Category Archives: Microhistories

Background: Green Gulch Zen Center

Historically, the Miwok, a group of Native Americans, occupied Green Gulch.  Artifacts of their culture, such as stone tools, may still be found on site.  The land was then granted to William Richardson 1838 as a part of what came to be known as Rancho Sausalito.  Green Gulch was one of five dairy ranches that were established by Richardson.  The barn built by Ray Button eventually became the zendo of Green Gulch.  The next owner, George Wheelwright, was an innovator and bulldozed the valley floor, straightened the creek, and created a system of reservoirs to aid in irrigation.   The land was then given to the San Francisco Zen Center with the help of the Nature Conservancy under two conditions: a working farming would be maintained and the land and trails would be open to hikers.  Understanding the history of how Green Gulch came to be a Zen Center is an important part of the heritage of the site.


Green Gulch Zen Center: Background

  What is Zen and how did it get to Marin County? In the last century Zen has grabbed the attention of the West and tends to crop up almost everywhere.  Zen is a sect of Japanese Buddhism that traveled quite the distance to arrive here in the early 20th Century. In fact, Buddhism has quite the history of travel.  It originated in India as a response to Hinduism endless karmic chain, known to Buddhism as samsara.  Samsara is the cause of the Buddhist notion of suffering and Nirvana is the cessation of that suffering.  Nirvana is the promise of Buddhism.  From India, Buddhism travelled to China along the Silk Road.  There a the sect known as Cha’an was established.  Cha’an translates to Zen in Japanese.  Japan was the next stop for Buddhism.

D.T. Suzuki is credited with bringing Zen to the West.  He was not a Zen master of Japan, but he did study under one by the name of Soyen Shaku.  Shaku sent Suzuki to the States to work with Paul Carrus as a translator for his publishing company.  His time was also spent writing about Buddhism and Zen in English.  In Japan there are several different schools of Zen Buddhism, the two largest being Soto and Rinzai.  The Zen Center at Green Gulch identifies with the Soto school.  Zen is a scholarly monastic tradition where the central participants are the monks themselves.  The Zen Center at Green Gulch has residents that live there that live a monastic style life.  In tradition of Zen, Buddhism is studied through different texts and lectures that are deconstructed in order to gain an true understanding of the Dharma, or the Buddha’s teachings.  Traditionally, monastic life was only available to men, but at Green Gulch women are not excluded.  In fact the  Roshi, or Zen Master, is a woman.  Zen has been able to travel and settle all over the world due of desire to end all suffering, the source of its adaptive nature.

Green Gulch Zen Center: Photo Gallery

Green Gulch Zen Center: Videos

An interview with Michael Ashley, our Anthropology 136e professor at UC Berkeley.

A short clip of Green Gulch taken 3/18/2011 by Allie.

Another short clip taken at Green Gulch by Allie.

Alcatraz – Media

Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz_movie_02 from Ruth Tringham on Vimeo.


Alcatraz Island Audio Clip 1 – Professor Anthony Garcia

Alcatraz Island Audio Clip 2 – Professor Jim Quesada

Green Gulch Zen Center: Short and Long Term Goals

International Travel Programs

Medium Term: 10 years

            As a future project Green Gulch can implement a global expatriate program where the men, women, families, children, and wide spectrum of visitors can travel to for either short or long term programs to the countries of India, China, and Japan. These three regions specifically were original sites for Zen and Buddhist practitioners. Individuals will have the choice and opportunity to visit with a local Buddhist monk or practitioner of some sort. Visitors of Green Gulch who decide to participate in the program will receive first hand accounts of indigenous cultures and the people who maintain and preserve a collective way of life, Zen Buddhism. These Zen travelers will have the opportunity to be paired with individuals in these three sites.  In order to create an enriching experience families and/or individuals, prior to departing, will be required to fill out a detailed pre-survey questionnaire in order to better pair them to similar individuals in the host country. Lastly those who  participate in this global program will be recommended to live in a monastery and have a designated “host” family look after them.

This project will take a lot of work and planning to get it off of the ground.  In the first five years, relationships need to be established with host countries since this project relies on ongoing international relationships.  The next five years will consist of maintaining the previously established relationships and actually having participants travel and stay in the host countries.  If the program proves to be successful in the long term (25 years), it can be extended globally and not only focusing on the countries where Buddhism originated.

On-site Museum Installation

This would involve establishing a museum collection on site, for visitors to view. Collections could be rotated by seasons: in summer, perhaps there would be a collection of photographs taken when the Zen Center was opened – along with stories from those who were involved in transforming the Wheelwright Farm into the Green Gulch Zen Center. Potential projects might be a community-made documentary with photographs and videos, as well as recorded audio from those involved. Another possible installation would be the pre-1940 history of the area: the Miwok people’s history in the area, as well as the history of land use as a Spanish ranch. Finally, an installation about the history of Zen Buddhism would attract a number of different audiences.

Instead of repurposing one of the existing buildings at Green Gulch, we prepose the construction of a new building.  In line with the value of sustainability, Green Gulch may make use of new sustainable building materials and techniques.  This project would also allow for residents and visitors of Green Gulch to get involved.  With the planning and supervision of a few skilled project managers, anyone who wants to be involved in the construction of the new building may do so, much like in instance of Habitat for Humanity.  The first five years of this project would include researching new sustainable building techniques and materials to ascertain which would work best for the site, as well as the planning and fundraising that is necessary to make this idea a reality.  The second five years would include the actual organizing of the exhibits themselves, such as obtaining materials and creating a cohesive narrative that aids in their display.  The newly  constructed building may also accommodate the future nature center (see below).

Nature Center

Establishing a nature center on site – perhaps further past the farms, to encourage visitors to hike and explore the property and to provide a destination between the Zen Center and Muir Beach. The Nature Center would serve as a liaison between the Zen Center and the National Park Service, in coordinating projects to conserve the wildlife that calls Green Gulch home. This would be a great place for children and families – as the nature center would provide “nature guides” which illustrate and describe the various indigenous plants and animals in the surrounding area. Donations to the nature center would not only help fund projects such as creek bed restoration (a project designed to improve the survival chances of coho salmon in the area), but also bring financial support to the Zen Center, which currently funds conservation projects.

The nature center, much like the museum, will need a space to live.  This project is on the ten year plan for that reason  With the proper planning a building can be commissioned to accommodate both the nature center and museum.  After the building has been constructed the nature center itself may be organized.

Digital Archives

Long Term: 25 years

We plan to create a digital archive of  historical documents, photographs, video and lecture materials for Green Gulch Zen Center. Available online, this archive would serve to reach a number of different audiences; students and scholars might be interested in accessing the digital texts and lectures; out-of-town visitors might want to get a sense of the place before traveling to visit it; prospective guests would have access to resources such as the “Day in the Life of a Monk” program – which would be detailed in the archive. Additionally, children and families interested in participating in the proposed school curriculum would be able to find information and testimonials from past participants. This archive would be readily available to visitors online.

Green Gulch Zen Center: Community

According to the Green Gulch website, the center has a strong relationship with community involvement. On Sundays they have a public program for a five-dollar donation. It includes Meditation, Dharma talk, tea, lecture and lunch. They also offer an assisted hearing program if necessary. Additionally, they have carpooling options for people without reliable transportation. They are open to all ages because they have children’s activities. It relates to the idea of “place attachment,” because the participation of both the monks and the broader community in Sunday activities creates social cohesion and a shared Zen Buddhist identity.

The visiting of Green Gulch fosters a spiritual curiosity among the community. It also is very important to the Monks that already practice there. They have a volunteer program, which creates more involvement for people get religious enrichment. The next community involvement opportunity is for people to be a “volunteer Sangha.” As a volunteer, a person can participate more regularly. Volunteers can help with work in the morning of any weekday and then stay for lunch. The possible volunteer activities include, farm work, gardening, helping with the watershed work party, kitchen work, muffin making, general maintenance, Sunday program and kids activities.

The historic value of green gulch steams from the history of western Zen Buddhism in the 1970’s. The sustainable agriculture practices developed at Green Gulch contributed to the sustainable farming significance throughout the Bay Area. The educational value is also important in historical heritage. At Green Gulch, the education grows from both the study of Zen Practice and the agricultural knowledge. Residents and Visitors of Green Gulch can learn from the historical Zen teachings and specific skills like gardening, tea ceremonies, silent meals and meditation.

The Cultural value discusses core elements of culture such as ideas, and habits. The Green Gulch center caters to a vast audience by offering cultural activities for all ages and Zen experience levels. Specific children’s activities include ritual arts and meditation on the first Sunday of each month. Also there is a coming of age group for 7th and 8th graders. It is an educational program and discussion for young adults.

Part of Aesthetic Value is the opportunity for community to enjoy staying at Green Gulch as a guest. Guests have a beautiful, peaceful room and three vegetarian meals. They have access to the library, hiking trails, meditation rooms and tea ceremonies. There are also work shifts in which guest can come to work for the morning and participate in morning Zazan. Meals are silent the first ten minutes.

Green Gulch Zen Center: Key Players (Stakeholders)

In assessing the community contribution of Green Gulch, the key Stakeholders include: Green Gulch owners, resident monks, community visitors, practicing volunteers, surrounding Marin County residents, Marin County policy makers, and Native Americans who originally occupied the land. Green Gulch is privately owned, but it still affects the surrounding areas. Classifying stakeholders into “insiders and outsiders” the outsiders are the community visitors , Native Americans and Marin Community. The insiders who have the power over choices are Marin Government, Green Gulch owners and the resident Monks.

Green Gulch Zen Center: History and Modern Context


The Miwok, a group of Native Americans, occupied were the original inhabitants of Green Gulch. Artifacts, such as stone tools, of their culture may still be found on site.  The land was then granted to William Richardson 1838 as a part of what came to be known as Rancho Sausalito.  Green Gulch was one of five dairy ranches that were established by Richardson.  The barn built by Ray Button eventually became the zendo of Green Gulch.  The next owner, George Wheelwright, was an innovator and bulldozed the valley floor, straightened the creek, and created a system of reservoirs to aid in irrigation.  The land was then given to the San Francisco Zen Center with the help of the Nature Conservancy under two conditions: a working farming would be maintained and the land and trails would be open to hikers.  Understanding the history of how Green Gulch came to be a Zen Center is an important part of the heritage of the site.

Modern Context

For those who have visited Green Gulch Zen Center in Northern California’s Marin County, 1650 Shoreline Muir Beach, CA to be exact, the magnificence and beauty of the place speaks for itself. Located just north of San Francisco, the Zen Center provides a retreat from the city and a quiet place to experience nature, spirituality and community. The site itself is located on 115 acres in Muir Woods and provides access to Muir Beach and a number of hiking trails. The main buildings of the Zen Center are located towards the East end of the property and are the home to a number of resident monks. The gardens and farm form the center of the property, while Muir Beach and trails form the western edge of Green Gulch. In addition to being the present site of Green Gulch Zen Center, this property has passed from the Miwok tribe, Spanish ranchers, the co-founder of Polaroid and the National Park Service. Because of its rich cultural history, breathtaking natural landscape, and present spiritual atmosphere, we believe that Green Gulch should be honored and preserved for future generations. Given Green Gulch’s rich past and histories, it is important to preserve and safeguard this local heritage; “a filtered past infused with purpose in the present.” (Conkey, Meg and Tringham, Ruth. “Cultural Heritage.” Anthropology 136K. University of California, Berkeley. 25 January 2011)

Green Gulch Zen Center: Local and Global Tourism

Local Tourism will allow the residents, visitors, and affiliates of Green Gulch the opportunity to visit local neighborhoods and communities that possess cultural remembrance of the original people of the Buddhist and Zen religion. Such an exposure allows for greater understanding of Buddhist practitioners. Local sites of tangible and intangible heritage are seen in local neighborhoods that surround Green Gulch. The perpetuity of Green Gulch relies in its members’ outreach with the greater local Bay Area neighborhoods along with practicing Buddhist communities. We have concluded that while Green Gulch is part of a counter culture it cannot be said that they are completely separated from popular culture because they have the option to interact with a greater American culture when they leave their farm-like community. Through this movement, Green Gulch members will extend conversations of past cultures to contemporary settlements. For instance, the theme of food offers one way in which these interactions can be made. Green Gulch community members can visit Bay Area neighborhoods to sample the rich cultural food options, and in return, Green Gulch members can observe the way in which local restaurants obtain their groceries and can even consult restaurants owners of sustainable food options.

Our proposed Global Tourism Program creates a travel program for people to visit international countries to further their exploration of Zen Buddhism. This program is a full immersion program in the Zen customs. It also will help create a larger tourism base for international guests at Green Gulch.