Perched on an altar beside a row of pictures of his past Buddhist teachers, Roshi Kendo Richard Hart, 76 — an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and founder of the Clear Mountain Zen Center on Hempstead Avenue in West Hempstead — ruminated on how to summarize a 2,500-year-old practice in a much shorter interview.
“If there’s an attitude in Zen, it’s ‘Get out of the box,’” said Hart, who has devoted himself to studying Zen Buddhism for the last half-century. “Expect the unexpected.”
Hart said that he encourages his students — with the help of pupils-turned-senseis, or teachers, Tony Esposito and Donald Zezulinski — to adopt this mantra through regular meditation and reflection.
At this interfaith Buddhist center, which opened 10 years ago for those of all beliefs to seek stability through Zen training, students take part in two-hour-long sessions that include 25 minutes of quiet meditation, five minutes of walking mediation and 15 minutes of sanzen, or private talks with Hart that test each student’s progress by using koans, introspective questions like, “How do you realize your true nature when looking at a block of wood?”
“It will give you new insights into both yourself and how to deal with the things we encounter in life that just throw us,” Hart said of these meditative practices.
Hart, a former Marine sergeant who served in the Air Wing after the Korean War, said that he had struggled with alcoholism until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous at age 27. Despite a relapse eight years after starting the program, Hart said that he will celebrate 36 years of sobriety on Oct. 6, which is also his 77th birthday.
“I walked in the doors of AA with two black eyes, vomit on my shirt and piss in my pants — I’d hit bottom, and that turned my life around,” he said. “I had one of those what they call ‘white light experiences’ — I felt that Holy Spirit, higher power, whatever you call it, come into my life, and it radically changed me. My obsession to drink left. My whole life was turned upside down, for the better.”
Hart added that he has suffered several serious maladies in the past eight years — diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney failure and a stroke — but credited his commitment to meditation for helping him work through the pain.