Zen Center – Day 1, Meet and Greet

After tea, there are a few hours left before dinner and the official start to the work week. I use the time to acclimate myself to my room, change out of my travel clothes, and shove my useless, mangy socks into some deep dark hole in my suitcase.

I decide to wander the grounds. What I did not realize on arriving at Green Gulch is that Sundays are public days. There is a dharma talk, the aforementioned tea ceremony, and freedom for anyone to come and wander the grounds. The place is packed full of people, and I’m a little surprised at the un-solitude. I expected austere monks walking around and not hoards of parents corralling boisterous children. I would later find out that not only is this not a daily situation, but that this particular Sunday was especially crowded.

The buildings are beautiful, but not overly wrought. There is a Zen monastery quality to each one, but they aren’t temples and it’s clear that many of them are made for function and not aesthetic. In the Japanese manner, the inside spaces are beautifully decorated and cared for more than the outer shells. The zendo in particular is a one of the holiest places I’ve ever been in even as someone with questionable faith.

Further into the property I find the garden and the farm, and while I don’t have much time to explore either, I know that I will return to both in the days to come. I can see secret spots behind hedge mazes and bamboo copses lurking here and there and I am excited to see what’s growing.

Dinner proves to be another strange affair. Many of the behaviors and activities here have a component of mimicry to them; see and copy what we do and with repeated copying you will do things as naturally as us. I join other newcomers at the dining hall and learn that there is a ten minute silence at every meal. The knowledgeable residents line up on each side of a center aisle between tables, I copy them, and at the sound of a chime everyone moves forward to the delicious looking meal. The food is excellent, restaurant quality at least, though I am surprised to hear that not everything is grown on the farm. I will learn more about this in the coming week.

The work week folk are sequestered in a separate, smaller dining hall adjoining the first, and we are told by the head of the grounds crew, Sukey, that we are exempt from the ten minute silence. I am unclear on whether Sukey has chosen her own name. She looks more like a Barb or Kathy or even a Sue. Sukey has the elegance of an east coast heiress, but with the warmth of everyone’s favorite grandmother. She’s the kind of woman who winks at you as she’s walking by, as though you’re always sharing some private joke. As Sukey explains the week, I am amused because every project she lists is something I’ve either done at GilChrist or am currently doing.

I attempt some conversation with my new work buddies but everyone is introverted and I feel a little odd because I’ve come further than anyone else to participate; almost. Eriko is from Japan, and I am shocked to hear that she arrived from Tokyo just that morning. She is sitting next to me at the table, and her mannerisms are mostly what I’d expect from a Japanese woman; a knowledge I have only from watching contemporary Japanese films and novels. She is very demure, polite, and bows often. She doesn’t talk very much, though her English is very good, and she seems reluctant to say what brought her so far. She admits that she could have attended a similar retreat in Japan but cryptically claims a need to escape something. Coming to a half-Japanese, half-Californian zen center is maybe less of a plunge than hanging out for a week in San Francisco or Iowa. Her manner hits me with a bit of culture shock because I’ve never met anyone who behaved like her, but I am quickly acclimated to it and find that I like her quite a bit (which just illustrates my Japanese bias).

Scott, who rooms next to me in the guest house, is a middle-aged carpenter who reminds me of a single father, which I would later learn is true. He wears flannel, jeans, and his hair is parted one side and kept fairly long. There is salt and pepper in his modest goatee.  He has meaningful blue eyes, and it’s obvious that he is out of his comfort zone right now but needs this week away from his life. He seems to be struggling with something.

I sense pain from many of those I meet, and I feel a little out of place that I’m not in that boat anymore. I certainly have my share of troubles, but I no longer wear that haunted look that I’m seeing in these folks. Some of the other residents, the younger ones, have a dreamy, heavy-lidded look in their eyes, and if I didn’t know better I’d guess they were on drugs. It gives me a slight unease as I think back to books I’ve read about cults, but everyone’s very friendly and there’s plenty of contact with the outside world. The older residents look like regular people in the golden years of their lives. They lack any dreamy looks or pain. They seem content.

I also meet Stan, though don’t talk with him much. He is of a similar age to Scott, but his skin and hair are darker, and one of his thumbnails is completely black, like he’s recently hit it with a hammer. He doesn’t seem troubled by it, which makes me think it’s an old wound. Stan has a twinkle in his eye, like he has a joke rolling around in his head, and if you’re lucky he might share it.

I meet Hillary in the guest house as I am wandering around wondering what I’m supposed to do, and whether or not I can eat the delicious looking bread in the cupboard or drink the tempting teas. She is one of the younger guests, in her late twenties or early thirties if I had to guess. She has Native American features, though tells me she was born and raised in San Francisco, that her father is Jewis, and that she is a nurse in the city. She tells me she wants to be a nurse practitioner, which means she’d be able to diagnose patients, and she has cats on her socks. She has an easygoing manner, but there is a depth there that I’m beginning to suspect all the guests share.

After dinner, some of us move on to the zendo, which is the meditation hall, for an introduction to the practice by Ana, one of the senior staff members. Ana is older, perhaps in her seventies, and wears her hair up at all times in a loose bun. She is rail thin, and judging from her features was once incredibly beautiful; she still is. She has a thick German accent, but talks quietly, and I enjoy listening to her speak in the hushed environs of the zendo. Her words are soft, but clipped and authoritative.

Ana shows us what to expect during normal zazen times, which are at 5:00am, 5:50am, and 5:15pm. She explains how to approach the zendo doors, which foot to step inside with, when to bow, where we can roam and where we shouldn’t, how to hold our hands properly while walking in the zendo as well as how to hold them while meditating. She even shows us how to sit on the cushion, which involves bowing once to the side of the room, once to the cushion, and then sitting backwards on the cushion and rotating the legs clockwise so that your feet do not touch the area behind it. She tells us how to find our centerpoint; by straightening our spine tall and teetering back and forth until the center feels right. She explains that we need three points of contact, two knees and a butt, to the ground for balance. By the time we’ve been through all this, I can feel it. I’ve found the right position and I am neither uncomfortable nor awkward. There is a calm center and it feels peaceful.

But I am also very tired, and when we finish I walk back to the guest house and crash hard. I’ve decided to join the 5:50am zazen session and hope that my body allows for such an early rise. My first day at the center is over and it feels good.

Day 1.1
Day 1.2

Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6

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