Six years ago, at Tassajara, I had a delightful, far-ranging, deep conversation with an SFZC alumni priest named Steve Allen. As the conversation ended, he invited me to come practice with him and his partner Angelique at their little hermitage on the side of a mountain in Crestone, Colorado. I set an intention then to go and visit them; keeping in mind my search for a Buddhist practice that resonates with my deepest intentions, I wondered if his style of Zen might match with my own.
This was my motivation last May as I took a break from my time at Bodhi Manda to drive six hours up to Crestone and sit a five-day sesshin. Upon arriving, I found that, in the passing years, Angelique had apparently came into an inheritance, and the couple had built Dragon Mountain temple, a beautiful walled compound of nine solar-powered thick-walled adobe buildings, lovely Buddhist statues, and growing gardens, rising out of the flat open windy dry high-desert valley a few miles to the west of Crestone, between two snow capped ranges of the Rockies.
There were times during my five days at Dragon Mountain where I felt peaceful and spacious – during my long sits in the cool kiva-style meditation hall, during my long walks over the scrub and tiny cactus in the hot sun and cool breezes and huge mountain-framed sky, or during the long breaks in the schedule, when I took naps or read Buddhist books inside my cozy nestled-into-the-ground cabin. And there were moments of appreciating my hosts’ sincerity, simple decency, intellectual passion, and pure spiritual commitment to the life of Buddhist hermit monks. They were generally generous with me, in cooking food and asking me if there was anything I needed to make my visit more comfortable.
But there were also times, especially when I first arrived, when I felt a suffocating desire to get out of there. Despite my expectations for a fuller sangha experience, the sitting turned out to be just me and my two hosts, which was fine at times, and awkward at others, for example while they had what seemed like issues going on between the two of them. And I spent three hours a day as a silent audience for Steve’s far-ranging dharma talks, which I found to be brilliant, scholarly, and “Zen” but also heady and somewhat curmudgeonly-misanthropic (until I started spending the second daily lecture period in the meditation hall in silence). All in all, I came to understand why the couple had set themselves up as “hermits”.
As beautiful as it was there, and as sincere at my hosts were, I can’t imagine going back for a second visit. But, I also notice that my visit to Dragon Mountain fits a familiar pattern for me, which is : when I first visit most Buddhist centers I have ever been to, I say to myself, “this is not what I expected or hoped for”, and I want to leave. But, after I settle down and take the place on its own terms, I find that I can appreciate it for what it is, and that I can find a mindfulness, a depth, a value, and even a transcendence there.
[Hiking on Mount Evans, just west of Denver]