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Lions Roar : January 2015
bag broke in my living room and I just started attacking myself: You stupid idiot, what’s wrong with you? “When I calmed down, I thought, there’s no one here, nobody to blame it on. There’s only your mind. Around that same time I was reading Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and I thought, this sounds right! So I found a Zen group and started sitting every day, eventually doing a five-day retreat. “I was furious at anything that moved,” he remembers. But at the end of the fourth day, the rage broke. “I still get emotional thinking about it. At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m devoted to this,’ and just kept going and never stopped. “So, I was able to say to Brooklyn College, ‘Yeah, actually I do think meditation could help these kids with their anger!’” They tried a four-week workshop and the kids were into it. “They’d had trouble keeping their attention for thirty minutes,” Snyder says, “but with us, they were staying for two hours, having discussions around mindfulness and emotion. It was suggested that we start a Tuesday-Thursday group so that kids from all of the schools could come together.” When Awake Youth was born, he says, that started changing the flavor of Brooklyn Zen Center right away. “Loyalty joined the Board, and we installed Clarisa James as coordinator of com- munity relationships. Now we had somebody specifically asking, ‘How are we really going to be in this community in a way that we’re actually bringing meditation and mindfulness to life in the city? How does a Zen center bring its strengths to the issues around us that are actually causing suffering?’ There’s a tremen- dous amount of gun violence around us here. So out of what were just little events here and there came a fully fleshed-out anti- gun-violence program, with fifteen partners and speaker panels.” Snyder has a long background as an activist, having been active in (for example) labor organizations and the Zapatista Indigenous Rights movement, working directly with the Maya. He recalls a sobering moment of clarity about bringing that passion to bear in his work at BZC: “What really turned me toward focusing my energy on implicit bias and race was the Renisha McBride case. She was a young woman of color, outside of Detroit. After wrecking her car, she went door-to-door looking for help and a guy shot her through his locked screen door. She was nineteen. “We had four women, including Loyalty, who had graduated from Awake Youth and were that age, and I was awake for two nights after that happened. I couldn’t take the idea of any of these women being shot because of what was in the mind of the person looking at them. “The second night, I realized that as a Zen practitioner I was in a faith whose spe- cialization is unconscious bias. That’s what we do as Buddhists! That was when I said to myself that tolerating this kind of thing was not an option anymore. This isn’t some- thing that Buddhists should be half-hearted about taking up. We need to get on it. Do we want to continue living in a country where young people of color don’t get jobs, or are even killed, because of the way they look?” Yeshwant Chitalkar, who’s instrumental in BZC’s Inclusivity Committee, reiterates the need for different thinking: “I consider ours a very friendly and welcoming sangha, but even here factors like race, color, and privi- lege come into play. You have to notice it to do something about it. It’s an inescapable fact that there are obstacles for persons of color to jobs, to housing, to a good education. As a Buddhist institution, we shouldn’t be part of that problem. If we’re leaving people out, what does that say about us?” That sense of responsibility and responsiveness has permeated BZC through and through, causing the sangha to spearhead a host of helpful initiatives in the community around them. In addition to the Awake Youth Project, the gun-violence awareness gatherings, and the inclusivity committee, there’s a people of color group (of which Chitalkar is a leader) that meets for practice and discussion. There’s a Friday-night “25-35” group that allows younger people to gather socially in a decidedly non-bar-like setting and discuss what vexes and interests them. There’s a Buddhist twelve-step program Post-meal cleanup at BZC’s kitchen, where everyone pitches in. “I love them,” says practitioner John Asrelsky (right) about BZC’s founders. “It’s like when a really good rock band finds itself. A magical blend.” SHAMBHALA SUN jANUAry 2015 42