z e n

[ 22:16 saturday 31 march – green gulch farm, muir beach, california ]

i’ve just returned from sitting in the formal garden with vajra in the glare of the almost-full moon. the sky is perfectly clear tonight. our conversation was accompanied by the undulating chorus of toads from the pond and the unexpectedly close-sounding waves on the beach a mile away. green gulch farm is a zen buddhist monastery, inhabiting a collection of japanese-inspired wooden buildings dotted amongst tall trees, with fields stretching down the valley to the sea. vajra’s been a friend since we met in london ten years ago. when i heard he’d joined green gulch’s thirty-strong community last month i was delighted to take the opportunity to come and visit.

last saturday i felt an urge to get away from san francisco so i rented a car with the intention of coming up here. it was my first experience of automatic transmission so i entertained passers-by with my initial lurching progress. once i got the hang of it i took the panoramic highway over mount tamalpais to stinson beach where i spent several hours clambering over rocks and photographing seaweed that looked like giant spring onions. then i drove back over the mountain and pulled up here with the intention of surprising vajra. i arrived at seven just as the wooden block was being sounded to mark the start of the evening’s zazen meditation. my enquiries revealed that vajra was participating and i’d have to wait a couple of hours before it was finished. the place exuded a wonderful sense of calm and simplicity so i was in no hurry.

i took a seat in the library and pulled out a book. a lady called shoho, who was marking out cloth to sew, asked if i’d eaten dinner and when i replied in the negative she led me down to the kitchen and assembled a plate of kale (grown on the farm), baked potatoes and a hard boiled egg. it was delicious. after i’d eaten she invited me to join in the last part of the zazen which sounded interesting.

she led me to a different building where i left my shoes in an ante-room. then i entered a galleried hall where several people were doing a slow walking meditation, moving silently clockwise around the room. i joined them until after a few minutes a bell sounded and the doors to the main zendo hall opened. this was a much larger chamber, lit by candles, with low platforms along either side and a large wooden statue of buddha inside the door. each person bowed to the statue as they entered. shoho gestured towards a platform. i stepped up to it and sat with my legs crossed facing the wall. thus i remained for the next forty minutes until another bell sounded and everyone stood up and faced into the room. i moved to do the same but quickly discovered i’d lost all sensation in my legs. in preference to falling over i swiftly sat down on the side of the platform and waited, somewhat self-consciously, for the blood to return. after a few minutes i managed to stand unsteadily. by this point everyone else was chanting so i joined in as best i could. then everyone processed out of the hall and i tracked down vajra.

on thursday evening i flew back from san diego to san francisco and returned to warren and ann’s house on russian hill, where they’d kindly let me stay the previous week. i had a fair amount of work to catch up with on friday but once that was done i packed up my things, rented a car and drove back to green gulch where i’d booked a guest room (i’m typing on the bed now). after supper vajra and i walked in the moonlight to a vantage point above the ocean with the lights of san francisco in the distance. this morning i rose at half past seven and after breakfast went for a long walk on the wild hillsides and coastal paths to the south of muir beach. this afternoon i spent some time photographic the gigantic mussels, sea anemones and starfish down at the beach; then vajra and i walked up the coast to the north. the weather has been fantastic. i spent most of the day shirtless. this evening after supper i did another session of zazen, then went out to sit in the moonlit garden with vajra.

this brief retreat has been an oasis of calm amidst the prevailing frenzy. tomorrow morning it all starts again. i’ll drive back to san francisco then catch a plane to boston for a couple of meetings. i’ll finally return to london on tuesday morning.

: c :

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