New York: The Temple
From an open window on the 11th floor of 588 Broadway the city seemed to swell as if this concrete-coated undergrowth too was photosynthesizing, feeding its parasitic residents the illusion that this is where you want to be. The buildings were their own horizon, and the sky sure enough had been scraped of its own domain. Looking out that window I felt anything but Zen, ironically though the window I gawked from was housed by The Village Zendo, a Zen Buddhist temple in the pith of Manhattan. Turning away from this glitch in the oasis, a hand-poking out from the sleeves of a black-robe motioned for me to follow her, with not only my feet but also my questions of how such a place could exist here.
The hand belonged to Peggy Schubert, a Zen devotee of 27 years whose Buddhist name is Ikai, which translates to "ocean of healing". Her eyes held no weight of emotional baggage though the bags under her tawny eyes puffed themselves up with each smile. Her graying hair was pulled back into a tight bun, though a few stragglers testified to remain unbound, fighting to be swept up like a wild horse in the wind. She and the other devotees had now perched themselves upon black cushions and had turned to face the white walls which were their meditative canvas for the next few hours, their minds to be the paint. The gold statue of the Buddha mothered through unblinking eyes, there was silence, silence in the middle of Manhattan. Slipping on my shoes, now a residue of city life, I would come to learn that though the Zendo was not just a retreat but merely a place of practice that allows for the world to become one's temple.
Peggy begins her day promptly at 7:30 A.M. Inhaling awareness, her chest swells with the depth of each breath, she sits unmoving, silently observing the nature of her life in each fleeting second. Willing the image of a lotus into my mind's eye likening it to the Zendo she says, "the lotus grows out of the mud, so I mean there's a big thing about being in the city and being able to do this in the city." The Zen Buddhist practice by nature requires interaction with one's teacher but more so, with oneself and one's own life, as it is. Slipping on the black robes is like slipping on scripture, the syllables Shi Ku Sei Gan Mon of the four Bodhisattva silently drape over her shoulders, her hands and eyes work to tie the obi belt around her waist. The transformation from Peggy to Ikai is complete. "When you are still and you can be with your own life as it is right now, this space gives you room for whatever is going on in your life and things sort of open up for you. I'm ready, let's do this", she said.
The next time I meet with Peggy is in a different temple, a temple whose doors appear only mentally, the temple of New York City and in this instance it manifested as Washington Square Park. Sitting on an aging bench, Peggy points out to me the humble beauty of a tree preparing itself for fall, its green leaves warming to yellow, reminiscent of the long hours under the summer sun. This woman was the epitome of content. With the city as her temple she sees she sees the "Buddha nature" in people even as she walks down Broadway at 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning. "You start looking for the goodness in people rather than noticing all the ways we bump up against each other in the city; where we're racing for the open seat on the Subway or whatever, it's seeing the potential for kindness and a lot of that kindness comes through. It makes it easier to be anywhere", she said.
With the Zendo as a place of practice, and a place like New York as a temple, Peggy shines. The next time I see a stranger smile at me on the street, I'll smile back and maybe this place will start to feel more like home, maybe, just maybe.