By Jeff Wilson
St. Martin's Press, 340 pp.
If you live in Bean Blossom, Indiana, the choice of which Buddhist practice center to joinis pretty clear cut. For New Yorkers, the choice can be overwhelming.You can get anything in New York City: green tea ice cream at 3:00 a.m., tickets to an Iranian film festival, a part for your great-aunt's 1929 Singer sewing machine.
New Yorkers don't have to work too hard to sample food and music from any point on the globe. What's more, we have incredibly easy access to what author Jeff Wilson rightly terms the "dazzling labyrinth of Buddhist thought and imagery."
For visitors and died-in-the-wool locals alike, "The Buddhist Guide to New York" offers an informative lens of dharma through which to access the city. It could even serve as a template for exploring other American cities with an eye to Buddhist culture--which can reveal itself if you know how to look. The etiquette tips and sense of adventure Wilson delivers are indispensable aids for any dharma traveler.
|Jeff Wilson reassures those newly interested inBuddhism that their lack of experience is no reason to hug the wall atthe temple.|
Wilson, a former staff member of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, invests his guidebook witha rousing combination of old hand's wisdom and newcomer's excitement.He reassures those newly interested inBuddhism that their lack of experience is no reason to hug the wall atthe temple. One need not shy away from the meditation center for fearthat a stick-wielding advanced student will expose one's wanderingattention with a resounding whack.
Of course, this being New York,kyosaku service is available to those who want it, and Wilson can directyou to the few Zen centers that offer it, explaining that the smacks of the "encouragement stick" areceremonial rather than punitive and meted out only to those who've putin an advance request.
Just as each of the venerable "Lonely Planet" guides open with its subject's history and customs, Wilsonbriefly addresses the tenets of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the concept of taking refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, dharma, and sangha), before supplying the answers to 10 Frequently AskedQuestions of his own choosing.
These questions,which range from "Is There a Buddhist Bible" to "What Does Buddhism SayAbout Abortion," point to a certain Western desire for immediate and totalcomprehension. Fortunately, Wilson never loses sight of his book as aguidebook, offering titles for further study rather than bogging himself down in offering Buddhism 101.
His overview of the different schools of Buddhism, though, isindispensable, helping to untangle and explain the differingtraditions of what he calls this "wonderful, weird world." Some long-time practitioners will find fault with the brevity of his summations oftheir particular schools, but for the beginner, or for that matter a newBuddhist arrival just encountering the smorgasbord of practiceavailable in New York, the concise descriptions allow for quickcomparison shopping.
Wilson reminds readers not to getdiscouraged if the first visit to a group is less than expected.Different centers will appeal to different people, and the first trydoes not always yield a comfortable fit. Again, like any guidebookworth its salt, "The Buddhist Guide to New York" offers suggestionsregarding local etiquette, encouraging visitors to dress respectfully,eschew perfume, and bring a small donation.
The fun really begins with the listings. Wilson describes more than 75centers in the borough of Manhattan alone. (The concentration is on theboroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, with abbreviated listings for New York State, Connecticut, andNew Jersey.)
He's not one to shy away from controversy. If an abbot hasbeen plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct, Wilson reports it. Toone struggling to avoid gossip, in keeping with the Buddhist precept of "right speech," this can seeman irresistibly juicy tidbit, but the author is always mindful to statethat the past problems and power struggles he describes are notnecessarily good reasons to avoid visiting a particular center. Caveatemptor.
Each listing contains practical information: address, phone, schoolaffiliation, language spoken, and in this modern age, websites and e-mailaddresses. Acknowledging that schedules are always subject to change,Wilson provides a taste of what practice may be like at any givencenter, For example, at the Chogye International Zen Center in the EastVillage, which is led by a psychotherapist specializing in Gestalt,repeated full-body prostrations (Wilson calls it "aerobic Zen") are theorder of the day.