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Lions Roar : January 2019
O’Hara created a sitting group in her home. She had no inten- tion of being a teacher; she was just offering a space where peo- ple could meditate. “I bought some cushions. I threw out my sofa and made it a little Zen dome in my apartment, big enough to accommodate twenty, twenty-five people sitting.” In the 1980s, her little community was sought out by people struggling with the AIDS crisis. “I’m living in the Village, I’m a lesbian, and AIDS hits,” she says. “So lots of people came to sit. A lot of men, and people who were sick. I was asked to lead a group at Gay Men’s Health Crisis for people with HIV.” Soon O’Hara’s sitting group outgrew her apartment. In 1986, O’Hara cofounded the Village Zendo with her partner, Barbara Joshin O’Hara. It is described on its website as “a community of people who come together to practice in the Soto Zen tradition. We offer zazen (sitting meditation), one-on-one instruction with a teacher, dharma talks, chanting services, retreats, workshops, and study groups. Our programming emphasizes the myriad ways Zen relates to our daily lives in writing, social action, health and well-being, and the arts, as well as traditional Zen studies.” The Village Zendo moved into a new space in 2000, but when 9/11 hit, they watched from the windows as injured and terri- fied people ran up the street away from the World Trade Center. O’Hara says that terrible experience tainted the space in their minds and hearts, and they eventually moved into a new location in Soho, where Village Zendo has been for more than a decade. “Here we sit quietly, majestically, and then you walk out on the street in New York and, quite frankly, we see a lot of hungry ghosts, people with kind of a desperation,” O’Hara says. “But there’s also a kind of sweetness. Sometimes when I’m out on the street it seems to me that people’s faces are like flowers.” O’Hara tells of a time she was trying to teach a dharma different experience than someone who is sitting up straight staring at the world. And so it is with media.” In the early 1970s, O’Hara cofounded a program at NYU called “Interactive Media.” At the time, the program was revolu- tionary, starting with using split-screen televisions as a way for people to talk to each other. “The communication wasn’t one- way,” O’Hara says, “and that was the key to a more horizontal power structure, to elevating a population and putting it on an equal status with the people in power.” One of the first projects O’Hara was involved in was a large National Science Foundation project to see if it was possible to deliver social services to seniors through media technology. “It was in a little town in Pennsylvania. We connected all the senior citizen centers to the mayor’s office,” she says. “Then once a week the seniors would interview the mayor and it would go out on the cable system for the whole county.” Later, O’Hara worked with other marginalized populations, including kids in a drug treatment center to whom she taught videography. When she saw they needed ways to focus their attention, she taught them meditation. She also worked with developmentally disabled people and their parents. “As the tech- nology grew, I became more and more interested in how media affects the culture as a whole,” she says, “the ways it connects us and the ways it separates us.” AS O’HARA WORKED to connect people through technology, she realized what she needed in her own life was connection through a Buddhist community. “One day, when I had dressed and gone out the door and had not sat in meditation yet again, I realized I had never created a discipline of sitting. I needed other people to join me to sit.” (L) In an early dharma talk, O’Hara emphasizes the futility of elaborate discussion about zazen by holding a hand to her nose and calling it “stinky.” (R) With her partner Barbara Joshin Sensei. They founded the Village Zendo together in 1986. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 45