Spirit Rock reaches out with emphasis on diversity (San Francisco Chronicle)

Dawn Yun, San Francisco Chronicle: Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, founded 30 years ago by a small group of friends, offers more than 48 retreats and some 340 classes attended by more than 35,000 people annually in a bucolic setting of redwoods, mountains and wildlife.

But a recent Monday night meditation class reveals that those who teach there, as well as those who attend, are primarily of the same demographic: mostly white, middle- to upper-middle class and middle-aged.

The board of directors of Spirit Rock, which includes some of the members of the original Spirit Rock gathering, is trying to change that by forming a diversity council, hiring a diversity coordinator and by offering a wider variety of classes and retreats.

Diversity outreach is one of the center’s main goals, said Evan Kavanagh, 43, of San Francisco, executive director of Spirit Rock.

“I think you’ll see changes in the faces of the teachers in the next five years,” he said. “It’s important in any venue to have the people who are coming to learn something to see themselves represented among the people who are purported to be the experts. Otherwise, people feel excluded. I happen to be a gay man. I understand that concept. Our intention has always been to be more diverse.”

Spring Washam, 30, of Oakland and a diversity board member, said the board’s role is to offer advice and counsel.

“There’s not a lot of diversity on the board of directors or with the staff,” she said. “They’re mostly older, white people in their 50s and 60s. And they just didn’t have that connection. They just knew their own peers. They didn’t have the information to outreach to cultural groups. But they had the heart to do it and the willingness to do it, and they needed some direction.”

One of the goals of Spirit Rock is to offer more diverse retreats and classes at the center that will appeal to people of color, various sexual orientations and different professions…

Among the presentations this year: “People of Color Daylong: How Suffering Can Be Our Greatest Joy,” “Vipassana Day for Lesbian Women” and “Spirit Rock Residential Retreat for Lawyers.”

In addition, the center plans to offer its Buddhist and meditation teachings to all communities. This, in part, will be accomplished through its Community Dharma Leaders Program. Upon completion, students can then teach daylong retreats and meditation classes in their respective communities. About 110 students have graduated since the program began in 1997.

Washam, a graduate of Spirit Rock’s Dharma Leaders Program, recently co- taught the class on suffering for people of color. She said there were 27 people in the class, all African American and most from the East Bay.

“I think African Americans are embracing Buddhism and meditation because it really speaks to a lot of people,” she said.

Washam and others hope within the next six months to open the East Bay Dharma Center in Oakland and are looking for a site.

The center would be independent of Spirit Rock, said Charlie Johnson of Vacaville. Johnson, 58, is on the board of directors of the East Bay Dharma Center, sits on Spirit Rock’s diversity council and is a graduate of its leadership program.

“There are no formal affiliations between the East Bay Dharma Center and Spirit Rock,” Johnson said. “We have our own board of directors and our own financing. Everything is separate. That said, we tend to work closely with Spirit Rock in terms of coordinating programs so we will be able to meet the community’s needs.

“We plan to serve a real diverse population that you find in the East Bay. Part of the vision statement for the organization is to make the dharma available to a wide variety of people, different racial groups, different sexual orientations and different economic backgrounds.”

Spirit Rock’s 2 1/2-year Dharma Leaders Program is unique in that people cannot apply: They are chosen by Spirit Rock teachers who feel the students have leadership abilities and maintain a deep meditation practice, said James Baraz, 57, of Berkeley, who runs the program and is a founding teacher at the center.

“People are sponsored and nominated by one of about 35 senior teachers around the world who say, ‘I will be a mentor for this person,’ ” he said. “These practices are very beneficial to get in touch with one’s own wisdom and heart. In the last few years, there’s been a real sense of seeing the importance of going wide and reaching many people who might not go to a silent Buddhism mediation retreat, like prisoners and those in inner cities.”

Larry Yang, 49, of San Francisco is a graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program. He teaches at the center and also co-facilitates a Buddhist Peace Fellowship meditation group for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center. The group has 150 people on its mailing list, although about 30 people usually attend, Yang said.

“The accessibility issues around diverse communities have only recently been addressed,” he said. “To people who don’t necessarily have access to mainstream meditation centers, Spirit Rock is really doing a lot of leading work in reaching out to different communities to at least create the option for people. It’s not proselytizing. It’s offering an option for people if they’re so inclined.”

On the Peninsula, the Insight Meditation Center of Redwood City is run by Gil Fronsdale, 50, of Redwood City, who is a Spirit Rock founding teacher.

“Insight is completely independent of Spirit Rock, though in some ways it’s in the family,” Fronsdale said. “In some ways, we grew up and left home. We feel very close to each other. But Spirit Rock is far away from a lot of communities in terms of distance and culture. If there are teachers and other sitting centers spread out in the Bay Area, people who are interested can find them more easily.”

While there has been much change at Spirit Rock, there is still much that remains the same. For example, many of the founders still teach there.

Jack Kornfield, 59, of Woodacre, instructs a popular Monday night class as well as many multi-day retreats.

“I feel we’re still carrying the original vision quite well,” he said. “We’ve changed. We offer more programs, rich family programs for teens and young adults. We have quite an active diversity program, considering we’re in Marin County.”

Sylvia Boorstein, 68, a Sonoma County resident, is a Spirit Rock founder, and like Kornfield and many other founders of Spirit Rock, is Jewish and a psychologist. She said she is aware of the perception that Buddhism tends to attract Jews and said it was a sign of her times.

“There were a disproportionate number of Jews in the Peace Corps,” she said. “Many of my friends who ended up Buddhist teachers were in the Peace Corps and went to Asia. It was a phenomenon of the ’60s and the ’70s. Many Buddhist teachers of my generation were Jews. It won’t be the same in the next generation: It will be more diverse, with people of different religions and ethnicities teaching.”

And, perhaps, younger ones, too. Spirit Rock is also making an effort to expose its teachings to different generations.

Oakland resident Wes Niskar, 61, a Spirit Rock founder and teacher, believes that just as people of his generation sought spirituality when they were young, so, too, are members of today’s younger generation.

“The Boomers were pioneers in this,” he said. “There are younger people today who are starting to enter and get interested in classes and retreats. It seemed like a single-generation thing, but it’s starting to be revived in the younger people.”

Julian Hoover, 19, of Mill Valley, visited Spirit Rock for the second time for a Monday-night meditation class. He brought along his father, Paul, 58, who had never attended, as well as his sister, Koren, 28, who had.

“I find it relaxing,” he said. “It’s peaceful. I’ll come back.”


Spirit Rock Meditation Center, 5000 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Woodacre, (415) 488-0164,

Meditation group meetings and centers

The San Francisco LGBT Community Center 5:30-6:30 p.m. Mondays, 1800 Market St. (at Octavia); (415) 865-5555;

The East Bay Dharma Center, Oakland; (707) 373-6044;

The Insight Meditation Center, 1205 Hopkins Ave., Redwood City; (650) 599- 3456;

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