A FEW YEARS BACK, we rode a hover ferry and the Light Rail Transit to the New Territories of Hong Kong, in search of spiritual revitalization in the tropical heat. It took a great part of the morning before we finally exited in an emphatically urban neighborhood of concrete thoroughfares, alleyway restaurants and general stores.
We were seeking Miu Fat Buddhist Monastery, so rapturously depicted in our guidebook that my friend Susan insisted on making the venture there. As we waded through pigeons bobbing their heads in front of the stairwell entry, a disillusioned silence had dampened Susan’s customary buoyancy. I, on the other hand, heartily admired the temple’s gaudy red-gold resplendence.
The discussions began on the walk back to the rail. Susan insisted a temple had to be an oasis, isolated from the immediate reaches of humanity. I retorted that spirituality entrenched in the daily course of human life had even greater significance because it had to rise above its surrounding mundanity. James, our fellow companion, found the specter of a religious discussion between an agnostic scientist and former Catholic entirely absurd.
So, is it the journey or the destination? Can the soul be found in solitary nature or the hearth of one’s home? Of course, the answers, if not the questions, are infinite. Finding time for the infinite is what is tricky.
A spiritual place can be within a home, a temple or church, or where sun, wind and earth intersect with no human-made structures to intervene.
Then there are organized retreats that provide time away from secular concerns. They often border on the remote edges of wilderness, taking in the natural raw energy of ocean or forest. Activities range from trust-building physical exercises and meditation to the most difficult exercise of all in modern life: nothing.
The time to retreat into this compromise of nature and nurture might be now, as summer drifts into fall. Most centers listed below require reservations, and the price range includes lodging and classes. Few allow pets or children, so be sure to verify.
Isis Oasis Retreat Center
20889 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 707-857-3524, isisoasis.org
Spirituality is in the soul of the beholder, so if your spirit has a sense of humor and the outrageous, venture here. This “oasis” satisfies many needs: a day spa, wedding spot, honeymoon escape or a meditative retreat of a most unusual kind. Isis, whom owner Lora Vigne (who now calls herself Loreon) honors, is the Egyptian goddess of nature, and part of the nature on this 10-acre property is a zoo with servals (African wildcat), bobcats, ocelots, unicorn (yes, a horse bred to grow a horn), emus, exotic birds and more. Overnight guests stay in varied accommodations, including yurts (circular tents), tepees, lodge and cottages.
- Price: $45-$75.
- Programs: Exercise, ancient Egyptian arts and spirituality.
- Meeting groups: Up to 100.
- Amenities: Mini-zoo; dining pavilion; hot tubs; sauna; massage; spa; temple; pool; bookstore; video salon; performing theater.
- Nearby activities/outings: Geyserville, Lake Sonoma.
Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, Genjo-Ji
6367 Sonoma Mountain Road, Santa Rosa, 707-545-8105, www.zendo.com
A vista of wine country, Sonoma-style, stretches out below this hilltop retreat. Jakusho Kwong-roshi and seven students set up here in the 1970s to continue the teachings of their Zen master Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, who founded the first American Zen center in 1962 and wrote “Zen Mind, Beginner Mind.” Programs range from one-day sitting sessions to a yearlong resident training. Buddhist solo retreats permitted.
- Price: $20-$400.
- Programs: Meditation; dharma talk; everyday Zen; oryoki (traditional meal practice) instruction.
- Amenities: Five cabins; bookstore; members’ library open to five-day visitors.
- Restrictions: First-time retreat attendees must attend 9 a.m. meditation instruction; no children; vegetarian meals.
- Nearby activities/outings: Sonoma.
Westerbeke Ranch Conference Center
2300 Grove St., Sonoma, 707-996-7546, westranch.com
Four generations of the Van Hoosear family have worked this 90-acre land since 1935. Travels to Haiti, Mexico and Spain have influenced the architectural touches in the five rustic cottages and adobe-brick lodge. Many groups hold their meetings here or do activities such as the on-site ropes course, but solo retreats are always welcome.
- Price: $45-$109.
- Meeting groups: Up to 100 during the day, 50 overnight.
- Amenities: Pool; hot tub; sauna; volleyball court; massage.
- Restrictions: Two-night stay on weekends.
- Nearby activities/outings: Hiking trails; horseback riding; Jack London State Park; Sonoma Plaza.
Silver Penny Farm
5215 Old Lakeville Road, #1, Petaluma, 707-762-1498
A collection of children’s poetry inspired this country home’s namesake. William Randolph Hearst II bestowed the 17-acre property to the San Francisco archdiocese after extracting a promise that the name would never change. Each of the eight bedrooms comes from individual poems. Be warned: reservations book up far in advance.
- Price: $28-$35.
- Meeting groups: Up to 25 overnight, 45 for the day.
- Amenities: 10 double occupancy, 3 singles; spa; pool; video library; barbecues.
- Restrictions: Adults only; weekend reservations required.
- Nearby activities/outings: San Pablo National Wildlife Refuge, Sonoma and Napa valleys.
Highway 1, P.O. Box 215, Olema, 415-663-1258
More than 2,000 acres here are ensconced within the breathtaking Point Reyes National Seashore. All denominations are welcome; the Vedanta Society of Northern California only asks that visitors’ practices do not interfere with others’. The society brought its practice and study of the ancient Sanskrit texts, the Vedas, from India near the turn of the century.
- Price: Free, although donations are welcome.
- Programs: San Francisco temples.
- Meeting groups: Up to 25 for spiritually oriented groups.
- Amenities: Libraries; meeting halls; private quarters; bring food to cook.
- Restrictions: First-time overnight guests required to interview with a swami at San Francisco Vedanta Society headquarters; adults only overnight; no drinking; modest dress code.
- Nearby activities/outings: Point Reyes National Seashore.
Green Gulch Farm Zen Center
1601 Shoreline Highway, Sausalito, 415-383-3134, www.zendo.com
Soto Zen practitioners keep up the 125 acres of flower gardens, organic vegetable plots and fruit trees. Some of the produce feeds Greens restaurant-goers in San Francisco and the local community. Visitors can attend Sunday meditation for free, although parking donations are requested.
- Price: $12.50-$625.
- Programs: Zen Buddhism; meditation; gardening; social activism; bread making.
- Meeting groups: Up to 40.
- Amenities: 12-room guest house; tea house; conference facilities; library.
- Restrictions: Vegetarian meals.
- Nearby activities/outings: John Muir Beach; Muir Woods; Mount Tamalpais State Park.
Santa Sabina Center
25 Magnolia Ave., San Rafael, 415-457-7727
A contemplative center bordering the Dominican College campus grounds, the center is affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. All faiths enter here to take advantage of retreats ranging from individual private ones to Holy Week or weeklong summer stays. The emphasis is a “contemplative way of being” tied to earth’s spirituality, evident in the lovely array of gardens linked by a single path. Each garden honors a religious figure, such as St. Francis or Buddha, and there’s even a delightful vegetable garden. Masses are available on campus.
- Price: $12-$300.
- Programs: Studies on Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton; Thomas Berry (author of “Dream of the Earth”); poetry; meditation; Japanese arts including paper making.
- Meeting groups: Up to 100.
- Amenities: 60 beds; gardens; hermitage (private retreat); chapel; conference rooms; bookstore; art meditation space.
- Restrictions: Adults only overnight.
- Nearby activities/outings: Hiking trails; downtown San Rafael; Dominican College pool and library.
1815 Highland Place, Berkeley, 510-843-6812, www.nyingma.org
Once a fraternity house, the four-story home was purchased by founder Tarthan Tulku to explore Tibetan Buddhism in a Western environment. Its sister organization, Dharma Publishing Co., publishes English-language Tibetan Buddhist books. The institute offers one-day workshops to four-month retreats; individuals interested in the longer retreats are asked to attend the shorter ones first.
- Price: $5-$6,500; also free Sunday programs available.
- Programs: Buddhism; Tibetan language; meditation; psychology; kum nye (Tibetan yoga and healing); free children’s program.
- Amenities: Quarters for up to 45 people; meditation garden with electric prayer wheel (second largest prayer wheel in world, surpassed by its Sonoma County private retreat location); bookstore.
- Restrictions: Mainly vegetarian; structured retreats only; no street shoes indoors.
- Nearby activities/outings: Berkeley.
San Francisco Zen Center
300 Page St., San Francisco, 415-863-3136, www.zendo.com
Contemplate in an urban setting here. Green Gulch, Tassajara and the in-house City Center operate under the umbrella of the Zen Center. Overnight stays available in four guest rooms overlooking the courtyard; occasional student housing.
- Price: $5-$105.
- Programs: Buddhism; history; psychology; ethics; meditation.
- Meeting groups: Up to 50.
- Amenities: Meditation hall; library; bookstore.
- Restrictions: Vegetarian meals.
- Nearby activities/outings: San Francisco.
El Retiro San Inigo Jesuit Retreat House
300 Manresa Way, Los Altos, 650-948-4491, retreat.scu.edu/jesuit
The spiritual disciples of Saint Ignatius of Loyola tend to 35 acres in the Los Altos hills overlooking San Francisco Bay. Every day of the year except Christmas week, people can wander amid the vibrant rose gardens or partake in myriad retreats. One compelling retreat is the summer 36-day spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius.
- Price: $20-$150.
- Programs: Marriage; grieving; divorce; legal profession; prayer; healing; spirituality; recovery.
- Meeting groups: Up to 100.
- Amenities: 80 bedrooms with private baths; conference facilities; garden; bookstore; on-site counseling.
- Restrictions: Adults only overnight.
- Nearby activities/outings: Los Altos.
Jikoji Zen Retreat Center
12100 Skyline Blvd., Los Gatos, 408-741-9562, www.zendo.com
Established in 1983; Kobun Chino Otogawa Roshi and his students founded this Soto Zen Buddhist temple within the Santa Cruz mountains at an elevation of 2,350 feet. Visitors and retreat participants may take part in the daily meditation practice and discussions.
- Price: $12-$60; classes available on sliding scale.
- Programs: Meditation, haiku.
- Meeting groups: Up to 25.
- Amenities: Dormitory; tent grounds; pond; library.
- Restrictions: Vegetarian meals, cash or check.
- Nearby activities/outings: Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District hiking trails.
Land of Medicine Buddha
5800 Prescott Road, Soquel, 408-462-8383, www.medicinebuddha.com
The late Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche founded the 55-acre meditation center. Part of the Foundation of the Preservation of the Mahayan Tradition, the center emphasizes teaching the healing arts through Buddhist philosophy, modern science and ancient practices.
- Price: $6-$650.
- Programs: Chinese medicine; Buddhism tantra; psychology; meditation.
- Meeting groups: Up to 50, although additional accommodations can be arranged.
- Amenities: Motel-style rooms; camping; conference room; meditation hall; pool; sauna; treatment room; library; bookstore and gift shop.
- Restrictions: Vegetarian.
- Nearby activities/outings: Nisene Marks State Park.
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, reservation office 300 Page St., San Francisco, 415-431-3771, www.zendo.com/~sfzc
This is a must-mention, even though visitor season is almost over. The dirt-road approach ascends 5,000 feet in six miles, levels off for three, then drops sharply for the remaining six. Tassajara translates to “the place where meat is cured by drying.” The mineral-thick hot springs, however, distinguish this corner of the earth and feed the center’s hot tubs. Originally a hunting lodge and Monterey County’s first resort, Tassajara became the first American Zen center in 1962. Founder Shunryu Suzuki-roshi is believed to be the spiritual descendent of 13th-century Dogen Zenji, who co-founded Zen Buddhism. Today, these Soto Zen adherents run the establishment open to the guests May-September. For a place with no electricity, it creates astounding foodstuffs, including its classic breads.
- Price: $45-$300.
- Programs: Cooking; ecology; Buddhism; Japanese arts; poetry.
- Amenities: Swimming pool; steam rooms; spring-fed hot tubs.
- Restrictions: Open May-September (no advance reservations for next year; instead, send brochure requests to 300 Page St., San Francisco, CA 94102 for next season); no music, phone or electricity; cash or check; vegetarian meals.
- Nearby activities/outings: Hiking trails.
Highway 1, Big Sur, 831-667-3000, www.esalen.org
The drop to the black stone beach below is daunting, but the sheer openness encourages the spirit to soar. The Esselen were the original Indian inhabitants. Originally intended as a European spa, Esalen went through two Murphy family generations until its 1962 founding as a leading holistic educational center for “transpersonal” growth.
- Price: $95-$3,195.
- Programs: Spirituality; martial arts/yoga/sports; arts; ecology; biofeedback; anthropology/shamanism; health/healing; relationship/communications; wilderness; women’s and men’s studies.
- Meeting groups: Up to 20.
- Amenities: Clothing-optional hot springs; swimming pool; organic garden; child care; outdoor massages; bookstore.
- Nearby activities/outings: Big Sur, hiking trails.
New Camaldoli Hermitage
Highway 1, Big Sur, 831-667-2456
The Camaldese order of the Benedictines emphasize solitude amid community. Simplicity is emphasized in the monks’ private quarters, each with its own chapel and garden, as well as in the short-term guest rooms and long-term house trailers with their own full bath, half-kitchen and sun deck.
- Price: $40-$50.
- Programs: April-November weekend preach retreat.
- Meeting groups: Up to 30 daytime use.
- Amenities: Conference room; bookstore; gift shop; chapel; Sunday-only lunch in the dining room on invitation.
- Restrictions: Vegetarian meals to be eaten in the individual hermitages; personal dish washing; quiet areas; adults only overnight.
- Nearby activities/outings: Trails leading to ocean and redwood forests in 800-acre grounds.
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features