This article is part of a series of articles written about a Holy Week 2011 Street Retreat, which took place in New York City. This retreat commemorated the 20th Anniversary of the first Zen Peacemakers street retreat, also in New York. Zen Master Bernie Glassman invited several longtime students and companions to the retreat to become recognized as Senseis and Dharma Holders. For more details, click here.
It had already gotten chilly when we met at Tompkins Square Park at seven in the evening to begin our New York City Street Retreat.
Our teacher, Roshi Bernie Glassman, invited ten people to participate in this event. These ten people have been with Bernie’s work for a long time in a variety of ways. I had looked forward to being together with this group for quite some time.
These ten were all precious friends with whom I had studied together in groups and retreats with our teacher Roshi Bernie. Often our meetings had taken place in Europe. Now we were meeting here on New York City streets! It felt like a big family party to me. To my great joy a few more people were with us who had been invited by Bernie. I had the opportunity to also get acquainted with them during these days in the streets of New York, and always appreciative that a group is never a fixed, closed entity.
Bernie was wearing his old black coat he had been wearing for years during the Auschwitz Retreat. I could see his red beret from far away which gave me a reassuring feeling not to get lost when we were moving through the busy streets in order to meet up again at Ground Zero.
We had already lost Michel Dubois from Paris in these first hours whom we a little later met again in the waiting room of the Staten Island Ferry. He had been waiting there for us completely relaxed. Half of our group decided to stay overnight outside in the streets, and the other half decided in favor of riding the Staten Island Ferry back and forth in twenty minute intervals all night. It was warm and there was shelter from the wind and rain. Also, the ride was free, and the wooden benches inside were clean. The ride passed by the Statue of Liberty and opened up to a splendid view on the lights of Manhattan.
After a twenty-minute crossing we were requested to disembark from the loud speaker’s voice. Bernie had his long shepherd’s crook with him and we were following him over the ferry’s bridge to the waiting room where we changed for the ferry going back to New York.
When I met Bernie at the Auschwitz Retreat in November 1999 I knew that I wanted to learn from him. Love is the connection keeping us, his students, together. I feel that we all carry it inside us, that this love will carry us further and that it provides us a ground and a source of support.
I hardly slept that night on the ferry, nor had I got used to the rhythm of laying down for twenty minutes, then getting up, changing ferry and laying down again.
Saturday morning was wet and windy, so that we all were soon quite wet. We were waiting for the opening of the mission, which would provide us breakfast in the early morning.
We were waiting covered in yellow rain ponchos while Rabbi Ohad was playing a song on his guitar, where the multiple sounds of the city merged. Clouds dancing reflected in the puddles.
While we were spooning up our breakfast mash, the young man next to me smiled at me and started a conversation. Philip was his name and he had been homeless since recently. Since breakfast he stayed with us until the closing ceremony the next midday.
Now we had adopted a common walking speed.
Passing by many different smells reached me – from the bakery and the Chinese restaurant, the smell of coffee from Starbucks. I felt being nourished and spoilt by them.
Young women greeted us with an open smile in the Christian Center. I was deeply touched to see that they gave their smile for hours to everyone who was waiting in long queues for a nice and warm meal.
In the evening, during the service of the Bowery Mission a woman bore witness about her family’s story who had gone through a lot of suffering and humiliation as slaves. She expressed her pain about this suffering and we felt it with her.
Her strength and beauty were impressive. It was a great joy to see this prophet of equality and fighter for peace.
Andrzej now carried a big cover for me with him, so that I should be warm during the overnight stay in the street. When the police woke us up and requested us to leave, I had been sleeping deeply for two hours. A few made their way to the ferry, the others looked out for the next sleeping place.
My encounter with the homeless old man who looked so tired and walked very bowed and bent across the bridge, made me think about the need for homes for elderly people.
The rhythm of the ferry now became familiar to me. Our group went on the ferry, we slept for a short while, got up and passed the security guards. I smiled at them and they looked back at me in amazement.
Back on the ship I immediately continued to sleep. Amazing how this practice had its effect.
In the blue of dawn I went on deck. A slight mist was covering the skyline when the sun rose. Now the houses seemed to float on the water. A mystical view presented itself to me.
One of the most beautiful sun rises – at Easter.
Resurrection. Now, the best day!