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Feb 27, 2013

Vipassana in New York

The Global Pagoda, Mumbai, India, serves as the Dhamma lighthouse for the universal sharing of Vipassana. The Global Pagoda was born with voluntary Dhamma service, donations and good wishes from people worldwide (JP Morgan Chase Bank in New York and Bank of India in Mumbai are bankers for the Global Vipassana Foundation that built the Global Pagoda).
Global Vipassana Pagoda: The Mumbai Monument of Liberty
Mumbai and New York are spiritually sister cities - vast, vibrant immigrant metropolises and rewarding cosmopolitan cultural melting pots. They are busy financial capitals of the world's two biggest democracies, but generously give time and resources for the greater good. With the largest number of Vipassana meditators living in one city (*1), Mumbai has six Vipassana centres in its suburbs (*2). Principal Vipassana teacher Sayagyi U S.N.Goenka lives in Mumbai. In 1969, Mumbai hosted the first Vipassana course in India after 2,000 years.

"Following is an article about the new Dhamma house in one of the world’s great cities, New York. It is a place where impermanence is unmistakable as the city endlessly destroys and re-creates itself, and as successive waves of immigrants come to make their home there. It’s also not a place normally associated with calm and meditation. But that did not deter the local old students.
(from International Vipassana Newsletter  Vol 39,2012, No.4)

NY Vipassana

Five years ago, a small group of meditators decided to take on the goal of establishing a Dhamma house in New York City. We had previously had a facility in a beautiful neighborhood, but financially it had stopped being feasible. And in any case, it had not been easily reachable from some other parts of the city.

The first focus was to accumulate seed money. Donations gradually came in and by late 2011 we had over $10,000. We were ready for the next step: forming a search committee that would develop a strategic plan to scour the city for a suitable space.

We targeted Manhattan first because it is the most central and accessible area. But Manhattan rents are really high, so we decided to start there but be prepared to expand the search to other boroughs.

Two of us pored over a Manhattan street map to select areas with possible affordable rents for commercial spaces. We thought we’d have a better chance with older buildings. Our plan was to completely search one area and then move on to the next. We began with two people—“field walkers”—who went up and down the streets of the designated area, copying down telephone numbers from rental and management signs. We then passed the numbers to our “callers,” who contacted realtors. If anything came of a phone call, the “walkers” would go view the space.

After about a month and a half we had around 10 people walking and doing Internet research. (Web searchers were our third category of volunteers.) In fact, one great discovery was a New York City Public Library database of all the commercial properties in the city, area by area. It was a great find. But we never got the chance to use it because our simple relay system worked faster than we had expected.

A caller spoke to a realtor and passed on the information to a walker. Two people went to see the space, and another two. Then a local assistant teacher took a look. We all agreed that it was for us. Next we held a “trial” group sitting in the space. When it was over, the decision was unanimous: We had found a new home for our Dhamma House.

It stands on West 38th Street, very near all the major subway lines as well as out-of-town bus and railroad stations. It is about as typical of New York as you could want. The space is in an older, modest building, on the 10th floor. There is room for 50 meditators, and maybe a few more if needed. And the rent is well within the range we set for ourselves.

West 38th Street, NY (Google Map)
 In February we signed the lease, which was supposed to start from March 1. In the end, repainting and basic repairs took longer than expected. But from March 10 the place was ours and we were ready to start the real work. About two months after we had started our search, we were holding group sittings in our Dhamma House.

The first one-day sitting was on March 31, with two teachers coming from the Massachusetts center, Dhamma Dhara. A truck was bringing their seats from Philadelphia, but it got lost in Brooklyn. Once it arrived, we could begin the course inaugurating the New York Dhamma House.

We now hold group sittings all five weekday evenings, beginning at 6:00 pm. Every month, we have two teacher-led one-day courses, alternating between Burmese-English and Chinese-English. We’re planning to add a Hindi-English course. We are also planning a pilot children’s course and are discussing a potluck get-together in the spring.

All along, we have benefited greatly from our connection with the Massachusetts center, the closest one to New York. In fact, we literally have pieces of the center in our Dhamma House. Boards once used in platforms for the women’s tents in Massachusetts now support coat hooks on our walls; they are weathered to a beautiful dark brown. Other boards have become bookshelves for our small lending library. The center also supplied materials for shoe racks and shelves where meditators can leave their bags and backpacks. Other material was donated by old students.

We feel like a mini version of Dhamma Dhara, with the same aim: to reach as many people as possible and to create a welcoming, attractive space for practicing Vipassana meditation.

Dhamma Dhara, Shelburne Falls, nearest Vipassana centre to New York

Most arrangements for the new facility fell into place surprisingly easily, but naturally there were some kinks that had to be ironed out. For example, we had assumed that our rental agreement gave us the use of a third bathroom on our floor, but it took considerable negotiation to open that door. Then, during our first one-day course, a neighbor complained about the wet boots and shoes left in the hallway. That just spurred us to build adequate shoe shelves inside our own space.

Under the Massachusetts trust, we established a formal structure so that we can make collective decisions more efficiently. Right now we’re looking to expand our pool of weeknight servers. These people are responsible for running the group sitting, from opening the door to playing the CD and closing up after everyone leaves. We have teams of people who take turns handling this task, but we are looking for more people who may not be able to make an ongoing commitment but can provide backup if needed.

On a typical evening, anywhere from five to 25 meditators sit together in the Dhamma House for one to three hours. Our one-day courses average about 30 people, more when a teacher comes from Dhamma Dhara. And the red donation box that stands on the table inside the entrance seems to be making up the difference between pledges and the actual amount of monthly rent.

If we continue to grow, we may yet get to use that Public Library database for city-wide commercial real estate!

For more information, email ny-info@dhara.dhamma.org
Part-1 of Sayagyi U Goenka's address to the United Nations in New York in 2002. 
Buddha: Super Scientist of Peace. Part-11.
(*1) Of over 1,000 students participating in twice monthly 10-day Vipassana courses in Dhamma Giri, more than 30% of students in each course are from Mumbai.

(*2) Vipassana centres in and within commuting distance of Mumbai: Dhamma Pattana (within Global Pagoda premises), Dhamma Giri, Dhamma Tapovana, Dhamma Vahini, Dhamma Sarita, Dhamma Vipula

* Vipassana Group Sitting locations in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India (Please call / confirm for current status)
* Earn immense merits participating in Global Vipassana Pagoda projects
Across countless aeons and endless time, may every moment of purity from Vipassana practice go for the benefit, happiness and liberation of all beings.