Meditation center raises millions for construction

David Briggs
The 25-year-old meditation center in San Geronimo Valley, which sees 40,000 visits a year, is raising money for a three-phase construction project that will replace trailers with permanent halls and offices.  
08/01/2013

The path through Spirit Rock Meditation Center starts on a stretch of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that is flanked by a golf course on one side and grazing cattle on the other. The long, ascending driveway crosses over a wooden bridge, passes a yellow “Yield to the Present” sign and continues beyond a parking lot hedged by cautious turkeys. It winds northwest, along a trio of semi-permanent trailers that house the community meditation hall, the gift shop and administrative offices. It continues up a hill, beyond the gratitude hut, the staff yurt and the dining hall, culminating between two residential halls to the west and the prized upper retreat hall to the east.

Last Sunday, Jack Kornfield sat high on the hill, in the upper retreat hall, with its sweeping views of the center’s 400-plus acres. Mr. Kornfield, the Buddhist teacher, best-selling author and Woodacre resident who co-founded the center, sat in a chair on a stage before about 320 people who were not wearing shoes. Everyone came to hear a three-hour talk between Mr. Kornfield and fellow celebrated teacher of Buddhism in the West, Joseph Goldstein. One hundred and three people tuned in via live broadcast over the Internet. 

The event was the latest in a two-year-old effort to raise funds for construction at the 25-year-old meditation center. The suggested cost of attendance was a sliding scale, as most Spirit Rock events are, this one from $108 to $1,008. Online viewers were asked to donate at least $75. The center raised about $30,000 that day, Spirit Rock executive director Michelle Latvala told everyone before she began the Q&A session.

By phone, Ms. Latvala explained that 108 is an auspicious number in the Buddhist worldview.

As of Sunday, the center has reached $13.1 million of its $15.6 million goal for phase one of its construction project. The first phase includes building permanent structures for the community meditation hall and administrative offices, which are now housed in the trailers at the bottom of the hill. Phase one also includes building a new teacher and staff village. 

Construction is expected to start next spring, after the county reviews the center’s final drawings and then issues permits this fall.

Phase two of the plan, which includes adding two residential halls, constructing a new dining hall and restoring the meadow currently bordered by the trailers, as well as phase three, which includes building a hermitage and a hermitage commons, do not yet have publicly projected budgets or timelines. 

The three-phase capital campaign is a response to growing public demand that has exceeded the center’s structural capacity, according to Spirit Rock campaign plans. Staff have worked with San Francisco-based real estate developing consultant firm HartWest to add more photovoltaic panels and incorporate a gray-water treatment process, both part of broader “greening” efforts.

Mr. Kornfield did not discuss the particulars of Spirit Rock’s multimillion-dollar capital campaign on Sunday. He and Mr. Goldstein mostly talked dharma, a Buddhist term that, with a little “d,” refers to all aspects of human experience, and with a big “d” to the formal teachings of the Buddha. 

Since starting teaching nearly four decades ago, Mr. Kornfield has shifted away from the emphasis on suffering he learned while studying in India.

 “There’s a way in which practice can feel, for us as Westerners, kind of a grim duty,” Mr. Kornfield said. “Yes, you have to go through a layer of letting go of or dealing with trauma or resentment, but that’s not who you really are. That’s not what the Dharma points to. You know, when the texts begin, ‘Oh nobly born, you who are the sons and daughters of the awakened ones, remember who you are,’ they point to what the Dalai Lama expresses with his joy and his laughter.”

The two joked about their foibles as 20-something teachers in the 70’s. Mr. Goldstein once closed a silent meditation retreat with thumping music and strobe lights. Their chatter was peppered with wry, contradictory adages learned from teachers past.

Mr. Goldstein: “There is no right, and no wrong. Everything is essentially empty. But right is right, and wrong is wrong.”

Mr. Kornfield: “You are perfect the way you are, and there’s still room for improvement.” 

The audience always laughed along with the teachers. 

Not everyone who comes to Spirit Rock is a Buddhist. Maybe not even most people. The center is billed as nonsectarian, but staff and center literature make clear that all of the silent meditation retreats, daylong workshops and weekly classes offered are steeped in Buddhist teachings and vocabulary.

“One of the misunderstandings sometimes about Buddhism is that it’s a belief system,” Ms. Latvala said. “It’s really a practice system. People come and they can learn practices, and they can see if they’re helpful in their lives or not.”

The center draws about 40,000 visits a year, according to Spirit Rock communications director Erica Harrold. As many as 350 people might attend a daylong workshop, and Ms. Harrold estimated that more than a third of those who attend weekly classes are recurring visitors. About 5,000 visits comprise the residential retreats, which span between three days and two months. 

“We’re pretty maxed out with our residential retreats,” Ms. Harrold said. “Which shows us that there’s a pretty big demand to have a week of silence and meditation and yummy organic food.”

Adding 48 more beds to the residential retreat housing’s current 96 will not come until in phase two. First, the center has to finish phase one, which began with a “quieter campaign” before the public effort began a couple of years ago. “Larger donors, like million-dollar donors,” Ms. Latvala said, seeded phase one’s start.

Donors like Larry Siegel, who attended Sunday’s Q&A, are closing the present gap. Mr. Siegel and his wife first attended the center almost seven years ago. They came because “some hard things happened,” he said. They came to get perspective. 

A natural skeptic, Mr. Siegel said, he is wary of people who claim to have all the answers, “particularly when it comes to the question of why are we all here.”

But his time at Spirit Rock—pausing, being mindful, striving to be kind—helped.

“My god, in Marin, those things start to sound like clichés,” Mr. Siegel said. “I’m an attorney by trade. I’m fairly cynical and logical. I like to go from A to B. I really like the [center’s] goal of a way to live and think and to be compassionate, and it’s done with a lot of humor, too, which I like.”

Mr. Siegal and his wife attend Mr. Kornfield’s popular Monday night meditation class, he sporadically and she regularly. The class is two years older than Spirit Rock itself, currently offered on a sliding scale of $8 to $10 in the community meditation hall trailer.

In the adjoining gift shop, books on mindful eating and birthing, as well as candles, incense and Tibetan prayer flags for creating your own altar, sit beside $120 pashmina scarves made in Nepal, dry-clean only. All are sold on the honor system. A laminated list of instructions walks people through working the credit card machine if no staff are present. Outside the trailer, more than three-dozen Buddha statues on sale from $50 to $1,000 abide on two folding tables. 

Class fees are suggestions, Spirit Rock co-founding teacher Sylvia Boorstein said in an interview after Sunday’s talk.

“No one is ever turned away,” she said. “We are, among retreat centers, quite reasonably priced.”

More than $1 million of the funds raised for phase one so far has come from individuals practicing the “sangha of thousands of buddhas,” Ms. Boorstein said, in which donors gave $27 a month over the course of three years. She is very proud of those people, she said.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Boorstein’s Wednesday morning class fell on her 77th birthday. A dozen friends and colleagues slipped in to her class three minutes before its close to present her with a bouquet of flowers. Ms. Boorstein padded across the carpeted trailer to accept them, barefoot with pink toenails, to the tune of the happy birthday song. 

“We love you, we love you,” one woman said.

Ms. Boorstein thanked them and told a story about listening to a talk in the upper retreat hall a few days prior. She had looked out on the rolling acres beyond and at the faces that lit up upon seeing her.

“I am so lucky to be in a community of people who find me dear,” Ms. Boorstein said. “I think I’m infiltrating myself into that room in a way that nobody notices, but actually people are noticing. I thought to myself, ‘This is a community I love in which I am not invisible, and people care about me.’ And I felt so companioned. In honor of my father for whom it was his favorite blessing—I am grateful, to have been kept alive and sustained, and to have made it to this day.”