Off the Grid: My Experience Volunteering in a Buddhist Retreat Center

It’s been taking me a while to actually write this for a couple of reasons.  It’s hard for me to begin to fully capture my experience and put everything into words, but I’m going to try my best. Although I only had the opportunity to spend a little over two weeks there, my experience volunteering in a Buddhist retreat center was yet again an amazing cultural experience.  Besides having the opportunity to experience a different lifestyle, living and working here was personally meaningful for me.  I spent my time there learning as much as I could and trying to absorb everything fully.  I’ve been practicing meditation on my own for about 3.5 years, which I started during a difficult time in my life.  Although I never was raised with any particular religion, I found a personal connection to Buddhism from a younger age and actually started to read books and learn more of the practices when I was in college, and have continued that interest since.  It’s generally not something I talk to everyone about, because it’s more personal and something that many people don’t completely understand.  Anyways, I just wanted to share a little bit about why this experience was particularly meaningful for me.

Alright so let’s backtrack a little bit…

After spending four full days of city exploration mixed in with some side road trips in San Francisco Bay area, I was ready to take my bus a little further north to Santa Rosa to begin my next adventure.  After a two hour bus ride, one of the members of the community was waiting for me at the bus station to pick me up.  From Santa Rosa, it took about another hour to get to the meditation center.  Passing through a few other small towns on the way, most of the rest of the ride consisted of many twists and turns as we went gradually higher in elevation and seemingly further away from society.  The surrounding landscapes were beautiful, surrounded by beautiful forests of redwoods and evergreens.  After passing through the next biggest towns of Guerneville and Monte Rio, we reached Cazadero, a very small town with a population around 400, in which the retreat center resided.  After passing through the town of Cazadero, which consisted of a general store, a car repair shop, a small school and maybe one or two other shops, it was around 20 minutes to reach the center.

Just to give a little more background about the center, Padmasambhava Peace Institute (PPI) is a meditation retreat center in which a small community of about 12 people live full-time.  Within the center, they offer spaces for several different groups to stay at various times throughout the year, as well as both individuals and groups who volunteer there temporarily.  They also hold retreats as well as other multi-day Buddhist events throughout the year where larger groups come to the center.  The center was established in 2003 and consists of 485 acres acres of property.  The area was previously a prison, which was closed down in 1992.  The center was established by Jigme Tromge Rinpoche and his father who also opened several other retreat centers in North and South America.   Jigme Rinpoche is the resident lama at the PPI, who runs all of the center’s retreats and other events.

Buddhist Practice…
After all the travel time and the drive around the winding road, I was a little bit car sick by the time we arrived.  After a quick tour of the place, I joined the other members in the shrine room along with the rest of the community for the remainder of their Friday evening puja practice.  The puja is basically their Buddhist prayer practice – which is practiced every weekday for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, as well as on Saturdays and Sundays for 2 hours in the late morning.  Typically, this practice involves a lot of repeated mantras in Tibetan interspersed with all members collectively playing traditional Tibetan instruments – including conch shell trumpets, damaru drums, gyaling, shang bells, tingshas and Tibetan horns at specific times in between the chants.  I had the opportunity to partake in almost all of the practices over the time that I spent there.  Members typically cover up their legs and shoulders with robes/wraps.

The night that I arrived, they happened to be holding a special practice called a tsog which involved a feast offering ceremony where everyone was given a plate of various food items (fruits, vegetables, crackers, cake, etc.) and a cup of juice and wine.  Extra food is given back as an offering.  Although I had little idea of what was going on during my first puja experience, I felt very grateful to be a part of it.

The members in the center all practice Vajrayana (Mahayana) Buddhism.  For those who don’t know, there are two major branches of Buddhism – Theravada and Mahayana.  To put it very briefly, Theravada Buddhism which is practiced more in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Laos focuses more on the goal of attaining self enlightenment.  On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced in East Asia such as Tibet and China, focuses more so on the ultimate goal of helping others achieve enlightenment.

My First Weekend there…
Being that I arrived on a Friday night, I had the first weekend to just explore, relax, and adjust to life at the center.  The center is very isolated, and is completely surrounded by just beautiful untouched nature.  It takes around 30 minutes to get into the “town”, and around 45 minutes to a grocery store.  It took me a little bit to get used to the slower paced lifestyle, especially after spending 10 days of busy exploration in Colorado and San Francisco.  Anyways, the center is surrounded by various trails, of which were created by members of the community there.  Most of the weekend I spent exploring different trails, taking pictures, writing, and reading some of the books I checked out from the library.  I ended up going on a hike to a water hole with a couple of the guys in the community.  The hike was described as being “unfinished” and ended up being slightly dangerous at some parts especially considering that I was in flip flops (as I was told would be acceptable which I soon discovered was not true).  Partway into our walk, I discovered a bird which had flown out in front of me and landed up ahead.   As I continued walking closer, the bird didn’t move and as I got a little closer, to my suspicion, I realized that it was an owl.  Amazingly, the owl stayed put for a long time as we moved gradually closer to it.  I found out that it was a pygmy owl, which was native to the area.  It was super amazing to see the owl in the wild, and needless to say I took plenty of photos.  Anyways, we eventually made it to the creek after walking down ladders and wooden “slides” and going down slanted pieces of crumbling wood.

Eventually, Monday came and it was time to start work.  I worked Mondays through Fridays around 5 hours a day.  The routine was established pretty quickly for my weekdays:

6:30 AM Wake up
7:00 AM Practice in Shrine room
8:00 AM Breakfast / Relaxing / Getting ready for work
9:00AM – 1:00PM Work
1:00 PM Lunch
1:30-2:30 PM Work – Lunch Dishes
2:30-6PM Free time – hiking, reading, writing, meditating, napping
6:00 PM Practice in Shrine room
7:00 PM Dinner
8:00-9:30PM Relaxing/Reading
10PM Bed






Overall my work  was varied each day – doing dishes, cleaning the kitchens and dining halls, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, polishing butter lamps (candles for prayers), etc.  However, a lot of the work was very different than what I am used to as it was physical in nature – the main project we were working on during my time there was filling in a trench which was put in by the members there, in order to have high speed Internet at the center. The trench was already complete and high speed internet was established so at this point the work involved just covering it up with dirt.  This involved a lot of digging, picking, and tamping the dry dirt.  The work itself generally wasn’t overly challenging.  However, this trench went about 1000 feet upward on a pretty steep hill of dry crumbling dirt which certainly added to the challenge and adventure of the project – as it was always difficult to find the right footing while working.


Although we all worked hard, the work was very collaborative and laid back – not overly rushed to get things done by a certain deadline.  I felt that I was able to stay very mindful in my work, and though I definitely wouldn’t have considered that work itself something enjoyable in the past, I really came to enjoy it and it felt good to accomplish something physically. It was also always in good company which definitely helped. We would work hard up until we heard the lunch bell at 1pm, and I rarely looked at the time during the working hours so it was nice to not worry about time and just work.  After finishing work, we were rewarded by some delicious food cooked by some amazing chefs at PPI – always something to look forward to after those days on the trench.


Free Time…

My free time in the afternoons consisted of a lot of reading, writing, meditating, taking various walks or hikes in the woods and taking photos.  One of my favorite spots to go during any free time was one of the short paths from the center (just about a 5 minute walk) which went up to a beautiful viewpoint looking down at forests of evergreens with the ocean in the far distance.  This was called the “Deer Path” trail, which ended up being a spot that I visited at least once a day.

On one of my first nights I decided to go to the Deer Path a little before sunset.  I’ll quote a passage from my journal:

I’m sitting on a mountain of evergreen and redwood forests overlooking these magnificent trees and the ocean beyond them.  You can hear everything out here – the sounds of the wind blowing against the trees, any slight movements of animals amongst the dry land, and occasionally the slightest hint of humanity – a car driving by in the distance every so often or a man chopping wood.  Birds and other animals rustling, the faint sound of a mosquito buzzing in my ear occasionally.  Other than that, just the pure silence of existence surrounded me.  Serenity, tranquility, pure bliss.  I am existing right now. No need for “entertainment” – social media, tv, movies, games, material things, competition. I’m just existing in this beautiful diverse place called Earth surrounded by pure nature. I’m here existing in this space, and that’s enough.

I sat and meditated atop a tree stump as the sun slowly went down and the light overlooking the evergreens faded more and more until they became completely covered in shadows.  I listened to the soft faint sounds of nature surrounding me and I heard each and every sound.  I feel my presence. Right now, I am here.

My time staying at PPI was filled with moments like these.  That’s something I experience frequently when I’m alone in nature.  Something that I experience when I’m away from all that clutter, all of those distractions, all that busy work, the negative energies, that seem to penetrate my mind.  Those moments of clarity, of true, unclouded awareness, that’s what I’ll hold on to.  I’ve never been in a place full of such pure undisturbed nature in my life.   All of the people who live in the community truly live and work in harmony with nature.  Everyone was incredibly hardworking and dedicated to helping create a peaceful environment at PPI.  The people that I worked with there were some of the most truly genuine and kind people I’ve ever met, and I’m grateful for the friendships I made there.  I felt surrounded by warmth and positive energy, the people there were what made the experience what it was.

I found my peace.

I felt my presence.

I’ll keep those memories for a long time.  And I’ll continue that feeling.

I’m grateful for that.


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