Last week I was packing boxes, answering the phone, “dressing cushions,” getting holiday boxes ready for the short trip (just across the Stevens River) to our local Post Office to get packages in the hands of Mark, the Postmaster. Taking the walk to the Post Office, the elements reach out to you. In a light rain, if you manage to look up, you will see clouds shrouding the hills of New Hampshire in the distance.
Continued from Part I: The next day our van and driver met us at our hotel in Old Havana to take us to the south side. On the way there was the usual stream of vintage American cars from the 1950’s. (Their original motors long gone, these cars were now powered by engines from Hyundai and Mercedes.) The traffic included noisy diesel trucks, and along the shoulder of the busy boulevard, the occasional donkey pulling a wooden wagon full of people and goods. Near our (relatively) posh hotel in Old Havana, animal powered carriages ferried only tourists.
After a 20-minute ride, we turned down a dusty neighborhood street with chunks of pavement missing. Ernesto asked a neighbor and then a passerby for directions. After a couple more turns, the van pulled up in front of small iron gate in the middle of a nondescript cement wall. Our driver, impassive until now, looked concerned. He let Ernesto know that he would stay with the van.
Stepping Through a Gate
Led by Jeanine, we piled out and walked through the narrow opening, the gate creaking behind us. To our astonishment, beyond the wall was a small leafy Zen style garden and pool. Various bonsai were on display. There was a feeling of calm and tranquility. Ernesto surveyed the scene in disbelief.
The Sensei, smiling, was standing in the garden in front of the entrance to the dojo. Serene, with a modest air about him, he was average height, but broad, dressed casually in an open shirt and jeans. “Sensei’s chest is a brick wall,” I thought, reflecting on a sense of immovability. A couple of his students in their late teens or early twenties looked on with curiosity.
We were led inside the dojo, a simple concrete room with a big mat secured by wire hooks into a cement floor. On the walls hung Japanese calligraphy, pictures of Japanese lineage figures, and wooden practice swords. High, unprotected openings in the cement let the light in.
The Story of a Dojo
“This house used to be abandoned,” the Sensei began explaining in Spanish. Ernesto, useless as a guide, slipped into the role of translator. “We asked for permission from the city to make it a dojo. I wanted to offer the kids in the neighborhood something. In this dojo we don’t teach sports martial arts, we teach mind martial arts — the way of Bushido. We want the young people to learn humility, honesty, courage, and decency. From the perspective of our tradition, the true Way has nothing to do with arrogance or egotism.”
As he spoke, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Jeanine was beaming. This distinction between “sport training” and “mind training” was familiar to us from the late Shibata Sensei, who taught Kyudo, or Japanese Archery, to the Shambhala community.
In response, Jeanine shared our appreciation for Shibata Sensei and the love and respect Shambhala’s founder, Chogyam Trungpa had for him as well as the Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Chiming in, I added that our own teacher, Sakyong Mipham, was a student of Shibata Sensei himself, and that in Shambhala we practiced not only Kyudo, but also Ikebana or the Way of Flowers, and Cha-Do or the Way of Tea. At the center of our discipline, I added, was Zazen, or sitting meditation. You could feel Sensei listening as our words were translated.
In his hands, the Sensei was holding a book. In response, he held it up. “Cuban scholars have made connections between the philosophy of the Cuban poet/revolutionary Jose Marti [the ‘apostle’ of an independent Cuba–ed.] and the code of Bushido,” he explained earnestly. “Marti’s dedication to others is what I want to teach the young people here.” It was clear that the Sensei traced his lineage both to Jose Marti, as well as to the Japanese immigrants who had brought martial arts to Cuba.
Time for an Offering
As it came time to leave, I overhead my wife asking herself, “what can we offer?” Suddenly, “I know! I know!” From her purse Jeanine pulled out a small red booklet entitled The Six Ways of Ruling. “Michael, you should give him this.”
Cueing Ernesto that a presentation was coming, I held up the booklet toward Sensei in a gesture of offering. “In the Shambhala tradition,” I began, “the practitioner is understood to possess inherent dignity, like a king or queen. There is a Way of uncovering this dignity which we call the Path of Warriorship.”
“Warriorship in this case is not about waging war, but about rulership, riding the energy of life. The practitioner of this path embraces rulership out of dedication to others. The six ways of ruling are: benevolent, true, genuine, fearless, artful and rejoicing.” I named each quality, pausing to give Ernesto a chance to find the correct word in Spanish, adding as I went, a short explanation for each one.
Hearing the 6 Ways of Ruling, the Sensei was smiling broadly. In this moment we realized our kinship. As I presented the booklet, Jeanine apologized for its worn corners.
“The fact that it’s worn means it has your soul in it—making it an even more significant gift,” the Sensei replied with feeling. As we were leaving, Jeanine asked if there was something the dojo could use from Samadhi Store, pointing out that we carry temple gongs and other products from Japan.
“The thing we could use the most is for you to return and visit us again,” said the Sensei with warmth and sincerity. We said our goodbyes, pledging a return visit. On our way out, Jeanine made an offering of pesos to the upkeep of the dojo, bowing as she placed an envelope on the alter. The iron gate clanking behind us, we were greeted by our van and driver, who looked both happy to see us and ready to be moving on.
In Havana we never had a kosher meal or visited a synagogue. The Buddhist Meditation center did indeed appear not to exist. But by following instincts, at the end of a broken and dusty street on the south side of town, we discovered a Sensei practicing and teaching the path of warriorship. This chance encounter was also one of the ways we met the requirements of our license to visit Cuba.
“So, today you will enjoy a kosher lunch, followed by a trip to the synagogue…” our guide looked at us blankly, waiting for a reaction.
Jeanine Greenleaf, the President of Samadhi Cushions and I, her husband, were in Cuba, traveling under the auspices of Shambhala. Our granddaughter Camille, a high school senior with four years of Spanish, would serve as a translator.
Jeanine’s daughter Isabelle and our younger granddaughter Sophie would join us from France. As French citizens, they didn’t need a special purpose to visit Cuba, but they were open to the requirements of our fact-finding journey to the communist country.
“A kosher meal and a trip to the synagogue?” Jeanine asked quizzically. Our van had just pulled up to the restaurant; presumably the kosher meal preparations were already underway.
“Yes, that’s what’s on the itinerary.” Said Ernesto, again without expression.
The day before, at the charter desk in Miami, our boarding passes for the hour-long flight to Havana had been stamped “Documents in Order”. Our General License—the one that allowed us to travel to Cuba legally—identified our purpose for the trip. The letter from the secretary of our organization stated that we would be exploring how Buddhism could impact the historically Catholic population.
Evidently, the tour company providing the van and guide had misread our letter. It turns out there is a small Jewish community in Havana. Jeanine smiled. “No, not Jewish—Buddhist. We are Buddhists in the Shambhala Tradition. So we don’t require a kosher meal or a trip to the synagogue. While that might be interesting, isn’t the goal of our trip. Rather than a synagogue, we need to visit a meditation center—a Buddhist meditation center.”
“Ah,” said Ernesto dispassionately. He looked up to think while scratching a day old growth of a beard. “That could be hard, I don’t think there is one.” Ernesto was a smart, urbane, educated, well-read and articulate young man of 30, with excellent English, French and Italian. As an employee of the tour company, he was also a government worker. The government owns all of the tour companies in Cuba.
“Let me make some phone calls, I will find out,“ he offered hopefully. We enjoyed a lunch of fresh fish at the restaurant, which was half-independent and half government-owned, not an atypical arrangement in the communist country. After lunch, Ernesto informed us that there was a group practicing “Vi-Vi-pa…” I finished the word for him, “Vipashyana?”
“Yes, that’s it. They meet every other Sunday in Havana. But they are not meeting this Sunday.” (In the intervening Sunday, the one upcoming, the venue hosted a yoga group.) Vipashyana would have to wait.
After lunch we stopped by a community arts center in the neighborhood. Once inside, Jeanine struck up a conversation with one of the artists whose work was on display. Camille assisted in translation. Jeanine explained our quest to visit the apparently non-existent Buddhist Meditation center in Cuba.
“Well, I’m a member of a Dojo. My son goes too. You should visit and meet the Sensei. Come tomorrow.” The painter, a lively gentleman with bright blue eyes, wrote out his cell number and handed it with some explanation to Ernesto.
Back in the van, Ernesto looked anxious. The “Dojo” (pronounced “doyo”) was on the south side of Havana in a poor neighborhood. “The Sen-sei?” He asked, pronouncing the word for the first time. “I’m not sure if we can go there.” (Later we found out that our guide was required to report and explain all tour changes to his supervisor.)
“We are going there,” Jeanine declared, ignoring Ernesto’s hesitation. Jeanine had a good feeling about the painter, who was warm and open. “The Sensei saved my life,” he had shared, hinting at story that would go untold.
Our mission at Samadhi Cushions is to support the practice of mindfulness meditation as a way to inspire a sane society. We have done this over the years in our support for retreat centers like our neighbor Karme Choling, which provide a place for busy people to slow down and meet their mind and heart.
At the same time, retreat centers are, by and large, privileged places for privileged people. I am so delighted that Samadhi Cushions is also able to support the retreats for less privileged youth like the one’s created by the Reciprocity Foundation.
Back in September we were able to make a meaningful pledge of support to Reciprocity–the New York based foundation that serves homeless and at-risk youth with mindfulness programs and retreats. We offered 10% of our September sales to the foundation. This month we fulfilled this pledge. Today, the co-director of this foundation, Taz Tagore, sent us the following email:
‘The Reciprocity Foundation is going to use the gift from Samadhi Cushions to send 30 homeless youth on retreat in 2014. This will give urban youth–most of whom have never left New York City–achance to experience meditation, nature walks and a healthy lifestyle. We are so grateful for this gift…’
The Reciprocity Foundation is an award-winning nonprofit organization based in New York City that helps homeless and foster care youth break the cycle of poverty by advancing their education and orienting toward a meaningful life and career.
Our success is predicated on a unique process rooted in Contemplative Practice—which helps youth develop an aspirational and yet realistic Life Plan. Our coaching includes holistic meditation, mindfulness and contemplation, helping youth cultivate inner clarity rather than focusing exclusively on external outcomes. Finally, our one-on-one and group programming uses a Whole Person framework—endeavoring to address a youth’s mental, physical and spiritual needs.
New York City’s homeless, runaway, and foster care youth are among the most disconnected and high-risk young people in the city. Compared to their peers, they face grave challenges: they lack strong family support, face housing and educational instability and risk involvement with the juvenile justice system. Common mental health issues for this population include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide ideation/attempts, and substance abuse/dependency.
The Reciprocity Foundation has been a pioneer in developing and delivering Contemplative & Wellness programming to high-risk youth in America. We began our wellness programming in 2005 with meditation and yoga classes. Since then, we have developed a world-class roster of wellness instructors, programs and tools that support “Inner Growth and Outer Achievement” for homeless and foster care youth.
In 2011, we created the first holistic center for homeless youth in the country on New York City’s west side to deliver our Contemplative programs in a holistic, healing setting. Our center opened in November 2011 and includes a dedicated healing space, a meditation room (with meditation cushions and a gong provided by Samadhi Cushions,) a media lab, a fully-equipped kitchen and a large multi-purpose area for yoga classes, career training classes, film screenings, etc. Since opening our new center, we have doubled the number and variety of Contemplative Programming offered from our center.
Last year, we expanded our 1- and 3-day holistic retreats from New York City to upstate New York at the Omega Institute and Shambhala’sSky Lake Lodge. Youth attendees deepened their contemplative practice and engaged in whole-person practices such as yoga, walking/seated meditation, massage and mindful movement.
The meditation and retreat program at Reciprocity is having an enormous impact on the lives of homeless youth. What I find most moving is hearing first-hand how these practices affect our students. Here are a few quotes that illustrate the power of meditation on the lives of homeless young people:
Every time I struggle and feel like I want to do something that was part of my old street life…I go to Reciprocity. They have a very nice meditation room there. I just go there and meditate. 10 minutes can make such a huge difference. Now I know how to make different choices so that I can stay off the streets.
I was told by Reciprocity staff that I should come here everyday, sit in the meditation room and breathe. I am not sure what’s happening but my life is getting so much better. I feel like I am leaving some of the old pain behind and slowly getting excited about being alive again.
My religious parents told me that they wished that I died because I am gay and that brings shame to our family. They disowned me. But, now I found a new family…my Reciprocity family. I feel loved here and I am working on building a new future for myself.
I love coming to Reciprocity. Every Thursday night we sit in meditation, have candlelit dinners and eat vegetarian meals. I feel so energized by this way of life. I had no idea that such simple things—like breathing and eating vegetables—could make me feel so good.
Years of abuse left me with nightmares. After my first acupuncture session at reciprocity I was able to sleep again. This was the first time I had a good night sleep in years.
After going on retreat with Reciprocity, I went back to my shelter and started a weekly meditation group in the chapel. I know that meditating is one of the most important ways for me to change my life and leave behind the negativity and anger that I grew up with.
Editors Note: This month (September 2013), 10% of ALL SALES at Samadhi Store will be donated to the Reciprocity Foundation. Help give the gift of holistic meditation–for yourself, or someone you care for and, this month, for at-risk youth.