May 5, 2011

Street Retreat: Taking Practice Beyond the Meditation Hall.

All You Need To Leave It All Behind

What do a Hollywood actor, a man who lived under a bridge, a former Wall Street financier, a Rabbi and a Buddhist nun have in common?

Answer: They all joined a 72-year old Zen master to do three days of spiritual practice staying out on the streets of Manhattan.

The 17-person group included Swiss, Israeli, Polish, German, American, Belgian and Puerto Rican, black and white, practitioners of Buddhism, Judaism, Native spirituality, Sufism and Christianity.

This retreat marked the 20th anniversary of practicing “street retreats” for Zen Master Bernie Glassman (left) and the Zen Peacemakers. Bernie invited several spiritual leaders and activists whom he wished to recognize, after working and studying together for many years. I attended in my role as Bernie’s assistant. This weekend was quite a contrast from the intensive meditation retreat where I started practicing Zen in Argentina, also on Holy Week, exactly three years ago in 2008.

Do I Have To Work the Streets Tonight?

As we stood waiting for the subway train on our way to start the retreat on Friday, Barbara, the Zen Peacemakers Europe coordinator, asked me with her typical luminous smile “How many street retreats have you been on?”

“This will be my second,” I answered.

“Ari’s working this weekend” Bernie interjected. I felt embarrassed. I was jealous that others got to be on retreat, while I was just tagging along to help.
To help with Bernie’s knees, I asked street retreat leader Genro to bring a cane. While the staff he brought alleviated pressure on Bernie’s knees, it put strain on his shoulders, so I carried the staff instead. Passersby shouted ‘Moses’ to me throughout the weekend.
“What does it take to lead a street retreat?” I asked Genro, who has embraced leading street retreats more than any other teacher.

“The first thing,” he explained “ is that you have to understand: YOU. DON’T. KNOW. ANYTHING.” (not-knowing is the first tenet of the Zen Peacemakers)

Before I hardly finished asking the question, Genro nudged me forward: He instructed me to find a good place to do council and line up the group to count them and then solicit their input regarding to what destination they wanted to meander next. My plunge had started.

I Swear I See My Reflection

Saturday morning was cold and wet. After walking a few miles in the rain, Rabbi Ohad from Israel comforted us with his guitar on the steps of a court house while we waited for the Rescue Mission to open. Cops soon came and made us leave, so we continued waiting in the rain.

Once inside, I started talking to a young man named Philip in line. “I didn’t know they still make hats like that!” He said, referring to my 1980’s Cleveland Browns hat. “How did you find out about this place?” he asked me.

“From a friend.” I didn’t lie. “How about you?”


“What did you search for?” I asked.

“Shelter.” He answered and smiled. “Shelter from the storm.”

The Rescue Mission rushed us out after breakfast and we hit the soggy streets once again. Eventually, we found dry shelter and coffee inside another soup kitchen known as Meatloaf. After one guest started singing with Rabbi Ohad, Ohad offered him his guitar. The guest starting singing as the energy of the room slowly shifted to his talented and heartfeld expression. He culminated singing Bob Dylyan with the whole room singing along and he finished to the warm applause and hugs of guests, street retreaters and soup kitchen volunteers.
In the warmth and joy of the singing and sharing, I felt totally drunk of the nectar of life and eager to drink more.

They say every man needs protection

They say every man must fall

Yet I swear I see my reflection

Some place so high above this wall

I see my light come shining

From the west unto the east

Any day now, any day now

I shall be released

Later, at the Bowery Mission, the fiery exclamations of the African-American preachers rattled my bones. The preachers pushed us to let go of our addictions and self-defeating attitudes and to let God enact his will through us. I felt God pushing me forward in that moment and wondered: How can I stay in touch with this feeling ? How can I listen better?

I ran into Philip again. “I’m worried because I lost my bed at the Rescue Mission,” he told me. “I missed role call.” He explained that he recently left a violent home and he had never spent a night out on the streets. He asked if he could join our group for the night. Of course.

Never Arriving, Never Leaving

That night, we set up camp in Tribeca under a construction awning, to avoid the rain. There must have been too many of us in one place because a cop banged his night stick on the railing at 1am and kicked us out. We split up.
I stayed with a group who spent the night on the Staten Island Ferry. The ferry is warm, dry and free. You can spread your legs and nobody kicks you off. The only problem is that you have to get off and re-board every 25 minutes, as the ferry makes its way back and forth between Manhattan and Staten Island. As you relax into this vicious pattern, you enter a sort of stupor in which you fall completely asleep each time and never totally wake up.

When you get kicked off each trip, you don’t know to which island you are arriving. “Never arriving, never leaving,” we joked, never able to resist Zen humor.

Neither coming nor going. Neither retreat nor 9 to 5. Neither spontaneous nor predictable.

What Is Service?

Over the course of this retreat, we experienced the transition from winter to Spring. By the end of the retreat on Sunday, the sun came out just in time for our closing recognition ceremony. Philip joined us at our closing council circle. He said that he was very touched by being invited to participate on our journey. He said he hadn’t been in a group of people who communicated so openly and peacefully for years.

In between helping coordinate logistics, I squeezed in warm moments with retreat participants and street dwellers. Summarizing the retreat, Bernie said that while he has done formal study with some being recognized, he is “most interested in studying together with folks by doing things together”. As I saw the heartfelt and sincere way retreat participants acted, it felt like an honor and a pleasure to be of service to them. After all, they have dedicated their lives to being of service to others, leading the Auschwitz Bearing Witness retreats, managing soup kitchens and homeless shelters, and bringing together Jews and Arabs in the Middle East for peacemaking. I reflected on just how extraordinary it is to take intensive spiritual practice out of the meditation hall and into places like the streets and to Auschwitz, and how this practice subtly effects the service work of the people who do it. It isn’t simply to the group of leaders that I was being of service, but in being of service to them, I was also serving all the people who they serve in turn. In this sense, I can see that being of service to any particular teacher is being of service to the dharma in general- it is being of service to the message: that we’re all One and we ought to start acting like it.

A few of the street retreat veterans expressed that this retreat would probably be their last of this rich yet strenuous form of practice. While the Zen Peacemakers recently decided to put our Western Massachusettes campus for sale, this retreat reinforced for me that Zen Peacemakers is not so much a specific location, but a family of practitioners comitted to taking their practice into all locations, especially the ones society would rather forget.

Photographer Peter “Kuku Sama” Cunningham with two Zen teachers, including Roshi Genro. Photos by Peter except “All you need to leave it all behind” and photos of Peter.

Read bios and reflections of retreat participants. Read explanation of ceremony by Bernie Glassman. See more retreat pictures.

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