East Meets West in Sonoma (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Two meditators sit zazen below an enormous bodhisattva in the zendo at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center.
The way is in the heart.
Strike out some morning from behind the Sonoma Vets building for the hike up Overlook Trail. At the top, sit on one of the stone benches and concentrate on the quiet. To the right there’ll be the Plaza, Broadway’s wide track reaching up from the south, the hospital, the high school, Highway 12, all abuzz with purposeful activity. But there, in the hills, on top, as it were, the air is clear and still. A doe and a fawn step out from the trees. Dragonflies spin, the buzz of insects sounds like a chant. The city itself seems cradled in the embrace of the soft hills east and west. Heartbeat and breath
slow. The mind surrenders to the everlasting present.
It is, in a very real sense, a transcendent experience, perhaps a zen moment.
Which would not surprise the growing population of people anchored in the Sonoma Valley who get their spiritual sustenance from the East, one breath at
Eastern religions, with their emphasis on mindfulness, simple living and the interconnectivity of all living things, seem to resonate with Sonomans. Three centers exist here, frequented by hundreds of practitioners. The oldest and largest is Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, founded in 1973. Situated on 80 acres above the verdant Valley of the Moon, Sonoma Mountain Zen, which teaches meditation in the Japanese tradition of Soto Zen, strives to attract seekers—regardless of theology—toward greater clarity and peace. The center’s exquisite rural setting underscores that mission, and is, in the words of Kwong-roshi, the center’s abbot and founder, “a sanctuary in which we can awaken to (the) true connection we share with every being and thing.” In addition to its residential training program, Sonoma Mountain Zen has a full schedule of sitting, chanting, and talks in the Soto-Zen tradition. Its 120 members come from Sonoma and nearby towns, but there are visitors from around the world .
Though sometimes disparaged as “New Age,” Buddhist theology has been around a very long time, since Siddhartha Guatama undertook his vision quest some 600 years before Christ. Sheltered from life’s trials in the vast compound of his privileged family, Gautama was shocked—when he finally left its confines—to learn of sickness, old age, and death. Newly convinced that suffering lay at the end of all existence, Gautama renounced his princely title for monkish asceticism. While meditating beneath a tree, Gautama’s mind opened in epiphany, a blinding flash of pure clarity. He understood that the road to salvation lay in Four Noble Truths which revealed that earthly pleasure, while not denied, is acknowledged as fleeting, it’s continual pursuit the ultimate Catch-22: The more one craves, the less one has. Following his discovery, Guatama was rechristened as Buddha, meaning the “Enlightened One.”
Buddha never described himself as a god; his teachings strove to “awaken” our inner peace despite the cravings and sorrows that plague us all. As Buddhist practice and tradition spread from India throughout Asia, it absorbed and incorporated other cultures so that today there are several major strands of belief, uniquely different yet inherently similar, and meditation is a key component of them all.
It was the Chinese and the Gold Rush that brought Buddhism to these shores. While Thoreau and Emerson were making intellectual explorations back east, the first real temple opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1853. By 1900, there were more than 100. Today Buddhism’s surging popularity is due mainly to American converts, many of whom have fallen away from mainstream Christianity and Judaism. Modern American Buddhism’s most common expression is Tibetan, or Zen, and Sonoma’s Zen center offers a full range of meditation, retreats, dharma (teaching) talks and opportunities for study.
For many practitioners, Buddhism is not a faith so much as a practice, a philosophy or guide to living wisely. Some combine Buddhist practice with more traditional religion, like Lee Wilcox, a member of Sonoma’s First Congregational Church, who appreciates that in Buddhism “there is no Godhead, no adoration or supplication,” all of which, for her, constitute religion. Wilcox likes that Buddhism helps “make wisdom part of everyday life,” presupposes quiet time and encourages practices of nonjudgment, nonviolence and loving-kindness. She adds that the principle of mindfulness can be practiced throughout the routines of daily life, even while engaged in simple chores like doing dishes or weeding.
In the heart of downtown is the Sonoma Shambhala Meditation Center. Shambhala follows the teachings of Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and his son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. There are Shambhala centers all over the world, including seven in the Bay Area. The Sonoma chapter has an especially local connection: Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and nationally known speaker and writer, lived and taught school here before her conversion. Later, she came often to visit, and her followers established the center in her honor. The center now offers frequent public meditation and a curriculum of Buddhist and Shambhala teachings.
Like other forms of Buddhism, Shambhala’s core includes the teachings of the Buddha and meditation. But the emphasis in Shambhala is not the lone practitioner sitting on a cushion; rather, Shambhala seeks the transformation of society.
According to Larry Barnett, former Sonoma city councilman and mayor, and now director of the Shambhala Center, a practitioner of this type of Buddhism focuses on compassion: she cannot be fully “awakened” until all others are. One strives to see the “Buddha nature”—goodness—in all sentient beings and to find willingness to give up one’s own life for others.
Barnett believes we are living in a “dark age of materialism” with appalling costs for individuals, society, and the planet as a whole. Shambhala teachings, he says, have never been more important than right now, when the world’s limited resources compel attention to the needs of others. The shrine room at Shambhala’s center is a refuge from the commercial world, a rare place of peace. “People come to get away from the world,” says Barnett. “There are so few places anymore where someone isn’t screaming at you. The meditation room is clean, safe, and free.”
A little to the west, across Arnold Drive, is another center of Eastern practice, the Sonoma Ashram. The ashram’s rituals actually stem from Hinduism, but like those of Buddhism, are based in meditation. The ashram’s teachings flow from the ancient tradition of Aghor Yoga, the roots of which, it is said, extend all the way back to Shiva, the pre-eminent Indian deity and father of yoga. The ashram’s meditation practice is somewhat different from sitting in the Buddhist style. Meditators in this tradition repeat a mantra (usually a Sanskrit word), use a mala of 108 beads, and sometimes wear a special shawl while sitting, to separate them symbolically from the outside world.
Founded in 1990, the ashram is led by guru Baba Harihar Ramji, known familiarly as Babaji. His Friday night and Sunday morning talks are so loving, so clear and so deep that they resonate with people of all faiths (or no faith). His wisdom is in demand across the country, in Europe and in his native India, but his arrival in Sonoma was scarcely noticed.
Seated in a simple white robe, a warm and slightly bemused smile lighting his face, Babaji tells the story of how he discovered Sonoma–and how Sonoma discovered him–as if there is buried within it a sweet cosmic joke. And perhaps there is. Long a seeker who knew conclusively there was something lacking in his life, Babaji struggled for years, he explains, between the lure of material wealth and the ineffable thirst of his soul. Eventually he became a disciple of a guru who told him to “look for your happiness in the smiles of others.” Torn for several years between his travel business and service to his guru, Babaji said, one day, to his Babaji, “I want to be like you.”
The response changed him forever. “You really think this is an easy life?” his guru asked him. “You have to walk away from everything you have created. You have to go to a new place where you don’t know anyone. You have to go pennyless.”
And so he did. Babaji promptly sold his business, told his manager he was leaving, “And within two weeks I was a free man. One morning I ate a big breakfast, I filled my car with gas, and I left, not knowing where I was going.”
He was passing through Santa Rosa when he saw a sign for Sonoma. He had seen the sign before, but he had never followed it, and for the first time, he says, the sounds in the name called to him as “Sono Ma” or “Holy Mother.”
He ended up at the Plaza, parked his car, and sat on a bench watching the life of Sonoma go by for two days, without enough money to eat. In the tradition of great ascetics, however, Babaji was befriended, fed, honored and housed. Before long he was teaching his message to a growing following who, in short order, helped him found the ashram.
His message is utterly simple. “The ultimate teaching,” he says, “is to be in a state of mind that goes beyond discrimination, seeing the divine in everything and in everyone.”
Reaching that state, of course, is the trick, and Babaji advises baby steps. “In order to connect with our wholeness, one has to do something very concrete daily. It doesn’t matter what. It could be meditation. It could be prayer. Anything. Whatever the heart welcomes.”
To begin the journey, he suggests a single, simple step. “Where I start people is, three deep breaths every morning. Keep it so simple that the mind doesn’t find a way to wiggle out of it.”
Sharing Babaji’s presence is invariably calming and quieting, bringing visitors in touch with deeper layers of themselves. But Aghor Yoga is not just about the self. Besides spiritual growth, the ashram is dedicated to seva, or selfless service, in the community and the world. “Selfless service” is defined as doing good for others without the expectation of anything in return. In keeping with that mission, the Sonoma Ashram maintains a sister ashram on the banks of the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi, India. Created in 2001 as a service project, it provides shelter for abandoned and orphaned Indian children. Babaji spends three months a year there, and members of the Sonoma Ashram are encouraged to make two-week visits.
We ourselves must walk the path.
Sonoman Lisa Leeb, a dedicated ashram member, has traveled to the orphanage. She also practices selfless service here in town by working for the homeless, running a weekly soup kitchen and as executive direactor of the Sonoma Overnight Shelter. The ashram, she says, has given her “a sense of peace” and a renewed relationship with the divine that she describes as “sweetness.” In Hinduism, as opposed to Buddhism, there is a Godhead, and the divine presence is feminine, something which appeals greatly to Leeb for its “loving, caring, and nourishing” qualities. The ashram has a regular schedule of daily practice, including meditation, yoga classes and talks open to all.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, almost 40 miles away over heavily trafficked and winding roads has, despite its remote location, introduced numerous Sonomans to Eastern practice. The center is dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the Vipassana tradition, stressing mindful awareness. Hundreds of people pass through its doors each week, and Alice Walker, Thich Nhat Hahn and Ram Dass have taught at Spirit Rock, further down the path away from suffering, perhaps, than most.
Karma is part of the bedrock of these faiths. It’s an Eastern iteration of comeuppance, the old-fashioned idea that we reap what we sow. Instead of a fate preordained by either entity or circumstance, karma allows that one’s actions chart one’s life. For Buddhists and Hindus, karma is evidence: live rightly, do good, and happiness is brought about in the long run; live wrongly, do bad, and suffering ensues. It’s an idea that merits contemplation, this notion that we’ve been allowed—on the fast-moving current that is life—a paddle with which to dig into the waters. An idea at once both simple and complex, the concept grows hoary as it turns. It’s the kind of idea best considered in quiet, at the top of soft hills, on a stone bench, in Sonoma.
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)