Inspiration for contemplation: Big Sur coastline.
  • Inspiration for contemplation: Big Sur coastline.
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Central Coast view at New Camaldoli Hermitage.

Central Coast view at New Camaldoli Hermitage.

It doesn't take traveling to remote or exotic places to escape the distractions of the outside world, I've found.

In California, regardless of denomination, dharma travel is big business. Whether 50-room or single-room hermitages, expansive prayer gardens or quaint chapels, many monasteries, abbeys and ashrams welcome the interest, involvement and support of others on a spiritual path.

When I was a child, my grandfather would threaten to send me to the Dominicans when annoyed with my endless chatter because, he assured me, they took a vow of silence. This was well recalled as I walked through the arched doors into the chapel of the Monastery of the Angels in Los Angels, where nuns support themselves by selling goods in a gift shop and accepting donations for their prayers. I walked away with a carton of homemade fudge and loaves of pumpkin bread. Because the monastery is an active cloister, public participation is limited to lay prayer services.

And, for the record, though they do spend most of their days in prayerful silent contemplation, they do not officially vow a lifetime of silence, contrary to my grandfather’s implications.

On the hills and in the glens

Right in our backyard, MettaForest Monastery in Valley Center sits within an avocado grove. The monks there offer lay men and women opportunities to learn about and practice Buddhism. Daily chanting and meditation services are open to public participation, and overnight accommodations are provided for up to two weeks to aspiring practitioners.

Further north, the Benedictines at Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, along California’s “lost coast,” commune with God through nature and welcome those seeking to the same. Although their riverside Cistercian Guest House is generally filled to capacity, day trippers can visit their gift shop and leave with a jar of their creamed honey.

The Zen Buddhist PineMountain Buddhist Temple and Meditation Retreat, located in inland Ventura County at the headwaters of the Cuyama River, welcome lay sangha. Day visitors may tag along for a temple tour or participate in Sunday services. Conveniently situated a mile from the nearest cell service, Pine Mountain in Maricopa provides the quietude in which to meditate during weekend or long-term retreats. Meals here, too, are vegetarian.

Then there’s the Sagely City of TenThousand Buddhas in Mendocino’s Ukiah. Once through the golden gateway (known as the Doorway to the Dharma) (left), visit the book and gift store or the Jyung Kang Vegetarian Restaurant (not open Tuesdays).

The City includes schools that provide shangha and laity training, the Dharma Realm Buddhist University, and two school campuses, the Instilling Goodness Elementary School and the Developing Virtue Secondary School. It's also home to the Dharma Chinese Orchestra.

Performance at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas school.

Performance at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas school.

Overnight accommodations are offered only to those registered in one of the Dharma Sessions, or volunteering at a special events.

If you're looking for interfaith retreat opportunities, take a look at Santa Sabina Dominican Monastery outside San Francisco. The Tudor-gothic style monastic house and chapel now provides programs that include sessions in contemplative Judaism – they host “spiritual seekers of all traditions.” Day visitors may consider attending a workshop or a Sunday afternoon concert, which begin at three.

The facility accommodates up to 57 overnight guests. Retreat occupancy rates ranges from $75-141 per night, with meals included. I call dibs on the secluded straw bale hermitage!

Serenity by the sea

Locally, the Benedictines at Prince of Peace Abbey extend their hospitality, welcoming guests to their Oceanside monastery for an $85/night donation. The gift shop and masses are open to the public daily.

You may well know about the Encinitas Retreat and Ashram Center at the gilded Self Realization Fellowship compound, which offers Sunday services, classes and retreats. You may even be aware that their meditation garden overlooking the ocean is publicly accessible to “truth seekers” of any denomination. But up the coast a few hours is one you perhaps might not have.

New Camaldoli Hermitage from above.

New Camaldoli Hermitage from above.

To use their own beautiful words, the Camaldolese monks at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur “offer people of all faiths the experience of engaging in something larger than oneself and in Someone who loves each of us infinitely.” Accommodations for single men are available within the cloister, whereas those for women and couples are offered in adjacent buildings. Room costs per night in the cliff-side Guest House, or the Private Hermitages, Monastic Cottages, and Scholastica range between $110 and $250. Rates include mostly vegetarian meals.

If doing a drive-by, stock up on their brandy-dipped fruit bread (nearly as good as my mother’s), Monks Coffee, and their Holy Granola. Of course, I myself never leave a monastery without purchasing a few CDs since I’m partial to chants.

As would be expected, visitors at these sexless places of divine worship – both men and women – are requested to dress modestly. Also, most don’t allow pets.

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