The Religious Retreat Vacation

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Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist retreat centers across the United States

The religious retreat is a form of vacation activity that most professional travel observers seem to have overlooked. Yet more than a million Americans each year--the figure could amount to 1,500,000--devote large portions of their leisure time to sojourns in retreat houses. And while the greater part of them limit the stays to weekends, and to locations close at hand, a large number go for a week or two and many hundreds of miles away, to centers whose broad range of subject matter and activities go well beyond the normal conception of a personal retreat.

What to expect when you go

More than 2,000 monasteries, abbeys, and spiritual retreat centers are scattered throughout the United States and Canada. About 80 percent are linked to a religious order. But most take a more ecumenical, interfaith approach to accommodate this increased interest. "In the old days if you were a Catholic retreat center, you advertised yourself that way. Now most of them want everybody to come," Stone says. Many places offer yoga, Buddhist thought, prayers of all sorts.

This article focuses on religious retreat centers, as distinct from those that are simply spiritual. Even if you're not actively religious, Anne Luther says, "It can be good to start where you're most familiar, your own religion." (We will do a separate article on Buddhist retreat centers in a later issue of Budget Travel. As for Muslim retreat centers in the United States, none of the retreat listmakers we interviewed is aware of any.)

While the centers are as unique in their personalities as snowflakes, they do share common elements. Many welcome both individuals and groups. The two most popular approaches are directed retreats, where you spend the time on your own, checking in with a spiritual guide perhaps once a day; and thematic retreats, where there are often speakers and discussion groups centered around a theme. Couples' retreats are also increasingly common. Most centers interweave periods of silence with group interaction.

The accommodations range from a bare-bones "hotel" room (religious imagery displacing third-rate landscapes on the walls) to spartan monks' quarters. Nearly all are clean, well-lighted places, going for anywhere from $25 to $100 per night (often presented only as a suggested donation). The charge usually includes three meals a day and a shared bathroom. At the end of your stay you may be asked to strip the bed and perhaps even put on fresh sheets for the next seeker.

The retreats we have selected are priced right--and placed right, too. We have looked not only for a warm and welcoming environment and good value, but for retreats located in settings of such natural beauty that even if you are not inspired to leaps of faith, you will at least be impressed with the handiwork of nature.

Christian Retreats

As best as I can determine, there exist slightly more than 500 Catholic retreat centers and houses in the U.S. and Canada, about 150 Protestant centers, a few Quaker ones, a dozen or so Jewish centers, and an emerging handful of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu retreats. For a near-comprehensive listing of the Christian retreats, send $30 to Retreats International, P.O. Box 1067, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (phone 574/247-4443, e-mail retreats@nd.edu), for the most recent edition of its extensive "Directory of Retreat Centers," which lists several hundred such locations, of which the great majority are Catholic retreats, others Protestant, all set forth state-by-state in pared-down fashion: addresses and phone numbers, name of director, months of operation, number of rooms, heavily abbreviated references to basic approaches and programs. To determine which centers best meet your needs, view the website retreatsintl.org/.

For a list of Protestant retreat houses (totaling about 150 in North America), contact the North American Retreat Directors Association (NARDA). While it offers simply a mailing list, not a directory with descriptions, it furnishes copies for free (after which you can phone the individual properties for more details). Despite that kind offer, it would be a nice gesture to enclose $2 for postage and handling. Many of the retreat houses on the mailing list can also be accessed at the Website: nardacenters.org/.

Upward of a hundred retreat houses have from 50 to 100 or more rooms apiece, while the remainder average 20 to 40 rooms. At the smaller houses, you obviously can't expect a complete activities program. Rather, in the monastic tradition of some (especially Catholic) retreats, the experience is largely a personal one, and guests take advantage of the stress-free atmosphere and freedom from business and family pressures to ponder the eternal verities. For people of all religions, and of none, it is a refreshing interlude that places more petty concerns into perspective.

The larger retreats have elaborate programs, often on major religious, social, or political issues. Probably the most extensive program (35 separate instructors, including widely known theologians, therapists, and authors) is the month-long summer institute conducted every July on the campus of Notre Dame University by the before-mentioned Retreats International. Here, in the casual setting of summertime, nearly 400 people (teachers, counselors, clergy, nurses, social workers, and other concerned adults) are in attendance each week (and one week is all you need stay), auditing courses and seminars in spiritual and other church-related issues, but also dealing with family and youth problems, intimate relationships, morality and self-healing, community needs. Courses average $300 to $400/week for housing and instruction. Meals and registration fees are extra. Write for literature to the address given earlier, or view the website retreatsintl.org/, or call 574/277-4443.

Genesis Spiritual Life Center, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, is a far less typical example of the large retreat center, in that it is purposefully ecumenical in nature, appealing to people of all religious beliefs, even though it is administered by the Sisters of Providence, a Catholic order. "We believe," says their credo, "that when persons of differing lifestyles and spiritualities connect, God's creative and healing energies are released...We give preference to those who often feel alienated from their church or society." Heavily influenced by theories of the "New Age," the center's weeklong theme retreats include courses ranging from "Meditation Techniques" to "Celtic Spirituality" to "Watercolor Painting" to "A Jungian Look at the Christian Message," as taught by an equally ecumenical faculty that at times has included Lutherans, followers of Joseph Campbell, massage therapists and psychoanalysts. Programs are offered throughout the year (a $250 to $345 fee covers room, board and program fees for a week), as are "private retreats". All this in a peaceful wooded setting dotted with flower and vegetable gardens, an old restored carriage house dating back to 1889, a chapel, a library, and two dining rooms. For their fascinating literature, contact Genesis Spiritual Life Center, 53 Mill Street, Westfield, MA 01085 (phone 413/562-3627, e-mail genesis@genesiscenter.us). See its Website at: westfield-ma.comgenesis/.

On the West Coast, but much smaller and radically different in atmosphere, is the highly regarded, Anglican-run Mount Calvary Retreat House near Santa Barbara, California, overlooking the Pacific from a high vantage point. In the quiet atmosphere of this Protestant monastic community, in a large Spanish home with a well-stocked library, individuals enjoy the essence of the retreat experience for a suggested daily donation of $70 for room and board each night of stay. A deposit of $50 is required to reserve a room. Write or phone Mount Calvary Retreat House, P.O. Box 1296, Santa Barbara, CA 93102 (phone 805/962-9855, ext. 10). Visit its Web site at mount-calvary.org/.

Catholic

Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center (passionist order), North Palm Beach, FL at the front door is Route 1, an American Main Street leading from Key West to the northern tip of Maine. But as you walk along the quarter mile of waterfront at the back of this retreat just eight miles north of Palm Beach, where shimmering Lake Worth empties into the Atlantic Ocean, there's no sound except for the water lapping and the distant clanging of the rigging of million-dollar sailboats moored next door.

Here, in the spirit of "active contemplation" dating back to the order's founding in 1720, a tiny band of Passionist priests opens their beautiful home (an architectural-award-winning building) to individual and group retreatants. "Each weekend we have programs, sometimes married couple retreats, mixtures of lectures, prayer, and private conferences," says Father Damian Towey, who has been here for ten years. "The first year I felt awkward. I wondered if I was giving them anything valuable. But so many people say at the end that it was more than a vacation and that it felt like it was over too soon."

Individual retreatants are welcome midweek as well, even when there are no programs scheduled. You can attend mass (as many in the community do), held every morning in the gorgeous adjoining chapel with the sun streaming through 116 rectangles of stained-glass windows. You sleep in single rooms with a single bed, bare walls, a window facing the water, and a terrace that allows you to step out and watch the sun rise on the water (highly recommended).

"Remember that George Carlin routine about stuff? How we work all our lives to acquire stuff, then we find out in the end it's just stuff?" laughs John Kosak, administrator of the center. "Here's where we get rid of that stuff that's a hindrance to any spiritual awakening."

Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center, 1300 U.S. Highway 1, North Palm Beach, FL 33408; 561/626-1300, ourladyofflorida.org/. Costs: Weekend: Suggested donation $160 for a weekend, three meals a day.

"We offer a sense of quiet in the midst of an urban scene," says Peter Irmiter, marketing director of the Jesuit Retreat House on 57 acres just south of Cleveland, OH. Silence is big here and begins with breakfast, carrying through all meals. "Silence is key to all retreats," says Imiter.

There's a hands-on approach here. If you're on an individually directed retreat, you are assigned a retreat director with whom you'll confer once or twice a day to read scripture and talk about any new thoughts that have occurred to you during the day.

The Jesuits here have been handling retreats for 102 years, but they're making changes to their approach all the time to handle this new growing interest. "Retreats used to be geared to 30 days," says Imiter. Now, he says, "Weekends are our bread and butter - men's, women's, mixed retreats, for AA, young people preparing for marriage, covering everything from finance to sex."

And they adapt retreats to individual needs and preferences. "We know older people are more used to pre-Vatican II where they get preached to. They're not into sharing, too shy," Imiter explains. "The baby boomers, they're looking for an interactive, sharing retreat with more give-and-take." And the younger folks, 25 to 40? "We're studying that market now," Imiter says.

Jesuit Retreat House, 5629 State Rd., Parma, OH 44134; 440/884-9300, jrh-cleveland.org/. Houses 58. Costs: Weekend: $160 includes all meals, private single room, shared bath.

Protestant (Presbyterian)

"The scenery alone is spiritual and healing," says Nancy Early, a film producer in New York who has taken her two children to New Mexico's Ghost Ranch Conference Center in Abiquiu for several years. Ghost Ranch's 21,000 acres, 6,500 feet above sea level, are surrounded by red clay hills and sheer cliffs. "You walk outside at night and you're under a blanket of stars...breathtaking. We get up early and go horseback riding and see the sun rise."

And the quality of the courses the adults take during the day matches the scenery, Early says. "I took courses on painting, watercolors, the five major religions of the world, journal writing, and photography. They attract superb people. Some of the courses fill up within weeks of the catalog's publication."

But most of all, she says, it is quiet and removed. "There's one pay phone--the cell doesn't work. No television, no radio. You walk away from everything that controls your life. And I never heard the kids say, 'I'm bored.'" There's a library, open 24 hours a day, a museum of anthropology, and another of paleontology. The stone labyrinth and the hiking trails are open all year long.

Guest rooms are simple cabins with bunk beds. And the dining is cafeteria-style in the main room (which can serve up to 300 people), using the ranch's own organic produce.

Ghost Ranch, H77, Box 11, Abiquiu, NM 87510; 505/685-4333, ghostranch.org/. Cost: $300-$420 weekly, including three meals, tuition $185; Children under 14, half-price; under age 4, free. Summer visitors must be enrolled in courses.

Christian-Evangelical

After driving two hours north of Phoenix (speed limit, 75; it's the west, after all), you wind up at a series of simple brown buildings that blend into the dusty desert surroundings. It isn't until you walk the 22 acres that you notice there's a large pond on the Living Water Worship and Teaching Center in Cornville, AZ, fed by an artesian well, stocked with fish (catch-and-release is the rule here), and good for swimming in summer. And that gentle rushing noise you hear at the property's edge is not the wind, it's Oak Creek, a swiftly moving stream that flows into the Verde River.

Belinda Schmitt says her parents, John and Barry French, searched for years before finding water in the desert and opening this Christian retreat in 1981. "People tell me they feel the Lord walking here with them," she says.

Living Water offers no organized lectures or religious services. Church groups (of 20-120) bring their own preachers and programs. Individual retreatants are on their own, though they are given a thick handbook called Spiritual Journeys, which offers suggestions on how to proceed reflectively, a spiral notebook to begin a journal of their thoughts, and access to a library of inspirational books.

"We're nondenominational, so we don't push anything--that appeals to a lot of people who don't want you to be too Catholic or too Baptist," says Lee Brownson, who vacationed at the retreat for years before becoming marketing director. But he does concede that they quietly discourage non-Christian seekers. "The focus is on Jesus," Brownson explains.

And the stress is on comfort. The rooms for those on personal retreats (set off from the dormlike group facilities) are much like good motel accommodations: double bed, private bathroom, balcony from which you can see the stars in the big western sky. The food is home-cooked and plentiful, with a dessert at every meal. No busing your own dishes here. After all, as Brownson says, "You don't have to be uncomfortable to hear from the Lord."

Two weeks before you arrive, the entire staff will start praying for the success of your retreat. (That is, if you book more than two weeks in advance - they're faithful, not psychic.) If you need a small assist toward inspiration, the Grand Canyon is 21/2 hours away. Or you can drive 20 minutes up the road to Sedona to catch the sunset against the backdrop of those famous craggy red-rock cliff formations.

The Community of Living Water, 6702 E. Clinton St., Scottsdale, AZ 85254; 888/627-5631, sierranet.net/living. Costs: Individuals pay $65 per night for a private room and bath, three meals; Couples pay $110 per night, six meals; Groups are $84-$106 for weekends (includes meeting rooms and audiovisual equipment, plus meals).

Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends)

Quaker retreat centers appear to be few and far between, but we have located two, one on each coast, which offer similar atmospheres suitable for retreats and quiet contemplation.

Pendle Hill, a "Quaker-led study center" near Philadelphia, was founded in 1930 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) on a 23-acre arboretum in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Although open to people of all faiths, the retreat center emphasizes its Quaker roots in its program offerings, which includes spirituality and art workshops, as well as discussions of political and social issues. Pendle Hill offers various conferences and retreats for $250-$630/person double, $295 to $680 single, which include room, board, and all program fees. Retreat topics range from "The Spirit in the Word," to "The Truth About Quaker History," to "The Status of Islamic Women in the Arab World," to "Experiencing Goodness in Ourselves." Lodging is also available for those individuals seeking time for private contemplation and solitude; bed and breakfast rates range from $70/night for singles and $100/night for couples. If you're looking for the opportunity for more intensive spiritual study, Pendle Hill offers an on-going resident study program consisting of three 10-week sessions from October to June. A library, community dining room, craft studio (summer only), and extensive wooded grounds are available to the private and program guests; families are welcomed, but the study center does not provide childcare. Write or phone Pendle Hill, 338 Plush Mill Road, Wallingford, PA 19086 (phone 800/742-3150, e-mail bobbi@pendlehill.org). The Web site at pendlehill.org/ provides extensive information on the study center and its programs, as well as allows you to register for conferences and retreats online.

The Ben Lomond Quaker Center in Central California (two hours south of San Francisco) offers another opportunity for spiritual discovery. Situated on 80 acres of Redwood forest, the center aims to provide a place of "retreat and contemplation, of renewal and growth, for individuals, families, Friends Meetings and other organizations or groups who unite with the Quaker principles of simplicity, justice, peace and respect for 'that of God' in every person" for over 30 years. The center offers an average of one weekend retreat per month, which run on a sliding scale of about $160 per person, including program fees and room and board from Friday to Sunday. Programs for 2001 include "Alternatives to Violence," "Discovering Our Purpose for Being," and "The Annual Silent Retreat." All meals are vegetarian and participants share set-up and clean-up responsibilities. Like Pendle Hill, this center also offers accommodations for "sojourners," or those in search of personal respite; rates range from $17-$50/person/night, but additional donations are welcome. During the summer, Ben Lomond holds weeklong Quaker camps for "young friends," ranging in age from 8th graders to college students. Write or phone Ben Lomond Quaker Center, P.O. Box 686, Ben Lomond, CA 95005 (phone 831/336-8333, e-mail mail@quakercenter.org). Its Web site at quakercenter.org/ provides a complete listing of program offerings, as well as rates and helpful features, such as "What to Expect" and "What to Bring."

Powell House Conference and Retreat Center, Old Chatham, NY Friends (a.k.a., Quakers) are no strangers to silence--it's an integral part of their meetings. So it is not surprising that this center, set on 57 acres with two ponds in rural upstate New York, adjacent to a bird sanctuary, encourages calm and quiet.

But what surprised Spee Braun when she, her husband, and their three children went there the first time was that people gathered regularly in the main hall to make music - something not allowed in the usual Quaker service. She liked that, and everything else about the place. "I'm a people-person. You meet new people there and you can have in-depth conversations that you can't get to over a cup of coffee at church," Braun says.

Braun says she even found walking the new stone labyrinth "a moving experience, though I started out a skeptic." The lectures are enlightening. Her favorite events are the bargain work-weekends. "You do a job on the main building, like re-roof or rake leaves or paint the walls, and the low rates are even cheaper," she says. "You feel peace at Powell House, away from the busyness of the world."

Powell House Conference and Retreat Center Under the care of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), 524 Pitt Hall Rd., Old Chatham, NY 12136-3410; 518/794-8811, powellhouse.org/. Open year-round; three hours north of New York City, three hours west of Boston. Cost: Weekend: adults $170, includes two nights' lodging and six meals and all programming; $80 for kids under 18; $40 kids under 2. For individual retreatants (called "sojourners" here) who do not attend programs: $40 per night, includes self-serve breakfast. Reservations required.

Seventh Day Adventists

There's one thing at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, FL you won't find at any other retreat center: the largest amateur zoo on the East Coast, with lions and tigers and bears (oh my) as well as cougars, monkeys, llamas, and coyotes. "Most of the animals have been confiscated from people who've abused them--we don't take them from the wild and put them behind bars," says Dave Speicher, camp manager.

Camp Kulaqua is one of the largest of the Seventh-Day Adventists' 99 worldwide retreat centers and camps (67 in North America). The 650-acre facility, 20 miles north of Gainesville, provides all kinds of housing year-round, a natural spring to swim in, horses for trail rides, tennis, a gym, and meeting facilities that can seat up to 1,200.

There are weekend programs (men's and women's retreats) for two to three months of the year; a singles' retreat over New Year's; four-day family camp with programs over Labor Day; and a seven-week summer camp for kids. But at other times, individual retreatants are on their own. No TV, no phones.

"The main attraction is the quiet and security," says Speicher. "What we try to do is provide an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit dwells and you can get away from the cares of the world."

Camp Kulaqua, 700 N.W. Cheeota Ave., High Springs, FL 32643; 386/454-1351, fax 386/454-4748, campkulaqua.com/. Located 20 miles north of Gainesville, 21/2 hours north of Orlando. Cost: Rooms for $28.50-$187 per night; meals run $6.95-$7.95.

Jewish

The available Jewish retreats are almost all long weekends in nature, and include, most prominently:

The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Brandeis, CA 93064 (phone 805/582-4450, fax 805/526-1398, e-mail info@thebbi.org, or online at brandeis-bardin.org/), has cottages amid rolling hills 45 minutes from Los Angeles, and offers a wide variety of themed programs (family camps, singles weekends, arts festivals) on religious practices in the tradition of non-denominational Judaism. Cost varies according to the program, but averages between $170-$375 per person.

Hadassah, the well-known Jewish women's organization, sponsors "Singles Retreat." Held across the country, the retreat is heavily patronized by persons seeking a mate of similar background and values, but has a strong religious and spiritual as well as social content, I am assured by Hadassah's national office. For the many dates, locations and prices, write or call Hadassah Membership Division, 50 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019 (phone 800/664-5646, e-mail: memberinfo@hadassah.org), which operates these programs for the public at large, and does not require that participants be members of Hadassah. More traditional retreats ("Kallahs"), for members only, are offered on summer weekends at locations around the country, and are led by distinguished biblical scholars. Write to Hadassah's Jewish Education Department at the above address or view the Web site at hadassah.org/.

Jacobs Camp, in Mississippi, has periodic adult retreats each year, discussing Jewish issues in a countryside setting that now also contains an 8,000-square-foot Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, operated by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.  Contact Jacobs Camp, P.O. Box 327, Utica, MS 39175 (phone 601 885-6042). See the organization's Web site at hsjacobscamp.org/.

Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, hosts a variety of midweek and weekend retreats all year round-some for children, others for families or mature adults only--on themes such as: "Spirituality and the High Holidays" and "Jewish Literature and the Arts" as well as a "Jewish Writer's Workshop" and a "Songleading and Music Workshop."  For non-program visits, the all-inclusive charge can be as low as $15 a day per person for lodgings and meals on a family camping trip, although most people visit with a large group. For information, write or phone Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby, winter address 555 Skokie Blvd., Suite 225, Northbrook, IL 60062 (phone 847/509-0990, ext. 25, fax 847/509-0970, e-mail osrui@urj.org); summer address: 600 Lac La Belle Drive, Oconomowoc, WI 53066 (phone 262/567-6277, fax 262/567-8885). Also online at http://osrui.urjcamps.org/.

Elat Chayyim

The Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center, 99 Mill Hook Rd., Accord, NY 12404 (two hours north of New York); 800/398-2630, elatchayyim.org/. Open year-round, but only during those weekends and weeks when programs are scheduled; accommodates 150. Costs: Weeklong programs in summer: Program fee $390-$485.Weekends: Program fee $150; rooms $125-$275 per weekend, includes three (vegetarian with fish option) meals a day.

A typical day starts with yoga and prayer sessions, then classes taught by some of the leaders in the Jewish Renewal movement (emphasizing the integration of mind, body, soul, and spirit). Services are often held outdoors in a tent, amidst spirited chanting and swaying. There's a park nearby with lush hiking and biking trails. The day ends with discussion of the retreat experience in smaller family (mispacha) groups, sometimes outside under the stars.

Muslim

Islamic retreats are harder to come by, but we've found one site that offers several programs for those interested in an intensive education in Islamic studies. Each year the Dar al Islam site in Abiquiu, New Mexico, hosts retreats, informational sessions, and conferences for Muslims. There is a youth camp for one week in June, and a women-only weekend retreat in September, but the big event is the Abiquiu Al-Rihla Summer Program. "Students" age 18 and over study jurisprudence, spiritual excellence, the Koran, and Arabic, among other subjects. Accommodations are bunk beds in yurts (large tents) for the men, and dormitory-style lodgings for the women. No provisions are made for married couples, so they would have to sleep separately or arrange their own accommodations outside the complex. For general information about the Dar al Islam site in New Mexico, go to daralislam.org/, call 505/685-4515, or write to P.O. Box 180, Abiquiu, NM 85710.

Hindu

Finally, the following are two Hindu retreat centers, both highly popular and well respected in the Hindu community.

The Shree Muktananda Ashram located in South Fallsburg, NY, calls itself a "spiritual University." The focus is on ancient Hindu teachings, although serious seekers of all faiths are welcome. The Ashram was founded in 1979 by Swami Muktananda, and is a modern representation of the traditional gurukula, the school of the Guru described in ancient Hindu texts, where students gather around a spiritual master to learn both scripture and the way to lead a life of righteousness (dharma). Students participate in a full daily schedule of meditation, chanting, contemplation, scriptural study and selfless service (which could include anything from chopping vegetables in the kitchen, to caring for the Ashram grounds). Classes cost between $150 and $475, and room and board cost from $57/night for dorms, $90 for twin accommodations, and $95/night for singles. Shree Muktananda is affiliated with the Gurudev Siddha Path Ashram in India, which was founded by Swami Muktananda in 1956. For information on either center, contact SYDA Foundation, Information Center, 371 Brickman Road, PO Box 600, South Fallsburg, NY 12779-0600 (phone 845/434 2000 ext. 2450) or view its Web site at siddhayoga.org/.

For a more varied, camp-style, but still thoroughly spiritual approach to Hinduism, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (AVG) in Saylorsburg, PA offers something for people of all ages. Located on 15 wooded acres in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, AVC can provide for up to 200 students at once in a complex of 15 cottages, five residential complexes and nine "family residences." AVG's comprehensive brochure regularly lists more than a dozen programs for summer and fall (three of which are family retreats), as well as regular retreats on the first and third weekend of every month, focused on a variety of studies including the Upanishads, Bhagavatgita, Bramasutras and other classical Vedic texts as well as such topics as Vedic Astrology, Ayurveda, Meditation and Yoga. For more information, contact AVG, P.O. Box 1059, Saylorsburg PA 18353 (phone 570/992-2339, e-mail info@arshavidya.org). Also online at arshavidya.org/.

Buddhist Retreats

Here are my top seven retreats, with most preferring you to stay at least a couple of nights to soak it all in.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Carmel Valley, California

It's a good thing that Tassajara turns out to be one of the most beautiful and luxurious of retreats, because it is not exactly easy to get to. After driving about four hours south of San Francisco, climbing 5,000 feet in the Santa Lucia Range, and then clambering into the Tassajara's four-wheel drive "stagecoach" for the last 14 miles (one hour), half of which is straight downhill (they advise first-time visitors not to try this in their own automatic-shift vehicles lest they burn out the brakes completely), you arrive at the ancient geological wonder that is the Tassajara Creek Basin.

Everywhere you go, from the pool past the dorms and cabins and yurts to the bathhouse, you'll hear the peaceful burble of the creek. From May to Labor Day, there's an eclectic mix of Buddhist teachings ("Wild Mind, Zen Mind," for example) along with yoga, wilderness walks, and a little silence. Here, however, you can just come and not do any of the formal training at all.

"A lot of people are so stressed out they just come and sleep for the first day-and soak in the mineral hot springs," says Leslie James, Tassajara treasurer. "The place itself has a powerful spirit; it was where Indians came for healing before it became a resort." "We've been coming here since before I was born," says 14-year-old Kailyn McCord, sounding like a precocious Zen master (what's the sound of one hand clapping?) until her mother, Margaret, sitting at the dinner table across from her, adds context. "I've been coming since I was pregnant with Kailyn, and the family has been coming ever since." Though there are some wonderful hiking trails, up the mountains and alongside the powerful stream, there isn't much to appeal to most teenagers. Kailyn agrees, but still wouldn't miss coming every year. "I'm normally hyper and rambunctious," Kailyn explains. "This place opens up a quieter side of me that's wonderful and," she adds, taking a bite and beaming, "I come for the food."

And so do many others. The meals are truly vegetarian gourmet quality-as beautiful to look at as to eat. Not surprisingly, as Tassajara is part of a group that includes Green Gulch, an organic farm and practice center, and The Greens, an haute gourmet vegetarian restaurant on San Francisco Bay (as well as at the San Francisco Zen Center in the city). Forget your cell phone-it just won't work. And there is only one pay phone for all of the 70-80 residents. No TV, no pressure, not even electricity in the residences. It's stunning to walk at night with kerosene lanterns the only light along the paths and in the rooms, like reading by the glow of a jarful of dedicated fireflies. Now doesn't that sound like Nirvana? Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924 415/865-1899 sfzc.org/. Dorms: $84-$99 per person per night, including all meals. Otherwise, two people per room, private stone rooms, pine rooms, yurts, and tatami Japanese mountain cabins can run up to $291 per night, again including three meals, pool, hot spring baths, all facilities. Tuition for weeklong courses: $150-$300. Open May-August to public.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, California

The low wooden buildings melt unobtrusively into the hills of the 400-acre nature preserve that forms the backdrop for this year-round retreat center less than an hour north of San Francisco. The meditation hall, where you spend most of your time, has walls of windows looking out on the hills and mountains. During the evening dharma talk (the teacher's lecture on an aspect of Buddhist philosophy), you can see deer prance by on the top of the hill. Vipassana, or insight, meditation (the practice of mindful awareness) informs all the retreats, which run from four days to several months. They are all completely silent.

Though everyone has the luxury of a private room, each with a tiny modern sink, blond-wood bedside table, and a good single bed, it's a nofrills kind of place. There is time for little else besides the full daily schedule of sitting and walking meditation, movement class, meetings with your teacher, and dharma talks. The food is adequate, not gourmet, vegetarian. You are expected to do mindful cleaning and kitchen chores as well as clean your room, strip your bed, and wash the sink in your room before you go. And there are only a few hiking trails-though you shouldn't miss the one behind the meditation hall. It passes by a quite touching memorial place with bones and beads and Buddhas and photos of beloved friends and children who all passed along before those left behind were ready to let them go. One photo of a lone fireman atop the World Trade Center debris includes the names of three people, with the wish that by placing their memory "in this peaceful place" they will find peace from "the terror that surely must have filled the final moments of their lives."

No frills-no matter. What you come here for is the high-quality teachers who seem to have as much wit as wisdom, along with the ability to translate Buddhist teachings (archaically referred to at more traditional Zen retreats as "the Buddha-way") into language that resonates meaningfully for an American audience. Spirit Rock was founded by Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein, among others, who are two of the best teachers and most prolific and funny authors writing on Buddhism. (They also helped found The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.) Spirit Rock also offers many one-day workshops as well, with some of the biggest names in spirituality in the United States. To be surrounded on all sides by sloping hillsides and mountains makes you feel, as you walk from the dorm to the meditation hall, as if you are being gently cradled in the hollow of the earth's hand. It is oddly quieting and reassuring. Rooms and three meals a day run $55-$75 per night (on a sliding scale based on your ability to pay). It is also expected that you will make a donation to the teachers at the end of the retreat, as they are otherwise unpaid. Spirit Rock Meditation Center, P.O. Box 169, Woodacre, CA 94973 415/488-0164 spiritrock.org/

Zen Mountain Monastery, Mount Tremper, New York

Is that a statue of Jesus on the outside of the beautiful, four-story stone-and-wood building that houses Zen Mountain Monastery? Is this a Zen paradox? As with most things Buddhist, the answer turns out to be simpler than one first supposes. This building in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, bordered by two of New York's loveliest waterways, the Beaverkill and Esopus Rivers (about 100 miles north of New York City and 60 miles south of Albany), was once owned by the Catholic Church and has been appropriated (or is that recycled?) by the Buddhists. Inside the building, the Zen practice has not undergone much change from its origins.

"On the landscape of American Buddhism, we carry the conservative' label: rigorous, intense, disciplined, structured are some adjectives that may come up," says one of the teachers, Ryushin, with a smile that often pops up on his face and on those of the other monks and teachers. But people are coming here in droves. The Introduction to Zen retreat, offered the first weekend of every month for 22 years, never used to be full. "Now we're completely full and booked months in advance," says Ryushin. What brings them here? "People come in for a variety of reasons-often they are in pain, someone close has suffered or died," Ryushin explains. "I think lately the shit has hit the fan and people see they can no longer look to someone else to solve what is not right in the world, in their lives. The intimacy of the suffering of the world is more palpable and inescapable," continues Ryushin. "That's where Buddhism begins-when we come to grips with the reality of suffering and our role in it and in putting it to rest."

The Introduction to Zen retreat begins with patient and occasionally humorous instruction on zazen, sitting meditation, from the proper posture to how to tame your Monkey Mind, which will inevitably leap from thought to thought instead of letting you focus on "the still and clear mind." The daily schedule begins with a drum at 5:15 a.m. and includes alternating sitting meditation with walking meditation (carried out at a speedy clip, like a quiet conga line weaving around the zendo), along with an hour of light work in the kitchen or in the gardens on the 230 acres of nature preserve-in mindful silence. In addition you'll sit (quietly and respectfully) for one or more instructional talks from a teacher. There is also the opportunity for a private interview with a head monk to pose any question, personal or philosophical in your little Monkey Mind. Many say they experience in those few minutes with the master the most unusual intensity of focused attention and heartfelt compassion they have ever felt emanating from another person or not all depends on the karma. About $50 per night; four-day retreats: $350; weekend retreats: $195; includes dorm room, three meals a day, tuition. A month of residential training costs $650. Zen Mountain Monastery, P.O. Box 197, Mount Tremper, NY 12457 845/688-2228, mro.org/.

Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center, Wood Valley, Ka'u, on the Big Island of Hawaii

This is one of the best-kept local secrets. You would never happen upon it because it's tucked away in a lush, green valley, far from the normal tourist path-but still within driving distance of Hilo and Volcanoes National Park, which are two attractions on the Big Island. This tiny Tibetan (the more relaxed branch of Buddhism) center, established in 1977 by the Venerable Nechung Rinpoche, was visited by the Dalai Lama twice: He dedicated the center in 1980 and visited again in 1994, drawing a crowd of several thousand to a facility that can only sleep 25.

Throughout the year, you'll find some formal retreats with guidance from teachers and lamas; the center is also open to groups for any spiritual, social, cultural, or health activities. Private individuals can stay at any time of year and simply join in with the two resident monks during morning and evening prayers and chanting or just kick back (easygoing Buddhism practiced here).

"We've preserved the original main shrine, built in 1902, which was the first Nichiren Shu Buddhist temple in Hawaii to service the Japanese immigrants who worked on the sugar plantations," explains Marya Schwabe, codirector. "But we've added modern Tibetan colors, the bright Crayola colors, which are beautiful." If you feel you must leave the compound, ten minutes away you'll find a black-sand beach where the green sea turtles come in to rest and feed. For groups of over 15, directors Marya and Michael Schwabe will cook your meals; otherwise you are free to use their big modern kitchen. "It's very heavenly," says Ione ("I don't use a last name"), a psychotherapist and author in New York City and Kingston, New York, who has just come back. "We sit on the veranda of our second-floor room [furnished in modern, simple Hawaiian style, with single or double beds] looking out on the most luscious flowers [red ginger, bird of paradise, spider lilies, and cup of gold flowering vines thrive there] and palms, listening to the sound of the peacocks on the grounds. You can go down and pick an avocado from the trees for your lunch. They raise coffee there, picked by the monks, which is fantastic at breakfast," Ione says, her voice softening at the memory. "I've traveled a lot in the world," Ione says, "and this is one of those places with a special feeling, a great feeling of peacefulness, beauty, and simplicity that calls you to return."

When there's no formal retreat, rooms are $75, not including meals; $50 for a single person, $35 in a dorm. When there's a formal retreat, $75-$125 per night includes three meals, tuition, and taxes. (Discounts for groups of 15 or more.) Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center (a.k.a. Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling, which means small, immutable island of melodious sound), P.O. Box 250, Pahala, HI 96777 808/928-8539 nechung.org/.

Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, Castle Rock, Washington

In the midst of a lush, brilliant-green rain forest (60 miles north of Portland and 125 miles south of Seattle), you'll find a small lake, a gas-fired sauna, an organic garden and greenhouse, a fish pond, loads of wildlife (birds, black-tail deer, fish, raccoons), and a very intimate retreat center. "Our point of view is that bigger is not necessarily better," says Laura Hauer, Cloud Mountain's business director. "Other centers are growing, but we are keeping our maximum retreat group size at about 45."

Retreats, ranging from one day to a month or more, are almost all held in silence. Those attending are expected to follow the retreat schedule of sitting and walking meditation and attend the sessions of yoga and movement and discourses by the teacher. The two meditation halls and the eating and sleeping quarters (simple bunk beds) are simple and well maintained. Attractive bare-wood construction abounds and tea and snacks are always available.

"The food is excellent-vegetarian and organic, with much of it from the gardens on the property," says Jo Marie Thompson, a nurse at Harborview Trauma Center in Seattle, Washington, and a regular at Cloud Mountain since 1994. "All the staff and teachers I've encountered there are the epitome of pure-hearted spiritual seeking-humble, low-key, unassuming, but filled with great wisdom and kindness," Thompson says. "The founders bring the cream of the crop of Western Buddhist teachers to the center." As with many retreat centers, guests are asked to assist with daily chores such as chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and cleaning their own rooms at the end of their stay. "I've practiced at centers all over the world and in several states-Christian, Buddhist, and nondenominational-and there are none I would recommend more highly than Cloud Mountain," says Jo Marie Thompson. "It shifts my ideas of what we're here for and what's important in this life and in my work as a nurse," Thompson says. "I see it's not about saving lives as much as the smallest gestures of compassion we can show for one another."

The average daily cost is $50 per person, including meals and lodging. If there is a teaching retreat, teachers receive additional voluntary payment (as this is their only source of remuneration) on what is called a dana basis: spontaneous generosity of the heart. Toilets and hot shower facilities are in a separate building. There is shuttle service available from Portland International Airport. Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, 373 Agren Road, Castle Rock, WA 98611 888/465-9118 or 360/274-4859, cloudmountain.org/.

Karme Choling, Barnet, Vermont

"It's a cheerful yet relaxed atmosphere; I come away feeling completely refreshed even if my schedule is busy," says Arthur Borden, direct mail manager at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company in Burlington, Vermont. Karmê Choling, located on 540 acres of Vermont farmland and forest, has 13 shrine rooms, an organic vegetable garden, dining room (meals are not silent), dorms, seven cabins (for experienced, solitary retreatants only), a gift shop, and one additional feature that you won't see at many other centers: an azuchi (traditional Japanese archery range), where you learn Zen archery (kyudo). Zen archery? If you're wondering how that is different from the regular bow-and-arrow-and-bull's-eye variety, it turns out that the point isn't really about hitting the target. Not about the target at all. In fact, even the masters sometimes miss it completely.

"You follow a form, going through seven different steps, focusing on your connection to the earth and to your body and to the form," says Eric Ballou, a retreat assistant. "You don't really aim at the target. Where the arrow flies is not as important; it's more of a dance." Hmmmmm. If that's a bit too Zen to comprehend, you'll also find occasional programs in other traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana (flower arranging), chado (tea ceremony), and shodo (calligraphy), as well as Buddhist psychology and family programs. There is also Family Week once every summer. Parents have time to do meditation, and the staff takes care of the kids, though older children can practice meditation, too. It's more of a family vacation than a strict schedule of meditation, with barbecues (yes, there is even meat) and a big party at the end. There are not many recreational facilities, but the setting of rolling green hills is very picturesque Vermont, complete with barns in the distance, 200 acres with trails, a creek, and a pond stocked with koi and goldfish. "I meet people from all over the world-the people drawn to this place are interesting and interested in exploring the world," says Borden. "It's delightful."

The $30 a day per person cost can include everything-three meals, tuition-if you sleep in a tent and bring your own bedding or sleep on a foam mattress on the shrine floor; dorm and private rooms are $10-$50 a night extra. All shared bathrooms. Shuttle service from Amtrak and airports provided for additional fees Karmê Chooling, 369 Patneaude Lane, Barnet, VT 05821, 802/633-2384, shambhala.org/

Bhavana Society, High View, West Virginia

What best captures the informal spirit here is Bhavana's explanation about the fees: "There are no fixed charges; we operate on dana, which is money given freely from the heart," explains Lee Halfpenny, the executive director. Most other retreats say that as well, but they have some clearly defined fees for their room and board as guidelines, if not the additional dana one gives the teachers. At this Theravada ministry on 42 forested acres in West Virginia, just two hours from Washington, D.C., and one hour from Dulles International Airport, you'll find few frills. Days are spent alternating sitting meditation (beginning at 5:30 a.m.) with walking meditation.

Unlike the fast walking you will find practiced at the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, "at the Bhavana Society we walk with excruciating slowness it takes roughly five full minutes to cross the 25-foot width of the meditation hall. "We look like big wading birds poking through a swamp," writes Dinty Moore in his book, The Accidental Buddhist. Bhavana has one unusual practice regarding its meals (simple vegetarian fare): Lunch is the last meal of the day, so instead of dinner there is yoga. But even self-confessed hearty eaters, such as Dinty Moore, say the trade-off is worth it. "By the end of the 30-minute yoga class, I feel warm and tingly virtually all across my sedentary, middle-aged, overweight body, and it is a fantastic sensation," writes Moore in his amusing account of his search for the essence of American Buddhism. "By the end of the second full day, I feel light as a small ball of cotton. All of the deep breathing has brought oxygen to corners of my brain and bloodflow to places in my body I had forgotten existed," the usually more cynical Moore admits.

Bhavana Society, a monastery as well as a retreat center, is headed by Abbot Bhante Gunaratana, author of one of the classic meditation manuals, Mindfulness in Plain English, and is open all year for retreats of varying lengths. "At the end of my first retreat I felt that if I had gone to the most distant corner of the world, I could not have been farther away," writes artist Libby Reid about her experience at the Bhavana Society retreat, in The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. "The practice of meditation has changed the way I experience the world I laugh more. I see more joy." And she goes back to Bhavana every year.

Here's what they say when you ask, "How much?": "We are frequently asked what is the suggested donation for retreats at Bhavana Society Meditation Center. We cannot answer that question because that would be like setting a price. The Buddha's teachings are priceless so we offer our service here for dana." I guess they hope you'll remember that the essence of dana is generosity. The Web site also lists some items besides money that you might donate as well-pots and pans, office chairs; the list is quite specific.

Bhavana Society, Rte. 1 Box 218-3, High View, WV 26808 304/856-3241, bhavanasociety.org/.

RESOURCES ON RETREATS

 

  • Find the Divine: findthedivine.com/; Listings and descriptions of over 1,100 retreat centers in the United States and about 150 in Canada.
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  • Retreats International: retreatsintl.org/; Lists 340 retreat centers in the United States and Canada. (Book version available for $30.)
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  • NARDA: nardacenters.org/; NARDA, Ecumenical Christian Association of Retreat and Renewal Centers and Leaders in North America, lists a few hundred Christian centers in the United States and Canada. BLURBCORRECTIONCLARIFICATION
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