Eight o’clock and ready to meditate

David Briggs
Carrie and Stuart Kutchins lead a weekly Monday Zen meditation group at the Dance Palace.  

A light tap of a singing bowl begins the practice. For the next 40 minutes, all noises inside the Dance Palace are consciously few as five people, two of them Buddhist priests, sit on mats spaced a few feet apart. To add a touch of intimacy, they face the walls instead of each other. Though their choice of seating—circular cushions or steel chairs—and hand placement—clasped together or palms up—differ, the five share a common pursuit: meditation. 

It’s 8 a.m. on Monday morning and Floating Island Sangha’s communal noiselessness allows the space to fill with the resonance of morning in Point Reyes Station. Birdsong, workers talking at nearby construction sites  and the rumblings of a beastly truck ease in to the soundtrack of the sit. Even the scratching of a beard is detected in the quietude. 

Thoughts, feelings and sensations are turned over and examined until, without warning, the same sound that began the session signals its end. The room is brighter and the sitters turn to face a priest.

Leading this morning’s sit is Stuart Kutchins, who has been offering  the weekly group for years alongside his partner  and fellow priest Carrie Kutchins. Mr. Kutchins is about to lead the final segment of the morning: a Dharma talk and discussion. But he pauses and appears to be rewriting the talk he had planned to give.

(He later said, “I was considering what to talk about, going over the shape of it and turning it upside down. Our thinking isn’t under control. In order to do something like this, it has to be alive. And by the time I opened my mouth, something else was more alive.”)

Mr. Kutchins asks the group to consider what the purpose of mediation is. He then explains the method used to focus the mind—counting breaths up to 10 and then letting go of counting to follow the breath—an approach known as the Six Dharma Gates to the Sublime. Then he talks about the ultimate motive behind meditation: to improve the well-being of all living things. The group closes by chanting a promise to take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher), the Dharma (the teachings) and the sangha (the community) and the sitters part ways.

The Kutchins took over Floating Island from Edward Espé Brown, a Zen priest known for cookbooks like the Tassajara Bread Book, in 2001. They have been alternating leading the group every week since. Both wear the customary garment of a Zen priest: a rakusu, which hangs over the torso like a short, square apron. On the backside of their rakusus are their “Dharma names,” gifted to them when they were ordained as priests in 1995.

“Ninen Koka was given to me, I think as a challenge,” Ms. Kutchins said. “It means ‘patience depths.’ Patience is the primary condition of awakening.”

Mr. Kutchins’s name is Anbo Kaika, which translates to “Peaceful Garuda, Stream of the Precepts.”

“My job is to interpret it,” he said. “A peaceful garuda [a bird-like mythical creature] is a being that has the capacity to develop a great deal of force, but is self-restrained.”

The couple was ordained at Green Gulch Zen Center in a ceremony that culminated years of Zen practice. They had been together for over 30 years—mostly in Inverness—and raised three children when they decided to devote themselves to Buddhism. 

It was Ms. Kutchins who first discovered Zen, after attending a tai chi class  at the original Dance Palace. “I found something I didn’t even know I was looking for,” she said.

She said her first meditation was a “very hearty experience.” “I felt opened up to the possibility of really being happy and finding out how I could manifest happiness into my life,” she said. “It’s a spiritual happiness that isn’t dependent on conditions. What I really appreciate about Zen is you may be happy or not, but you can be all right with everything.”

Before retiring, she worked as a weaver and gardener, while Mr. Kutchins was a doctor of Chinese medicine (he continues to offer acupuncture in Inverness). By 1994, their three children had moved out and the couple decided to follow suit. “They were ready to go college, so we went to college,” Mr. Kutchins joked.

The couple moved to Green Gulch and were ordained priests a year later. At first, they hosted sittings at their home, but when Mr. Brown relocated to Fairfax, he asked them if they would assume the weekly group. They welcome anyone, regardless of spiritual orientation or meditation experience.

Steve McKinney of Point Reyes Station has been part of Floating Island Sangha since Mr. Brown led the group. He credits it for his well-being .

“I would be a lesser person if I didn’t have this in my life,” he said. “It’s an unintimidating experience that people will recognize is valuable before they get something out of it.”