Categorized | Religion

A House that Zen Built

Buddhists unite at Chogyesa Zen Temple of New York

By Leah Faye Cooper

A meditation room at Chogyesa Zen Temple

It’s 4:30 a.m. on Thursday and the townhouse on 42 West 96th street is abuzz with evidence of New York City’s religious and cultural diversity. Though many Upper Westsiders are hours away from opening their eyes, members of Chogyesa Zen Temple of New York are preparing to bow, chant and sit in silence as part of their daily meditation. Some have practiced since childhood; others have come to satisfy their curiosity. Regardless of why they stepped through the door, they are—at least for the moment—joined in an attempt to clear their minds of all outside influences.

“Our mission, like all temples, is to provide a place where people can come to look inside themselves,” Chogyesa’s vice abbot, Myong Haeng Sunim, says. “People seek happiness through outside things like money and relationships, but even when they get those things, they’re still unhappy. Buddhism teaches us that true happiness lies inside.” Born in Wisconsin and raised in Virginia, Myong Haeng Sunim became a monk in 1997 while living in Korea and joined Chogyesa in 2008 when he returned to America. He works alongside Chogyesa’s lead abbot, Myo Ji Sunim, who in a recent phone conversation stressed Chogyesa’s commitment to a policy shared by many places of spiritual practice.

“Everybody is welcome here,” she says, her speech fast and rich with a strong Korean accent. “As long as someone wants to come and is willing to learn, they are welcome.”

Chogyesa combines the trademarks of a classic New York City townhome with those of a Korean temple. There is a kitchen, a garden and a library. There is also a dimly-lit meditation room adorned with figures of Ji Jang Bosal—a figure that represents transitions—and a Dharma Room where members come and go as they please, practicing throughout the day.

Among those who have been welcomed into Chogyesa’s open doors is Lawrence Grecco. Raised Catholic, Grecco started studying Buddhism six years ago when he became intrigued by the teachings of Chogyesa’s founder, Zen Master Seung Sahn.  He came across Chogyesa’s website two years ago while looking for places to practice and has been coming ever since. “It has brought me peace of mind, clarity and relaxation,” Grecco says of his practice. “I’m much more relaxed and much happier.”

As a Chogyesa member, Grecco helps keep the temple open through annual dues. Because payments aren’t recorded, Myong Haeng Sunim can only estimate how many people are in Grecco’s company. “We don’t keep track of membership—it’s all an honor system,” he says. “People are supposed to pay $30 a month to be a member, but I don’t think it’s written down anywhere—so, I don’t know, maybe 100 people are members.”

Myong Haeng Sunim hopes that with time, Chogyesa will become a more prominent fixture in the community. “Very few people from the neighborhood come here regularly,” he says. “They know we’re a spiritual center, but they don’t know much else.” Chogyesa is in a designated residential area and due to zoning laws, the temple isn’t allowed to advertise with signs inviting people inside. Recent events like a stoop-side yard sale and a traditional Korean dance performance generated a buzz in the community. Myong Haeng Sunim sometimes attracts people to the temple by simply walking out the door. “I walk around most of the time dressed like this,” he says, looking down at his traditional robe. “A lot of people ask ‘What are you? What do you do?’ They think I’m a martial artist or something. But then I tell them I’m a monk and we have temple on 96th street and we invite people to just come by. A lot of members enjoy that. They come by here use this place and practice mediation.”

A Korean-born Buddhist, GaYoung Yoon is among visitors who live nearby. She started going to Chogyesa almost three years ago when she moved to New York. “I’ve been a Buddhist all my life, but I haven’t always practiced it,” she says. Yoon credits Chogyesa with helping her reconnect with her Buddhist roots and serving as an ever-present place of support amid a demanding work schedule and the rushed pace of life in New York City. “It relieves me and consoles me,” she says. “It’s something that I can lean on.”

For member Vince Conte, Chogyesa’s emphasis on bowing—lowering the body towards the ground as symbol of surrendering one’s small self to the universe—is among aspects of the temple that drew him there six years ago. “Bowing is a good blend of physical, mental and emotional practice,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff in our head that we’ve learned over the years and through our upbringing that prevents us from acting resolutely and clearly. We have all of these do’s and don’ts. One of the main purposes of meditation is to cut through all that stuff and live a more genuine life.” The first and third Saturday of each month are reserved for practicing bows, where members and other visitors do a series of 1000 and 3000 bows, respectively. Though Conte is committed to his practice, he dispels the common notion that through Buddhism, inner peace is discovered swiftly. “Meditation can be very disturbing because it makes you more aware of your own faults and issues,” he says. “It brings stuff to the forefront that you’re trying to push away.”

Like Conte, Michael Pantaleoni sees his practice as an ongoing journey towards self acceptance and actualization. After realizing that his life was careening into what he calls a “meaningless existence,” Pantaleoni started studying Buddhism in 2006. “While I was successful in business and my personal life, there was still an emptiness within me,” Pantaleoni says. “I realized that no matter what I accomplished, it was all temporary. No matter what kind of joy I experienced, there is always regret, sadness and disappointment; good days were always followed by bad ones.” He started practicing at a temple in Long Island where he was introduced to Myo Ji Sunim. After meeting with her one on one, he was ready to join. “She’s so wise, so warm, so committed,” Pantaleoni says of the abbot. “She’ll get on her hands and knees and scrub the floor after serving a meal.”

Pantaleoni visits the temple several times a week, taking advantage of the key he’s given as a member to practice at the temple as he likes. He recently participated in an introductory session with dharma teacher John Holland. That particular session exemplified how Chogyesa unites young and old, Buddhist and non-Buddhist, Asian and American. Present was Eagle, a freelance hairstylist and life-long Buddhist from Hong Kong. Across the room was Jeroen, an exchange student from Amsterdam studying at Columbia, and his friend, Aly, a fellow Columbia student who was meditating for the first time. They sat, they walked and they chanted—each one appearing to be, as Buddhism teaches—in the moment. Before leaving, in a display of the humbleness that Buddhism teaches and their abbot exemplifies, the group cleaned the floor, on bended knees.

2 Responses to “A House that Zen Built”

  1. michael pantaleoni says:

    Very fair, accurate and well written, Leah Faye Cooper is already an accomplished reporter!

  2. Alex Markiewicz says:

    Leah Faye Cooper is my favorite writer.


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