Half a century ago, if an American was interested in practicing Zen Buddhism—or any kind of Buddhism—there wasn’t much they could do, other than travel to the other side of the world and learn a new language. A few did that with mixed results. Back then, there was a little zazen happening at the First Zen Institute in New York City, at the Cambridge Buddhist Society in Massachusetts, and at Nyogen Senzaki’s floating zendo in L.A., where it settled after Senzaki’s move from San Francisco.
A few blocks up San Francisco’s Bush Street from Senzaki’s forgotten historic apartment/zendo, there was a Soto Zen temple for Japanese-Americans called Sokoji. There a priest named Hodo Tobase taught calligraphy and held a weekly Zen class that sometimes included ten minutes of zazen practice. In 1959, a Zen priest named Shunryu Suzuki was sent from Japan to take over Sokoji. While he didn’t deny the significance of intellectual study, his constant teaching was to sit down and follow the breath—to do zazen—and to bring the practice of awakening into one’s daily life. Today there are more places for aspiring Buddhists to study and practice in America than there were practitioners when Kennedy was elected. This is thanks, in part, to Suzuki Roshi, his teachings, and his students.
They incorporated the San Francisco Zen Center in 1962, and four years later Suzuki and his students bought an old resort near Carmel Valley named Tassajara Springs. Renamed Zen Mountain Center, it would become the first Buddhist monastery in the West. In 1969, Suzuki and his assistant Dainin Katagiri left their duties with the Japanese-American congregation and moved to a large residential building on Page Street, which became known as the City Center. And though he worried aloud that Zen Center was getting too big, Suzuki also talked about the possibility of acquiring a farm. A year after Suzuki’s death in 1971, his disciple and heir Richard Baker, who had been indispensable in the creation of Tassajara, founded Green Dragon Temple at Green Gulch Farm in Marin County.
This year, forty-three times around the sun since Suzuki’s arrival in America, the San Francisco Zen Center and its associated Buddhist communities have developed a good deal, but also much is the same. Satellite groups formed during the twelve years Suzuki was in America, but SFZC itself has not expanded beyond its three large residential practice centers. It’s the physical characteristics of the centers that remind me most of the old days; the decentralization of teaching responsibilities and the range of options now available to practitioners are the most striking changes.
I’ve spent many years with the Zen Center, but to make sure my info for this story was up-to-date, I took field trips to the three centers. My first stop was the City Center, a short walk from San Francisco city hall. Designed as a home for young Jewish women by Julia Morgan, the architect of the Hearst Mansion, this handsome red-brick landmark building was perfectly suited for the growing needs of Suzuki’s urban sangha. In the basement and on the first floor are large rooms for zazen, dining, and ceremonies, and smaller rooms for offices, library, book store, shop, laundry, meetings and lounging. The top two floors provide residence for up to fifty students. Waiting outside the door, I glanced at the posted daily schedule:
5:25 a.m. Zazen (sitting meditation)
5:55 Kinhin (walking meditation)
7:05 Soji (temple cleaning)
5:40 p.m. Zazen
Saturday Morning Program
6:30 a.m. Zazen
7:55 Oryoki Breakfast
8:40 Meditation Instruction
10:15 Public Lecture (hearing assistance available)
11:00 Tea and Discussion
12:00 Lunch ($6)
This schedule is the backbone of what’s happening at the City Center and it’s open to all. The core practice is still zazen—the daily sittings, the monthly full-day sittings, and the less frequent five- and seven-day sesshins. Before zazen, the side door is unlocked, and this is something I’ve always appreciated about the City Center—a person can come in and sit without talking to anyone, having to join, or being asked to donate anything.
A fellow in his fifties named Mark Lancaster answered the door. He’s from the Midwest and has been around for more than a dozen years. Mark takes phone calls, receives visitors and answers questions. And if you want to sit that evening, he’ll take you downstairs to the zendo for a quickie zazen instruction.
Zen Center’s a great place to be a novice. After all, the City Center is called Beginner’s Mind Temple, founded by the man who gave the series of lectures published as Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Newcomers tend to feel more comfortable starting off with the Saturday morning zazen instruction followed by a forty minute Zazen for Beginners. Every six weeks or so there are Introductory Afternoons that include a tour of the building, a demonstration of the bells and other ceremonial instruments, a little zazen, a short service, and time to talk. There’s also a one-day sitting with what’s called a “gentle schedule”: five periods of zazen, lunch, lecture, and a closing discussion with tea and cookies.
Some get their first taste of Buddhism by becoming “Guest Students” at the City Center, though many Guest Students have prior experience with other groups—Zen, Vipassana and the Tibetan Buddhist traditions being the most common. Guest students can stay up to six weeks and follow the full schedule. They work mornings and for an hour and a half in the afternoon. They can join in on evening classes or go out on the town at night, as long as they are up with the wake-up bell at five the next morning.
I talked to Mike, a twenty-eight-year-old Guest Student from England. He first practiced Zen in Japan, where he was teaching English. Though he’s recently arrived, Mike has already received accolades from his peers, having been honored as “Most Middle Way” on skit night. He said he was enjoying being at ZC, and he liked the practice and the mix of people, who he said were generally friendly. I said that’s great since people sometimes find the City Center to be sort of cold, maybe because everyone is a little sleep deprived. He laughed and said they get into some pretty surrealistic conversations at times.
Another option for the newcomer is to join in on a practice period. During my visit there was one in progress, running from late September through early December. The program includes one-day sittings, lectures and classes, and ends with the seven-day, early-morning to late-night, Rohatsu sesshin. That’s sitting zazen, walking zazen, ceremonial oryoki meals, services and a lecture a day for one seamless week. Residents and non-residents participate in the practice period and follow as much of the full schedule as they can; individual schedules are set up with one’s practice leader.
One of the best ways to participate in Zen practice is to work with others in the community. Of the sixty or so residents at the City Center and the ZC-owned apartments next door, about thirty have staff positions. Everyone who lives in the building helps to keep it clean and in order. Non-resident volunteers can often be found among those working in the kitchen, doing special projects in the office or the shop, and working in the bookstore or library. Other volunteers join outreach programs to feed the homeless, give aid to women and children in a transitional shelter, correspond with or teach meditation to prisoners, and work with the Zen Hospice Project.
Back in the sixties there was no formal study program, just Suzuki’s and Katagiri’s lectures. Now there is the Mountain Gate Study Center, which holds classes on Saturdays and weekday evenings. Subjects include “Money and the Vow of Poverty,” with guest teacher Michael Phillips, who wrote The Seven Laws of Money; “The Lotus Sutra’s Impact on Dogen’s Teaching,” with Taigen Dan Leighton; “Zen Practice in a High Tech World,” and “Chinese Qigong.”
Ongoing groups at the City Center include Reb Anderson’s sitting and discussion group on Tuesday evenings, the Coming of Age program for children 12 to 15 (co-hosted by Spirit Rock Meditation Center), a Buddhist robe-sewing class, a sitting and discussion group for people in recovery, and a sitting group for people of color. The Saturday morning program is for lay practitioners who don’t live in the building and there’s an evening sangha for those who attend the early evening sittings; they have dinner and discussion once a month with the head of the meditation hall.
Green Gulch Farm
Driving north from San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge and following Highway One back toward the coast, you have to keep your eye out for the sign that marks the sharp turn down a Eucalyptus-lined drive into Green Gulch Farm. Unlike the compact fortress that is City Center, the farm is a curious mix of elegant new and funky old buildings, of natural and cultivated vegetation, spread out over a beautiful valley and surrounded by national parkland.
On a warm, sunny day I snooped around the often foggy and windy semi-monastic community farm, first making a pilgrimage to the herb, flower and ornamental plant area and its cozy meditation garden, and continuing beyond a Cypress windbreak to fields of lettuce, spinach and potatoes, past greenhouses and ponds, and through gates to a field where horses graze.
Green Gulch Farm has a large central lawn where a few children were playing and a student read on the grass, not far from the high-ceilinged barn zendo which holds three hundred people at Sunday lectures. Its adjoining student quarters were once a horse shed and tack room. There’s an office with a bookstore, a traditional Japanese teahouse and garden, the octagonal Lindesfarne Guest house, a sauna and showers, and a sizable yurt for workshops.
What was the farmhouse now serves as kitchen, dining room, library, student lounge and offices. It is connected by a second floor deck to the student-built Wheelwright Center, a meeting and conference facility. Many staff live in a nearby valley, about fifty staff and family members live at Green Gulch itself, and at any given time there may be a few dozen practice period or Guest Students, and twenty to thirty overnight guests and twenty conference guests who have driven in for the day.
At the time of my visit there was a practice period going on with twenty students in attendance. One of them, Danny, born and raised in Berkeley, had sat zazen at the Berkeley Zen Center and the City Center a few times and done a little Vipassana. Danny had just completed six months in the Farm and Garden Apprenticeship Program, through which he had earned two free practice periods. Now in the first days of his first practice period, he was bravely weathering the shift from two zazen periods a day to five. Doing a lot of zazen was his worst nightmare, he said with good humor, because he had to sit and face his agitated, busy mind. This was brought home to him at the initiatory one-day tangaryo sitting, during which he stood only during brief breaks after the meals. Danny said he was continuing to enjoy life on the farm and the company of his fellow students, mostly middle- and upper-middle-class white college grads in their early twenties and thirties. Asked if they had enough time for R & R, Danny said that Thursday afternoon through Friday was unstructured and that some of them had gone out dancing a few times. He’d helped to organize a theater night.
Sheri is an Internet lawyer from North Carolina who’s been in the Bay Area for six years. After the events of 9/11, she canceled a planned vacation. When a co-worker told her about Green Gulch, she emailed the Guest Student manager and secured the last space available. At $15 a day, same as at City Center, she’s spending a good deal less than she would have on her planned vacation. Sheri finds the demanding schedule of zazen, services and work invigorating, and she appreciates the perks: lectures, use of the library, one-on-one contact with teachers, and close interaction with community members. She says that it took her time to fit in, and she wonders what it would be like to live there longer.
There’s always so much to be done at Green Gulch. For the growing half of the year, all students leave the zendo once a week after zazen to help in the fields before breakfast. The guest rooms have to be cleaned and up to three conferences and meetings must be attended to at a time. Weekday mornings, participants in the practice period and the non-resident volunteer sangha come to the rescue in the garden, fields, kitchen and maintenance area.
Sundays are to the farm what Saturdays are at City Center, and what’s offered is about the same. People stand around and drink tea after the lecture, catch up with old friends or make new ones, buy Green Gulch’s organic produce, flowers, herbs and other plants, and line up to get bread fresh from the ovens. Some drive in early to make a class or zazen before the lecture. The Right Livelihood Business Network may be meeting, or the Elderhostel retreat for seniors might be gathered. Classes and seminars (which also meet on Monday or Tuesday evenings) include, in addition to more traditional Buddhist study, subjects like tea ceremony, organic gardening, wreath making, and a sensory awareness workshop with centenarian human potential movement pioneer Charlotte Selver.
Tassajara is Zen Center’s heaven, though it gets as hot and dry as hell. It’s located in a remote narrow valley set deep in the steep, rugged mountains of Los Padres National Forest between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. It’s long been famous for the hot springs used by the Esselen Indians, going back to who-knows-when. Since a fourteen-mile treacherous, winding dirt road was cut through the mountains to the springs in 1860, it’s been a popular rustic resort.
During recent summers my ten-year-old son Clay and I have gone to Tassajara for ten days, and for the last two years he’s worked full-time in the kitchen and helped me in the evenings with guest dishes. He loves being with the young people who are here to study Zen and to help run the guest season. In the afternoon we cool off in the big old swimming pool, and on a day off, we go with bagged lunches down the creek to swim and slide over the falls at the popular spot called the Narrows. My twenty-eight-year-old son Kelly used to spend a good number of his summers doing the same thing and he says it’s his favorite childhood memory.
Before going to our cabin to read ourselves to sleep by kerosene light, Clay and I go down to the bath house, take showers and descend into the super-hot indoor men’s plunge. We join overnight guests in the outdoor pool where we look for meteors in the crystal clear, star-studded sky.
It’s amazing how peaceful and uncrowded Tassajara seems in the summer, considering there are usually about seventy students and eighty guests present. Buildings recent and original, of stone and wood, run along the edge of the creek amidst stone walls and paths, sycamore and oak. Students who come for the summer work practice program can stay anywhere from five days to six months. You must be at least 18 and have some prior practice experience, usually as a Guest Student at the farm or in the city. The rules are: follow the schedule (two morning and one evening zazen sessions), no new sexual relations (the six-month rule), and no drugs or alcohol. There are lectures by senior students and visiting teachers on some evenings, opportunities to join the many offered workshops, and half-day sittings that one can squeeze in. Before and after the guest season there are April and September work periods for the transitional tasks and other work there’s not enough time for during the guest season or practice periods. Those who stay five months during the work period earn a practice period at any of the centers.
The three-month fall and spring practice periods at Tassajara are the most concentrated training offered at the ZC, with the least amount of work in the schedule. In the winter the creek swells and roars with runoff and the sun hides low behind the mountains. It gets as cold as the summer is hot and the student rooms. The zendo, where most of one’s time is spent, is heated enough these days to eliminate the chill. It is not unusual for students to spend a few years at Tassajara, especially those who are working toward priest ordination.
Back in early days of Zen Center, even though we had the inspiring presence of Shunryu Suzuki and Dainin Katagiri, people tended to move on after a couple of years. Now there are so many ways to be engaged that a far greater percentage of students have a long-term relationship with the community—whether they continue to live there or not, whether they formally practice Zen or not.
Standing around the outdoor refreshment area at Tassajara, chatting with students and guests during breaks this summer, I was struck by the seemingly endless variety of relationships that people have with this community. One day I’d talk with a priest who has lived at one or another of the centers for over thirty years; another day I’d meet an old friend who practices now with one of the many dharma groups sprouted up around the country. I’ve met people who have been coming as guests for decades, and others who were students for a summer in the seventies. There are people who’ve taken many classes over the years, and others who never took one. I have talked to former students who return now and then just to visit or for annual ceremonies, an occasional wedding or funeral, special events, a lecture or to enjoy the great vegetarian food. Some who wouldn’t have been able to participate so easily before can now because of the handicap access and help for the blind and hearing impaired. To some it’s a church, to others a community, to others a school where they learned something and kept going. People get close, keep a distance, stay and move on, but no one forgets their time at Zen Center and almost all are most grateful for what they have received.