Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Modern Pilgrimage Part One: Setting Out (I Left My Heart Sutra in San Francisco)

In this five-part series guest blogger and filmmaker JL Aronson writes about his Fall 2012 pilgrimage to Buddhist centers in California and beyond. Follow his journey as he meditates his way through the West. Find out more about JL here. See more photos from JL's pilgrimage here. Happy reading! - Madeline

Meal Procession, City of 10,000 Buddhas, Ukiah, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

In 1883, approaching an average man’s middle age, the great Chinese Buddhist Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud) embarked on what would be his most elaborate and lengthy pilgrimage. In honor of his deceased parents, the accomplished monk traveled thousands of miles on foot, prostrating every few steps, crisscrossing China, Southeast Asia, and even visiting Llasa, high up on the Tibetan plateau. Of course, no trip could last so long and meander so far on filial piety alone. At 43, Hsu Yun must have blended his earnest gratitude with a healthy dose of curiosity. After all, there were no travel blogs, no Tumblr pages, not even a Rough Guide to aid one in imaging what lay beyond the horizon. And as a Buddhist practitioner with great faith and great determination, Hsu Yun would have wanted to experience the precious, liberating Buddha-dharma (teachings of the Buddha) with as many backdrops as possible.
Venerable Master Hsu Yun (1840-1960)
And so it was that I, too, set out on a pilgrimage of sorts this past autumn. Some key differences that bare mentioning: First, I am not an unencumbered Buddhist monk and so, whereas Hsu Yun wandered for years on his journey, I had to limit my own travel plans to several weeks. Secondly, Empty Cloud bravely risked blizzards, rains, bandits and his own body’s limitations by insisting on walking throughout the pilgrimage. I choose modes of transportation not yet available to the 19th century Chinaman. And while Hsu Yun meandered throughout many parts of the Asian landmass, east of the Himalayas, I limited my trip to that enchanting and spiritually rife region of my own landmass: California (plus a couple stops in Oregon).
I’m an East Coaster by birth and upbringing, although I lived in Northern California for four fascinating years during and just after attending university there. I loved California and the Northwest, and considered staying after college, but New York City, the Sun of my suburban satellite youth, was beckoning me with its dynamism, directness and specificity. I was never able to shake the feeling that left coast people, their culture and their cities, harbored a vague and uncertain core, unknowable to outsiders; perhaps even unknowable to themselves. It seemed like a place where people made things up as they went along, and adulthood was an always-open question. Of course, this was one of the things that attracted me about the West Coast in the first place. The positive side was that anything felt possible and everything was worth exploring. I’d done my own shape shifting in the cauldron of those years, swapping musical tastes, hair styles, hair colors, intoxicant preferences and college majors with gusto. Once satisfied with that process, and confident enough with the results to start applying for real jobs, I said goodbye to all that and headed back East.
One thing I didn’t invest enough time in exploring while I was on the West Coast, however, was religion. It was on my list of things to do, and I would try meditating on my own from time to time, but somehow really exploring this matter kept getting bumped by other distractions. I’d always been fascinated by faith and did poke my head in a few Californian doors, but never with a Buddha behind them. This was curious because, although I’d grown up Jewish, I’d been introduced to Buddhist philosophy and meditation when I was still in my teens and it resonated with me more than anything else I’d encountered. I was vaguely aware that the Dharma lurked just around the corner but I lacked whatever motivation was needed to even crack open a phone book to find out exactly where. 
Nevertheless, when I was in my mid-twenties, while living in New York and starting up my career as a documentary filmmaker, a series of events led me to my first meditation retreat. And then another. And another. Slowly but surely, Buddhist practice became a significant part of my life. I was almost equally bewitched by the different styles and methodologies offered by various schools of Buddhism as I was by the calming and centering effects of the meditation itself. And as I became more familiar with the history of Buddhism’s emergence in the West—and particularly that of Zen, the school that I gravitated towards—I started taking note of how many epicenters for that development were in my old stomping grounds. 
For starters, there was San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), easily the most famous and arguably the most influential source of Buddhist practice in America. Zen Center is located in the heart of San Francisco on Page and Laguna Streets, mere blocks from busy Market Street. It was founded in 1962 by Shunryu Suzuki and his students as the first Buddhist practice center in the United States, specifically for Westerners. Suzuki Roshi (the term roshi being an honorific for a revered teacher, usually an abbot) was also the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, a classic of contemporary Buddhist literature and one of the first books I was handed at that tender age so many years ago. I felt I owed a debt to this man, if for that early introduction alone.

Portrait of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at San Francisco Zen Center
Photo by JL Aronson
Suzuki Roshi died of cancer in 1973, just two years after publication of his groundbreaking book. However, to give you a sense of the guy’s influence, consider the following: while still alive, Suzuki oversaw the establishment of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, near Big Sur, and planted the seeds for Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, among other satellite centers. Tassajara was founded as the first Zen monastery outside of Asia and continues to train generations of earnest students throughout the year. A minority of those students actually become fully ordained monks or, priests, as they’re known in Suzuki’s lineage, but everyone who chooses to live there for either a few months or a number of years, follows the demanding monastic schedule. In the warmer months, Tassajara is open for shorter retreats. Weekenders can also take advantage of the site’s natural hot springs and numerous cabins for a Buddhist spa-like getaway. Once early-September arrives, however, the high mountain passes leading into Tassajara can be treacherous and the place closes to visitors. From then until some time in April, no one gets in or out, emergencies excepted.
Unfortunately, my pilgrimage did not coincide with Tassajara’s “guest season” so I was unable to see it with my own eyes. I did, however, manage to spend time at Green Gulch and Zen Center itself, so allow me to begin where it all began.
Hosshin-ji (Beginner’s Mind Temple) San Francisco Zen Center - 
300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA, designed by Julia Morgan, c. 1920
Photo by JL Aronson


Zen Center’s flagship is a 1922 beaux arts complex perfectly suited to its task. The building was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan for the Jewish Emanu-El Sisterhood of San Francisco, which used the site much in the same manner as a YWCA of that period: offering young women who were both unmarried and Jewish a residence with community and spiritual life in a possibly unfamiliar city.  The Zen Center functions in a parallel sense, albeit with fewer demographic restrictions. A photo exhibition, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of SFZC, was mounted in the Center’s ample dining room and hallway showing time-bending images of the building’s Sisterhood years and news articles from the time that described the life there. 

Buddha Hall: Dharma talks and some services take place in the Buddha Hall at San Francisco Zen Center
Photo by JL Aronson

I’m a sucker for side-by-side comparisons that allow you to feel the past’s presence and, studying these pictures, I had a visceral sense of how the space had been preserved and transformed over time. The large study room, right off the main entrance, had been a place of armchairs and bookshelves where the women of yesteryear might have shared conversation and enjoyed the fireplace on crisp Fall evenings. It now functions as the Buddha Hall, where all formal talks are given and many services take place on a sea of tatami mats. Though some folding chairs lined the perimeter of the room, it was sparsely furnished save several statues and an altar by the hearth. Downstairs, on the basement floor, there had originally been a compact gymnasium with a built in stage, doubling as an event space for the Sisterhood. During World War II, Jewish servicemen stationed in the Bay Area or docked in its ports, came to the Sisterhood building on Saturday nights for dance socials. Suzuki Roshi turned this into the zendo where, in Soto Zen style, practitioners face a wall during meditation, turning their attention inward to the workings of the mind, allowing all internal and external distractions to fall away (or at least be rendered innocuous), one after another. Dividers were placed in the floor to add additional wall space—a modification that allows for a greater capacity in the zendo and also results in a limited functionality. For instance, depending on whether it’s time for sitting, or a talk by one of the teachers, retreat participants proceed up and down the stairs between the zendo and the Buddha Hall.

San Francisco Zen Center Zendo
Photo by JL Aronson

The best way to encounter Zen Center is to first visit on a Saturday morning. They offer an introduction for those new to the Center and/or to Zen, starting at 8:40am. You will not be alone. I was amazed to see several dozen people show up for the introduction and was told that they get on average 50 or 60 new faces every time. San Francisco is a city of seekers and over-worked wage earners. The seekers are always open and curious, while the workers are told to get with the program and mellow out. At Zen Center, they’re all invited to drop any expectations and goals and just be present with what is. 
At 10am, a Dharma talk is given in which one of a number of the officially sanctioned teachers in Suzuki’s lineage espouses his or her interpretation and understanding of Buddhist wisdom. After this—weather permitting—everyone gathers for tea and cookies in the open-air courtyard that overlooks Laguna Street. Though the photos on the walls had given me a taste of mid-century life at 300 Page, speaking with a few of the long term Zen Center practitioners gave me an invaluable glimpse of what its been like to practice there over the past few extraordinary decades.

Learn more on their website.

One of the hallmarks and pleasures of SFZC practice is having options between the three grand practice centers. Each is quite distinct in their geography and emphasis while sharing a common overall style, liturgy, and even teachers. I found that the priests and many of the students all make the rounds from time to time. Even local practitioners living full, lay lives might do weekend meditation retreats at either the City Center, Tassajara or Green Gulch, depending on what’s being offered. 

Click here for Modern Pilgrimage Part Two - Green Gulch, Marin!

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