Catriona Reed grew up in England and began Buddhist practice there in the early 1970s. Since 1981 she has been living in Southern California where she teaches with her wife Michele Benzamin-Masuda. They have been offering vipassana classes through Ordinary Dharma in Los Angeles and leading retreats since the early 1980s. In 1987 they began to study with Thich Nhat Hanh from whom Reed received transmission as a Dharmacarya (dharma teacher). They also regard the work of Joanna Macy as an important influence in their teaching.
In 1993 Ordinary Dharma purchased eighteen acres of land in the back country of Northern San Diego County. After enormous energy, the ramshackle houses of this former ranch have been reconstituted into a functioning retreat center called Manzanita Village. This represents the next stage of teaching and practice for Reed and Benzamin-Masuda, for whom dharma includes a focus on awareness of ecology and place. They divide their time between Manzanita Village and Ordinary Dharma. The following piece was compiled from Reed’s conversations with Kevin Griffin and Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker.
I took to heart Gary Snyder’s suggestion to find a piece of land, put down roots, and stay there. We had been looking for land for a while, and when we finally came to Manzanita Village, I saw that it could be a real context for practice, a teacher in its own right. Many people hunger for contact with land and a sense of place.
Western Buddhists talk about being “here” and “now,” but the “here” is often only partially known. Is it possible to practice mindfulness without knowing where we are? Sometimes I feel we’re like a revolutionary cell, not so much plotting, as enacting the coming revolution, reclaiming some of the values of the Paleolithic, or you could say, the values of the Buddhadharma . . . learning to come home, to stand (or sit) right here where we are.
We are learning what we can about animal and plant coinhabitants, geology and history, how the water moves through and how the climate shapes this land. At the beginning of retreats we all walk together on the land. We explain how the canyon was created and how the soil was formed from the wash of rains over the centuries. We point out that we are at a transition zone. We discuss adaptations that have occurred over time, the native and the non-native plants. We reflect how we would have eaten as native people two hundred years ago. Sometimes we use wild plants in our meals.
Learning to know where you are and what other beings inhabit the place seems to me to be basic to the practice of the Buddhadharma, to the Vinaya and to monastic practice, especially in Southeast Asia. The Buddha speaks of this in the Sutta-nipata:
“Know the grasses and the trees, know the worms and the moths, and the different sorts of ants; know also the four-footed animals, small and great, the serpents and the fish which range in the water, the birds that are borne along on wings and move through air, know that the marks that constitute species are theirs and that the species are manifold.”
At Manzanita Village we follow the recommendation of Thich Nhat Hanh to abolish some of the distinctions between daily life and intensive retreats. It is important for people to remember that the model which has been brought to the West as “vipassana” is essentially a nineteenth-century Burmese model, emphasizing intensive practice of a particular kind, done in retreat from ordinary life. In reality, however, the daily life of a monastic community usually involved many different kinds of activities.
We have two kind of retreats here at Manzanita Village: one focuses on silent sitting and walking practice; the other focuses more on community building. In the latter we have periods of practice in the morning, afternoon and evening, and during the rest of the day we do community work projects, mostly carried on in silence. The projects we choose are directly related to the development of Manzanita Village. We have a lot of things to do here, such as gardening, making paths for walking meditation, creating trails. The yogi jobs are based on what needs to get done as well as on their appropriateness as grounding, meditative activity.
I don’t believe that the work periods diminish the degree of mindfulness that people cultivate during a retreat. On the contrary, the work periods actually enhance the cultivation of mindfulness. People find that the work balances their formal sitting. The work is very grounding and also helps build sangha.
We looked for a site like this one at Manzanita Village because we wanted to teach in this way. When Gil Fronsdal taught a retreat here in March, I was delighted to hear him say, “In a place like this you don’t have to do as much formal sitting as in other places of practice.” I know that is true. In a rural or wilderness setting, a sense of interconnectedness seems to arise spontaneously. Manzanita Village itself is the teacher.
Our formal practice training is drawn from both the Theravada tradition of vipassana and from the Zen tradition as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh. So we use the Four Foundations of Mindfulness and also the Heart Sutra. We focus on the breath or the body as a primary object of meditation, but we also teach reflective practices as another way of developing insight. We just completed a retreat which included a practice of reflecting on the five aggregates as a means of developing metta. During this practice we contemplate the body as the accumulation of countless generations of living beings, wherein our every cell holds that adaptive information in some way. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. We also do reflective walking meditations in which people use their eyes and ears to greet their fellow beings, be it crow or manzanita tree.
I sense an implicit nihilism surrounding practice in the West. Many people seem to be practicing with the hope that they will somehow disappear. I call it the airline ticket approach to enlightenment, “Pay your fare, get your ticket, and you’re out of here.” That doesn’t seem to be very helpful in the context of a society of people already alienated from responsibility.
In contrast, at Manzanita Village, we try to help people to understand that everything in their life is in relationship. We draw on deep-ecology as skillful means to illuminate the Buddha’s teaching that there is no separate self. Through a deep understanding of this teaching, the practices of keeping the precepts, of metta (love) and of karuna (compassion) converge.
We also do some interactive meditations, using another person as the meditation object. The yogi reflects that the other person is the unique outcome of four and a quarter billion years of evolution. We reflect on the suffering that is involved in growing up human and allow that reflection to evoke compassion. Thanks to Joanna Macy’s work and encouragement, we have incorporated these kinds of exercises into a retreat context.
At Manzanita Village we are deliberately rustic, intentionally low-tech, although we do intend to fix the plumbing. Our vision is influenced by Asian monasticism, but we are also conscious of drawing on the Western tradition of self-sufficiency and the return to nature exemplified by Thoreau at Walden Pond, a lineage that includes John Wesley Powell, John Muir and Gary Snyder.
I think a lot about the words of Zen Master Dogen in his Mountains and Waters Sutra. He says that unless we know the walking of mountains and rivers, we can never know our own walking. He evokes, perhaps as well as words ever can, a sense of the miraculous relativity and interconnectedness of all things.
At Manzanita Village we look out over distant grasses, most of which originated in Europe and were carried here in bales of feed on Spanish galleons. Behind us are trees of the chaparral forests, many of which originated 100 million years ago, slowly traveling here from what is now the East Coast of the United States.
Manzanita Village stands at the exact meeting place of these two landscapes. So we talk about the abundance of life that occurs at transition zones. That’s a good metaphor for mind, for dharma, because mind and world are themselves at the transition zone where life unfolds. The adaptations we make are what we become.
In bringing awareness to these to these transitions in landscape, we get a sense of process; we realize that it’s all in process, including our own hearts, minds and bodies, and the myriad fellow travelers and species we encounter on the way.
This article was written shortly before Caitriona Reed, then known as Christopher, transitioned. Read her article Coming Out Whole in our Spring 1998 issue.