As a follow-up to his conversation with Kamala Tiyavanich, the editors of Inquiring Mind invited Jack Kornfield to offer his vision of Spirit Rock Meditation Center as it is evolving its own identity out of the Path of Elders.
On July 4th, Independence Day, 1998, the staff, committee members, board of directors and affiliate teachers gathered for the first time in the new dharma hall of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and a few days later the first residential meditation retreat began.
For many of us, our gathering was the most moving and inspiring yet at Spirit Rock. After years of hard work holding the vision of a refuge here in the gentle rolling hills of Northern California, our retreat center was now a reality. On that first day, we began by chanting the entire Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching discourse that is the basis for our practices of mindfulness meditation.
The reason for our joy—beyond our new ability to host residential retreats—was the beauty of what had been created. We were awed at the success of the architecture and felt that this retreat center would hold our dharma practice in a very welcoming and spacious way. Those who hadn’t seen the new buildings were quite literally walking around grinning and exclaiming. People commented on the ease of getting from the meditation hall to the walking hall, or on the spacious place to leave shoes, and all were thrilled by the feeling of sitting beneath the high dome of the dharma hall roof. We were joyous to have built a place that is designed specially to fit our deep inner work.
We are particularly grateful for the creativity of Helen Degenhardt, our architect, a student of dharma who also helped the San Francisco Zen Center redo their zendo at Green Gulch as well as the baths and dining room at Tassajara. Her vision and sensitivity, together with four years of meetings of the design committee, brought a tremendous amount of mindful consideration to the design for the new center.
At our gathering that first day, the members of the different committees and work groups took turns standing up to the applause and cheers of the rest of us—members of the site-search committees, the fund-raising and gifts council, the land use committee, the design committee, the program committee, the board of directors, the first vision council, the family council. Over and over, people said, “It’s not the buildings that give me the greatest joy, but it was working with so many people whose lives are connected to the dharma, committed to a vision of awakening and compassion for themselves and others.” People said, “I would do it all again—even endure all those endless meetings a second time—for the pleasure of being in mindful community.” Most of us here in the West have placed great emphasis on the Dharma and the Buddha, and now we were feeling the vital and equal importance of this third jewel of the Triple Gem. Our new center is truly a testament to the power of Sangha.
In the center of the dharma hall we had placed a large and beautiful prayer wheel that was made for us in the wood-turning shop in Woodacre, the village across the road from Spirit Rock. We then invited everyone present to offer a blessing for those who would come to this place over the next thousand years, writing them on white streamers that will be placed inside the prayer wheel. The prayer wheel will stand at the entry gate to the retreat center for those who enter to turn and multiply the good wishes.
On July 6th, the first residential retreat began at the center, taught by all fifteen of the members of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council. At twilight, as the nearly full moon of July rose over the land, we recited the refuges and precepts. Then Ajahn Amaro chanted in Pali (and I recited in English) the Buddha’s first discourse, the Turning of the Wheel Sutra. “This is the truth of liberation, this is the path of liberation, this is the fruit of practice that I have discovered and now offer to you.” It was resonant and magical to hear those Pali words, the turning of the wheel again in this new part of the world, in this new dharma hall. For many of us there were tears in our eyes.
After that first evening we sat and walked in silence, as in any other retreat. Even though the first retreat felt auspicious, everybody went through the same things they always do—restlessness, sleepiness, pain in the body, the usual hindrances. Nonetheless, in an interview someone reported that other retreats had felt like swimming upstream, but on this retreat she felt as though she had taken a dip in the Ganges and was being carried along by the powerful energy of this new home of dharma.
Meanwhile, the Spirit Rock teachers had a wonderful time teaching together at that first retreat. One of the greatest blessings in our Western community of vipassana teachers is the collective vision of our teaching. We don’t have one senior ajahn or sayadaw to whom everyone defers. We learn from and support one another, and in the teaching collective there is a broader wisdom than any individual could carry. During the retreat we held intense and exciting dharma discussions about the best ways to enhance the spirit of awakening in our own lives and in the community. We listened to each other’s teachings, commented on them and asked questions.
The teachers all acknowledged that in the beginning of our dharma practice what had transformed our hearts was the silent, intensive retreat practice. We also agreed that what had been missing were ways to extend and support that practice in a mandala that included every other dimension of our lives. Like breathing in and breathing out, the second half of the breath had not yet been complete.
As our transmission of dharma is maturing here in the West, we are beginning to complete the mandala and moving toward what Kamala Tiyavanich found were the ancient roots of our tradition, the Path of the Elders. We are moving toward a community-based dharma that embraces service and wise relationships in all aspects of human life. For instance, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Massachusetts once held only vipassana retreats. Today, IMS and the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies together offer men’s and women’s retreats, a family program, interfaith dialogues, seminars on psychology and meditation, a prison outreach program and more.
In the same way, the founding vision of Spirit Rock has been to include both parts of the breath, to offer silent retreat practice and then to create the mandala of dharma that nourishes our meditative awakening in every part of our life in society. In doing so we are truly following the Path of the Elders. If one looks at the traditional Buddhism of Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, as Kamala’s research has shown us, people’s entire lives from birth to death took place in the fold of the dharma.
At Spirit Rock we already have an array of dharma programs: study classes, workshops on exploring family life as practice, teen vision quests, a prison project, seminars for people of color, and workshops on meditation and the healing arts or on meditation and psychotherapy. We have also been talking about the development of a Spirit Rock hospice program, a Spirit Rock program for people who are shut-in or in nursing homes, a program in the inner cities. On the other side of the mandala, this winter we will hold a six-week silent meditation retreat and next year a two-month retreat. We plan someday to build a hermitage for very long-term practice.
One of the great blessings of Spirit Rock is that it is situated halfway between the country and the city, halfway between the world of activity and the world of nature and silence. And like a good forest monastery, it can both contain the stillness and offer the outreach to the life of the marketplace. It can offer the atmosphere of awakening that spills like a fountain into all other dimensions of life.
We live in a fragmented and speedy culture in which the sense of the sacred is generally absent. This makes dharma centers all the more precious. For the computer programmer, the bank teller and the kindergarten teacher who come to an evening class, a day of retreat, or a longer silent retreat, we offer a reminder of wisdom and compassion. We offer them the experience of their own Buddha nature, the free and awakened heart that may have been lost or forgotten in the speed of their days and the complexity of their lives. When they come here, our task is to remind them of who they really are and what they can be, so they can take that back to the streets of Oakland or the classroom in San Francisco.
One of the great blessings of how Spirit Rock has been designed is that we can now offer our whole range of classes and daylong trainings while simultaneously holding long, intensive, silent retreats. So as beginners hear the bell that begins a mindfulness class or students come for a day of forgiveness or a morning meditation and yoga class, they will look up the hill and see people walking slowly and hear the other meditation bell. They will realize that there are a hundred other people here sitting and walking in silence in order to deepen and expand this very presence and freedom that they are now learning. They will be turned toward that intensive practice and nourished by it. The various parts of the Spirit Rock mandala will balance and serve each other.