Ethnographic Fieldnotes: Jikoji Retreat

This fragment of writing represents in-the-field data collection (specifically, participant observation) or an anthropological paper on how Zen Buddhism has evolved in America.  I was curious how it managed to avoid the aura of otherness experienced by other religious minorities – Zen Buddhists in the Bay Area do not view themselves as outsiders any more than the surrounding society does, which was very puzzling to me since the practitioners are effectively atheistic in their religious traditions.  Despite this, the reactions that they garner from the public at large are very different from those who profess direct atheism or agnosticism.

It turns out that the way in which Zen was imported into the U.S. was key to its current standing in the culture, where it is viewed as an individual philosophy of living rather than a religion and thus is likely to attract followers from the more privileged end of society.

Jikoji Retreat is a beautiful Zen center located in the Santa Cruz mountains less than an hour’s drive from my house.  These observations date from February 2011, when an unusual cold snap had pulled the snowline down below 3,000 feet.


Jikoji Retreat was chosen in particular because its particular style of Buddhism (Soto Zen) is also seen in Hannah, my informant, and because this particular retreat welcomes visitors to its Sunday services.  It is located in the Santa Cruz Mountains along Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) which, although not particularly far away from where I live, is rather difficult to access because of the nature of mountain roads.  With this in mind I left for services shortly before 9:00 AM, both to give myself extra travel time due to the mountain roads and also in case I became lost on the way – an idea that occurred to me more than once driving up Highway 9 into the mountains, since I had forgotten how dependent I had become these days on GPS receivers such as Garmin to navigate for me.

Jikoji is located off the entrance to public open space, and the road down to it is largely gravel and dirt.  Because of its location on the crest of the mountains the area is heavily forested with coast range broadleaf trees such as California bay, live oak, and madrone, all with their trunks coated with a thick layer of moss and (because it had been so cold lately) a dusting of snow.  I arrived early on a very cold morning and found a place to park off the main entry road, as far out of the path of traffic as possible, and took a look around.

I was fortunate to encounter one of the people who works at Jikoji, who showed me where the important service sites were and introduced me to the student teacher who was presenting the talk.  Since I had arrived some time beforehand, there was time to step inside the Zendo (after removing my shoes) and for her to show me how to properly sit zazen.  Normally they use a small round pillow (the zafu), which they sit on about 1/3 of the way to the edge, cross their legs to provide a platform or tripod for support, and hold their hands at stomach level with the thumbs touching and the fingertips resting on top of one another (to hold the “mudra,” although I am unclear what this means).  Unlike other meditation types I have experienced this is performed with the back straight so the ears are over the shoulders and with the eyes open, tilted down at a 45-degree angle with the chin tucked slightly in.  I am told this is to maintain the link between the inner and outer self, although in my experience it also provides a benefit in preventing me from falling asleep as I have done in other meditative attempts.

Incense and candles are lit in front of a statue of the Buddha at one end of the room, a bell is rung three times, and then we sit facing the wall on the pillows and meditate for 40 minutes.  Since the topic of meditation seems to be personal, there is no predetermined topic for meditation – the student instructor mostly told me to attempt to step outside of my own thoughts, and let them go.  Because I was unclear what to meditate on (and I have difficulty meditating to begin with) I mostly focused on the sounds of the birds outside – the screeching of scrub jays, the deep caw of a crow, and the call, somewhere distant, of a raptor.  To get my mind to silence I focused on the image of a bay nut, picked up from the ground outside as I looked around, somewhat lost, on my initial arrival, with its thin shell crumbling off to expose the nut within.  While the plant community around Skyline is likely not its original climax community, it is still as close to nature as one gets around here, and so this is what I meditated on primarily.  Although I still experienced severe difficulty maintaining inner quiet, I did experience in this meditative state the form of general feeling of wellness and calm that I occasionally feel just before falling asleep or during heavy periods of intense data entry, some of the few times my mind clears much at all.  This is likely similar to the meditative state that humans once experienced when our sleep schedules were not affected by artificial light, when we would sleep four hours and wake up for an hour or two of quiet restfulness and reflection before sleeping again, a pattern known as segmented or biphasic sleep. The lull sensation continued after the initial zazen period when we perform a chant while sitting, the text of which is provided below:

Dai-sai geda pu-ku

                Muso fuku den-e

                Hi-bu nyori kyo

                Ko-do shoshu jo


                How great is the kesa

                A virtuous garden far beyond form and emptiness

                I will wear the Tatagata’s teaching

                And save all sentient beings


                 Dai-sai geda pu-ku

                Muso fuku den-e

                Hi-bu nyori kyo

                Ko-do shoshu jo

This is followed by standing and facing the altar as the student teacher re-lights the incense and then we perform three full bows from a standing position – that is, a prone position with knees flexed under the body and head on the floor resting between the hands, elbows tucked in to the sides.  After this first period of zazen is the kinhin, or walking meditation, where everyone in the zendo forms a line around the edges of the room and walks, slowly, with hands folded or in a praying position in front of them, for ten minutes unti the bell is rung again.  After this first period we returned to the zazen position to continue meditation for another forty minutes.

Although the feeling of reflective well-being continued through the kinhin and the first part of the second zazen, by the end of it I felt about ready to explode from attempting to be so still for so long and to attempt to clear my mind (a common issue I have with meditation, and the main reason I typically avoid it).  However, this period seemed to last less time than the first period of zazen, or perhaps I simply wasn’t being as good at blanking out my thoughts.  At any rate, the ringing of the bell and the monotone repeat of the chant provided a respite from my restlessness and we took a brief ten-minute break to walk outside, talk, or in my case to stay sitting on the floor (but off the zafu pillow, which by now was becoming intensely uncomfortable).

The service itself was a discussion on the need to practice mindfulness in everyday life, presented both with examples drawn from the sutras as well as more psychological language – i.e. the repetition on the wheel of life (a paper model of which was passed around) is likened to our psychological need to repeat certain actions in our life, particularly destructive ones, and learning to let go of this is couched almost in self-help terms as well as in terms of the ideals of Buddhism.  This was also seen in the idea of performing inquiry meditation, wherein the period of zazen is spent first allowing the mind to settle and rest, and then looking into one’s past to see where these patterns of repetition of destructive behavior are seen.  The idea is to lose the illusion of self as separate from the rest of the world, but to do so one has to not only learn to let go of material or immaterial things (dislike, pride, hubris, materialism) but also to not only love all living things, but also turn the love and kindness that is espoused by the teachings to one’s own self.  I noted that the guest teacher frequently was looking at me as she said this, most likely because she knew I was new, but also perhaps because I was one of the few people with their eyes open and watching her during the service.

Service is presented with all participants sitting on the floor, many on the zafu pillows but in my case and a few others simply sitting on the mats used for meditation.  We begin by standing, then reading the sutra presented to us on pre-printed paper as a low, monotone chant.  This time around the sutra appeared to be focused on the ideal of extending love to all living things and invoked the name of Avalokitesvara (or Kwan Seum Bosal/Kwan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion).  Once the reading is done we perform the deep bow another three times and then sit, this time with everyone facing away from the wall and towards the center of the zendo.  We read another chant at the beginning of the service, a final chant at the end of the service, and then repeated the Four Vows:

Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them

                Desires are inexhaustible, I vow to put an end to them

                The Dharmas are boundless, I vow to master them

                The Buddha’s Way is Unsurpassable, I vow to become it.

The guest teacher was dressed in traditional Zen monk robes, black on the outside with a white inner collar (perhaps undergarments as well) and with a brown cloth draped around the body and hung around the left shoulder.  The teacher was barefoot, also typical of monks, but she was neither male nor had the shaved head often seen as traditional; however, she also was white, as were most of the participants besides me and one other person (who perhaps was of Middle Eastern descent).  Participants ranged in age from perhaps their late 20s to their 50s (a rough estimate based on visual observation).  I also noted items that I typically only see displayed by higher social classes: Gore-tex jackets against the cold, reusable plastic or steel Nalgene water bottles, the wool socks usually sold at REI to be worn in hiking boots.  There also was a specific sort of bib or neck item worn by some of the participants, dark blue cloth with a white square in front, often with writing on it, which they tucked their hands under during kinhin.  I am unclear as to the purpose of this item although it is apparently quite sacred, since during lunch one of the other participants turned it backwards and explained that to clean the item, it would need to be spot-washed by hand while burning cedar incense.

The talk portion of the service was particularly of interest, for here the other participants asked questions regarding the service, but the atmosphere was much more relaxed.  Particularly near the end, it gave way to friendly joking both on the part of the participants and the student teacher.  This ended at about 12:30, when after some difficult to answer questions the teacher laughed, pointed at her watch, and said it was time for lunch!

The social lunch that was provided in the small side kitchen was typical American fare, albeit vegetarian: wheat (gluten-free?) rigatoni with a marinara sauce, garlic bread, salad, and apple pies that some of the participants had brought for dessert.  During this period I explained more of what I was doing there during my visit, and listened to the other participants as they talked with one another.  Notably, this is when I discovered what some of them did: one works for Oracle, another works for Apple, and notably neither seem to be especially happy with their job.  For them, it sounds as if the meditative services are their escape, particularly now that the economy has made leaving unhappy jobs a much more dangerous affair.  Two appear to be doing stand-up comedy on the side, one is a musician for a hobby, and it is unclear what all of the others do as I could not track all of the side conversations going on with approximately twelve people in a very small kitchen.

After lunch the group broke up to help push a car back onto the road that had slid off just prior to service, and people started moving back into their cars to head home.  By this point the temperature had warmed slightly and much of the remaining snow had melted off, although the air still had the acrid smell of snow to it, and the brick stairway that I climbed to get back to my car was still slippery with ice.