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Meditating at the bookstore

Gregory Wood, owner of Forest Books, is also a student and teacher of Zen Buddhism.

Gregory Wood, owner of Forest Books, is also a student of Zen Buddhism.


A magic act of sorts happens in the neighborhood every weekend.

Forest Books, a small treasure house of used and rare books at 1748 Buchanan, on Japantown’s Buchanan Mall, transforms itself every Saturday morning into a quiet spot for Soto Zen meditation. From 9:30 to noon, bookshelves are rolled back, shoji screens set up, pillows brought out of the children’s reading nook — and proprietor Gregory Wood, a student and teacher of Zen Buddhism, leads a zazen, or seated meditation, in the dimly lit space.

One recent Saturday, a small group of participants settled onto cushions, their spines perfectly straight. Bends in the screen provide a personal space of sorts. Meditation requires concentrating on posture and breath, Wood explains. Good posture opens up the spine to permit deep breathing. There is no slouching.

After 30 minutes of sitting meditation, a small bell rings, the signal for kinhin: a walking meditation interspersing the zazen periods. Beginning with slow, measured steps, then picking up the pace after a moment or two, the group circles below several incense-bearing altars, occasionally pausing to bow with hands together in a prayerful position. But no one is bowing to the Buddha, “who was just a guy,” Wood explains. “We are cultivating the three active elements: stillness, silence and radiance through the pace and the pause.”

Wood says meditation leads to clarity and calmness. “After meditation, the mind is more receptive,” he says. “There is wisdom associated with emptiness, and calmness lends stability.”

Stillness and silence settle over the space so completely it’s easy to forget the books all around. But during regular hours (Sunday through Thursday, noon to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.) they are the heart of Forest Books. In keeping with the mood of meditation, its shelves have sections on Buddhism, poetry, art, Japanese culture and an assortment of other serene themes. The store’s rare books cabinet also includes a first edition Manual of Zen Buddhism from 1935 signed by the revered Japanese author and teacher Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki.

“Our purpose here is to cultivate and express peace,” Wood says.

Wood became a Buddhist as a teenager after he saw a picture of a Buddhist monk immolating himself and was struck by that ultimate expression of adherence to belief. He and his best friend got a book on Buddhist teaching, and by the time they had finished exploring one of the questions — “What is this?” — Wood knew he had found his spiritual practice. During the long Vietnam war, he was a conscientious objector.

“The simple assertion that I did not want to kill anybody was not enough,” he says. Enrolled at San Francisco State as a student in literature, psychology and comparative religions, he could receive a draft deferment for one semester. But at the end of each semester he was required to appeal again for conscientious objector status. “It was more than anything psychological pressure on resisters, people who were against government policies,” he says. The process did, however, keep him from having to kill anybody and it led him, after a career in Silicon Valley, to open Forest Books. “A bookstore was a business that offers a way to do the least harm,” he says.

Wood studied with American Soto Zen master Zentatsu Richard Baker, who is credited with building the San Francisco Zen Center into its current prominence. He studied at Crestone Mountain Zen Center in Colorado and regularly returns for retreats. For him, it’s a reminder of one of the Buddha’s sayings: “The road is full of dust and toil; come to the side of the road and rest.”

Wood’s side of the road, his bookstore on Buchanan just south of Sutter Street, is strictly peaceful on Saturday mornings. “I think of it as ‘right livelihood,’ ” Wood says. “It’s a way I can interact with people and offer them peace and happiness.”

EARLIER: A bookstore blossoms in Japantown