.Land of Medicine Buddha Hike

As a student at UCSC I got into reincarnation. The most fun I had with reincarnation is when I gave a cop someone else’s license.

He goes, “Hey, this isn’t you.”

I said, “Well, not now.”

What a moron.

Sunday morning, I drive to Land of Medicine Buddha, too full of national news. I am in a preoccupied stew that life has become a tapestry of conforming submission, of clenched teeth, exhausted sleep. I cannot listen to one more story about Santa Cruzans leaving town because of housing. I turn up Prescott Road for one mile and park down the hill from Land of Medicine Buddha. I want some Buddha medicine right now.

secure document shredding

Walking with Buddha

Land of Medicine Buddha is a 108-acre redwood Buddhist refuge adjacent to the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park up Glen Haven Road, and it is all about spiritual development and renewal. The place pops—they have Buddhist and innovative secular education, retreats, sacred sites, wellness programs, a primary school, end-of-life care—and the reason I’m here: nature trails that climb the mountain and circle back into the larger loop through Nisene Marks State Park.

There is no hyperbole when describing the stunning beauty of the coastal redwoods. And on the refuge’s hiking paths there are Buddhist paintings, sculptures and wooden benches with prayer flags hung between the trees. Today’s Buddha-walk is perfect, I get to straddle the difference between human self-hood, and the vast, sublime, expanse of nature.

The parked cars on the right stop inches before a cliff drops off to Bates Creek far below. It is Sunday morning and the retreat’s private lot up the hill to the left is packed with cars.

The Body Knows

I pull into a parking space in front of the sharp drop-off into Bates Creek. I’m here at the Land of Medicine Buddha seeking “deep inner joy and a kind heart,” but for now just grateful I didn’t go over the edge. Out of my car, I’m stiff and cold, my feet hurt. My balance wobbles.

Overcoming physical challenges is integral to the practice of hiking. Hikers have blisters, blackened toenails, stressed menisci around their knees, sciatica pain—it goes with the territory. The value of hiking comes from its challenges. Physical exertion eventually suspends the incessant brain chatter that keeps me from letting my body tell me what I need to know.

When I’m pulling hard up a long hill, I reach the point of no-mind, and my nervous system gives me an audible sound. I can hear my brain go “clunk” and turn off. And then I can ask my body what I need to know, be it about the direction of this article, how to respond to loved one or how to deal with adversity, the veil of thoughts have been lifted that keep me from knowing myself. My body knows what I need to know and is eager to tell me. I hike to be able to hear it.

I’ve got a leg up on Buddha. This morning I’m walking on three.

The Three-Legged Way

Twenty steps from my car I can tell that it’s climbing uphill that lights up my left knee. The paved driveway up to Land of Medicine Buddha is very steep. I did 45 minutes of yoga last night, got seven hours of sleep—this is about as up as I get, so I am perturbed that walking is suddenly difficult. Necessity is a mother and I grab the hiking stick I’ve been carrying in my car.

I haven’t had the stick long. I was playing music at a Sacramento farmer’s market and a crusty Vietnam veteran says he makes walking sticks for vets. I tell him I’m not a vet, but he wants me to have it anyway. The pole is light and strong, with a rubber foot on the bottom. He said, “You can use it to fight a dog, a person, a coyote or a mountain lion, but don’t use it to fight a bear.”

As I lift my left foot forward, I push the staff into the ground to my right. My left hand pushes down on the top of the staff and my right hand grips the staff about two feet down. This low pole-vault takes a lot of weight off my left knee.

I may scrabble up a steep incline like a three-legged crab, but I make it to the top of the hill and my left knee feels OK. Not on fire. Not inflamed. I’m sure you would be amused by my rowing motion with my staff; it feels like my staff is a paddle and I am rowing through earth.

I make it up the hill, then the next one and the next. The path climbs 1,200 feet in the first half mile. Hiking the steep paths of Land of Medicine Buddha, my staff feels like the medicine.

The retreat’s central area has attractions like a huge bell you ring to relieve the suffering of loved ones.
They want you to spin everything clockwise, they want you to move clockwise. The Land of Kid-Friendly-Buddhism.

There are many paths to choose from and I am quickly lost. Henry Thoreau said, “The relinquishing of the physical map allows your brain to build new mental models. It can give you a newfound trust that you can locate in your body.”

There are signs everywhere that say, “Shhhh. People are meditating, please be quiet.” It makes me want to sing the Meditating Buddhist Monk Blues,

“I ain’t doing nothing,

I ain’t doing nothing,

I ain’t doing nothing,

And I ain’t done yet.”

There are small Buddha sculptures in the trees and small signs with messages about releasing attachment. I ask myself, “Is my backpack attached to me? Or am I attached to my backpack?”

Keep Walking

Buddhists have a walking meditation. That beats a cursing meditation by a mile. 

Siddartha was asked, “And what is it now that you’ve got to give? What is it that you have learned?”

“I can think. I can wait. I can walk.”Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse

Walking is an important form of Buddhist meditation, a deep spiritual practice. Walking meditation is integral to the continuous development of mindfulness. Signs carved into wood planks describe how the Buddha “walked to develop mindfullness,” and is the most respected and loved creature “who walked on two feet.” OK, so Buddha walks on two feet. Yeah? I’m walking on three feet.

Q: How much “ego” do you need?
A: Just enough so you don’t step in front of a bus.
—Shunryu Suzuki

It’s a steep climb to the temple, and the path stays steep up the ridge of the mountain. It rained yesterday and you can see where people have slid in the mud. It’s easy to tell when you’re onto the state park land, no Buddha sculptures. Once near the top, the loop I take is fairly level and goes all the way around the mountain before it descends back down to the Land of Medicine Buddha.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Keep walking, and at some point in the repetition, the pilgrim becomes the prayer, or the prayer becomes him. What he is worshipping, something distant and otherworldly, somehow comes home in mid-stride.” 

A student called out to his master on the other side of the river,

“Master, how do I get on the other side?”

“You are on the other side!”

How To Get There

This trailhead and several miles of this trail are on the private property of the Land of Medicine Buddha Retreat Center. Visitors to the retreat center may have to park outside as parking priority is reserved for those participating in courses, programs, or retreats. For more information, visit stay.landofmedicinebuddha.org

Get off on the Porter exit from Highway 1. Take Main Street north and continue on Glen Haven Road. Turn right on Prescott Road, continue for one mile, and then park below the Land of Buddha Medicine’s driveway. Their parking lot onsite is for guests of the retreat.


  1. I have lived in and around Santa Cruz my whole life and only just discovered this absolute treasure. Your story captures it so beautifully and I love all the quotes!

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    • Thank you Joan! The whole Nisene Marks area is stunning. There are so many trails connected to the Fall Creek Trail, built on ancient fossils (that made the limestone underneath it all.) We’re so lucky.

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