Spring 2012 Sonoma Mandala Project Update

With the recent rain and the beginning of spring the Sonoma Mandala is blossoming. The Zen Centerís Use Permit revision and new Meditation Hallís planning drawings have been submitted to the Sonoma County Planning Department for review and we are awaiting their response. Meanwhile we are hiring structural and civil engineers to begin work on the Meditation Hallís construction documents. We are also refining how the buildings will be used. After the Zen Center receives approval from the Countyís Planning Department then the construction documents can be submitted to the Countyís Building Department for review and approval and then we can get the building permit to build!

The design of the new Meditation Hall or Zendo is inspired by the Eiheijiís Priestís Hall or Sodo, which is where the monks sleep, eat and meditate and guided by Paul Discoeís temple building knowledge. Naturally because the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center is in America the design is truly a combination of the Japanese and American traditions and construction techniques. More importantly the Zendo is not merely a building of traditions and techniques, but it is a reflection of our practice. The way we practice gives it life and it gives our practice life. Look for the revised Zendo drawings in the Sangha House.

The Zen Center is embarking on a path to hire a Development Manager/Fundraiser to bolster the general and Mandala funds. This Development Manager position comes at an exciting time for the Zen Center. All of you are aware of the many things that have been happening at the Zen Center over the past few years... the SMZC Bazaar, Sonoma Mandala, ordinations, Hoshi Ceremonies and the creation of Wisteria Wind. All of these events are signaling an important transition for the Zen Center and are also laying the important groundwork that allows the Zen Center to continue its mission of providing for the beneficial protection and awakening of all beings for many future generations. Fundraising is also a component of this big picture and the fundraiser will help shape strategies and outreach to assist the Zen Centerís mission. In April the part-time Development Managerís job description will be emailed to SMZC members and posted on the Sangha bulletin board.

This September will be busy with both the SMZC Bazaar and the new Meditation Hallís Ground Breaking Ceremony. The Zen Center is now looking for volunteers for both events. There are many different ways that you can help and participate. Parking attendant, food preparation, marketing, event set-up and land preparation are a few of the volunteer tasks that make the events successful. The Ground Breaking Ceremony will occur on September 16, 2012 and the Bazaar will occur a week or two before.

If you are interested in the Development Coordinator position or volunteering for the upcoming Bazaar and Ground Breaking please contact the Zen Center Office.

Because of your generous donations and pledges since the last issue of the Mountain Wind we have raised over $15,000. Now there is just $189,000 left to reach our fundraising goal for the new Mediation Hall. In closing I wanted to express my great appreciation to all of you for your donations and support towards the Sonoma Mandala. It is this very action and intention of everyone that is making the Sonoma Mandala bloom!

Interview with Paul Zengyu Discoe, March 10, 2009

by Neil and Lorna Myers

For our second interview with Paul Discoe, the designer of the Sonoma Mandala, we visited him at his Live Edge Studio in Oakland. From the moment we drove through the gate of an abandoned oxygen plant, we found ourselves surrounded by huge logs. burls, tall piles of planks, and mountains of chips. We waited in a showroom filled with striking tables, chairs, bowls, bookcases, objects made from local distressed wood, Paul later explained. He showed us into his office, and we began to talk.

N. Itís been a couple of years since our last interview. Iím wondering what may have changed in your thinking about the Sonoma Mandala.

P. Well, Iím waiting to see what happens. Iím still happy to be involved, on whatever level works.

L. One of the interesting things in the beautiful book you recently published is your comment on the importance of blending the traditional and the contemporary. Do you have further thoughts about this in regard to the Sonoma Mandala project?

P. Well this is an age-old question, thatís come up many times, about how much of the Asian tradition to bring into zen practice, and how much of new American zen. I quote Suzuki-roshi in my book about avoiding overpruning the tree that you transplant. No matter how traditional you try to be, just the fact of moving the dharma to California is going to affect it radically anyway. So you donít actually have to put extra effort into making Zen contemporary or site-specific or appropriate for the new generation, since those things will inevitably happen. Basically youíre best off trying to capture as much of the traditional ritual spirit as possible, since itís going to get rearranged at its own pace. If you try to rearrange it first, however, the result may not even be recognizable.

L. Can you give us a few examples?

P. One is the decision over whether to have a raised tan (meditation platform) in the zendo. The tradition of the tan is there for a number of reasons. Originally Japanese zendos werenít enclosed structures, in contrast to what we expect in the west. The first zendo floors, as at Eiheiji [a large 13th century training temple in the hills near Fukui, Japan], were dirt, so what was required was a raised sitting area, as if outdoors, with the building itself an umbrella overhead. By eliminating the tan, the zendo becomes a more flexible space, which can accommodate chairs for lectures, or be used as a yoga center, or a site for a modern dance performance. On the other hand, once other things creep into the way a zendo is used, the feeling of traditional monastic training, even if itís only done for the day, is much more difficult to conjure up.
   So itís always a trade-off. Eiheiji has three traditional buildings, a Buddha Hall for chanting,, a Dharma Hall for lectures, and a Zendo for meditation. Sometimes, however, you simply canít afford to build all these. At Sonoma Mountain we need to develop a single building to support all these services. This will alter the experience youíd have if the zendo was exclusively devoted to meditation.
   Of course those things that canít be done traditionally, because of circumstances, have to be done in a new way. Still, I think you should make every effort to sustain the warm continuity evident in phases that were developed over the centuries. A lot of the way that Eiheiji was built came from China. You can see examples of similar construction and use of architectural space in the arts of the Han dynasty, going back to the second century BC. That tradition has a certain power thatís useful to transmit to the future. Buddhism is so much of a holistic teaching, that in it body, mind, physical environment, voice, breath and all the elements of human activity are interrelated and play off of each other in a way that can be at once a distraction and a help. You need to take in the visual, the audial, and the physical, the tactile, so that they all aid each other in forming the zazen mind.

N. In the sense of the presence of the past?

P. My experience, both in Japan and at Tassajara, was that listening to lectures about people of the 7th or 9th centuries, while sitting in meditation just as they did -- and in a space like Tassajara, so isolated that itís not plugged in to any particular period -- then time becomes totally irrelevant, and youíre no longer merely in the 21st century. I found experiencing such timelessness highly illuminating. Basically I think that the physical environment makes a difference, that people look at things differently when they wake up in the morning and canít simply go to the refrigerator for a glass of orange juice.

N. In the last interview you said very eloquently that ďthe existence of these buildings is a teaching in itself.Ē Can you say anything further about how the specific buildings proposed for the Sonoma Mandala might demonstrate this?

P. Well, thatís what Iím saying. The physical environment forms the mental and emotional environment as well. Creating a space that makes a harmonious visual - audial-emotional environment is very conducive to putting you in the mind of the Buddhaís teaching, and is a teaching in itself. In contrast, I think that more grandiose structures like Odiyan, near Salt Point, go too far. Odiyan strikes me as so precious and yet so powerful, as well as withdrawn from the rest of the world, that somebody going there might have a very strong experience, which afterwards would simply be too hot to carry, to bring back to the normal world.
   So itís important not to go too far. Not that I think this would ever happen at Sonoma Mountain Center, because thatís not the nature of the practice there. But itís important not to become so esoteric, cultish and sectarian that you make it impossible to relate to the world around you. On the other hand, if you donít make your temple distinctive enough, then the effect is lost, and you might as well rent a hall in downtown Santa Rosa. Itís important to find a middle ground, to developing a special space thatís encouraging without overpowering.

N. Roshi talks about constructing a set of buildings which will transmit the dharma for 300 years.

P. Well, thatís a good start! Such buildings need enough gravitas, enough weight, enough intrigue to capture peopleís imagination for 300 years. They musnít be too trendy or specialized. They have to be as timeless as possible, rather than express some particular mode of the moment.

N. You talk in your book about the elements of water, fire, air, stone and wood.

P. Well, that of course is more of a Taoist than strictly Buddhist, understanding, but of course zen in many ways is the marriage of Taoism and Buddhism in China. There certainly has been a mixture of those understandings over the years. For me, incorporating earth elements is simply part of the tradition that I studied. Iíve never heard any zen person say that you have to consult astrology, but a lot of teachers have emphasized how important it is to include water, fire, wood and stone in Buddhist architecture.

N. When I visualize the temples we saw in Japan, I think of the presence of wood, seemingly unchanging but still organic, and welcoming.

P. I think so too. These buildings could have been done in masonry, more or less as Chinese temples were, and still convey powerful feelings, but in the lighter, more open Sonoma County environment, I think that wood is probably the best material. Iím a big devotee of trees, I think theyíre great teachers, so thatís the element I gravitate towards. But here again, itís good to have as much balance as possible. Itís important not to exclude any element, or let one become too dominant.

L. I was going to ask you, if you had your ideal choice, what wood would choose for Sonoma Mountain?

P. Well, I think on Sonoma Mountain itís oak, fir and redwood. Those are good materials for that site, and itís not too difficult to come by them.

L. You also write of the value of re-used wood.

P. Yes. Unfortunately since re-used wood has recently become fashionable, itís also rather expensive, but what Iím putting my energy into now is taking on abandoned trees, killed for whatever reason, old age, disease, wind damage, relocation of buildings or urban expansion. Thatís the wood that Iím using nowadays. Itís not always totally available, but thereís a great deal of it, along with forest wood thatís grown sustainably. Despite what people think, wood is definitely a renewable resource, and in the process of renewing itself it also cleanses the environment. So the more wood we use the better off mankind is. As long as weíre careful to be al- ways planting and nurturing more trees.

L. That idea is different from the usual environmental perspective.

P. I think itís a misunderstanding. If you use steel or concrete or glass or any of those more readily available modern materials, you do more damage to the environ- ment, and create more turmoil, than by using wood.

L. You also write about ďmismatchedĒ wood. Thereís a photo in your book of a door made that way, almost as if itís patchwork.

P. You mean ďcontrastingĒ? Of course, there again, you can get carried away. Still, I think itís important not to have everything so homogenous that itís all the same, since different activities have different weights. You donít want your shoes to resemble your eating bowls, or clothes you sleep in to be like what you wear to work. Itís important that different facets of existence harmonize together, so that some things are smooth and polished, some rough, some plain, some ornate. Itís good to incorporate all of that together, & to see it not as a jumble but as a diverse whole.

N. Finally, you write in your book about the importance of working as a team. Can you talk about this in relation to the Sonoma Mandala?

P. Well, in order for a team to coalesce, you have to have a shared vision, and that can come from chanting a sutra thatís been chanted for several millenniums, or from following the rules to a game thatís been played for years, or it can be the result of vision that encourages a practice. In every case you need a framework for the group to coalesce within. I think thatís why itís important to have a master plan, a focal point that people can understand and come to terms with. Just sitting together is a lot different than sitting by yourself, just as chanting in a group is different than chanting by yourself. Of course thereís value to doing it alone, but something very different comes out of a group sharing a larger activity.

N. Do you think a construction team needs to be all dharma practitioners?

P. A team of all practitioners would be a great teaching for people, but itís extremely difficult to pull off. I think it would be nice if possible. That was how most things were done at Tassajara in the early years, but now people are hired from the outside. Maybe itís just a matter of youth versus maturity, or just a different way of dealing with tasks. I find youthful vigor appealing, but others find it uncomfortable, and not conducive to mental health.

N. Hereís an off-the-wall question, about ďjumping off the hundred foot pole.Ē How would you say this is manifested in traditional zen influenced architecture?

P. In the architecture! Thatís a good question. That may be more a matter of a personal state of mind than an architectural concept. Iíve never thought of it that way! Iím a big believer in hundred foot poles, however. Certainly theyíre a little scary. At this moment, Iíve started a new business, and at my age thatís pretty much like jumping off such a pole. And since somebody took the net of an over-rich economy away, Iím now in free-fall, and wonder whatís going to happen. Though I wouldnít have done it any other way!
   But I really donít know how the hundred foot pole would relate to architecture except in the sense of Ďbuild it and they will comeí -- meaning that you canít worry too much about whether or not itíll be useful for anyone in the future, you just do it and let whatever happens happen. And again, thereís the issue of how cautious to be. As far as the Sonoma Mandala is concerned, I understand waiting to start until the moneyís all there, and I would probably do it that way myself, but I also think that acting immediately on a big vision through a master plan would be jumping off a hundred foot pole, in a way that doesnít jeopardize the sangha but would demonstrate a vision to the world, and create positive energy.

N. Is there anything else youíd like to share with the sangha now, regarding the Mandala Project?

P. Itís just that I think thereís a resource here thatís very special, and that it would be good to proceed, and move ahead. Thereís no reason to force it, of course, but on the other hand, itís fine to stretch and take a bigger step. One of the things I found in Japan that enthralled me during my temple building apprenticeship years ago was their approach to teaching. They would constantly give me tasks that were just a little beyond my capability, so that I had to keep reaching toward the next step. They hung me out a few times, but mostly this made it possible for me to see and learn without pushing me past the point of failure. They kept encouraging me to do just a little bit more. So I think itís always good to encourage the sangha to think about doing a little bit more --to keep the growth pressure on!

Landscaping Team Visits SMZC, July 31, 2009

On the morning of July 31, Kwong-roshi,Shinko Kwong and ten members and friends of the SMZC sangha met with Christie Green and Richard Jennings of Santa Fe, New Mexico, here for a two-day visit to consider landscaping and water management plans for the Mandala project. Cam Kwong, who chaired the event, comments that ďwhat was exciting was the presence of so many people representing so many interlocking specialties -- architecture, hydrology, electricity, trees, ponds, landscape design, resources conservation, grant proposals, dharma practice and management -- to discuss the actual nuts and bolts of the project. Clearly everyone there was clearly committed. The energy in the room was palpable.Ē
Kwong-Roshi began the meeting by describing the origins of Zen Center in the early seventies, when, after a failed attempt in Calistoga, he recognized the ďsacredĒnature of the land on Sonoma Mountain, and despite limited funds established a thriving zen center through an intense effort shared by the entire sangha, continuing today in the Mandala Project. A vivid, spirited discussion of the intimate connection of land and dharma on this site followed.
Christie Green, founder of Down to Earth, based in Santa Fe, spoke appreciatively of the resonant spiritual beauty of Zen Center grounds. Using an extensive slide show, Green presented the innovative, ecologically appropriate gardens and environments she has fashioned, which offer aesthetic richness and biodiverse stewardship together. She has offered to design landscaping honoring local plants and conditions for the new zendo and other structures as a personal contribution to the Mandala.
The second speaker was Richard Jennings, founder of Earthwrights Designs, a Santa Fe company in the forefront of configuring and building ecologically sensitive systems to use water most efficiently by creatively cooperating with nature. After hearing an extensive discussion of water issues at Zen Center, he offered a survey of pioneering, low-maintenance ways of husbanding usage, utilizing runoff and sewage in harmony with local soils, nutrients and the habitats of the plants, animals and bacteria that compose a livable environment. Mr. Jennings will consult on a proposal for a relatively inexpensive, state-of-the-art water system to serve Zen Center and the new Mandala buildings alike.
There was also discussion of many other Zen Center property features, including the now disused vineyard, the vernal pond, the wisteria used in the SMZC logo, the Asian feeling of the landscape style, the use of solar energy, tree health, legal easements and the restoration of the redwoods that had once been characteristic of the area.
Later in the afternoon the team walked SMZC property, and looked closely at the layout of the new zendo, the proposed kitchen, and other buildings. There was some discussion about the zendo site, the extensive grading and moving of wells that would be necessary, and of the recent history of the Lotus Pond filling with sediment. After taking the road back toward the Sangha House, they also examined the most down-slope wells and pumps near the creek (which was flowing). Finally, at Suzuki Roshiís memorial, the visitors offered water. Afterwards, Cam Kwong remarked that ďthis was the first time we had discussed the Mandala project as a concrete event, with its own set of technical challenges and probabilities. There was an invigorating sense of discovery throughout. These two who came so far to meet with us reminded us that something innovative and exciting is going to happen when, if fund-raising continues at its current levels, we break ground for the new Zendo next spring.Ē