It’s difficult to say any one thing about the Spirit Rock meditation center, since there is such a wide range of programs offered and teachers featured there. If one has an interest in Buddhism, and any particular event at Spirit Rock leaves one flat, one could probably easily find a different event or teacher at Spirit Rock that will be more inspiring, opening, and harmonious. Generally, it’s possible to find teaching about the meditation and SouthEast Asian Buddhism in an accessible, sincere, and often beginner-friendly, way.
The grounds of the center are beautiful and generally relaxing, and the accommodations and food are pleasant and clean (not always a given, in the American Buddhist scene) And there is much to admire about the way that they have set up their center, from recycling programs, healthy and delicious food, to carpooling.
There are teachers who are regularly present at Spirit Rock who I recommend. The sincere, deeply dedicated monastic Ajahn Amaro adds respectability to the place, and he is entertaining and uplifting to listen to lectures by. Gil Fronsdal, one of the Spirit Rock council of teachers and a long-time teacher of mine, is a sincere, deeply experienced, and articulate, someone I consider a first-rate teacher. Another council member who I have done events with, Eugene Cash, I find heart-felt and trustworthy to listen to. Mary Orr, Sally Armstrong … there are a number of teachers at Spirit Rock whose sincerity and wisdom I enjoy and respect.
Still, there is an overall vibe at Sprit Rock that gives me the creeps. The senior teachers group as a group, and who they choose to welcome in, sometimes seems to me clique-y, and there are some teachers there I find less than inspiring. Sometimes the ethos of the place seems less “Buddhist”, and more agenda-driven equalitarian politics (sometimes it seems to me like Spirit Rock is a Martin Luther King-ist center where they dig the Buddha, rather than vice versa) and/or watered-down, new-agey Marin self-absorbed narcissism (as if Buddhism were only a way to relieve stress at the end of a difficult day lawyer-ing, or a way to better describe unhappy feelings to talk about with one’s therapist). If that’s what a person is looking for, fine, but I believe that Dharma (Buddhist teachings) more faithfully presented are of more use to people.
For retreats, the teachers and support staff generally take their salary solely by donation, which I very much respect. The base cost of the programs In general, however, is expensive; it’s in keeping with what I would say is the trend in modern America where the most affluent and poorest are squeezing the working middle class, the cost of Spirit Rock’s programs are calibrated towards successful new-Prius-driving professionals with incomes from investments, and there is financial aid for, I guess, the non-profit changing-the-world-but-penniless and urban food stamps sets. But for those of us, like me, who work for a living, and neither own a big house in Marin nor are comfortable living off handouts, the price of events can seem steep.
When I heard that the mother of John Walker Lindh (the American who fought for the Taliban) was a “Marin Buddhist”, it did not surprise me. It also perhaps should not have surprised me as it did that Spirit Rock let Arj Barker film his, I would say, disrespectful-to-Buddhism “Sickest Buddhist” video on their grounds.