Above is a picture from the path to my tent. It’s a short walk to the main campus from the campsite. Steam was rising from the mountaintops in the distance as the warmer weather rolled in over their snowy peaks.
I live and work with Dharma Sangha, a Zen Buddhism center clustered alongside dozens of spiritual centers in the Rocky Mountains in the small town of Crestone, Colorado. This place is a sangha first and foremost, made to grow and fortify the practice of those involved and to continue the lineage of Suzuki Roshi, the founder of this Soto school in America. Otherwise the CMZC is a guest retreat center. That’s where I come in.
My time here is in no way centered around resume enrichment or learning how to manage a retreat. These aspects are merely a subsequent benefit of the work I am doing here. My work includes cooking meals — sometimes three meals a day for the guests — with the head chef, a rotating cleaning schedule of the many facilities on center grounds, and a lot of dish-doing. But don’t let’s misunderstand how much the tasks of the center become part of the Zen practice being developed here.
The seclusion of the mountainside and sweet stillness of the quietly roving wind, the flower garden woven straight into the vegetable garden overlooking the vastness of the valley, weather-watching from miles away (have you seen a storm, in its entirety, creeping along the ground far below you from a beautiful, monastic vantage point?), sunsets that bloom in the clouds like a blushing Buddha awaiting you after your evening zazen sessions: so much natural wonder goes into crafting the experience of Crestone Mountain Zen Center for a future co-op student. The unadulterated beauty of the place stands with and around you all the time. I haven’t wanted to do anything more than the tasks at-hand: cleaning, cooking… it all feels like practice; who would want to ruin the yawning sunset over the valley with some over-complicated thing?
The center strives to be as sustainable as possible. And it doesn’t stop with sustainability. Zenki Sensei would like the center to one-day be a bastion of regenerative living, where we do not just sustain the earth as it is, but give back and contribute to the well-spring of its development. The movement toward this way of living is apparent in the center’s resources and practice.
All of the food served here is organic. We try to grow as much of it as possible through organic growing practices. We don’t waste leftover food, and since it is all vegetarian, almost all of it is composted. The center intends to incorporate beekeeping and chicken coops in the future! But the CMZC is not alone in its mission to benefit the planet (and “all sentient beings”). Many of the surrounding spiritual centers practice sustainable living methods in different ways and because of different ideological or ethical obligations.
So although CMZC seems to me like a bastion of good energy, great leadership in ethical practices, and a hub of wonderful people, it is only a drop in the proverbial ocean of Crestone as far as these things are concerned. I cannot say that I’ve been as touched by the people at the other centers as I have here, but I’m biased! Wake up at the crack of dawn and work all day with the same, excellent people and you would be biased too.
I’m gaining so many skills and a great confidence in myself through my time here. I have never felt so confident in my cooking abilities as I do working alongside the head chef, Deborah, making five-star meals throughout the day. I have not been as connected with my practice as I have meditating in the beautiful zendo. I have not had mentors and leadership as closely connected to me as I have under Zenki Sensei and the monks practicing here. Crestone Mountain Zen Center has changed my life and is continuing to do so every day.
Check out their website here: https://dharmasangha.org
Check out Crestone here: https://crestonecolorado.com
And here is an article describing the “mystical mythos” of Crestone: https://www.crestonecolorado.com/shambala.html