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Buddhadharma : Spring 2017
spring 2 0 1 7 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 25 When Giovanna Maselli set out to find a monastic teacher in New York, she didn’t think it would be so hard: “It was the first time in eight years living in New York that I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I can find the cheese that is made in the little town in Italy that my grandmother comes from. But I could not find a monk who would teach me Buddhism on a regular basis.” Eventually, while visiting Western Virginia, Maselli met Bhante Suddhaso, a Thai monk in the Thai Forest Tradition, and together they started making plans—and stumbled on something unexpected. A year later, the result is Buddhist Insights, which connects New Yorkers to Buddhist monas- tics through what they call “street retreats.” “It all started because I tend to be late,” says Maselli, who has a background in creative consulting. “Whenever we met, I would find him waiting for me in meditation, so I started taking pictures of him.” Maselli posted those photos to Instagram, where each one garnered hundreds of likes. After less than a year, the Buddhist Insights account has more than 20,000 follow- ers. After promoting its first event on Instagram in January of last year, Buddhist Insights had fifty people show up, with another fifty on a waiting list. In lieu of a dedicated space for their street retreats, Maselli and Suddhaso started hosting weekly meetings in the wilderness of New York City: churches, art galleries, beaches, sidewalks, subway stations, parks, and anywhere else they could freely sit. “It’s about establishing the attitude of meditating any- where and making friends with your environment,” explains Suddhaso. “Often, when we’re meditating and there’s noise outside, we think, ‘Oh, I could meditate if not for that noise.’ The problem isn’t the noise. What’s disturbing your meditation is your attitude toward the noise. The noise is just noise. So, we’re establishing the attitude of focusing on the present moment and using it as your laboratory for investigating the mind. That’s something you can do any- where, with any conditions.” In June, Buddhist Insights hosted contemplation-of-death meditation in a cemetery. In September, they held a retreat in a chocolate factory. “When we talk about renuncia- tion, it’s abstract,” says Maselli. “When you bring it to a place where you can taste the chocolate, it has a differ- ent impact.” In October, they hosted a daylong retreat of loving-kindness meditation on the subway, encouraging attendees to practice loving-kindness for the commuters sit- ting around them. The “street retreat” isn’t an entirely new idea. Zen teacher Bernie Glassman and the Zen Peacemakers order have been hosting street retreats for decades, spending days and nights living on the streets of New York. Buddhist Insights’ retreats are different in that they are short, and anyone—beginner or advanced—can attend. Classes and retreats at Buddhist Insights are led by Suddhaso or monas- tics visiting from other centers in the Theravada, Vajrayana, or Zen traditions. Programs are offered free of charge, with donations welcome. Suddhaso and Maselli say they’ve discovered a signifi- cant appetite for Buddhist monastic teachings in New York. “It’s useful to connect with people who have devoted their lives to these teachings, which is why we bring in monks and nuns who have often been practicing for decades,” says Suddhaso. “They’ve committed their lives to embodying the Buddha’s teachings. That’s something people recognize as genuine and valuable.” (Above) Buddhist Insights connects laypeople with monastics in open spaces across New York City (Opposite) Bhante Suddhaso (center) leads a street retreat in a New York subway, one of many free public programs put on by Buddhist Insights