It’s a building in the valley that creates a space to offer a whole vast variety of wholesome activities. It enriches the experience of being in the valley.”

Around this time of year there are many comings and goings at City Center, Zen Center’s urban temple in San Francisco. With the Tassajara guest season concluded, many students and monks are passing through.

So I was delighted one day to see and get to chat with Dan Belsky, Tassajara’s Head of the Stone Office in 2012. Dan has an unusual (and inspiring to me) dharma path. He was hired to the staff of Zen Center in 2007, fell in love with the community and practice, and has lived as a student at Green Gulch and Tassajara from 2009 until now as he departs Zen Center for new adventures.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Dan, you may have read about him in a recent Sangha News article that mentioned his lay ordination and memorable dharma name, “Joyful Lion Boundless Heart”; a name, I find, he fully inhabits.

I was curious about how the Retreat Hall, the first major project of the Capital Campaign to be completed and put into use, was affecting life in the valley, and wanted to find out about his experiences with it.

 

Anne-Marie: The primary reason for building the Retreat Hall was to provide better space for retreats and workshops. What have you heard about the benefits of the Retreat Hall for guests?

Dan: I think there were about 16 workshops in July. That’s huge. You can only do that because there were two places people could meet.

So many people would tell us, “The new retreat hall is so good for what we’re doing. And it’s cool, not hot.” People [used to] say the yurt was uncomfortably hot. I never heard any negative feedback from retreat leaders. I think people are really happy with it.

The cork makes a soft floor; it is really good for yoga. All kinds of retreats were in the large room [not just yoga.]

 

Anne-Marie: The retreat hall has been completed since the summer of 2011. What were some benefits during the practice period?

Dan:  It was so nice to use it in the mornings when it was cold during sesshin. We had an hour break and to go there and stretch was priceless.

Before the Retreat Hall you only had your room which was cold. To have a heated structure [passively heated by piping hot spring water through the floor]… some people thought it was too much luxury. In my eyes it’s just being clever.

 

Anne-Marie: And did residents continue to use it during guest season?

Dan:  When a workshop happens the yoga teacher can invite students to participate in it. Because the space is so big, they can invite more students to join the workshop. That makes a big difference and supports the students. It was wonderful.

I play guitar and… oh man… I don’t know if it’s an appropriate place to practice, but it’s a great place to practice. The small room has such good acoustics. I ended up jamming with a guest this summer. He brought a rare, one-of-a-kind, 1950s guitar. We ended up jamming for an hour and a half in the small room and it was so much fun. And practicing for skit night, that was key. You need a place to practice.

We had our community meetings in there. It used to be held in the dining room, which was not big enough. We were able to have more community meetings; we usually have two and this summer we had five [which we were able to do] because it was such a comfortable space.

 

Anne-Marie: When there was a special sesshin for the 50th anniversary in May, the Retreat Hall was converted into a zendo for residents to practice. How was that experience?

Dan:
It was very nice. The Ino came up with it and I found it to be really peaceful. It was away from the central area. You weren’t listening to the kitchen, or to the samovar. You typically hear those sounds when you’re in the zendo. It was surprising… I didn’t think it was going to be a good place to sit, but it was wonderful. I kind of missed it when we moved back to the zendo.

 

Anne-Marie: In general, how has it affected the valley?

Dan:
The Retreat Hall helps attract a wider range of people to come and it allows for bigger events to happen. Many people come and say, “I feel this settled peaceful energy when I come here. “ Or, “It’s my first time here and I really feel this settled.” Anything in a wholesome way to bring people into the valley is doing [Zen Center’s] mission.

What it is … What is a retreat hall? … It’s a building in the valley that creates a space to offer a whole vast variety of wholesome activities. It’s just one part of that, that enriches the experience of being in the valley.

I thought it was a really good idea to build it. It is a good thing in my humble opinion.