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Lions Roar : January 2019
class over the sounds of a political demonstration on the street below. “Then I said, ‘Let’s just listen to them for a few minutes.’ I think it’s incredibly humanizing to practice here in New York.” O’Hara says Zen practice is not as in demand as it has been in the past. “Zen nowadays is not the coolest tradition on the block,” she says. “But we feel there should be one place in town where you go to just sit and take a really concerted and disci- plined approach to Zen practice. I would say those who practice here tend to be ready to do some serious study.” The Village Zendo welcomes people of all faiths and has introduced identity groups for practice, such as a people of color group and a people with disabilities group. Sangha mem- bers also accompany people to immigration court to offer comfort and support, run a prison dharma group, write weekly letters to people in solitary confinement, and organize street retreats—a practice of living like the homeless that was devel- oped by Roshi Bernie Glassman. “We live on the streets for five days, sleeping on cardboard or in the subway system,” O’Hara explains. “It’s safe. We’ve never had any problems. We stay together at night, but we’re on our own during the day. We beg for food or money, then go meet people in shelters. We donate all of the money we’re given.” O’Hara did one street retreat while she was a professor. “I planted myself a couple of blocks from NYU on the sidewalk, begging for money,” she says. “Colleagues and students would walk right past me and not see me—because we don’t want to see tragedy, we don’t want to see failure, or whatever our under- standing of homelessness is. “That was huge for me, because I thought, how much of the world do I choose not to see? How can I open my eyes to the suffering so I can be used? My personal experience is people on the street are just great. They have good stories, and you can sit in a park and talk to somebody and not be afraid. There’s this idea that homeless people are crazy, on drugs, or angry, but actually, most of them just had bad luck.” THE VILLAGE ZENDO website states that O’Hara’s focus as a Buddhist teacher “is on the expression of Zen through caring, service, and creative response. Her five expressions of Zen form the matrix of study at the Village Zendo: meditation, study, communication, action, and caring.” “I’m compelled to offer encouragement to people to really express the dharma either in art forms or in social justice work,” O’Hara explains. “It’s not about getting to some holy place in your heart at all; it’s the bodhisattva expression. We’re con- stantly faced with the suffering that’s in the world. My hope is that people can find a way to express service, compassion, and gratitude all the time.” O’Hara says her teaching style incorporates her experience as a woman Buddhist teacher, as she is sensitive to power differentials and the damage they can cause. “I think it changes the way com- munities function when there’s female leader- ship,” she says. “Male teachers are often the seat of all the knowledge, all the power, all the talk. You don’t see that so much with women teachers.” O’Hara uses her privilege as someone who was trained by male teachers who considered her an equal to help empower other Buddhist women and correct some of the wrongs of Buddhist history. “Women are not often written or spoken about in Buddhism,” says O’Hara. “In our com- munity, we started chanting the names of women throughout Buddhist history, and I saw the faces of the women in the room bathed in tears. Seeing their faces is what woke me up to how important this is to many women. “Now I and other dharma sisters in the Zen tradition have a different attitude toward the texts, the legends, and the stories—a little bit more quizzical, a little bit more ironic. You know, how could they all be men? Come on now. This is a con- structed quality of all these texts, and we have to know that. It changes the way we talk about things and it changes our atti- tudes toward forms and services and hierarchy, the whole power relationship. Everything begins to shift a little bit, I think.” O’Hara sees why certain types of people are drawn to woman teachers. “In particular, the kind of man who is drawn to a woman teacher is probably a little different than the kind of man who is drawn to a male teacher,” she says. “I asked some men students why O’Hara marching with the Village Zendo in the Women’s March in 2016 in New York City. Social justice is an important focus of the community. LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2019 46