The Zen Monastery Peace Center was founded by Zen practitioner Cheri Huber in 1987. It stands within the wilderness of Murphys, California, approximately 150 miles inland of San Francisco. Nestled in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the monastery is a residential community designed to “challenge the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning, pay attention in a kind and safe space, and realize our authentic nature.” The town of Murphys itself began as a gold mining operation in the mid 19th century and is now a modern community of approximately 2,000 residents. Huber’s center provides workshops and retreats to the general public in addition to offering a visiting monk program for more advanced practitioners. As could be deducted from the name, the Peace Center focuses on the Zen tradition. Huber’s personal emphasis is on awareness meditation as she herself is a member of the Soto School. Derived from the Chinese Coadong School, started in the 9thcentury by two Chinese monks, the focus for the Soto School is meditation without a goal and awareness as a means by which one can live mindfully in all aspects of life. This form of meditation is “an all-inclusive experience that includes and accepts everything that comes into awareness, by resting in awareness itself.”
Cheri Huber is an American author and has studied Zen Buddhism for 35 years. Having written over 20 books in her career, Huber is well known within her community. She founded her first center – Mountain View Zen Center – in 1983, followed by the Zen Monastery Peace Center in 1987 and her non-profit organization called Living Compassion in 1997. Not only is she the founder of two Zen centers, but she also serves as a resident teacher at the Peace Center. Her practice is centered around Zen Buddhism within the Soto School, the focal point being the practice of self awareness. According to her Wikipedia page, she “likely studied Zen for some times under Jay DuPont.” However, she has no formal lineage within her school listed on her website or any other forum related to her practice. This is odd as Zen Buddhism is rather concerned with lineage. It is unclear as to exactly how Huber became involved with Zen or awareness practice. Her personal testimony is not specified in any of her published writings beyond that she has studied the subject for over 35 years. Very little is listed in her biographies both on her own website and when listed as an author or expert on other websites. Hay House Publishing claims “Cheri has been acknowledged as the country’s foremost expert on depression and spirituality” yet it is unclear upon what this statement is based.
Huber has several online venues she continually uses in order to engage her larger audience with awareness practice. For example, Huber’s “Practice Everywhere” initiative allows her followers to sign up for reminders to be more aware via email, text, and twitter. Her twitter page has 17,500 tweets with over 3,000 followers. A key aspect of awareness practice is being continually mindful and aware of your daily actions so Huber’s program is intended to guide you throughout the day with this in mind. Her Practice Blog also includes postings about her own experience with the practice. She coins phrases the “Huber Cure” which is a way to approach mindfulness. Huber’s nonprofit organization Living Compassion is also an ongoing project for both her and the local Sangha.
The community at the Peace Center is rather unique. Truly a cross between the traditional and the modern, the Center offers a wide range of opportunities to engage with Buddhist teachings and awareness practice. Upon your first visit to the monastery, you will be guided during an orientation which you are instructed in the basic postures of meditation. Classes are offered for both the local public and a more national or international audience. Additionally, classes may be virtual or physical. Huber offers the unique option of “email” classes which take on the format of formal instruction via assignments and reflections. A more traditional option would be enrolling in the visiting monk program, designed for those heavily involved in awareness practice. The duration of this program can be as short as a month or as long as a year. Week long retreats are also available and intended to further explore the practice of awareness. Other options include group coaching, meditation groups, recording and listening training, and Zen awareness coaching.
Based upon the 2010 census conducted by the U.S. government, the larger community in which the Peace Center rests is comprised mostly of white (92.4%) females (54.6%) with the median age of 56. Constituents of any Latino or Hispanic descent are the next largest ethnic group, claiming 10.1% of the total population (2,213). The people of Murphys, California are arranged mostly in nuclear families. It is evident from the data gathered by the U.S. government that Murphys is not a first or second generation migrant community. Murphys constituency is mostly older white folks, likely with European descent. This data is important because it provides context for the area in which the Monastery was established. Many, if not all, of the local practitioners are members of the Murphys community as well as the Sangha and therefore it is likely the Monastery’s ethnic composition reflects that. Based upon the profiles following Cheri Huber’s practice blog the community is predominantly white Americans. This agrees the data discussed above. It is then reasonable to conclude that Huber’s Sangha is comprised mostly of American, potentially Christian, coverts.
Clearly, the constituents of Zen Monastery Peace Center are not concerned with recreating an authentic Asian Buddhist experience, but rather extrapolating certain practices and teachings in order to improve their lives. Interestingly, a majority of the programs offered are not aimed at the local population but rather point to a national audience. Physical meditation periods and reflection groups are offered of course, but most of the initiatives and programs are directed outwards to a larger Sangha. Huber’s approach to Buddhism is as a philosophy rather than a religion as supernatural or metaphysical doctrines are not emphasized. In other words, the cultural attachments, and therefore a large portion of religious attachments, are absent.
However, Huber includes Buddha in her teachings and ascribes to the Soto School specifically. The way in which she interacts with the practice does not indicate that she or the Peace Center Sangha view what they are practicing as religion in the formal, Western sense. There is an air of spirituality yet, this is entrenched in certain American cultural assumptions and common practices.Those who attend the Monastery are not focused on achieving enlightenment in this lifetime, or in any lifetime. Rather, they are concerned with minimizing suffering throughout their lives. The Zen Monastery Peace Center is not meant to recreate the Buddhist experience within an Asian context but rather it is a place for a new audience to engage with new ideas and philosophies about the way in which we should live our lives.
As the government in America is not structured to give support to monastic communities, the Monastery must develop a way to make ends meet. Similar to the way a university would function, the Monastery functions by charging enrollment fees for their virtual and retreat programs. Yoga classes are also offered for a small fee. In order for the community to continue, members must participate literally and monetarily either through donations or enrollment. However, there is no official fee for the teachings themselves. Huber writes “We cannot and we will not attempt to sell our spiritual practice; It cannot be sold and it cannot be bought.” In her blog post she further explains that the biggest obstacle for the Sangha being able to participate is financial. Retreats, books, and classes are expensive so Huber turned to technology to make practice more accessible to practitioners.
Within the Larger Community:
According to the the Soto Zen Buddhist Association, there are 48 other organizations within California that are affiliated with them. Huber founded the Mountain View Zen Center before founding the Peace Center and these two communities engage with each other on local and regional levels. Both groups have the opportunity to attend several of the same workshops and retreats. As already discussed, Huber engages a much larger Buddhist audience through her virtual presence on twitter, through email, and via blog posts. Living Compassion, the nonprofit Huber founded in 1997, demonstrates a different way to relate Buddhism. Huber’s teachings focus on diminishing self hate or egocentric karmic conditioning and promoting self love which then leads a gratitude that fosters the desire to give. Her organization is centered around providing aid the community of Kantolomba, Zambia in terms of education, healthcare access, and food scarcity. December 1, 2018 marks the 17thannual Bridge Walk, a way for the community to celebrate the project’s progress. This is an example of the way in which the Peace Center interacts with the global community.
Nationally, Huber addresses her Sangha through the modern form of social media. Her books are sold nationally and online and she appears on different podcasts which are available and accessible to all. You also do not have to be a consistent member of the Peace Center to participate in retreats or classes as long as you have the means to pay. Huber’s Sangha and her works are especially accessible to a national and international audience because of her use of technology. As her Twitter following outnumbers the total population in Murphys, California, it is safe to say that she has extended beyond the physical confines of the Zen Monastery Peace Center.
Here is a link to a phone interview conducted with Cheri Huber as an example of her approach to Buddhist thought:
Here is a link to a 2006 article covering a retreat offered at the Monastery. It offers more information about the Monastery itself.
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