Sam McManis

Retreating and resetting at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center

This altar in an adobe-style tool shed is part of the peaceful ambiance at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, a Buddhist retreat in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition in Marin County.
This altar in an adobe-style tool shed is part of the peaceful ambiance at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, a Buddhist retreat in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition in Marin County. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Under the serene gaze of a wooden bodhisattva, about three dozen of us sat as quietly as we could on dark-purple cushions in the long meditation room of Cloud Hall.

A young woman with a shaved head rang a small bell, and we lifted ourselves to our feet, bowed in the direction of our cushions and performed nine prostrations on the polished wood floor.

Then we stood still in the shadows cast by candlelight, with the silence punctuated only by the sounds of our breathing and the chirps of birds in the predawn forest outside.

We had escaped, just for a moment, from the bustling modern world and all its distractions to a pocket of peace and simplicity here amid the pines of the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center deep in the hills of Marin County.

Since opening more than four decades ago, the more than 100 acres of Green Gulch have welcomed generations of people, including the likes of Steve Jobs and Jerry Brown, seeking a respite from and perhaps an alternative to the demands of society around them. It has attracted devotees to the study and practice of Zen Buddhism, as well as those, like me, simply looking to unwind in the verdant valley.

Cellphone reception disappears somewhere along the drive up Highway 1 through the mountains east of Muir Beach. Wireless Internet access is limited to a modest 100 megabytes per day per user. Guests are left with the silence of Pacific Ocean air streaming through the valley and, what proves most exhilarating and terrifying to some, their own restless minds.

I arrived on a summer afternoon filled with my normal level of anxieties, even if the content was new – a recent job switch, a move from overseas back to Northern California, the pressures of starting a new life.

With a day’s change of clothing in my backpack, I descended the wooden stairway to my guest room in the Wheelwright Center and gazed out the large picture window to the pine and fir trees shimmering in sunlight. By my bed awaited a copy of the most popular text on Zen Buddhism printed in English, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki, who started the San Francisco Zen Center more than 50 years ago and dreamed up Green Gulch about a decade later.

I opened its pages to the prologue and found an awakening message: “In the beginner’s mind there are many options, but in the expert’s there are few.”

It was easy to feel like a beginner there as I adjusted myself to the pared-down surroundings and the unfamiliar but precise routines. I flipped the page: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

A few moments later, the sharp tapping of a mallet on a block of wood echoed through the forest outside, its rhythm quickening like a marble bouncing to rest on tile. The afternoon call to meditation, said my neighbor, an elderly woman from Israel, who was pulling on her shoes beside the sliding door to the walkway.

I hurried up the winding path to Cloud Hall, a long three-story building skirted by a wooden walkway, and pushed open its double doors.

Afternoon sun splattered the walls and floors. About 20 people were already seated and meditating. I bowed awkwardly toward my cushion and sat cross-legged. With my breath slowing, I tried to clear away my thoughts and let my beginner’s mind in.

And then … nothing happened for the next 30 minutes. Just men and women of all ages and races sitting in the afternoon sun with their eyes closed, minding their breathing.

I repeated in my mind a mantra I had learned in a transcendental meditation class, occasionally losing myself in my thoughts and then pulling myself back to the mantra. My neighbor to the right switched her sitting position twice. I switched mine once when my right foot fell asleep.

A bell rang, and we chanted in English and Japanese while reading from a laminated card: “Standing or walking, sitting or lying down, during all one’s waking hours, let one practice the way with gratitude.”

That reflection continued in Green Gulch’s wood-beamed dining hall, as we chewed our way through the customary 10 minutes of silence that started all dinners. Then, another bell rang, and we eagerly chatted with each other over brown rice, tempeh and japche, a Korean mix of noodles and vegetables.

To my right sat Tripti Bhattacharya, a UC Berkeley climate science graduate student who had washed dishes, weeded and meditated her way through the day.

After four days in this distraction-free space, she said, she had discovered how often she resorted to self-criticism and self-attack at the smallest prompting.

“During service, we have this very formal series of bows we have to do, and chanting in between,” Bhattacharya said. “I mess up a lot, and it’s been interesting to notice the voice in my head that says, ‘How terrible!’ Where I think I can imagine approaching mistakes like that with a little more gentleness, that’s a lesson that carries over well to work and life because you’re going to make mistakes.”

In the corner of the dining hall, 22-year-old Justin Hawkins had already spent four months there, with two more to go as part of a groundskeeping apprenticeship. Like several people there, Hawkins said he turned to the center after personal crisis.

“The image I’ve always used is sort of like a computer processing things,” he said. “I had spent the first 20 years of my life building up all this information, and then in meditation I was processing all the information. Up until that point, it was just sort of overwhelming all the time.”

Then, there were the lifers – the priests, farmers and other staff who have lived for years or decades at Green Gulch and the other two facilities opened by the San Francisco Zen Center, the even more isolated, sprawling Tassajara retreat and monastery just east of Big Sur, and the brick headquarters in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood.

During my visit to Green Gulch, I thought I could recognize the long-term residents, usually by their monklike shaved heads or their precise, calm manner of speaking, as if they had thought carefully about their words for weeks before opening their mouths. To us 9-to-5ers, they were living a fantasy, having ejected themselves from the hamster wheel of career and climbing and pared down their lives to meditation, work in the fields, grounds and other areas of the center, and the occasional talk on Buddhism – all just half an hour to the north of glittering, tech-drunk San Francisco.

Zen Center President Susan O’Connell found her home there about 20 years ago, after the death of her mother, a bout with breast cancer and other jolts to her busy life as an independent film producer. She has since lived or worked in all three of the Zen Center’s facilities.

“I come back to the city center and go, ‘This is pretty nice,’” she remembered. “Then one day all the grief that I hadn’t been feeling hit me, and because I wasn’t distracted and just jumping onto the next thing, I kind of grieved all the loss, and I had the freedom to do that and the support to do that.

“After I got through all the grief, I thought, ‘I think I got myself to where I needed to.’ And this practice and investigation is endless, so it could definitely take all my life, and who knows how much longer, to really plumb the depths, to really go deep into these questions.”

Thinking back to the opening words in Suzuki’s book, I realized that what Zen Buddhism was trying to teach its practitioners was exactly what I seek when I travel – that beginner’s mind that’s “open to everything.”

Green Gulch continues to attract new generations, from veteran Buddhists to young people trying to find a way to live. Younger visitors, O’Connell said, seem to need the place more than ever as they’re targeted by an ever-growing onslaught of information and technology.

In these timeless hills, I found a few days of respite and a chance to reset. I drove back into the city on a foggy morning, as the mist streamed through the eucalyptus trees. The traffic blocked me at Highway 101, and I was running out of gasoline. I felt very much like a beginner.

Jack Chang: 916-321-1034, @JackChangJourno

Green Gulch Farm Zen Center

Meditation instruction is offered at 8:15 a.m. every Sunday, followed by a Dharma Talk at 10 a.m.

Where: 1601 Shoreline Highway, Muir Beach

More information: 415-383-3134; sfzc.org/green-gulch

Living quarters: Accommodations range from private rooms to shared rooms for apprentices and people completing longer programs. Meals are included. Reservations are recommended.

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