Saturday, November 4, 2017
Stunning Sacred Retreats
Over the past half century, an odd mix of swamis, monks, Zen masters and utopians have secured thousands of acres of prime California real estate to make sanctuaries for those seeking to escape the world. Welcome to God’s country.
What you notice first is the stillness. The external world seems to drop away here at the heart of more than 2,000 acres of pristine Marin County forest, with Douglas firs soaring overhead and streams and creeks running in rivulets below. And, indeed, that is exactly the point. The property looks much the same as it did in 1946, when a Bengali monk named Swami Ashokananda, the spiritual leader of the Vedanta Society of Northern California, decided to establish a contemplative retreat in the wilderness.
The spectacular tract, about an hour from the Bay Area, was much larger than what he’d had in mind. But it held a special significance for the swami because in 1900, the founder of the Vedanta Society, Swami Vivekananda (who many credit with introducing yoga and meditation to the West), had camped out for two weeks nearby. The society had to have the property. It took up donations from its followers and bought the land for $166,250.
The Vedanta Olema Retreat, as it is now known, is one of the more stunning swaths of preserved land in California, with the Point Reyes National Seashore at its western edge and the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area encircling its borders like a moat. Its purchase was the first stirring of a peculiarly Californian phenomenon: the spiritual retreat, where those who suffer from a sense of too much worldliness can seek a quieter, purer, more exalted state of being, often for a pittance — or nothing at all, in the case of Vedanta Olema, which leaves donations optional, and requires only an interview at the temple in San Francisco — compared with expensive resorts that may be just down the road.
The irony, of course, is that the Shangri-Las where this higher purpose is sought are themselves in possession of some of the choicest parcels of real estate in the country, secured in fortuitous transactions over the years by religious or spiritual orders from Zen Buddhists, Benedictines and nuns to all manner of New Agers. Because of their religious or nonprofit status, they pay little to no taxes on their holdings, which can rival national parks. And while all this acreage might indeed have become public parkland if the federal government had bought it instead of private hands, it is far more likely that it would have long ago been subdivided. Michael Murphy, a co-founder of the Esalen Institute, on the Murphy family property farther south on the California coast, is a longtime admirer of Vedanta Olema — not least its land. “The property is truly priceless,” he says. “Really, it’s incalculable.”
Murphy’s own land is no less remarkable. In 1910, his grandfather bought more than 300 acres of Big Sur coastline, including its famed hot springs, for about $7,000, following that with another purchase of 200 acres. Fifty years later, Murphy and his Stanford classmate Richard Price had a brainstorm. They thought that the grandeur of Big Sur made the family land an ideal setting for a kind of utopian inquiry into growth, healing, seeking and all things wild and woolly. With capital from Price, they founded the Esalen Institute, which would become the New Age Valhalla it still is today.
When Murphy and Price moved into the main house on the property in 1960, a 22-year-old aspiring writer named Hunter S. Thompson lived on the grounds, working as a gun-toting security guard for Murphy’s grandmother. More eccentrics soon arrived, as Esalen became a kind of mecca for fringe iconoclasts and their faithful: Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy; Ida Rolf (as in Rolfing); encounter groups; and an assortment of Beats, hippies, rockers and drug-addled loonies.
Esalen looks nearly the same today, having preserved its raw beauty. Its storied cliff-dwelling hot mineral baths — with coed nudity — remain its centerpiece. No matter what price you pay for lodging — from sleeping bags in dorms to private rooms overlooking the Pacific — you make your own bed and get a Triscuit-size piece of soap. There is no cellphone coverage. But in other ways it is a very different place.
The institute rents land from the Murphy Family Trust, under an 87-year lease, for terms that the Esalen C.E.O. Tricia McEntee describes as “reasonable,” but there is an unmistakable emphasis on bringing in income. Esalen has become a humming hive of workshops addressing body, mind and beyond. When big-name New Age stars show up for special appearances, the place is packed to its redwood rafters. There are three luxury residences, called the Point Houses, perched over the Pacific, where, for up to $2,500 a weekend, visitors get amenities otherwise unheard of at Esalen, like a land line, Internet service and private decks — rivaling the Post Ranch Inn, the nearby Taj Mahal of Big Sur. There is, of course, no shortage of nostalgic lament from former devotees dismayed by these developments.
“We can never satisfy everyone,” Michael Murphy says, “but we are doing everything possible for the long-term survival of Esalen. Everyone has sacrificed,” he adds, “starting with the Murphy family.” He means, of course, the property that is used by the institute, about 107 acres. Its worth on the open market, Murphy says, defies estimates. “Really, it’s impossible. Who knows? Imagine the equivalent value of all the land beneath Rodeo Drive, or Park Avenue in Manhattan.”
Ten miles south of Esalen, just off Highway 1, a two-mile vertical drive heavenward leads to a pastoral village with epic views of the Pacific. Those craving refuge from the New Age din at Esalen can find it here at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery. Most of the 900-acre property, once the home of the Salinan Indians, was bought in 1958 for about $400,000 by a foundation run by Harry John Jr., heir to the Miller Brewing Company fortune and a fervid Catholic, and presented as a gift to the monks.
New Camaldoli quietly offers do-it-yourself personal retreats, with simple but comfortable lodging and meals, as well as what are called “preached retreats” — weekend workshops like “The 8 Limbs of Christianity: A Catholic Approach to Yoga.” The 16 monks in residence maintain a rigorous schedule of prayer four times a day beginning at 5:30 a.m., and are committed to silence much of the time in this contemplative community that somehow enchants those who come here.
“I’ve often thought about why this place speaks to me so much,” the author Pico Iyer, a regular visitor, writes via e-mail from his home in Japan. “I often describe New Camaldoli as the ideal holiday (since it makes every day seem holy, even if you don’t want to use the word), and the ultimate indulgence (for a retreatant, not a monk): a chance to get away from everything that makes you anxious, to enjoy long days overlooking one of the most radiant landscapes on earth and to come back refreshed and revived, with a new, clear sense of what you should be doing with your life.”
New Camaldoli is not the only religious retreat that has opened its doors more widely to those of any denomination in search of respite. In 1943, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary bought a piece of property in the foothills of tony Montecito for $35,000 to create La Casa de Maria, originally a Catholic novitiate for women studying to be nuns. In 1955, it became a retreat and conference center. Immaculate Heart now describes itself as “ecumenical” and is no longer a novitiate, but La Casa still has three former nuns on its staff of 30 tending to some 14,000 annual guests.
Its 26 acres are pure splendor, directly bordering the San Ysidro Ranch, Montecito’s most expensive resort (where John and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned). La Casa and the ranch share the galloping San Ysidro creek, and have the same breathtaking views of the Santa Ynez mountains. But while a night at the ranch can easily set you back a thousand dollars, that amount will cover a week or more at La Casa — meals and prayers included.
The only road to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is an unpaved one-lane 14-mile stretch of dirt, gravel and rock leading up from Jamesburg in the Carmel Valley. Much of it snakes along hairpin turns and blind curves, soaring to heights of 5,000 feet with drop-dead descents over the nonexistent shoulder. Stagecoaches in the early 20th century hauled giant pine trees behind them as ballast against a headlong plunge into the valley.
In the mid-1960s, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the charismatic founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, decided that a rundown hot-springs resort here, deep in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, was just the spot for the first Zen monastery in the West. In its earliest incarnation, the site had been used by the Esselen Indians. Later it was a Wild West outpost, complete with a bar, before it was reinvented as a spa where visitors journeyed to take the waters. In 1967, the owners wanted $300,000 for their 166 acres. A spirited campaign, championed by the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, the Zen theologian Alan Watts and the Grateful Dead, who hosted a “Zenefit” concert, raised the money. (In the late 1970s, another 160 acres of wilderness a mile down the road was purchased for $100,000.)
Tassajara has a sister facility, Green Gulch Farm, a sprawling 115-acre spread purchased in 1972 for $200,000 that borders Muir Woods and rolls into Muir Beach. It also offers personal stays, workshops and Sunday Dharma talks, with vegetarian meals included. Green Gulch is known for its 10-acre organic farm that feeds resident staff, students and visitors, and is prized by locals. Some of its produce goes to the vegetarian Greens Restaurant, in the San Francisco marina, which in turns shares its profits with the San Francisco Zen Center, the mother ship of both retreats.
But for off-the-grid austerity, no place surpasses Tassajara. There is no electricity, no A-C and only basic heat in the cabins, and no cell coverage or Wi-Fi at all. There is one public telephone. Cabins are outfitted with one cold-water faucet and are lit at night, when needed, by kerosene lamps. The operative word is “spartan.”
At 5:20 a.m., a gong is sounded as a wake-up call for morning zazen, or sitting meditation, in the zendo for an hour (though this is optional for visitors). There is an evening zazen as well. Six thousand pilgrims come during “guest season,” from May to September, to attend 45 weekend or weeklong workshops, or personal retreats. Only 30 to 60 determined souls — serious Zen practitioners — tough it out the rest of the year.
The one luxury in this spare miniature village of redwood, pine and stone are the baths, steam rooms and swimming pool fed by hot mineral springs that sit along a creek strewn with boulders. Never mind that the air is scented with sulfur. Small matter when you’re floating in the baths, gazing into an azure velvet sky luminously cradling all the business of the universe.
“I’d say,” Pico Iyer writes in his e-mail from across the globe, musing further about New Camaldoli, “that such retreat-places are ideal for people who may have no interest in religion at all — but who crave a kind of peace, an active quiet and a silence that isn’t merely the absence of noise, but the presence of a kind of quickening. A place to do what is hardest, which is nothing at all.” It’s the kind of experience you’d pay anything for. You might say, in the end, that it’s priceless.