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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.

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: K-8 Community Education Program

One audience that we would like to bring into the Green Gulch Zen Center community is the children of the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly children in urban environments. Subjected to increased academic pressures, standardized testing and technological overloads, children living in urban environments are receiving less time for experiencing nature, practicing mindfulness and, frankly, just being kids. We are proposing to create a curriculum for elementary school children in the Bay Area which would teach them about a number of aspects of life at Green Gulch – including meditation, organic gardening, environmental preservation and Native American history. As 4th grade is typically designated for a curriculum around California history, this would be the ideal time to incorporate our proposed curriculum into their learning. This curriculum would be taught in the spring in the months leading up to summer vacation – and would span across academic subjects.

Green Gulch Zen Center: Wildlife

In order to understand the deep connection of the Green Gulch Zen community to the land, one must first have an understand of the history behind how the Zen Center came to acquire the land. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the watershed was in habited by the Coast Miwok tribe.  The known history of the land between the 1800’s and mid-1900’s was that it was used for farming. In 1945, George Wheelwright, co-founder of Polaroid, purchased the land and turned the property into a family farm, which included the present day organic farm, as well as a number of dairy cows. Although Wheelwright was, in many ways, very connected to the land of Green Gulch, his intent to create a pasture for his livestock meant the construction of a dam, levees and drainage channels to divert the Redwood Creek, which runs through the property into the Pacific Ocean.

In 1972, Wheelwright sold the Green Gulch Farm to the Zen Center on two conditions: that members of Green Gulch Zen Center would maintain the working farm and, “in the spirit of the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Authority property,” remain open to rhe public for trails. Although use of the land belongs to the Green Gulch Zen Center, the area itself is an inholding of the National Park Service, with whom the Zen Center works closely to protect and conserve the land.

One of the founding principles of the Green Gulch Zen Center is that humans need to protect the environment from us, not the other way around. The community of Green Gulch has been, and continues to be, actively working to live harmoniously with the surrounding nature and to take measures to protect it.

Green Gulch Farm is the habitat of many diverse species of wildlife, including fish, birds, mammals and plants. The Redwood Creek, which runs through the property, is an essential spawning and rearing ground for coho salmon, steelhead trout and coastal cutthroat. In 2005, the coho salmon were listed as a federally endangered species and between 2007 and 2009, no salmon were seen during the winter run. However, in 2010, around 40 salmon were spotted and produced 23 clusters of eggs. This number however is only about 1% of the 1940 levels of coho salmon.The Green Gulch property is also home to many native songbirds, as well as numerous egrets and the Northern Spotted Owl. The pond that sits in the middle of the property was excavated by the National Park Service in 2009, to provide a habitat for the California Red-legged Frog.

Green Gulch is currently collaborating with the Park Service on a plan to restore the marshland in the lower fields. This plan, which would involve removing the parking lot that currently overlooks Muir Beach, in order to restore the land to its original marshland form. Through their work with NPS, they have “been studying the ecology of our watershed and asking ourselves questions about how the land might look and behave if left to itself.” One part of this process would involve removing the concrete channels which currently hold the stream flow, and allow this to run through the lower fields, now used for agricultural purposes.

Green Gulch Zen Center: Buddhist for a Day Program

Garden Center Statue at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin, CA

Buddhist for a Day Program: This program will allow people to experience the daily life of a monk. Extra activities will be included to enrich the guest’s experience, but the overall day will focus on learning about Zen Buddhism and Green Gulch. People interested in learning about the Buddhist lifestyle will benefit from the day. The following themes will be addressed: culinary through cooking classes, landscape through garden work, and spirituality through Zen practice. The specific audiences focused on include students of Zen Buddhism, Bay Area residents and international visitors.