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Holding Hands in the Shrine Room Print
Shambhala Sun | May 2002

Holding Hands in the Shrine Room

In 1986, in the early afternoon of the mid-point day of a two-week mindfulness retreat on the big island of Hawaii, the bell to end the meditation period rang only ten minutes after the session had begun. The teacher said, "We've just been notified by the Civil Defense that an earthquake off the coast of Japan has caused a tidal wave and it's crossing the ocean in this direction. It's expected here in three hours. Since we have only one car here and seventy people, and there are no available buses to send from Hilo, we cannot leave. They've told us how to prepare."

We had only two-story bungalows along the beach. The best we could do to "take high ground" was go upstairs. And, we had no "further inland" to go to—we were ringed by thick jungle.

We filled the upstairs bathtubs with water, lest the water supply be cut off. We took matches, food, mosquito repellent and flashlights and went upstairs to resume the afternoon meditation. Our teacher told the story of an ancient Zen master, who was asked, "What would you do if the waters of the north and the south and the east and the west all rose around you?" He was reported to have said, "I would just sit." Then, we just sat.

I closed my eyes and felt my heart pounding. I opened my eyes and looked out at the horizon. I wondered what a wall of water moving toward us would look like. I felt very cold. I closed my eyes and realized I was trembling. The room was still. I took a breath, and felt it. Then I said to myself: "This is my experience. Heart pounding. Cold hands. Frightened. 'Take a breath, Sylvia.' Heart pounding less. 'Take another breath.' Pounding stopped. Hands warm. I'm okay. Whatever will happen, will happen. I'm okay. It's okay."

I opened my eyes. It seemed windier outside and I could see the palms swaying. I imagined that the horizon looked closer and I felt frightened again. I looked around the room. Many of the people there were strangers to me, but some I knew well, and my good friend James was sitting right next to me. I thought about James' wife, Jane, at home in Berkeley and pregnant with Adam, and wanted very much for us all to survive so that James could be home when his child was born.

I thought about the people with whom I was in relationship. I noticed that James' hands were folded in his lap, as were mine. I reached over and tapped his knee and held out my hand. He reached for it and we both closed our eyes and sat for a long while, holding hands. By and by, we let go; each of us again folded our hands in our own laps, and continued to sit.

It's possible, of course, that my responses on that Hawaii afternoon would have been just the same without my previous experience of both psychotherapy and meditation practice. But I don't think so.

I think I might not have reached for another's hand for comfort had I not learned in therapy the habits of my psyche—its sensitivities, its areas of blindness and its hesitancies, especially in asking for help. If my habitual thoughts presented themselves (I'll be intruding, I'll be making a demand, I'll be showing fear), my more mature understanding (showing and asking for love is never a burden or embarrassment) was able to override it.

And equally, I think it was the repeated discovery in my meditation practice of connecting—regardless of turmoil and distress in my mind or body—with a core experience of feeling profoundly and unshakably safe that supported me in holding my own hand.

I became a psychotherapist when I was thirty years old after several years of being a client in an intense form of analytic therapy. I was impressed with how much I had benefited from the experience of feeling cared for by my therapist, and from my increased awareness of how unconscious fears and unrecognized coping patterns circumscribed my relational life as an adult. I decided that I wanted to offer to other people the same care my therapist had shown me.

Ten years passed. I was feeling better. I think the people I worked with felt better. I liked being a therapist. (I still do.) I wasn't fearless, but I was more aware of my fears, and I thought of my coping patterns more as a character style than as stumbling blocks. I imagined that was "as good as it gets."
It got better.

I began practicing mindfulness meditation when I was forty years old. I went on my first mindfulness retreat because that's what the people I knew were doing in the 1970’s. If I had expectations, I think they were of exotic spiritual experiences. I did not know that what was being offered was freedom from suffering. I did not know that what I most wanted was knowing—through my direct experience—that a peaceful mind is possible, even in the midst of challenge. I did not know that hearing the Buddha's insights into the cause and the end of suffering—verified by my own experience in meditation—was a key to that freedom.

I recall hearing dharma talks in which my teachers made a distinction between "psychological insights" and "spiritual insights." The first were discoveries made through self-reflection about one's own unique way of encountering the world, the second universal truths that presented themselves in meditation as spontaneous and intuitive revelations. Since they mentioned personal insights first, and since it seemed to me that understanding my own story would only be useful for me in personal relationships, I thought they were the lesser insights. I decided that spiritual insights, universally true and so useful to everyone, were those with power to liberate. I also imagined, incorrectly, that "psychological" insights would all happen first and be finished with, and then be followed by the more important "spiritual" insights.

I think differently now. I think every insight, every moment of clarity where there has preciously been confusion, is liberating. And although experiences of insight are not permanent and require ongoing practice, I think that they are, over time, cumulatively effective. I know that all of my insights, on all levels, support me.

My ability to engage in meaningful, intimate relationships sustains me. And I am also sustained by my ability to feel the truth of karma, to experience my life as part of an amazing, lawfully evolving world of connections in which there are beginnings and endings that bring joys and sorrows but not cause for alarm. I feel at ease. Not fearless yet, but working on it. And, better able to love.

So I'm still a psychotherapist. And I'm a mindfulness teacher. I feel just the same when I sit with people in a psychotherapy session as I do when I sit with them in a meditation hall, but I am aware that each venue has a particular focus and agenda. The tools of each place inform what response I bring to the moment.

In this first column for the Sun I wanted to introduce myself to you. My plan for the columns to come is to address topics in which psychological understanding and spiritual practice are mutually supportive.

And, the tidal wave never arrived. It passed south of Hawaii. But when we emerged from the bungalow after the "All Clear," we saw that the volcano clearly visible in the distance was beginning to erupt. That's a truth of our psyches and a dharma truth as well. There's always something.

These days, when James and I are sitting next to each other to teach, the story of the tidal wave sometimes comes up. Often, I'll reach over and he'll take my hand and hold it as I tell the story. I think the gesture becomes a part of the talk that students understand intuitively, as an insight about personal connections as well as the enduring power of kindness. Is that a psychological insight? A spiritual insight? Is it both? Is it always both?

Sylvia Boorstein is a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, CA. She is the author of It's Easier Than You Think: The Buddhist Way to Happiness and Pay Attention, For Goodness' Sake: The Buddhist Practice of Kindness.

Holding Hands in the Shrine Room, Sylvia Boorstein, Shambhala Sun, May 2002.
What to Eat in the Morning? Print
Shambhala Sun | May 2002

What to Eat in the Morning?

By: with
“And what of the divide between the sweet and savory breakfast lover? Is this a matter of body chemistry or is it another way of handling primal discontent?”

It’s been more than fifteen years since I last held down what many people disconcertingly refer to as a “real” job. For over a decade I haven’t shaved before going to bed, taken my shirts to the laundry or put on a sports jacket before noon. I can no longer find the snooze button on my alarm clock while fast asleep. I’m not sure that I still know how to tie a necktie—or, for that matter, where exactly my neckties are.

What I can’t forget, however, is the trauma of the workday morning. I went to bed wrapped in the quiet solitude of my personal life; I woke up to find my bed down the corridor from my office. It was a long corridor, and it took a lot of effort to drag myself down it—splashing my face with water, donning work clothes, and swilling coffee as I went.

I would have given anything to make that hallway much, much shorter. I had to face cheek-nipping cold, subway cars so crammed with riders I had to hammer myself in to escape being crushed by the closing doors, and the predictable but always mortifying late arrival, a good twenty minutes after everyone else. If only I could have woken up in my office chair, scrubbed clean and fully dressed, to find that some considerate soul had left on my desk a jeroboam of steaming coffee and a pizza-sized cheese Danish.

Although most mornings I surely must have eaten breakfast before I left home, I can’t for the life of me remember doing so or what I might have eaten if I did. All I remember is a world of pre-Starbucks coffee-and-pastry takeout joints and doughnut shops with their half-evocative, half-repellent odor of boiled coffee and stale frying grease, filled with jostling patrons fighting for the counterperson’s attention.

I worked in downtown Boston for several years, and by the time I left I knew every breakfast dive in the area and every item on their takeout lists, from almond croissants to Chinese crullers to the sausage rolls sold at a British bakery chain trying to establish a beachhead on this side of the Atlantic. Then I left my job and never entered one of those places again.

What surprises me on reflection is not the abruptness of this change but my total obliviousness to it. There was no sigh of relief heaved nor “good riddance” muttered. One day, there I was with my mouth full of cranberry-walnut muffin, and the day after, it was as if I had never known such things existed. From the moment the working world and I went our separate ways, I haven’t eaten a single jelly doughnut or raspberry turnover or anything else much resembling them.”

I shouldn’t be surprised by this. Of all our meals, breakfast is the one in which form most relentlessly follows function. We eat the workday breakfast with one foot out the door—which means that the outside has already planted its foot right in our kitchen. In the television sitcoms of my youth, Dad ate standing up, a cup of coffee in one hand, his briefcase in the other. Now Mom is standing there with him, and the dirty cups sit in the sink until one or the other of them returns home at night.

The backlash hits once we arrive at the office, where a force as strong as gravity draws us toward the box of doughnut holes some well-intentioned soul has left beside the coffee machine. “Take three,” our inner quack prescribes, “one chocolate, one rolled in coconut, one dusted with multicolored sprinkles, wash them down with a hit or two of java, and you might just survive until noon.”

The coffee break, the mid-morning treat, these are nothing more than an all-too-ephemeral antidote to that white-collar malaise compounded of boredom, stress, fluorescent light and recycled air. My interest in such “treats” vanished once I stopped perversely trying to move my bedroom closer to my office and, instead, found a way to shift my office into intimate proximity to my bedroom. Then, rather than waking up to find—as I had once wished—that the painful transition from private to public self had already taken place, I open my eyes knowing it doesn’t have to happen at all.

Even so, I was still a long way from discovering a breakfast of my own. After I left my job, I moved to the coast of Maine, where Matt soon came to join me. For most of our time there, we lived off a dirt road in a house tucked into a pine woods. The deep silence that greeted us every morning all but mandated the house-livening presence of breakfast baking—pancakes, popovers, cranberry clafoutis, blueberry coffeecake. Indeed, such baking became so routine that Matt eventually had her biscuit making perfected to the point where she had them in the oven in five minutes flat and out of it before the coffee had finished dripping through the biggin.

Alas, this didn’t really do it for me, and as it turned out, Matt had also begun to tire of all that morning baking. These days she prefers a simple breakfast—hot buttered toast with honey, or sometimes Grape Nuts and yogurt. But my morning appetite, however lazy, is too restless to settle happily into so regular a gig. Initially, I thought otherwise. At first, my solitary breakfasts reflected a need to compensate for years of suffering from FEDS (fried egg deprivation syndrome—Matt has never been much of an egg lover). But after several months, this everyday routine of fried or scrambled eggs began to pale.

The word “breakfast” seems to me not quite right for our first meal of the day. Whatever you want to call that stretch of time since supper, most of us don’t exactly think of it as a fast. We’re hungry when we wake up in the morning, no doubt about it. But we’re also groggy, vulnerable, feeling as though our brain is encased in nothing more solid than tissue paper. That mouthful we seek, blindly groping our way across the kitchen, bare feet padding on the cold linoleum, needs to be a very special sort of sustenance. For the truly innocent, a bowl of hot pap is all the occasion requires, whether that be porridge and milk, a doughnut dunked in coffee, or a bowl of steaming noodles steeped in beef broth.

And what of the divide between the sweet and savory breakfast lover? Is this a matter of body chemistry or is it another way of handling primal discontent? Does the one keep adding sugar in hopes of returning to a half-remembered, now unattainable state of sweetness and bliss? Does the other keep salting and peppering to give savor to what has otherwise proven drearily bland?

Well, whatever the answer, we hardly want it to intrude on our breakfast. It’s enough to notice that the essence of the perfect morning meal, no matter how we season it, is the soothing feeling of imbibing energy without expending any. The golden rule of morning eating is simply this: breakfast is before work. If there has to be any cooking at all, we want it to be nothing more than an appetite-enhancing form of play.

This is only possible, of course, if someone else has done all the necessary prep. And until the advent of the processed food industry, that person was usually a hen. The egg is the original prepackaged breakfast, a meal that—at least before salmonella worries— could be sucked right from the shell. Otherwise, eggs can be cooked easily and quickly in any number of pleasant ways—poached, fried, scrambled, boiled, coddled, baked and, even if it comes to that, deep-fried.

The problem—at least for savory breakfast lovers like myself—is that after the egg comes—what? Cheese, to an extent. It is soft; it melts pleasingly when laid over a plate of home-fried potatoes—in fact, it would prove to be a crucial ingredient in many of my new breakfasts. But as the featured event, a slice of Gorgonzola or farmhouse Cheddar quickly begins to cloy. It turns out that the world abounds in ideas for one-shot Epicurean breakfasts—the wedge of pate, the smoked duck breast, the tureen of menudo, the brace of marrow bones. Far harder to find is the unremarkable but always welcome sort, the savory equivalent to a bowl of granola or a sticky bun.

Or so I feared, when I first started pushing our grocery cart into some unfamiliar areas of the supermarket, searching for clues, toying with foods that otherwise would never have caught my eye—individual pork pies, frozen beef and bean burritos, Chinese ravioli, finnan haddie. At one point or another, I tried them all. I made lots of mistakes. But gradually the field narrowed, and I began to approximate my ideal morning meal and create a satisfying line-up of options, including pierogi; bagels and cream cheese; a bird’s nest of soft-boiled eggs in toast with matchstick potatoes; and tamales, roasted peppers and cheese. Here’s the recipe for that:

Tamales with Melted Cheese and Roasted Red Peppers
(Serves 1)

2 frozen tamales
2 slices of a mild white cheese such as Monterey Jack
1 whole roasted red pepper (the ones I use—packaged in a jar with huge garlic chunks—come from Bulgaria)

Heat the tamales as directed on the package. Meanwhile, slice the cheese. Split the roasted pepper into two halves and—if fresh from the fridge—warm them up a bit. (I put them on a saucer and slide this into our toaster over, turned down to its lowest setting.) Slip the tamales from their packages directly onto a plate. Set a slice of cheese on each and top with a pepper half. Eat at once.

John Thorne, with his wife Matt Lewis Thorne, publishes the newsletter Simple Cooking ( They are authors of Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook, and Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots.

What to Eat in the Morning?, John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne, Shambhala Sun, May 2002.
The Buddha's Bravery Print

The Buddha's Bravery


According to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, to have the definite intention to emerge from samsara is an act of warriorship, a way of dealing with our fear of death.

At the heart of the Buddhist path is the understanding of samsara. This is the endless cycle of suffering to which all beings are subject as long as they believe they possess a self that is real.

What can we do about this? To begin with, we can commit ourselves to the path of waking up from our view that the self is real and in need of constant protection. Making this commitment begins with hearing the teachings of the Buddha and the instructions for meditation. Having found the teachings and the practice to be valuable, we feel confidence in the path we’ve discovered and in our own ability to follow it.

Buddhists have a ceremony for officially entering the path of meditation. It’s called “taking refuge,” and it involves embracing the Buddha as an example, the Buddha’s teachings as a guide, and the community of other Buddhists as helpful, supporting companions on the path. And what are we taking refuge from in such a ceremony? From this endless cycle of frustration—of seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain. We recognize that this approach, ironically, only brings more pain.

What does it mean to take a vow of this kind? It means we acknowledge and renounce with conviction the cycle of suffering. It means that we’re giving our allegiance to something worthwhile, something that we’ve found to be true and wholesome and good. We have decided to take this path because we recognize that it leads to a place where we can flourish. Making this declaration enables us to begin to break our negative patterns and to develop the helpful qualities that we all possess inherently.

This intention is called ngejung in Tibetan, which translates as “definitely arising,” or “definitely emerging.” We are definitely emerging from samsara. This is a brave act. Taking this step is often referred to as entering the path of the warrior. We don't mean warrior in the fighting sense, but in the sense that the warrior is heroic and courageous. The warrior-meditator’s job involves clarifying and subduing one's own misunderstandings. It means overcoming fear.

We generally think of a warrior in battle as needing to overcome the fear of death. Comparing the warrior in battle to the warrior-meditator is not that far off. After all, whether we go to battle or not, we are all going to die. A warrior who succumbs to fear of death is unable to move forward into the next moment. The warrior gets stuck. We get stuck in samsara because of our fear of death. To have the definite intention to emerge from samsara is an act of warriorship, a way of dealing with our fear of death.

The Buddha, our first object of refuge, was an example for this kind of warriorship. He traveled on the path of awakening and overcame all sorts of difficulties. He demonstrated that fixation on the self can be overcome. He was brave enough to take a stance against materialism and his own attachment to pleasure. If we emulate him, we are emulating a being whose mind and actions were in accord with reality, who was not simply following the endless cycle of samsara.

We call the Buddha’s voice the dharma, our second object of refuge. He expressed his mind to others by showing them a practical way to achieve selflessness and to understand emptiness. He gave us instructions for realizing the profound meaning of every possible situation.

The community of people who study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, the sangha, is our third object of refuge. As a group, the sangha keeps alive the instructions from the Buddha. Fortunately, because of the sangha, we don’t have to be alone on our spiritual journey. None of us is perfect, but because we agree on the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, we share a view of one another—and of all beings—as having basic goodness. In fact, we can see all beings as buddhas.

It’s helpful to contemplate the meaning of these objects of refuge. We can’t fully understand them from reading books. We need to try out the instructions for ourselves and work with our own mind to understand their deeper meaning. In this way, we take a simple, intelligent approach to the path. We think it over again and again. If it consistently makes sense (or makes progressively more sense, as is the case for a lot of us), we build up our conviction and our personal discipline by holding to principles we know are sound. And if we lose our conviction or forget why we have taken refuge, there are reminders such as impermanence, aging, sickness and death all around us.

Taking refuge ultimately asks us to overcome fear—including our fear of death—by closely examining it. Dying is terrifying because the consciousness loses the support of the body. There’s an unparalleled sense of loss and disorientation. But if we examine further, we must ask, Who is it that experiences this disorientation? Which part is “me”? Who dies? The mind consciousness is said to consist of thoughts, memories and dreams. Does that collection make up “me”? And if we cannot find a “me,” what is there to protect or be fearful for?

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

The Buddha's Bravery
, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, March 2002.

Profile: San Francisco Zen Center Print
Shambhala Sun | March 2002


Profile: San Francisco Zen Center


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. In1959, 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.

City Center

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:

Weekday Mornings
5:25 a.m. Zazen (sitting meditation)
5:55 Kinhin (walking meditation)
6:05 Zazen  
6:40 Service
7:05 Soji (temple cleaning)
Weekday Afternoons
5:40 p.m. Zazen
6:20 Service
Saturday Morning Program
6:30 a.m. Zazen
7:10 Service
7:40 Soji
7:55 Oryoki Breakfast
8:40 Meditation Instruction
9:25 Zazen
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.

David Chadwick is the author of Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki; To Shine One Corner of the World: Moments with Shunryu Suzuki, and Thank You and OK! An American Zen Failure in Japan.

Profile: San Francisco Zen Center, David Chadwick, Shambhala Sun, March 2002.


Buddhist Treasures of Afghanistan Print
Shambhala Sun | March 2002

Buddhist Treasures of Afghanistan


Afghanistan is known as a great crossroads. It was an important stop on the Silk Road—the world's first great turnpike—and a major pathway for the spread of Buddhism. The list of conquering peoples to pass through this pivotal region includes still familiar names and names long forgotten: the Persians, Huns, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans, the Mongols under Genghis Khan, the Moguls under Babar, the Greeks of Alexander the Great, and the Mauryans led by the great Indian Emperor Ashoka. Each left a mark on Afghanistan—in the faces of the people and in the arts and artifacts left behind. In some cases, the collision of cultures resulted in some astounding blends, such as when the artistic sensibilities of the Greeks merged with Buddhist imagery to create Gandharan art.

In the centuries following the Buddha’s death around 500 BCE, one of the first great expansions of his teachings was westward into a vast area that includes parts of Kashmir, the Punjab, modern-day Pakistan and northern Afghanistan. This area was centered on the great district of Gandhara, whose capital, Purushapura, is today the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

It is thought that Buddhist missionaries first ventured into Gandhara not long after the Buddha’s parinirvana, but it was not until 250 years later, during the dynasty of Emperor Ashoka, that Buddhism would flourish there. Ashoka's grandfather was founder of the Mauryan dynasty and made this region part of his realm. Ashoka served there as a young man, and when he later converted to Buddhism, he worked with great fervor to spread the dharma in this region, for which he had a special affection. Pillars and rocks containing Ashoka’s edicts have been found there, including one inscribed in both Aramaic and Greek.

Not long after Ashoka's death, the Mauryan dynasty declined and the region fell back under the control of the Greeks, who had settled there after Alexander retreated. But the Greeks did not try to obliterate Buddhism, and in fact the Greek king Menandros engaged the monk Nagasena in a series of famous discussions, which became the noted Buddhist text, The Questions of King Milinda.

Many conquests later, the Kushans, a nomadic people from China, swept through central Asia and turned south into the Buddhist districts centered on Gandhara, including Udyana (the Swat Valley) where tantric Buddhism had taken root. At first, the Kushans attacked Buddhism but eventually they became great patrons, building many monasteries and stupas. The greatest of their kings, Kanishka, started his life as a headstrong warrior, but like Ashoka, he underwent a conversion to Buddhism after contemplating the tremendous slaughter he had wrought. Kanishka's reign would lead to a great spread of Buddhism into central and eastern Asia. His patronage contributed to a rise in Mahayana culture and literature, including the birth of Gandharan painting and sculpture.

Buddhism in this region would survive yet another conquest, by the Sassanids of Iran. Although Zoroastrians, they were generally tolerant of Buddhism. It was during their reign, between the third and the fifth centuries, that the great cave monasteries of Bamiyan and the famed Bamiyan Buddhas were created.

Afghanistan’s extraordinary Gandharan statuary and cave painting is beautifully displayed in Gandhara, The Memory of Afghanistan, by Bérénice Geoffroy-Schneiter. Most of the images gathered in her book, and presented in this article, reflect the discoveries—and in some cases the actual photographs—of French archaeological teams who in 1922 were granted exclusive excavation rights on Afghan territory for thirty years. An archeologist and art historian who spent part of her childhood in Afghanistan, Geoffroy-Schneiter was drawn to the combination of spiritual power, aesthetic sensuality, and attention to detail demonstrated in Gandharan works.

But no sooner had she completed her book, in which she voiced alarm over the future of this great art, than the Taliban regime shocked the world by destroying the twelve and twenty storey high Bamiyan Buddha statues, the most notable—and to that point most durable—examples of Gandharan sculpture. For years, the Taliban had threatened to destroy these examples of a competing faith located in the homeland of a rival tribe, the Hazara, and in February of last year they made good on the threat with dynamite and artillery. Then in November, with the fall of Kabul, it was discovered that the Taliban had also systematically smashed two thousand sculptures, carvings and pottery pieces from the Kabul Museum, representing many eras and traditions. This destruction of Afghanistan’s great cultural and artistic heritage was carried out by workers using axes and hammers, and took two months. However, as these stunning images attest, the elevated spirit of Gandharan sculpture and painting, surviving in many beautiful artifacts in the world’s museums, cannot be destroyed by tyrants or hammers or dynamite.

 Buddhist Treasures of Afghanistan, Shambhala Sun Staff, Shambhala Sun, March 2002.

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