Mahayana Buddhist Temple, The Village Zendo, The Wall Street Synagogue, Prayer Space NYC, 9/11 Memorial, St. Joseph House Catholic Worker, Maryhouse Catholic Worker, Bhakti Center.
There was a woman standing in front of the massive statue of the Buddha at the Mahayana Temple. She made a short bow and started to walk out. We made eye contact and I quietly asked if she was a Buddhist. “No, I’m a Catholic, but I can certainly see the similarities,” she said. I asked if she could explain. She pointed at the panels along the sidewalls depicting the life of the Buddha and continued, “I see the Buddha’s birth and it reminds me of Christ’s birth. Buddha’s temptation, Christ’s temptation, fasting and teaching, and so on.” She asked if I was a Buddhist, I said yes but not in the Mahayana tradition. With a puzzled look she said, “There are different kinds?” “Yes,” I replied, “another similarity! Just as there are different denominations in Christianity, there are different schools of Buddhism.” She smiled, started to leave and said, “You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.” I didn’t catch her name and she didn’t care to be filmed, but I immediately wrote everything down.
Yu Jin Steele is a long time practitioner in the Zen Buddhist tradition. I ran into her outside the elevator, on our way to The Village Zendo, which is housed in a suite on the 11th floor of a Soho building. I learned all about her teachers and their lineage, and I learned that her husband and her children practice as well. At some point she mentioned that many of the day time practitioners at Village Zendo are not as interested in the religious aspects of Zen and prefer to focus on meditation only. Whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion depends on whom you ask. So I asked her.
“It is a religion because it involves faith. You may not believe in God, but you have to believe that sitting on your ass is going to do something. And well, sitting doesn’t really do anything, but the point is you have to believe,” she said. I asked if her practice ever took her into a different plane, perhaps something mystical or otherworldly, as many religions do. “I’m always on a different plane,” she replied, as if to imply that that’s the problem. “What I need to do is be here, awake,” she continued. And that’s what the practice does, it grounds you. It is not an escape or a withdrawal to another state of mind, it is working toward being fully present here and now. “It’s an inside job,” she said smiling.
My experience at the Wall Street Synagogue was a bit of a wake-up call. But the truth is I needed one. I needed to be reminded that I can’t just walk into any house of worship I fancy and expect to be welcomed with fanfare. Nothing bad happened, really. It’s just that I felt terribly out of place. The moment I walked in, I could tell that the twenty or so men gathered for Mincha knew I didn’t belong there. I was the only one there without a yarmulke, which made me feel like I stood out, like I was being disrespectful and like I was naked. A very kind man discretely offered me a yarmulke from a basket, “Would you like this?” he said. “Yes, thank you,” I replied and put it on. Mincha is meant to be “an oasis of spiritual time in a tough workday, a moment of calming nerves and focusing on priorities.” I was mortified I might be ruining it for the others. But as we walked out, I briefly spoke with the cantor and that made me feel much better. He pointed me to the office where all my questions would be asked, and all was well in the end. The good news is that I’ve actually been invited to the next synagogue I will visit.
Visiting the September 11 Memorial is a very powerful and moving experience. The truth is I can’t find the words to express what I felt, and I don’t really want to try. Some things are better left unspoken. What I can say is that I was struck by the imposing size of the voids in the ground, the photographs don’t do it justice. One thing that caught my attention and that I could have easily missed was the Survivor Tree. This is a tree that, although severely injured, survived and recovered from the attacks at the World Trade Center. It has become a sort of relic; people leave flowers at its foot and others touch its limbs in a reverential manner. I’m grateful to have had an opportunity to visit this important and most definitely sacred site.
I’m embarrassed to admit that until today my knowledge of the Catholic Worker movement was little to none. A few weeks ago I asked my friend Lance if he knew of any churches or religious organizations in New York that were in line with his philosophy of ministry. Without hesitating, he told me to go to St. Joseph House Catholic Worker. So I did. A man named Matt opened the door and let me in. The dining hall was empty and clean, ready for the next meal. He was busy chopping lettuce and preparing other dishes. He told me all about the Catholic Worker philosophy, about the notion of instilling in individuals a sense of working and thinking. He talked to me about Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, about their view that one should follow works of mercy. The people that live and work in this house, as in many other Catholic Worker houses, feed the hungry and clothe the needy in their communities. They also offer showers and other help. Matt gave me a quick crash course as he wiped down the counters and tidied the kitchen. He suggested I visit the Maryhouse, which is located a couple blocks away. He called to let them know I was coming.
Dorothy Day was a cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement. On May 1st, 1933, she and Peter Maurin published the very first Catholic Worker newspaper. The Maryhouse has been a house of hospitality for many years. As you walk through the main door there are stairs that lead down to the dining hall and stairs that lead up to an auditorium, an office and a small chapel. The floors above are living quarters. Dorothy Day lived and worked in this very house until her passing in 1980. I sat in the small chapel, no bigger than the average dining room, and made a mental picture since I wasn’t allowed to take photographs. There were about fifteen chairs, a crucifix, a few icons (one depicting Dorothy Day), and a couple of armoires along the back wall. At the front of the chapel there was an altar table, the very table upon which Dorothy Day was placed for her wake. I sat there quietly for a while, taking it in. And then a woman popped her head in and introduced herself. She pronounced my name in very good Spanish and mentioned she had spent some time in Mexico. Her name is Jane Sammon; she lives and works in the Maryhouse and is one of the associate editors of The Catholic Worker. She showed me into the office and into the archives for the paper, which just celebrated its 81st anniversary.
“Ora et labora” is a Benedictine motto by which the Catholic Worker lives. Pray and work. People in these house communities work together and live together; there are shifts and duties to be shared and plenty of work to be done. And it is an ideological movement as well, “We are a pacifist movement,” she tells me, “the left leaning side of Catholicism.” She is on her way out and she has already given me so much of her time, so I ask one last question, “How is the work you do informed or influenced by your faith?” She tells me that many of the workers, although not all, are Catholic. “In this house we have prayer every single night. We say the hourse, which are part of the Benedictine tradition,” she tells me. “Do we force people to go to mass? No! We’re a freedom-loving community. But the work cannot continue without a life of prayer and I think there are still many of us who believe that.”
I had not intended to visit the Bhakti Center. Upon leaving the Maryhouse, I decided to stop for a bit of nourishment at a juice bar on my way back to the hotel. It was late and I hadn’t eaten all day. While I waited for my juice, I spotted a business card for the Bhakti Center. I picked it up and read the Hare Krishna chant on the back. The server at the juice bar told me the Center was only a couple blocks away, so I decided to check it out. Over the past couple of months I have experienced some rather serendipitous things and this was certainly one of them. The Bhakti Center’s ground level is a store front stocked with books, instructional materials, clothing and other artifacts. At the back is a vegetarian restaurant and tables. There are many programs offered at the Center; yoga, meditation, teaching, festivals and Kirtan. A woman managing the storefront asked if I needed any help. I told her I knew nothing about Bhakti and was eager to learn. She was most gracious and eventually introduced me to her friend and fellow devotee, Adigopi Priya Dasi. We chatted for a good long while.
I learned that Bhakti is the natural condition of the soul, which is pure, continuous love of God. Bhakti arises from India, from the study of the Gitas and the practices of chanting mantras and devotional yoga. Adigopi’s first experience with Bhakti came at the age 18 in Hollywood, California where she witnessed a group of Bhakti devotees (you know them as Hare Krishnas) chanting and dancing along Hollywood Boulevard. She bought a magazine from them and was deeply inspired by what she read in it. Eventually she became a devotee herself and was initiated. She was so generous with her time and her explanation of Bhakti, but she hoped her teacher, Radhanath Swami would come down so she could introduce me. “You really should meet him,” she said.
Soon enough Radhanath Swami entered the room and Adigopi took me up to meet him. With a very warm and peaceful smile he reached out and hugged me. He then held my hands and said it was very good to meet me. I knew I was in the presence of a holy man and I felt humbled. We sat down and had a brief, but very rich, visit. I learned that he was only in New York for a brief visit as he lives and works in Mumbai, India where he has established a number of Ashrams (centers for spiritual teaching) where around 10,000 people study and practice. He also oversees environmentally-conscious water harvesting operations as well as other initiatives as part of an eco-village. He tells me that the leading cause of illiteracy in India is hunger, so his organization feeds over 300,000 children a day. I find this beyond amazing.
I tell him I want to know more about Bhakti, could he tell me what the essence of this faith is? “Everyone is looking for happiness. Happiness is within ourselves,” he says measuredly. “Religion is a word that means ‘to bind back,'” he continues. “And, yoga means ‘to reconnect’ with our true essence, to love God.” I ask him how one expresses a love of God, what does that look like in practice? “One way is chanting the names of God. That helps us reconnect with God and we live our life in that connection.” When I have an opportunity to meet with clergy, I like to inquire about their views on interfaith work. “There are different aspects of God, but there is only one God,” he says. “Sun, Sol, Surya; they are different languages but they all mean Sun. Different religions are the manifestation of one truth, of harmony with God.” As our time together draws to a close, he pauses for a moment and says, “What Jesus taught was Bhakti. The prayers of St. Francis, that’s Bhakti. Bhakti is to serve with devotion.”
You know, I think we all got the same message and we’re just doing different things with it.