By Jeff Wilson
St. Martin's Press, 340 pp.
If you live in Bean Blossom, Indiana, the choice of which Buddhist practice center to join
is 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 in Buddhism that their lack of experience is no reason to hug the wall at the temple.|
Wilson, a former staff member of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, invests his guidebook with a rousing combination of old hand's wisdom and newcomer's excitement. He reassures those newly interested in Buddhism that their lack of experience is no reason to hug the wall at the temple. One need not shy away from the meditation center for fear that a stick-wielding advanced student will expose one's wandering attention with a resounding whack.
Of course, this being New York, kyosaku service is available to those who want it, and Wilson can direct you to the few Zen centers that offer it, explaining that the smacks of the "encouragement stick" are ceremonial rather than punitive and meted out only to those who've put in an advance request.
Just as each of the venerable "Lonely Planet" guides open with its subject's history and customs, Wilson briefly 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 Asked Questions of his own choosing.
These questions, which range from "Is There a Buddhist Bible" to "What Does Buddhism Say About Abortion," point to a certain Western desire for immediate and total comprehension. Fortunately, Wilson never loses sight of his book as a guidebook, offering titles for further study rather than bogging himself down in offering Buddhism 101.
His overview of the different schools of Buddhism, though, is indispensable, helping to untangle and explain the differing traditions of what he calls this "wonderful, weird world." Some long-time practitioners will find fault with the brevity of his summations of their particular schools, but for the beginner, or for that matter a new Buddhist arrival just encountering the smorgasbord of practice available in New York, the concise descriptions allow for quick comparison shopping.
Wilson reminds readers not to get discouraged if the first visit to a group is less than expected. Different centers will appeal to different people, and the first try does not always yield a comfortable fit. Again, like any guidebook worth its salt, "The Buddhist Guide to New York" offers suggestions regarding 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 75 centers in the borough of Manhattan alone. (The concentration is on the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, with abbreviated listings for New York State, Connecticut, and New Jersey.)
He's not one to shy away from controversy. If an abbot has been plagued by allegations of sexual misconduct, Wilson reports it. To one struggling to avoid gossip, in keeping with the Buddhist precept of "right speech," this can seem an irresistibly juicy tidbit, but the author is always mindful to state that the past problems and power struggles he describes are not necessarily good reasons to avoid visiting a particular center. Caveat emptor.
Each listing contains practical information: address, phone, school affiliation, language spoken, and in this modern age, websites and e-mail addresses. Acknowledging that schedules are always subject to change, Wilson provides a taste of what practice may be like at any given center, For example, at the Chogye International Zen Center in the East Village, which is led by a psychotherapist specializing in Gestalt, repeated full-body prostrations (Wilson calls it "aerobic Zen") are the order of the day.
Palen Sakya Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies and Meditation on the Upper West Side requires a working knowledge of Buddhist concepts, but the Still Mind Zendo in a residential brownstone in Greenwich Village attracts plenty of students who identify themselves as Jews, Catholics, and Episcopalians.
Many of these centers have been around a long time, and their eclecticism is one of New York's glories. The big city not only affords plenty of opportunities for the Community of Mindfulness and the Engaged Buddhists to put their compassionate social outreach into practice, it guarantees a diverse and unexpected cast of characters. Will you choose to join a sangha led by an Irish-American lesbian who formerly taught new media at NYU (Pat Enkyo O'Hara of the Village Zendo), a robed Thai monk (as at any number of Theravadin temples in the area), or an African-American couple whose band has played the Knitting Factory, a hip alternative-music venue (Brooklyn Buddhist Association)?
"The Buddhist Guide to New York" doesn't forego shopping, eating, or museum hopping; its author observes that though one can easily locate a healthy selection of Buddhist texts on the shelf of any Barnes & Noble, there are a few local attractions worth a visit.Hopefully readers have a taste for momo--Tibetan dumplings--and butter tea, because Wilson mostly overlooks Chinatown and the Korean restaurants in the East 30s in favor of a list of Tibetan restaurants. Speaking from experience, you can't go wrong with Tsampa (named for the Tibetan national dish of roasted barley) on East 9th street. You may even find yourself seated next to one of New York's celebrity Buddhists. Who needs the Hard Rock Cafe?
|The short chapter on practice centers that welcome children is an act of compassion in itself.|
If you really want to go all out, you can swing by Do Kham or Himalayan Visions--two of several dozen downtown Tibetan boutiques Wilson lists--to pick up a big Tibetan fur hat to wear at dinner. (Note to those whose journeys have taken them further afield than Manhattan: Be prepared to shell out far more than you did in Dharamsala for similar merchandise.)
Wilson also gives a nod to the East Village fixture Kim's Video for stocking such Buddhist film titles as "Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East," as well as teaching videos and Chinese action flicks starring "Shaolin monks kicking butt for Buddha." For those permanently situated in New York, there is a small directory of Buddhist psychotherapists (How come those guys never turn up in Woody Allen movies?). Wilson also provides a short list of Buddhist groups that have gone out of their way to accommodate the needs of practitioners with children, among them the New York Shambhala Center. There are so many places in the city that frown on bringing the kids along that this small chapter is an act of compassion in itself.
Wilson's sense of humor leavens the proceedings throughout the book. In this, he is ably assisted by illustrator Mike Taylor, whose funny doodles feature monks contemplating the selection at a koan-dispensing vending machine and floating down Broadway as giant balloons in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Only in New York.