Rico

Centro Zen de Puerto Rico was severely damaged by the storms, which hit in the fall of 2017. While the official death toll is 64, many believe more than a thousand people died during and following the storm, which also wrecked the country’s power grid and infrastructure. How did your sangha respond?

For the first couple of weeks there was no communication. You didn’t know the status of anyone and the roads were so impossible to travel on that you couldn’t get to the zen center.

Eventually we made it up there, and there were trees down everywhere. It was like Sleeping Beauty—you had to clear everything to get to the entrance of the zendo [meditation hall].

People eventually started trickling in. And then, as best we could, we started sending out text messages to let people know that every Saturday a handful of us were spending the whole day there—with chainsaws and machetes—cutting debris and pulling stuff that was damaged by water out of the dormitories.

So there was not much formal meditation. It was more about what needs to be done today and tomorrow—cleaning up, getting rid of health and safety hazards, and making the zendo functional again. And we got help from other sanghas. A Tibetan sangha in San Juan made a really generous donation.

And after the second, maybe third, week of cleanup, we started sitting. But we still don’t have any electricity or water there.

Did getting back to your sitting practice help restore some sense of normalcy?
Practicing during times such as the one we’re going through can be challenging. Your life and the lives of everyone around you have been radically disrupted. Some of our members lost their homes or hosted family and friends who had lost their houses. It could take all day to find fuel or water during those first few weeks. One of our members who suffers from a chronic illness left on one of the few flights out because medical care was very hard to find. So you have to practice with that. It’s painful and sad. It’s also a chance to engage with others, to give and receive, to examine our sense of control and of how we believe things should or should not be. It may be a bit more dramatic right now, but it’s what we try to practice every day, regardless of circumstance.

One of the Centro Zen de Puerto Rico’s damaged dormitories

What’s your main goal with rebuilding?
Our main focus right now is getting water up there, so we’re building a cistern to capture rainwater. We also have a little gazebo that was damaged that we’re trying to fix. It’s a nice place where people can wait to go to zazen [meditation] and talk about their practice.

The dormitories suffered the most damage. We have a civil engineer who is volunteering her time, and we’re waiting for her formal assessment. We need to know if it’s worth it to rebuild the dormitories or if we should demolish them. There’s other miscellaneous stuff—trees fell on the roof of our dining area, so we can’t sit there.

Also, Puerto Rico’s largest nature conservancy takes care of the land across from the zen center, and a few of their members helped us clean up after Irma and Maria. They’re also going to help us set up a new vegetable and herb garden and reforest the grounds with native species.

You have a lot of work ahead of you with the rebuilding. Before the storm, did your center do anything other than offer zazen and retreats, such as community outreach?
No. And we’re setting up a plan to do just that. When people helped us after the storm, we said, “Wow, we have to become more active members of our community.” The other vice-abbot, is in charge of community outreach. We want to help the folks who still need more help than we do.

ordination at Centro Zen de Puerto Rico
An ordination ceremony held in December 2017

What’s the spirit of your sangha?
It’s a place of community in the traditional Rinzai tradition. We joke a lot and we’re very warm, but we’re also very serious with the practice. When Joshu Sasaki was alive, monks from the U.S. and Europe would descend on us once a year and remark how informal and easy-going we were.

What would you like to see accomplished in a year’s time?
By the late spring I would like to have a sesshin and receive folks from the States and other places who have taken an interest in us and helped us. And one year from now I hope the zen center is in better shape than before the hurricanes. Everyone is welcome to come here and sit sesshin with us when we’re ready.

Centro Zen de Puerto Rico is a nonprofit organization that is solely run on donations, according to members. The center is raising money to rebuild after the hurricanes at gofundme.com/HelpPuertoRicoZen.

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