MEDITATING IN K-TOWN

I spent these last 5 days in the Zen Center of Los Angeles working with its abbot, Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, on our book of householder koans (2 syllables, not one, i.e. ko-an).

For those of you without a Zen background, koans are stories, tales, and aphorisms to help Zen students gain intuitive insights into reality instead of depending on thinking. Most of the koans Zen students work with are Chinese, over a millennium old, involving monks in a monastery. Our book, we hope, will do the same thing only using koans out of our own Western lives, lived by people with families and jobs.

It was wonderful to spend time in one of America’s great mother temples and centers, always hospitable and generous, and it was great being in Los Angeles. The weather was warm in the day and cool-cold at night, air clear, no gray pollution, just blue skies and a very warm, much-needed sun.

ZCLA’s meditation hall is not large, most of a ground floor of a medium-size house. I caught a photo of it at dusk, with spots of golden sunlight. It’s simpler and humbler than other much bigger meditation halls, with a funkily-arranged configuration due to its architecture. Pilgrims who come to pay tribute to the center that “mothered” numerous other centers, monasteries, and temples around the world are often surprised by its size and lack of grandeur. Nothing fancy there, which makes me that much fonder of it.

Meditation takes place early, and starting at 7:30 in the morning the drilling begins. The foundations of the house need to be secured to safeguard it from the next earthquake, according to new government regulations. And a good thing, too, because from day to day the crew discovers more and more cracks in the main columns and base holding up the house.

This building and its downstairs meditation hall hold so much history. So many people came in, played their roles, and then moved on. So many learned to meditate here, raised deep aspirations, made lifelong vows. So many births and deaths, and everything in between.

If the house came down in an earthquake I’m sure the Center, under the leadership of its very capable abbot, would raise the money to build a new meditation hall, more modern, probably bigger, without the funky arrangements of cushions and altar. A big gain, but something lost too.

And while I loved being in the middle of Korea Town, or K-Town as it’s called, I was stunned by the number of people I saw all around who were without homes. On the one hand the streets were dense with family life, children playing on the sidewalks or dancing on the grass outside some old, somewhat crumbling but still beautiful homes, teens boarding the buses to school carrying heavy, ambitious backpacks, mothers selling fruits and vegetables on the streets right outside restaurants advertising their food mostly in Korean. I’m told that K-Town is one of the densest places in the country and I loved looking into alleys and tiny streets teeming with energy and busyness.

But everywhere were people with no homes. They seemed to dot every street every time I left the Center, and especially in the early morning, pushing shopping carts, leaning against a fence, limping in or out of a coffee shop asking for coffee, leaving blankets on the ground like the pink one below.

ZCLA has provided an apartment for a young man who had no home, just as it has provided a spiritual home for so many people for half a century. It’s not just renewing the foundation of its meditation hall, it’s renewing the vision of what our practice is as human beings. Leaving me full of gratitude.