Great Lake Zen Center: A Refuge of Stillness in the Heart of Riverwest

Great Lake Zen Centerby Jeff Johnson / Photos by Tess Reiss

Gleaming tile floors, plain white walls, green plants, fresh flowers, a whiff of incense, and a solemn statue of Buddha mingle with the rumble of cars, trucks, and buses on Locust Street. This is meditation, not on some mountain top, not out in the woods, but embedded in bustle at the center of the city. And indeed there is stillness. The Great Lake Zen Center has occupied a store front across the street from the Riverwest Commons for the last three years. It is a place for stillness in the heart of Riverwest. While a white paper screen blocks the view of the Commons across the street, the grey robed Dharma teacher signals the beginning of meditation with the slap of a stick across his palm. “If you are meditating on a mountain, the sound of birds and the water will bother you,” reflects Peter Neuwaldt, a Dharma teacher at the center. “It’s important to be in the city. It’s just an idea that you have to be away to be quiet. For most people the noises are primarily in their heads. In Zen, we meditate with our eyes open… not shutting out the world, but widening our minds to include it all.” Neuwaldt and Laura Otto-Salaj are both Dharma teachers or instructors in meditation at the center. Rooted in the Korean Chogye tradition, the center has a guiding teacher, Dae Kwang, who is abbot of the Zen monastery in Providence, Rhode Island. He visits the center three or four times a year. “To those from Korea, what we do here seems very American; while to many who come here who are from the U.S., it seems very Far Eastern,” suggests Neuwaldt. “Our Zen master describes Western religions as object religions… looking to a higher power. But Zen is a subject religion. We use the Great Question as we meditate, breathing in on the question, ‘What am I?’ and breathing out on the response ‘Don’t Know.'” The Milwaukee Zen group first met in a home on Weil Street in Riverwest. When the home setting was no longer big enough, they rented space at the Unitarian Universalist Association church on Astor Street and then for a brief time in Wauwatosa. “We were in Wauwatosa for less than a year,” says Neuwaldt. “The space wasn’t zoned for churches and we were forced to move. If we had sold liquor or guns we might have been able to stay… but they couldn’t have meditation.” Meditation students advance their practice by taking instruction in various precepts. At the entry level are the Five Precepts: “I vow to abstain from taking life; I vow to abstain from taking things not given; I vow to abstain from misconduct done in lust; I vow to abstain from lying; I vow to abstain from intoxicants, taken to induce heedlessness.” For some students the first precept means adoption of a vegetarian diet. From these beginnings students can advance to become Dharma teachers, Senior Dharma teachers, and eventually Bodhisattva teachers. The Great Lake Zen Center is a partner in the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. When asked about the current political situation Neuwaldt responds, “Hatred never overcomes hatred. It has karmic effects. What’s important is why you do what you do.” The center, 828 E. Locust St., offers group meditation sessions Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 a.m. Attendance ranges from six to twelve. Contact 771-2490. Website: On May 10 the Great Lake Zen Center will join with other Milwaukee Buddhist groups to celebrate Buddha’s birthday in Gordon Park from noon to 4 p.m. All in Riverwest are welcome to attend. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 5 – May 2003
Great Lake Zen Center

Dharma teacher Laura Otto-Salaj guides meditation.