Stan Grier

December / January Journal » Meditate NYC
Text and Photos: A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

"It was just what the doctor ordered," was how Dorothy Emerson described Meditate NYC. She'd always thought Buddhism was inaccessibly Eastern, too foreign for her. She was delighted to find "how it could work for Westerners," she said.

Meditate NYC was a free meditation event held in the Synod Hall of St. John the Divine Cathedral on October 21st, 2007. Nearly 20 teachers from a variety of traditions -- Yoga, Zen, Insight Meditation, Theravada, Vajrayana, Kung Fu, and others -- spoke during the five-hour program. Rande Brown, the lead organizer, estimated that more than a thousand people attended for some part of the afternoon.

Meditate NYC was conceived as a "buffet" of teachings from which participants, especially those unfamiliar with meditation, could sample and choose. Its organizers hoped to strengthen meditation centers around New York City by introducing them to new people who might become regular members.

Meditate NYC participants

I first heard about the plans for Meditate NYC during a meeting of the Buddhist Council of New York, in the summer of 2007. Ms. Brown had approached the Council, proposing that the Council help her create a large ecumenical event that autumn. The Buddhist Council of New York represents many Buddhist sanghas in the metropolitan area.

Rev. Myoji Sunim
I have been one of the Village Zendo's delegates to the Council for the past year, and I've appreciated the chance to meet other kinds of Buddhists, particularly those from immigrant sanghas. Such temples often have enormous memberships, and their programs serve whole families: The Staten Island Buddhist Vihara, for example, mainly serves the Sri Lankan immigrant population, and holds Dharma classes for children. Ms. Brown said, "For some reason it's my mission to bring together the two sides, the Western and the traditional Buddhists." She felt the Council was the right container for launching Meditate NYC.
The Village Zendo's abbot Roshi Enkyo O'Hara presided over the program along with Michele Laporte, an artist and Vajrayana practitioner. The teachers used many methods of instruction: Stan Grier led the audience in a series of Qi Gong exercises. Christine Sandifer from OM Yoga demonstrated asanas. Enkyo Roshi, Peter Doobinin, Loch Kelly, and several other teachers gave short dharma talks. Bhante Kondanna from the Staten Island Buddhist Vihara sang a metta chant, a chant of compassion. His colleague Bhante Piyatissa, the founder of the Buddhist Council and New York City's ranking Sri Lankan monk, gave brief instructions on how to meditate, then simply sat in silence.
Bhante Piyatissa

Peter Doobinin, an Insight Meditation teacher, began his talk with an expression of appreciation: previously that day, as Bhante Piyatissa spoke to the audience, Reverend T. K. Nakagaki, a Japanese Pure Land priest, had held the microphone for him.

Judy Seicho Fleischman, Buddhist Peace Fellowship

For Mr. Doobinin, this moment was an emblem of the character of the entire event. Such an event would be impossible in Asia, he said, where traditional Buddhists make sharp distinctions among sects. But at Meditate NYC teachers of every kind of Buddhism were helping each other share the Dharma.

Dorothy Emerson was glad "that each presenter had plenty of time to present what they do, so people could get a taste of all the different kinds of groups under the same umbrella of Buddhism and meditation. But there was space in between so it wasn't overwhelming." Ms. Emerson has lived in New York since 1965, but she "had no idea that all this was available."

Meditate NYC was followed by a week of open houses hosted by 20 participating meditation centers, primarily Buddhist sanghas in Manhattan. I designed a website for the event,, which included an interactive map of these centers. The intention of the open houses was to help those motivated by Meditate NYC to find groups to join. Unfortunately, fewer than a half-dozen people came to the Village Zendo's open house, and none returned. Some first-time meditators did join sanghas: Ms. Emerson, for example, now sits regularly with the Community of Mindfulness. I think Meditate NYC could have been much more effective at encouraging people to join a group. We could have given participants a printed schedule of open houses, instead of relying on them to revisit the website after the event. And yet, as Ms. Brown said after the event, we cannot gauge our success in the long run. Perhaps a seed has been planted in one person who will eventually accomplish the extraordinary. She described a 7-year-old child who'd sat still and quiet at the front of the audience through the entire afternoon. His mother told Ms. Brown, "He's been waiting his whole life for this."

Enkyo Roshi and Michele Laporte

More photos from Meditate NYC

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