Crestone Mountain Zen Center
Interview Conducted by: Whitney Conti and Johanna Kasimow
Christian Dillo is the Director of the Crestone Mountain Zen Center and is the Chair of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance. A Buddhist monk and teacher, Zenki Christian Dillo has been living in Crestone, Colorado since 2003, and spent time in retreat in Crestone prior to moving there. He came to Crestone “in order to be able to practice in this particular environment and it just happened that my teacher happened to have a place here or I would have gone somewhere else.” Dillo was interviewed on the Colorado College Baca Campus for a project titled “Sacred Places, Spiritual Practices, and the Potential of Natural Gas Drilling” on February 28, 2008 by Whitney Conti and Johanna Kasimow, students participating in the course “Anthropology 326: Religion and Ritual.”
Dillo dispelled common misconceptions of Buddhist practice and expressed why he believes retreat is critical for the modern world.
“Buddhism is ideally not a form of escapism. Leave the world, renunciation in that sense is not what you try to achieve as a Buddhist practitioner. The time of retreat or leaving the world is temporary to allow a space to have a different experience and it is necessary for a beginner to have such a space or otherwise you are just overwhelmed by the way the culture functions. You never get to step back from it. So retreat is that kind of stepping back. But then as you mature in your practice you want to bring that practice back into the world and then practice becomes a negotiation between you could say the mind of practice and meditation and the daily mind and ideally they begin to merge and they begin to transform each other.”
Dillo described the importance of having places for retreat in the world, and the unique and valuable role Crestone spiritual communities play.
“And I would say that Crestone is an ideal place for retreat and I think the city is an ideal place to bring it back. It depends a little bit on where you are with your practice. I really believe places like Crestone have to exist to allow for that retreat. They also need to exist so that practitioners can come from that place of retreat and return into the world so to speak—into the daily life of how our culture functions. So that that culture can be transformed, ideally. So they belong together in a way.”
Dillo explains that one reason why Crestone is unique is because it is an intentional community.
“The Manitou Foundation came in and they consolidated lots and Hannah Strong had an idea of creating a community of the Wisdom traditions of the world side by side. So it, in a way, you could say the flavor that Crestone has with these spiritual groups is actually an intentional community. So it steps outside of these definitions of rural and urban and establishes something else in an area that is, you know, somewhat rural.”
Dillo comments that it is very difficult to sustain an intentional community such as Crestone and that most people who decide to live in Crestone have a strong sense of purpose outside the typical norms of a society.
“It is dry, a harsh environment. So what you are seeing when you have an intentional community a very specific purpose is created for why people are here when they are at these spiritual centers. And I think that influences who comes to Crestone and structures its culture because people think, ‘Oh, that’s an interesting place.’ It influences whether people make the choice to live here because it has such a presence. So then the people you have here are not engaged in traditional activities.”
Dillo compared his practice here to his practice in Germany, and expressed that it really “works” for him here. The center in Crestone and surrounding environment is an ideal place for practice.
“But if I imagine to take these activities that we are doing during that practice period and transplant them to a different environment: would it be the same? And I don’t think so… here it is very different. We have 240 acres. So when we do walking meditation we just walk on our property. The wild land—it is not cultivated. We also have buildings, you know, altogether ten buildings… And every time you step outside you see the mountain or you feel the really cold air.”
Dillo notes that the pristine nature of the surrounding environment is an important aspect of achieving a mind that is relatively free of culture and distraction.
“So when I talk about different minds being connected to different spaces. The wilderness is a space that can be connected to, what I have called, unstructured mind. A relatively unstructured mind—a mind that is relatively free of culture. And because that is possible, and Zen is based in the idea that there can be a mind that is relatively free of culture then you, it gives you freedom from the culture, and it allows you to enter the culture with a different kind of confidence because you are not caught up in the culture or you don’t live by its rules alone.”
Dillo spoke about the formation of the Crestone spiritual alliance and the “political” nature of the group.
“People hate the world political and it came out at some point it came out in a discussion. I took the view, well really the Greek word Polis, the root of the word political, just means community. So being political just has the flavor of being engaged in divisive arguments, you know, negotiating interest, power games, but that is clearly something we weren’t interested in. But were we interested in being part of the community, I would say yes. That is how I see it.”
The central question of Dillo outlines in addressing the potential natural gas drilling is: What is compatible with the community?
“It is always a question of: is what is coming next compatible? Is the land use that we are discussing, whether it is drilling, or visitation to a national park, or hiking—is that compatible with what is already here? So as residents of the community we are basically engaged in that dialogue of: What is compatible?”
Dillo said that he sees the challenges facing the community as another chapter in an ongoing story. “The point more clearly, I see what is happening right now with the drilling as a continuation of a story that has begun way back and it is just new levels of dealing with it.”