Shine: Zen Mind, Brooklyn Mind, By Ian Case

Today’s SHINE post developed from a need to find a temporary home for the August writing workshop I was teaching. The Brooklyn Zen Center (BZC) had space available and a convenient location. It was opportunity meeting curiosity. I’ve read books by Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, and I’d been to the Open Center, which offers lectures, but I’d never been inside a zendo, a meditation hall. Being there inspired me to ask Ian Case, the ino, or caretaker of the zendo, how the BZC came to be.

Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that emphasizes the value of meditation and intuition rather than ritual worship or study of scriptures. More and more, Westerners are appreciating the value of meditation as a guide to living mindfully and being present (meaning not living in the stories of the past or in anticipation of the future). Says Thich Nhat Hanh, “Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, more happiness comes.”

Laura, Greg and Ian, the founders of the BZC, recognized a condition of happiness and wanted it to spread. They took a basement (and many hours of elbow grease) and created a community where people can come to ground themselves. In the middle of a crazy, chaotic and sometimes unbearable city, they offer a respite from it and provide a judgment-free zone. Outside of the natural world, there aren’t many places I can think of that offer that – not even my couch.

For Ian, what started as a compartmentalized experience by meditating only in the zendo has expanded to practicing mindfulness as a way of life. Similarly the BZC is expanding its reach into the community to include arts and youth programs. Because when your passionate about something you have to share it. Shine on!

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By: Ian Case

My introduction to Zen Buddhism began innocently enough—with the simple gift of a book. On my birthday ten years ago in Texas, a close friend of mine gave me Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki had come to America from Japan in the late 1950s and had founded the San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara, the first training monastery outside Asia. This book was a collection of some of his earliest talks that one of his students had transcribed and edited. I remember reading the book all those years ago—and liking it—but when I finished reading it, I just put it back on the shelf. I didn’t have any practical interest in meditation and I felt no need to seek out a Zen center or other community of Buddhist practitioners. I went about my life as usual. Little did I know at the time, but something inside of me that had long been dormant and buried deep beneath a layer of years, had begun to move.

A year later I moved back to New York to go to graduate school and also to be closer to my mother whose health was failing. Three years after that, in the winter of 2005, two friends of mine, Greg Snyder and Laura O’Loughlin, also moved to New York from Austin. They had both been Zen students for several years at this point – Greg in Austin and Laura largely in San Francisco – and it was in getting to know them again in Brooklyn over the next few months that my interest in Buddhism ceased to be purely academic and developed into an actual desire to practice it. Looking back, I realize that there was a quality of acceptance, non-judgment and spaciousness in that friendship, which stood out in stark contrast against the culture of graduate school that I was immersed in then.

It was around this time that Greg and Laura hatched the idea of starting a meditation group in Brooklyn. Both of them had been trained in the San Francisco Zen Center tradition and a center in this tradition did not exist in New York City then. They eventually found a space to rent—a small basement—that was actually owned by another Zen student, so the circumstances seemed auspicious.

Basement Zendo Before

The three of us spent the rest of that summer fixing up, renovating and outfitting the space, which was pretty raw at the outset, and transforming it into a full-fledged zendo, or meditation hall. A new ceiling was put in to hide the tangle of wires and ducts that hung haphazardly from the old one. Two ceiling fans were installed. Greg, Laura and I scraped the brick walls and painted them. The space had a small half-kitchen and bathroom that adjoined it and we cleaned them up and painted them too. Finally, towards the end of August, we covered the cement floor with tatami mats, and brought in meditation cushions (which had been donated by the Austin Zen Center), the altar and the bells. I remember sitting down on the floor at the end of that day, my arms glistening with sweat, and my head reeling with what I can only describe as a kind of grateful exhaustion. I couldn’t have known then the reason for my gratitude, but it was there.

Basement Zendo After

Starting in the fall of 2005, we set up a schedule of morning and evening meditation at the zendo. And we just sat. For several months, it was just the three of us in the room, sometimes just one of us. Gradually, others started to join us. Some would come one or two times and then disappear; some would come back. At some point in the first year, we added Saturdays to the schedule, and more people showed up. We started going out for lunch after Saturday morning zazen, and slowly and sweetly, a community started to develop.

Teachers started to come too. In the first two years in the basement, several teachers from San Francisco Zen Center and the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, including Norman Fischer, Darlene Cohen, Michael Wenger and Teah Strozer, visited the zendo to give talks, lead retreats and meet one-on-one with students. Teah Strozer would come back every six months or so, staying longer each time, and would eventually become the guiding teacher of our center.

The story of Brooklyn Zen Center since then has been one of continued growth and the effort and generosity of countless people. In 2008, we moved from the basement to a one-bedroom apartment, and in 2010 we moved to our current space, a 3000–square foot loft on Carroll Street.

Current Zendo

The larger space has enabled us to accommodate 40 sitters and also to expand our programming, including the No-Eyes Viewing Wall (an art gallery space), the Jazz Mindfulness Program (combining music and mindfulness practice for kids, teens and adults), and the Next Generation Initiative, a robust outreach program that is introducing mindfulness practices to the underserved youth and schools of Brooklyn.

Community Lunch

 

 

A few young adults from the outreach program in meditation

So, just as it did when Suzuki Roshi brought it to San Francisco, Zen will continue to adapt to its surroundings and the times, transforming the world and being transformed in turn. I’m deeply grateful to be along for the ride.

 

Ian Case currently leads a double life, working by day as a copy editor at a large advertising firm and helping out at Brooklyn Zen Center in his free time. For the past two years, Ian has also served as the ino, or caretaker of the meditation hall at BZC. He also leads a weekly discussion group on the four foundations of mindfulness. 

Coming up next on SHINE: Armed with only a jar of Veganaise and a dream, Michele starts the very first vegan blogger conference.

SHINE On: Do you know someone who quit their 9-to-5 job to become a trapeze artist (or some other awesome gig)? Please let me know! contact  {at}   jacquelincangro  DOT   com.

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5 comments

    1. I really liked that, too. I bet it’s much easier to cultivate a practice of mindfulness when you’re young rather than trying to unlearn all of our bad habits as adults.

      Like

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