Finding Serenity at Crestone Mountain Zen Center
Taking part in unique experiences was one of the most important things I wanted to do while on my road trip. Before I left someone mentioned the idea of staying in a Buddhist monastery for free or fairly inexpensively. I thought this sounded like a great way to center myself with clean eating, meditation, yoga and the outdoors while on my trip. I quickly started searching for monastery along my route. I found a Zen Buddhist monastic practice center in a very remote and dramatically beautiful area in Colorado.
The Dharma Sangha Crestone Mountain Zen Center offers residential training in Zen meditation. The campus was home to one teacher, 7 residents, and 4 students. They also allow individual guests who want to enjoy the beauty, quiet, and isolation to rent cabins throughout the year, which is just what I did! This was not a “free” monastery, but the prices were reasonable and they had an inexpensive camping option which is what I originally planned on booking. But prior to arriving the weather was cold so I called to see if they had anything else available. Luckily, I scored a private Guest House room, with a loft, desk, sink and hot pot to make my tea. Plus it had plenty of space to lay out my yoga mat. My stay also included 3 gourmet, vegetarian meals a day.
To get to the Zen Center I had to drive past the outskirts of Crestone, deep into the forest at the foothills of the mountains. It looked like a scene from a movie. Since I was solo I was a little bit hesitant of where I was going. There were no signs for the Zen Center but I did start seeing other signs for other spiritual monasteries, retreats, temples so I figured I was on the right track. These spiritual centers were just as remote as they promoted on their websites. Once I found the entrance sign for the Crestone Mountain Zen Center I drove the windy road to the compound which had many different types of buildings. The building that stood out most was the one on the furthest edge of the property closest to the mountains. This building was a huge dome with an oculus at the top. The inside was completely empty and paved with huge smooth rocks and lined with rugged rocks from the property. This building was built with remarkable acoustics and used as an interfaith practice space and by far the most exquisite space on the property.
After checking in and getting the grand tour, I got a rundown of the daily schedule. Zen residents follow a rigorous practice schedule, guests may spend their time as they wish. Guest can also use their retreat to get a taste for Zen practice without having to commit to the full schedule and simply enjoy the time in the mountains.
An example of a Zen resident schedule would be as follows.
4:30 Wake up Bell
9:30 Work Meeting/Work
12:15 End of Work
3:00 Work (Dharma Circle Thursday Only)
7:35 Han (Dharma Talk Wed Only)
9:00 End Zazen
Residents and guest ate their meals in the same building but in different rooms. Residents ate in a traditional Buddhist fashion. We ate sitting on the floor at a low table. During my stay, there were 4 visitors, each on their own journey. Some staying at the center for months at a time while they searched for spiritual guidance. The food was amazing and cooked by the residents. Each resident taking a turn throughout the week to cook for everyone on the campus.
Even though I had to work through the day I found time to hike and participate in the group meditations which were held in the Japanese meditation hall, called the Zendo. The start of each Zendo session began with a bell and wooden chime that sounded in a particular pattern. This sound symbolized to everyone on campus that Zendo was getting ready to start and everyone needed to be seated in meditative position before the chimes ended. Mediation was silent, and everyone sat facing out away from each other and towards the outskirts of the outer wall. After 30 minutes of seated meditation, we did 10 minutes of walking meditation around the garden on the outside of the Zendo. Then back to seated position for another 30 minutes of silence. I found that my sleep was deep and very restful after the mediation practice.
I also got the chance to do a lot of hiking. The campus itself is nestled at the base of the impressive fourteen thousand foot Sangre de Cristo mountains. From the garden outside the dining hall, you can see the Dunefield of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Beyond that lies Mount Blanca, 14,345 feet high, one of the sacred world mountains of the pre-historic Anasazi and present-day Native Americans in the Southwest. There were a lot of mountain lion sightings while I was there, and I was on high alert. I actually saw footprints and heard a growl while on a hike and I totally panicked!
The best hike was the one I took was one to the Tashi Gomang Stupa a couple miles away from the Crestone Mountain Center. A stupa is an architectural rendering of the Buddhist path, the stages, and aspects of enlightenment. A stupa is more than just a symbol, however. When a great Buddhist teacher leaves his or her physical existence, the body that remains is considered to be permeated with the very essence of awakened mind, possessing tremendous intrinsic power and blessings. The appropriate vessel for containing these relics is a stupa. Through its design and contents, a stupa is regarded as having the power to transmit the essence of awakened mind, on the spot, to anyone ready to receive it.
Staying at the Dharma Sangha Crestone Mountain Zen Center was a one-of-a-kind experience, and I look forward to being able to stay at other monasteries in the future. The schedule gives you a sense of home which is a nice change of pace from life on the road. The serenity and spirituality can help guide you through things that you may be trying to figure out. And if you are not a hippie-dippie kind of person you can use the time to eat right, excise, meditate and use it as a cleanse of the body and mind.
2000 East Dreamway, P.O. Box 130
Crestone, Colorado 81131
VIEW MORE PHOTOS FROM CRESTONE, COLORADO