SF Zen Center's 50 years of opening hearts, minds
Julian Guthrie - SF Chronicle
Monday, March 12, 2012
In 1959, a Buddhist priest with a slight build, shaved head and ready laugh arrived in San Francisco from Japan and began teaching the power of "just sitting" and "the beginner's mind" - looking at life as full of potential.
Three years later, in the summer of 1962, the priest, Shunryu Suzuki, who went by the name Suzuki Roshi, and his informal community of students founded the San Francisco Zen Center out of a small temple in Japantown.
Now, the San Francisco Zen Center - which now operates out of a historic 1922 brick building in Hayes Valley designed by Julia Morgan - is celebrating its 50th anniversary and is credited with quietly influencing the teaching of Buddhism in America.
But its reach is beyond meditation. The Zen Center runs one of the nation's first organic farms, as well as artisan bakeries and monasteries. It offers programs for veterans, the homeless, incarcerated, drug-addicted, and sick and dying. It operates vacation retreats and classes in everything from Zen writing and cooking to "queer Dharma" and "young urban Zen." Plans are under way to build a first-of-its-kind, $32 million Zen-inspired senior living center.
"We believe that peace comes from balance and from sitting silently but also working in the world," said Robert Thomas, a former restaurant and bar owner who is now a married Zen priest and president of the San Francisco Zen Center. "You don't have to shave your head or change your clothes. What we hope is that people will take with them compassion and kindness in whatever they do."
The San Francisco Zen Center also runs the Tassajara monastery and retreat in Carmel Valley, Green Gulch Farm in Marin County, and Hope Cottage, a rustic cabin high in the Marin Headlands. Over the years, the sites have attracted and housed an array of artists and musicians, inventors and politicians, including Steve Jobs and Jerry Brown.
"The first time I went to Green Gulch was in the '70s," said performance artist, musician and composer Laurie Anderson. "I first went to Hope Cottage maybe eight years ago and stayed there with my dog. A performance piece was inspired by that stay. Being there is like flying; you're so high up. It's just inspiring."
Anderson, a practicing Buddhist for almost four decades, said, "It's a place that has always grounded me and has been an important anchor."
As part of the center's 50th anniversary, Anderson will appear onstage Thursday at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley with Tenshin Reb Anderson, the former head of the Zen Center and a teacher at Green Gulch. The event, a benefit to raise money for the restoration of Hope Cottage, kicks off celebrations to run through the year.
"This practice of sitting still in the midst of wisdom turns out to have great utility," said actor Peter Coyote, who practiced at the San Francisco Zen Center from 1974 to 1984 and is now a Zen priest. "It has produced all of these impressive things - Green Gulch, the center, the ministries and jail programs and food kitchens and Greens Restaurant and a bakery. It all began with this little guy coming here in 1959 and starting to sit by himself."
Part of the beauty of Buddhism, Coyote noted, is that it "is not technically a religion. Buddha was an ordinary man. We make no claims for him being a son of God. What he did is solve this apparent dichotomy that we feel separate from the rest of the universe, this feeling that we are like a little grain of sand. What Buddha teaches is that we are all indisputably connected to the entire universe."
Tassajara, situated on 320 acres in the Ventana Wilderness, opened in 1967, making it the oldest Soto Zen monastery in the United States. As part of the training, monastic students - who live communally and cook, clean and dine together - began baking bread. The bread spawned the first artisanal bread cookbook, "The Tassajara Bread Book," its own bakery in Cole Valley, and Greens Restaurant at Fort Mason.
Today, Tassajara - known for its remoteness, accessible only by a steep and winding 14-mile dirt road - operates from September through April as a center for monks in training, and from May through August as a place for anyone to come and stay and explore Zen teaching. It offers hot springs, vegetarian cooking and classes, and evening Dharma talks.
"I became a monk at Tassajara and lived there for five years," said Norman Fischer, who runs the Everyday Zen Foundation. "I went to the San Francisco center to learn meditation from Suzuki Roshi and lived at Green Gulch until 2000."
Fischer, who now brings "Zen to the non-Zen," including employees at Google, added, "What's unique and wonderful about the Zen Center is that it serves the community in a wide way. You can come to deepen your commitment to Christianity or Islam. You can come seeking a deeper understanding of what lies within. It's just unprecedented."
Susan O'Connell, who arrived at the San Francisco Zen Center on December 31, 1995, after a successful career in acting and filmmaking, simply needed something different.
"I thought I'd stay for two months," she said with a laugh, sitting in the quiet, sunlit dining room. Ordained as a priest in 1999, O'Connell serves as vice president of operations.
'This place is a miracle'
Students who become residents meditate twice a day, at about 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. More than 150 students, ranging in age from 19 to 90, live and work at the three sites, paying nothing and earning a small stipend after a period. Everyone shares jobs, from cleaning bathrooms to cooking, planting and sowing. (At Tassajara, students meditate for up to 14 hours a day.)
"You rotate jobs, so that you have no idea what you are doing," O'Connell said, speaking to the philosophy of approaching life with a "beginner's mind."
At Green Gulch, opened in 1971, residents and visitors inevitably learn the art of farming. The Muir Woods center, with a small bookstore and a formal Japanese teahouse open to the public, has 110 verdant acres and six under cultivation. Winding pathways lead to small, peaceful gardens dotted with Buddhist iconography. Greenhouses are filled with new life, and produce from the farm is sent to local farmers' markets, Greens, and other restaurants.
"I feel like this place is a miracle," said Emila Heller, a Zen practitioner and center resident for 40 years. "I do a lot of farm work and coordinate the apprentice program." Walking the grounds, she said hello to the farm's head baker, Mick Sopko, who baked at Tassajara in the '80s and has been at Green Gulch for eight years. Almost 400 loaves are baked every week, he said.
"I was married and lived here with my husband until four years ago, when he died," Heller said. "There are single celibate priests here. There are married priests. There are farmers and artists. It's diverse. Everybody is your teacher.
"The San Francisco Zen Center is like the mother ship. It has spawned a lot of groups across the country."
Looking to future
The San Francisco center, which has a $5 million annual budget - Greens operates autonomously and also has a budget of about $5 million - gets 85 percent of its revenue from programs and the rest from donors. O'Connell and President Thomas said the center is in the midst of a $17 million capital campaign to create an endowment, and has raised $14 million.
"The 50th anniversary is about the past, present and future," O'Connell said. In addition to developing plans to build the first Zen senior living community - to open in the Bay Area within five years - the center is looking at expanding its nationally embraced Zen hospice, a "contemplative care" program started in the early 1980s by students to care for AIDS patients. In August, the center plans to introduce its "fourth practice site," launching a new website offering a compendium of 50 years of Buddhist teaching through audio files and podcasts.
Included in those audio files will be talks by the center's beloved founder, who died in 1971. Roshi, author of the spiritual classic "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind," opened the book with a line that still guides his followers today: "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
An evening with Laurie Anderson and Tenshin Reb Anderson. 7 p.m. Thursday. 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. (415) 863-3136. sfzc.org.
Julian Guthrie is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. firstname.lastname@example.org