My Stay at a Zen Buddhist Monastery
I spent two weeks as a guest zen student at Green Gulch Farm, a Japanese Zen Buddhist Monastery built as an extension of the San Francisco Zen Center. The following are excerpts pulled from my journal writings during my stay.
Entering the Gate of Serenity
After a forty five minute drive from the bustling city along the foggy coastline, I arrived at Green Gulch Farm. Although, all I could see from the car as I pulled in was a small parking lot, and a boardwalk that mystified into the forest. It was an absolute downpour outside. Water gushed along the walkway and pattered on my head as I walked through the trees to the welcome center. The overwhelming scent of wet redwood filled the air welcomed me to a space of tranquility.
With soaked boots and water dripping from my raincoat, I checked in, then was directed to the rooming quarters in the temple, so I could settle in for the afternoon.
This zen monastery was built in a forested gulch, just a short walk from Muir beach, outside of San Francisco. Despite the proximity to the city, it feels worlds away. Without cell service, I won’t be able to have any digital interactions for the next two weeks. I already feel immense relief. The temple and living quarters are built traditional Japanese zen style, with natural furnishings. To the untrained eye they look humble, boring even, but I see so much beauty in this unpretentious simplicity.
There is a network of pathways meandering the forest floor that connects the temple, living quarters, and dining hall. All of these structures are poised under ancient towering sequoias and cedar. Ferns, lilies, and other exotic greenery adorn the walkways. It is a sanctuary in the trees.
My dorm room endearingly reminds me of the day I moved into college. Old wood floor boards, a nightstand and lamp next to an empty twin bed. The other two beds in the room were obviously occupied when I arrived. My room has a window that looks out onto the veranda that outlines the zendo, our meditation hall. From this window, I also have a view of the bonsho, the large iron bell that will ring during our morning meditations.
I’ve met my two roommates, who radiate with all the bubbly vibrancy that accompanies young womanhood, and feel relieved of their welcoming and open energy. They too are guest students, practicing zen in the monastery for a short time. The three of us, in addition to another woman and four young men, create a group of new guest students. We’ll go through the next couple of weeks together, learning the zen way, and practicing meditation in this tradition.
When the rain paused, I went for a walk around the grounds to orient myself. Of course I immediately found my way to the gardens. It is filled with roses, foxgloves, espalier fruit trees, herbs of all sorts, and a towering bamboo hedge. There are many benches invitingly hidden in secret alcoves. The lushness of the garden is exquisite. Some areas are manicured, while others run a bit wild - the perfect touch of botanical whimsy to balance structure.
The farm grounds lie just beyond the gardens. They are expansive fields of rows of lettuce and other greens. The green houses are full of young starters not yet ready for planting. Both the garden and the farm have altars, where zen students gather to dedicate their work with a bow and ceremonial burning of incense before each work session.
I have also discovered the tea house and garden. It is a secret magical space hidden behind a plain wall and simple wooden doors. The architectural design of this traditional tea house, in combination with the tea garden, creates the most beautiful atmosphere. The wood sign naming the tea house reflects ancient Japanese characters. Roughly translated, it reads, “Sowing the Moon”. I know that the moon has interesting symbolism in Buddhism and Japanese culture. Often times the moon represents the internal world, or the illumination of the soul. A beautiful foreshadowing. Sowing seeds rooted in the illuminated soul.
The brass bells resounded outside our room at 4:25 am, heralding the time to rise for morning meditation. It was dark outside and still raining heavily. I rose, quickly changed into my linen pants and robe, brushed my teeth, then went into the zendo to take my assigned seat before the last roll down of the han. The sound of the han is a wooden mallet striking a dense wooden block. It serves as a warning to take our seats in the zendo before zazen begins.
The zendo was dimly lit by two large spheres and the smell of incense filled the air. Figures, dressed in dark clothing, walked silently on the wood floors to their zabuton cushions, like shadows passing in the moonlight. The monks in their long dark robes slowly took their seats on each of their own timeworn cushions. They sit like mountains. The singing bowls began to chime, the drum began to beat, and the big bansho outside resonated throughout the drafty room and into my bones. I took a breath and began to sit with my thoughts.
I performed the rituals as instructed by the guest student leader. In the practice of formal zen meditation, it is customary to enter the room with a bow to the sangha, a bow to my cushion, a bow in acknowledgement of those seated across the room, and a bow to those that take their seats next to me upon their arrival. Once the seated posture has been taken, the hand placement of the universal mudra, comfortably held with wrists resting on thighs, commences each individual’s zazen practice.
Every morning zazen practice consists of fifty minutes of seated meditation, followed by twenty minutes of a slow walking meditation around the room, then another fifty minutes of seated meditation, finished with a twenty minute ceremonial service of chanting and bowing.
My first meditation in the zendo was intense. My mind was a clutter of incoherent thoughts jumping from one subject to another. Past, present, future all muddled together in a confusing mess. My anxiety was constantly at the threshold. New sounds, new rituals, new space. My mind was loud, the room was quiet. Throughout the zazen practice there was a thunder and lightning storm. It shook the zendo and surged the room with electric energy. The weather echoed the raging storm inside myself. Everyone else seemed calm.
After morning zazen, it was time for breakfast, silently and mindfully eaten. Breakfast is the only meal we eat in total silence. For lunch and dinner, the first ten minutes are dedicated silent times, then we are allowed to socialize. After breakfast, we begin our morning work period. Following this, we eat lunch, then return to afternoon work, either in the kitchen, garden or farm. At about 3:30pm we have free time until our afternoon zazen. We complete the day with dinner at 6pm, followed by free time, then bedtime at 8pm. A few nights a week we have a dharma talk featuring a zen teacher speaker.
Before arriving here, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to handle this regimented schedule. Now that I’m here, the structure of the day isn’t so bad. It doesn’t feel constricting. It feels freeing in a way. The predictability allows me to settle into each task and each moment of the day.
The sun is just cresting over the peaks of the gulch. I am sitting in the garden near the creek. The frogs are croaking, off cadence, but still harmonious with the morning birdsong. This morning’s zazen was a ceremony in honor of the full moon that rose last night. It proceeded as normal with seated meditation, then kinhin, the walking meditation. Then we began a forty five minute ceremony of chanting verses in ancient Japanese and continuous bowing. There were a lot of bell chimes and a lot of drumming. It was beautiful. Foreign. Ritualistic. Sacred.
This is a recurring theme here - rituals and repetitive tasks. After morning zazen, all the zen students are assigned a soji, a temple cleaning task to do before breakfast. The floors get swept, the bathrooms get cleaned, the zendo gets organized. My group washes dishes for the entire monastery after breakfast and lunch everyday. We wipe the tables in the dining hall, sweep and mop, then wash the windows. We clean the snack area and restock the teas.
Other zen students in residency have more permanent jobs. Some work in the kitchen and prepare our three vegetarian meals each day. Others work in the office, the garden, maintaining the grounds, or on the farm. Everyone plays an important role in the functioning of this spiritual community. Much of what is done here is repetitive work. Many of the tasks are menial and simple.
Throughout our work, we are encouraged to be silent and engage in what is called “functional speech”. It is the act of only speaking if we must in regard to the task at hand. This type of mindful communication allows us to enter into a meditative state while working. Through this, we engage in a meditation in action, and can more easily become aware of ourselves and our surroundings free from distraction.
I have to admit, my group is horrible at this. We all get along quite well and often catch ourselves chatting about our home lives, zen concepts, or what has been going on in our minds during zazen. We find it difficult to remain silent and I’m afraid we are like the annoying little brothers and sisters of the monastery.
I believe an important lesson in achieving a zen mind is practicing mindfulness during the mundane and monotonous tasks. Making each moment, each function of action, intentional and sacred. It is an opportunity to engage wholeheartedly so as not to miss the eternity of life unfolding before our eyes.
I am exhausted - emotionally and mentally. This is not a meditation retreat. This is a spiritual and mental bootcamp. I am in a state of existential information overload. There is so much bubbling up from inside me; I don’t know how to process it all.
I think this practice dissolves the hardened deposits we accumulate inside our own minds. It seems like a practice that cleans the lenses of reality, because I’m beginning to look at myself and the world differently. The simple act of sitting quietly and noticing what thoughts come into my mind shakes me to my core. It is my undoing. Without the sights, sounds, to-do lists, and distractions of daily life at home, I’m able to see what really happens in mind and how it shapes my reality.
During meditation, if I’m not battling the serious urge to fall asleep, then I’m battling everything else. I find myself drifting into fantasy land, making future plans, problem solving some hypothetical scenarios, or brainstorming some project to do. Other times I fixate on anything that brings me discontent, or past traumas.
At first I tried to fight these intrusive thoughts - to suppress them, to exercise control, but it’s no use. They return like an invasive weed. So, I decided to just let my thoughts bubble up, then see what happens.
Sometimes I cry silently, other times I breathe through it. Being here, and practicing mindfulness in this setting, is giving me the opportunity to think about the inconvenient truths I put on the back burner. But more than that, it is helping me accept them, then release them. I am staring my deep wounds in the face and listening to their message. I am deconditioning myself - reprogramming the fabric of my mind to a blank canvas. This work is transformational, and it is not for the faint of heart.
I’ve gotten into a really nice rhythm here. I am enjoying going to bed early, waking up before dawn, and meditating. Mindfully working, eating, and communicating is coming easier.
I’m learning that much of my discontent is rooted in my desire to accomplish something, or most often, to accomplish it all. I am reminded many times each day, that this practice is not about accomplishing anything. In fact, this practice is the antithesis of that mental construct. This practice is about simply doing things for the sake of doing them. I am learning that it is not about what I do, rather how I do it, that matters most.
I have noticed moments where I am able to work without thinking about any particular subject. What comes from this is so much more than I thought, and so much less too...
I notice more, and ignore less.
I accept more, and judge less.
I appreciate more, and criticize less.
I wonder more, and assume less.
I connect more, and numb less.
I ground more, and stress less.
I flow more, and resist less.
I accomplish more, and do less.
I love more, and discriminate less.
Slowly my physicality faded like a dissipating cloud. The sense of my body whittled down to a single rhythmic pulse, a distant slow drum in my peripheral, and my breath became so minute it barely existed. I was aware of my body in the seated posture. I was embodied but my energy formlessly expanded outside the construct of my anatomy. I didn’t have a single strained or day-dreaming thought. My bodily systems condensed to a most minimal state, conserving all energy. Looking straight ahead, my eyes saw the wooden panels of the worn floor. I was aware of that but not coherently thinking of it. My third eye saw more.
It is a strange feeling, to look at yourself formless. There were no blue eyes, nor blond hair, or sharp nose to define what I’m used to seeing in the mirror. The labels others use to identify me were simply a refracted image overlaid on top of an energetic being. All that there was to see was an essence - a soul. I was looking at me. Myself, in my true nature. I saw a soul that was ageless and eternal. I saw darkness and light. I saw a vastness and a void. All in a moment so infinitesimally small and so exceedingly expansive. I sat in stillness, without thought of past, present, or future, in a luminous reality that transcended time and space.
Today I am returning home with a few beautiful gifts that have been instilled in me. I am also returning home with much less. Less worries, less stress, less attachment, less suffering. A lot, less.
So much has happened these last two weeks, it is difficult to put into words. I feel that I am awake to new aspects of myself. This experience has changed me. I think that one of the biggest lessons I am taking away from this experience, is this: It is through the small iterative steps in daily life, rather than the peak moments, where we can inspire the biggest transformation in ourselves and the world.
I had a moment of illumination in my meditation the other day. It was blissful, but moments like that are not the point of this practice. The real practice happens in the moments in life that seem monotonous and utterly simple. When we sit in traffic, when we drink our morning coffee, when we wash our hands, when we greet a passerby. Or, even the moments where we are expected to be upset, riled up, or outraged. When we get cut-off on the highway, when someone undermines our work, or when another voices their opinion that differs from our own. I am reinforced with the understanding that I am the architect of my own reality, and I am creating my eternity in every moment. I have the power to choose the adjectives I assign to my experiences. The real work lies in the unfolding of my everyday, mundane, life. It is just beginning.
Crossing the Threshold
What lies behind.
What lies ahead.
What lies within.
That eternal depth.
The one who walks
That crossing the threshold
Is not an academic or intellectual affair.
It is a journey of the heart,
Of the soul,
Into the true nature of self.
The very essence of being.
That is the answer
To the wordless question
so many ask.