Monkin’ it at Green Gulch

imageAs a meat-eating, lapsed Methodist whose idea of nirvana is crawling out of bed at the butt-crack of noon, I wasn’t particularly looking for religion or more reasons to feel guilty.

But over the years, I’ve been to Green Gulch’s public Sunday Program a couple of times and enjoyed it. People there always seemed so happy. And well, zen.

And that pretty much summed up the store of my experience in Buddhism. That, and watching Keanu Reeves caked in bronzer in Little Buddha. So when I stumbled upon Green Gulch’s Student Guest Program, curiosity reared its ugly head and I thought, what a great way to test my not-eating-meat and waking-up-at-4 a.m. skills! Oh yeah, and pick up a thing or two about Zen Buddhism. After all, how hard can it be? I can do just about anything for a week. Right?

Knocking on the Gates of Zen

The one-week minimum stay for the Student Guest Program is an opportunity to immerse in Zen practice with as few diversions as possible. It’s also opportunity for newbies to figure out if they would like to move on to an apprenticeship position (a two-week minimum stay is required for this).

Most of the students I encountered were middle/upper-middle class white college grads in their 20s and 30s. It seemed to be a particular draw for folks in transition (i.e., four of the seven of my fellow students in my group recently left corporate jobs).

Day in the Life of a Sleep-Deprived Zen Wannabe

Key to the program is adherence to a rigorous daily routine of zazen (seated meditation), service (chanting and bowing), work (in the kitchen, garden, farm or grounds) and other dharma events (classes or lectures).

A typically day begins when you’re roused in the dark at 4:25 a.m. by bell-ringing like Santa on steroids. In general, the schedule looks like this, with Thursday afternoon and Friday off.

  • 5:00 a.m.: Zazen
  • 5:40 a.m.: Kinhin (walking meditation)
  • 5:50 a.m.: Zazen
  • 6:30 a.m.: Service
  • 7:00 a.m.: Soji (temple cleaning)
  • 7:20 a.m.: Breakfast
  • 8:30 a.m.: Work
  • 12:15 p.m.: Lunch
  • 1:00 p.m.: Work
  • 3:15 p.m.: End of work
  • 5:15 p.m.: Zazen
  • 5:50 p.m.: Service
  • 6:00 p.m.: Dinner
Confessions of an Undisciplined Mind

You may have noticed this is over 2 hours of meditation a day, not something I could even wrap my head around at first. But after a few false starts, my inner chatter did manage to pipe down to a manageable murmur. And in the stillness of the zendo, darkness and croaking frogs transform into birdsong and the occasional wahwahwahing of quails with the arrival of dawn. Sheer bliss.

Also, in the Zen tradition, the emphasis is on practice and doing, vs. being all intellectual and philosophical. So when our Guest Student Manager, Steve (essentially, our teacher in this program), told us the purpose of meditation wasn’t to gain enlightenment, it begged the question of, so why are we doing it? The answer, I was told quite simply was, we’re doing it just to do it.

Mind blown. I had to meditation on that one.

All My Ancient Twisted Karma

Morning zazen is followed by a service of chanting, bowing and prostrating. Nine prostrations to be exact. Followed by more chanting and more prostrations. And there is a lovely chant of the Three Refuges in Pali, which according to Steve, is the only song they sing.

Work as Practice

Work here is seen not as a means to an end, but practice itself. As Green Gulch is a working organic farm, farming, gardening and caring for the land is part of the residential experience. For the growing half of the year, Wednesdays are communal farming day, and the whole community helps in the fields before breakfast.

And one thing you will get really good at is washing dishes. Breakfast and lunch dishes take up the bulk of the work here as guest student. I’m now a pro at running the sanitizer.

Food of the Gods

Speaking of dishes, meal times are signaled by a gong hanging outside the dining room called the umpan. The food is vegan and very good, particularly the freshly baked warm bread, right out of the oven! I can honestly say I didn’t miss meat at all.

I also discovered gomashio, a dry Japanese condiment made from sesame seeds and salt. You can sprinkle it on anything – rice, porridge, oatmeal, salads, soups – and it makes it just a little bit yummier.

Gluten-free and other alternatives are available, but practice is to accept the food offered by the kitchen. Here’s an example of the menu:


  • Rolled oats and millet
  • Ricotta and cottage cheese
  • Stewed fruit
  • Almonds and sunflower seeds


  • Chickpea and chard soup
  • Poppy seed levain or rye bread
  • Green Gulch Farm salad


  • Quinoa and green pepper tabbouleh
  • Roasted eggplant and spinach
  • Tahini
  • Hummus
  • Kalamata olives and feta
  • “Monks in the sun” (dates with goat cheese)

In addition, coffee, tea, fruit, bread, rice cakes, peanut butter, and jam are available as snacks between meals. You will not go hungry here!

The Tibetan Coke vs. the Zen Coke

From my one week monastic sojourn, I found some things I wasn’t even looking for, and came away with more questions than answers.

I wasn’t really looking for new friendships, but looking back, that was by far the most enriching part of the stay – the relationships built in that brief, intense, fish-out-of-water experience.

I understood even less about Buddhism than I thought I did before. Abiding Abbess Furyu gave this analogy of the Zen journey in one of her classes on the Boddhisatva Vow:

“In Tibetan Buddhism, you put your quarter in a Coke machine, and you see your quarter rolling around in the machine until out pops a can of Coke in the dispenser. In Zen Buddhism, you put your quarter in the machine and you can’t see what’s going on inside. So you wait. And maybe, a can of Coke will pop out at in the end.”

I’ve put my quarter in. I’ll let you know if I get my Coke.


  • Location: Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Muir Beach
  • Directions: Take Hwy 101 to the Hwy 1/Stinson Beach exit. Turn left onto Hwy 1 (Shoreline Hwy). After 2.5 miles, bear left at the fork and down towards Muir Beach. Continue on for 2 miles. Make a sharp left into the driveway at the large wooden “Zen Center/Green Gulch Farm/Wheelwright Center” sign.
  • For More Information: Green Gulch Farm Zen Center

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