Thursday, February 21, 2013

Modern Pilgrimage Part Two: Green Gulch Farm

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


Green Gulch - on May 5, 2012 people worldwide took photos demonstrating the impact or impending impact of climate change in their location and posted them online at or
You can see all the dots on this flickr channel.
Green Gulch, a fully certified organic farm and fully functioning Buddhist retreat center all in one, is a half-hour drive from San Francisco’s City Center. I’d heard about Green Gulch 20 years ago when I was first moving to California and it sounded too good to be true. I must have not wanted that appraisal to be tested because it took me until this trip back west to visit the place for myself. Thankfully, with all those years of hype planted like a potential mine field, I was not disappointed.
Bay Area denizens are blessed not only with an enviable food culture, year round fair weather, and relatively low unemployment, but also a multitude of choices in getting away from it all. However, when it’s the Dharma they seek, there’s few places more accessible or picture perfect than Green Gulch Farm. A gulch is a steep sided ravine or canyon and the one where Suzuki Roshi’s students sought to expand his vision for a third residential retreat center had me thinking about “The Land of the Lost,” that 1970s TV show about an undiscovered valley still flowering in the Jurassic age. To get to the Farm, one crosses the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and then takes a windy, mountainous road down from Mill Valley, almost to the shoreline. When I arrived one Friday afternoon, fog was hanging on the escarpment of eucalyptus such that the boundaries between what came before and what I was driving down into could not be taken lightly. If the Coast Miwok people who inhabited Marin County before the Mission period wanted to escape notice for a while, I imagine this would have been an ideal spot.

The Wheelwright Center at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson
The first rush of cognitive dissonance comes when the visitor notices that all the buildings, and the landscape even, seem torn from a 17th century Japanese hand scroll. In fact, the overall feeling is that some hyper-traditional Zen temple has been airlifted from Kyoto Prefecture. That attention to imported aesthetics hews closely to the American Zen practice of maintaining the historic forms, even as the teachings are communicated in an American vernacular. It’s a way of honoring the culture that gave birth to Zen—after 13th century Buddhist monks brought it from China to Japan—as well as a constant reminder of the distinction between formal Buddhist practice and everyday Buddhist practice. So, while some people may balk at the chanting of unfamiliar words in liturgy services that blend English, Japanese and transliterations of ancient Sanskrit, it’s worth noting that many of those words would be unfamiliar to a Japanese or Indian person, as well. And while the clergy may sometimes wear robes that seem preciously anachronistic and foreign, they would have been foreign to people at the time of their design, too. The point is not simply to mimic a culture seen as holier than our own, but to take us out of our familiar territory and the habitual thinking that comes with the familiar, casual mind. Zen folk may not live in that rarified, formal circumstance 24/7, but the services and sitting meditation that take place in the meditation hall function in part as mindfulness practice. When one summons all their attention in a setting designed for heightened attention, it’s more likely they’ll be able to employ that same kind of awareness while interacting with others, working at the office or, as is the case for many people at Green Gulch, working in the fields.

Tools of Cultivation at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson
As the story goes, the San Francisco Zen Center didn’t set out to run an organic farm because they were passionate about self-sufficiency—although this, too, is a classically Zen Buddhist theme. A wealthy benefactor who owned the land was willing to sell it to the group for a pittance so long as it would be maintained as an open site where the public could learn about agricultural practices. Most of the Zen students didn’t know much about farming at the time but it was the early 1970s and the back-to-the-land movement was in full swing so plenty of people were willing to give it a try. 
Thirty years later, the farm flourishes on about 10 acres of the 115-acre property. Its high quality produce, herbs and flowers are sold to local farmers markets and select stores and restaurants. Additionally, yearly farm apprenticeships are offered to individuals interested in obtaining hands-on experience on a working organic farm. The farm interns participate in the spiritual and community life of the Zen Center but not to the same degree as other temple residents who come to Green Gulch expressly for the Buddhist training.

Main zendo altar at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

The zendo is one of the only surviving buildings on the property from before its change of ownership. However, you’d never know it. What was once a hay barn at the edge of the fields has been transformed into a gleaming, if rustic, epicenter of GGF’s spiritual life. Cloud Hall, as it is now known, is connected to a cozy dormitory wing, where many of the short and long term residents have their own rooms. (Bathrooms are shared.) Other residents are housed in a variety of structures spread across the property, from a high design condo-like building with eight unique apartments, to Mongolian-style yurts. Green Gulch has always welcomed families to live on the premises, and a number of people over the years have raised their kids in this lively, contemplative, serene, Northern California / Asian environment. When I visited, I only saw one couple making a go of this but I’m sure the number varies.

Guesthouse at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

Another standout structure at Green Gulf is the Lindisfarne Guest House, where I stayed during the two nights I was there. The Guest House boasts about 16 rooms (some singles, some doubles), a wood burning stove, a kitchen, and all sorts of amenities to make you think you were at a spa in the Japanese countryside. The entire building was constructed using age-old timber framing techniques without the use of nails or screws. Also of note is the traditional teahouse and garden where retreat participants can learn the art of the tea ceremony.
The yoga retreat I participated in was held in this yurt, cozy with a wood burning stove, bathroom and kitchen. For more on the retreat and its teachers visit
Photo by JL Aronson
The retreat I was there for, however, included neither tea nor gardening. Do-on Robert Thomas and Samantha Ostergaard co-lead a weekend retreat called “Zen Mind, Yoga Body,” emphasizing restorative practices and yogic postures that support prolonged periods of sitting meditation (“zazen”). Robert is the President of Zen Center and oversees its three branches, leaving spiritual direction to the more localized abbots. He is also an ordained priest in the lineage and I appreciated his wealth of knowledge about West Coast Dharma as well as his skillful conduction of the retreat when Samantha wasn’t leading us through postures and poses. 
First floor of the guesthouse at Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

A brief 10-minute walk beyond the farm lays Muir Beach, one of the loveliest, perhaps, in the county.

Find more information about Green Gulch and getting there by visiting

Click here for the next installment of Modern Pilgrimage: Great Vow Monastery in Oregon!
Toolshed Altar, Green Gulch Farm and Zen Center, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

Muir Beach, near Green Gulch, Marin County, CA
Photo by JL Aronson

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