Friday, August 24, 2012

Green galaxy

About a year and a half ago I had to go to the hospital because there was sand lodged behind my eyeball.  I'd spent the day with my then girlfriend at Stinson Beach.  It's a lovely place, the perfect Californian seaside town.  Unfortunately the beach was rather windy the day we were there, and we spent a lot of it huddled under various shawls trying to keep the pebbly granules from assaulting the flesh on our faces. I lost that particular battle, and spent a few hours at San Francisco General getting my eyeballs bathed,  a process which is less pleasant than normal bath-time, and not because of the absence of a rubber ducky.  And I also lost that particular girlfriend a few months down the line.  Funny thing though - about a year after that I was in Mill Valley for a friend's wedding and set off for the nearest beach with my current girlfriend.  I'd forgotten the name of that beach-town, so you can imagine my bewildered sense of déjà-vu as we drove up a rather familiar winding road and then down to a windy beach.  I didn't get sand in my eye that day, but I did notice something I hadn't the first time - the sign to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, pointing down the green hill into a secluded valley.

I'd heard of Green Gulch before, of course - it's one of SF Zen Center's three sites, the other two being the City Center I've written about here before and Tassajara Mountain Monastery.  I'd looked into getting to Tassajara, but it's very remote, and also amazingly expensive to stay there as a guest (we're talking hundreds of dollars per night - in the range of four-star hotels).  So I called Green Gulch and asked if there was any availability in August.  They said I could stay for two days only - they were otherwise completely booked up.  There are two types of guests - guest retreatants and guest students, and we got ourselves in the wrong place a few times by mixing the two terms up.  Guest retreatants pay $60 a night, stay in very pleasant private rooms, and each day they meditate for two periods of 40 minutes and work for three hours.  Guest students pay $20 a night, stay in less pleasant shared rooms, and their daily schedule involves four periods of meditation and six hours of work.  Why pay if you're working?  (Or, why work if you're paying?)  I suppose there are overheads, and besides, I felt that $60 was a pretty good deal for the guest room that I got.  

Since I don't have a car, I put my name up on the rideshare part of the website, but perhaps unsurprisingly it seems to be common for people to ask for rides there and not so common for people to offer them.  I planned on getting public transport into the city and then making the three-hour hike across Golden Gate Bridge up to the retreat center, but the night before I was booked to arrive someone offered to give me a lift up.  She was a ballerina working in San Jose who'd trained in Winnipeg and been raised by Washington state hippies as a devotee of a Hindu guru called the Hugging Saint (got that?)  The other person in our carpool was a lady from New York State who was starting an MA in transpersonal psychology at Sofia University in Palo Alto (no, not Bulgaria).  These are the the type of people you meet when you go to meditation retreats in California, and very pleasant they were.  The ballerina wanted to get to Green Gulch for the public Sunday session, which features meditation and then a talk, and turned out to be almost exactly like a Saturday session at City Center, if slightly less well attended.

I can personally attest that the meditation hall at Green Gulch is the coldest place on the face of the earth.  I proved this by shivering through a 40-minute meditation session and a 45-minute dharma talk, shivering even though I'd just bought a 'Green Dragon Temple' hoodie for $50 from the office.  (I'd forgotten to bring a sweater in sunny Palo Alto, but it gets cold and foggy that close to the ocean.)  The speaker that day happened to be Linda Cutts, the current Abess of Green Gulch.  ('Abess' is a lovely word I learned in California for a female Abbott - one of the best things about American Zen is that the women get to practice and take up positions of authority on an equal basis with the men.  There was even a Japanese female monk at Green Gulch, and I wondered whether she'd had to come to the US to be able to take a full part in the spiritual tradition of her native land.)  Linda Cutts talked about turning 65 and thinking of things she now felt able to let go of, first on the list being boxes and boxes of old letters, some of them Mother's Day letters from her children.  

She also talked about how the first time she went to City Center and everyone started bowing to statues of the Buddha she'd felt a strong reaction as a Jew raised never to worship graven images.  She said she'd asked Reb Anderson about it and he'd replied, 'Oh don't worry about that - you're just bowing to your true self'.  A crap answer (why would you need to put a statue of the Buddha at the front of the room if you were bowing to your true self?) but apparently she'd accepted it.  And the liturgy at Green Gulch is very similar to that at City Center - lots and lots of bowing and lots and lots of chanting.  I heard while I was there that they actually bow 9 times every morning rather than the traditional 3 because their founder, Shunryu Suzuki, had thought it would be good for Westerners to 'get their heads down'.  Good or not, Zen Center types certainly get their heads down.  Whether they can get their heads around the Japanese syllables they chant every day is another question - but the chanting certainly has a hypnotic quality which is powerfully tranquilizing, and that can be calming or worrying, depending on your point of view.

After the morning program we walked around the compound, which is beautiful in a slow, quiet way, with simple wooden buildings connected by boardwalks and walkways snaking through foliage and darting between huge trees.  It's kind of like the secret camp they make in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' that looks like a city of tree-houses, except this time with more of a Japanese touch.  North of the meditation hall you walk down an avenue lined with flowers of every size and hue, followed by orchards, greenhouses with Buddhas seated cheekily among the potted plants, and finally the fields, scored with long rows of fat green stars pushing upwards.  Then there's a gate, and you're back into ordinary beautiful California: a farm with horses, the predictably windy beach, and then a long path winding along the ocean.  I walked to Pirate's Cove and back both days I was there, and it took about three hours.  At night I'd hit the saunas, which are of a weird modern variety without steam but with infra-red rays instead.  They're outside where the pool used to be, but it's been covered over with planks of wood to make a deck, who knows why.

Even with the three hour walk, the work, and the sauna (not to mention the meditation), I had a hell of a time getting to sleep the second night.  That happened the first time I went to a sesshin at City Center.  It's probably mainly to do with the jolt in your schedule you get from suddenly waking up at 4:30 rather than 8 every morning, but it doesn't feel like that.  It felt both times as if two things had happened: 1) all the time I'd spent trying to be 'awake' had led me to be permanently awake; and 2) I'd lost all control over myself.  On the first count, it was as if I was playing out some ghastly parody of the Buddhist ideal, always aware, constantly conscious.  Every time I went into a half-dream I'd step back, cooly analyze it ('Oh look, you're falling asleep') and then automatically pull myself back into awareness of things around me, which I bloody well didn't want to be aware of any more.  On the second count, after an hour or two of this I put some clothes on, stepped very briskly into the kitchen in the guest-house, and devoured an entire loaf of bread with the ruthless efficiency of pure want.  An elderly Japanese man who was staying in the guest house came in as I was scoffing the loaf and looked rather bemused. 

I actually liked the Green Gulch schedule more than the schedule at your typical sesshin, since there are only two hours of compulsory meditation each day, and that means that my legs hurt less.  It also, unfortunately, means that there's more time for work, but I must say (and, amazingly enough, I can say) that work at Green Gulch is actually rather pleasant.  Everything is highly ritualized.  Every room, including the kitchen, has a little shrine in it, and before every period of work the whole team assigned to a particular task gathers in front of it to bow a few times, offer incense, and learn the names of newcomers.  We even had a reading of about a page from Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind one morning.  I am generally an ambivalent bower, but the little ritual seemed to endow the entire process with mutual respect and a kind of holiness - we weren't just dicing potatoes, but chopping them for our co-workers, for the Buddha (who likes potaotes every now and then), and what's more doing it with Beginner's Mind (or I certainly was, since even simple cooking tasks are genuinely entirely new to me).  The man running the kitchen, Phil, was one of those religious people you like, with a smile constantly playing on his lips and around each eye.  He even asked us not to talk in a way that didn't make us want to punch him.

The other nice thing about going up to Green Gulch rather than going to a sesshin is that you can talk to people at meals.  The thing it seems natural to ask people as an opening gambit is always 'how long have you been here?' and there's a lot of variation in the response.  One girl, who'd dropped out of college in LA, had been there a year and a half, basically since Stinson Beach had made its assault on my retina.  Then there was a student who'd been there one day, like me.  She was finding college stressful, and had turned to meditation for that reason, which neatly recapped my experience.  There was also a classic old-style East Ender (of London, I mean) - he had the tattoos and the accent and the whole look.  Apparently he'd fallen into a job at a meditation center in the Westcountry run by, wouldn't you know it, John Crook and Simon Child, the Western Chan people, the latter of whom gave a talk at Stanford only a few months ago.  He told me how John Crook was one of those stiff-upper lipped Englishmen from the distant recent past and ran Zen retreats like a military training camp.  At retreats he'd get everyone up in the morning to do jumping-jacks in the rain.  I laughed a lot because I'd found out that John Crook had been at my school in England and I remember seeing a video of the place in the 1930s.  Every morning at break they'd make all the students do jumping-jacks.

Pretty soon my two days at Green Gulch had come to an end.  On balance I think I like it slightly more than City Center, and I may well go back as a $20 a night Guest student.  Two hours of meditation a day is plenty, and getting some farm-work in between sits would certainly help me physically.  Their style of Zen is as rigidly formal there as it is at City Center, but I'm slowly realizing that they don't kill you when you're slightly out of step.  I know because I lived through a Zen disaster.  After we went to the beach the first day I went to the meditation hall for the evening sit and service.  I bowed to the Ino, I put my left foot first, I bowed to the Buddha or whoever that statue is, I put my hands together and in front of me like I had a stomach-ache.  I bowed to the room and to the wall, and swung myself clockwise (clockwise!) to face the wall.  As I pulled one of my legs into half-lotus, a thin but persistent stream of sand flowed down out of my turned-up trouser-leg.  I'd carted it all the way there in the fold of my khakis - the beach had gotten me again.  There was a long swirl of sand on my black mat like a galaxy.  When the bell went I got up like any other po-faced Zen student and briskly swept my mat with a stern hand.  



  1. I for one happen to love those Buddha statues and love bowing to them. I also happen to love imagining the Universe is full of Buddhas watching over me and guiding me - knowing they are my True Self. It makes me feel good and is there anything wrong with that?

    But, I am in a minority and most Western Zen Buddhists think like you. In fact some Zen centres have eliminated bowing all together. What a pity! With the right mind it's really lots of fun.

  2. Nothing wrong with imagining deities watching over you; I've done it myself and it probably is even beneficial. I would draw the line though at believing that they really exist.

    As for bowing, it's a nice enough gesture, but it still seems an artificial way for a Westerner to pay respect. My main problem is that it's of-putting to beginners, but that may pass with time.

    I'm sure devotional practice is also often of benefit to people. I don't personally feel any connection to Eastern mythological figures, though; I don't feel I need them either.

    Anyway this is a big topic I may address in more detail at some point, and obviously people will carry on doing whatever they like.