The night is luminous at Tassajara Mountain Zen Center. Lanterns are glowing softly along the path, from the new retreat building on one end of the trail all the way to the center's famous sulphur hot springs on the other. The moon is waxing toward full. A lot of these stars can't be seen from my foggy backyard on the Peninsula.
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I'm on the stone steps above the courtyard, near the kitchen where our bread is baked each morning. It's a warm enough evening, but no one else is here to witness the nightlife in Los Padres National Forest.
The space is filled with the melody of Tassajara Creek, which longtimers tell me is full for this time of year. Even more interesting is the sound from the zendo above the trail, where monks are chanting a flat baritone at the conclusion of evening service.
A bell is struck. Bells are always being struck here. They are saying "it's time to get up," "it's time for lunch, "it's time to work." Sometimes I think they ring the bell to let us know it's time to ring the bell.
This time the bell says that evening service is over. Black-robed priests and students are flowing one-by-one out of the zendo and into the forest. They're dimly lit by the glow of those lanterns, and the unobstructed moon. My own big, clumsy feet are walking too, kicking up pebbles in the dark and creating a minor racket on the gravel pathway.
My cover is blown. I head back to my pine cabin, crunching gravel as I go. I light a kerosene lamp and open all the windows, so I can fall asleep to the sound of Tassajara Creek.
According to the schedule, a bell ringer is coming by at 5:20a.m. to call us all to zazen — Zen meditation. I want to meet this bell ringer, so I set my alarm for 5a.m.
I wake up promptly at 8:47.
I'd make a lousy monk.
The road to Tassajara
After establishing the San Francisco Zen Center in the early '60s, the Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi felt it was time to create a remote monastery for his small but growing number of Western Zen students. It was founded here, deep in the Ventana Wilderness. The story goes that the hot springs at Tassajara were used for a thousand years or more by Esselen Indians, and are said to have healing properties.
The road to Tassajara is for people who prefer their transportation bumpy, windy, dusty and slow. That suited me just fine, and I'm told Suzuki liked the road, too — all 15 miles of it. It makes arriving on the verdant valley floor that much more welcome.
Juliet Wagner, 40, had no idea just how much she'd appreciate the life she found on the other end of that road. After being invited by a friend for a short visit one summer, she fell in love with Tassajara and its community.
"I sold most of my stuff, wrapped up my life in Boulder (Colo.), and came here. I had no idea how long I'd be here," she said.
So far, it's been two years.
In summertime, Tassajara is all about the guest experience — out-of-this world meals; miles of stunning trails; yoga, meditation and nature workshops; and space to relax without modern distractions. But the essence of the place is the Zen students. Some are here for a short visit from Beginner's Mind Temple in San Francisco, also known as City Center. Others are here putting in five months of service caring for guests. In exchange, they have the opportunity to stay during the fall and winter for two 90-day practice sessions, where they work to deepen their practice — which students tell me again and again is to relieve suffering through living mindfully.
To the uninitiated, "practicing mindfulness" may sound like chanting while sitting around on cushions. And there is some of that. But as any visitor can see, these monks don't rest on their sit-bones for long. My bed was made by a student while I sat down to breakfast in the dining room. The craters I left on the gravel pathway were raked smooth by a monk while I slept. They clean the bathhouse, make breakfast lunch and dinner, clean all the dishes, tend the gardens and light the lanterns so I can find my way "home" at night.
"We focus on working mindfully, but that doesn't mean you have to work slowly," says Wagner, who this summer has the job of guest cook. "My main practice is finding a way to work efficiently but calmly."
She says the challenge of being guest cook is in getting 60-80 hot dishes out the door all at the same time, a job that starts after sitting for an hour of zazen in the morning, pitching in to clean the temple grounds and then joining her fellow students for breakfast at 7:30 a.m. After checking in with the head of kitchen to see that dinner preparation is under way, she spends the "time off" before her shift begins by planning menus, scaling up Tassajara cookbook recipes to feed scores of guests and checking on the inventory of ingredients.
Last summer she was on the bag-lunch crew, which prepares gourmet meals to-go. In the winter, she was the head of heat and light — chopping firewood and cleaning lanterns.
That's the way it is for students at Tassajara — each season there's a new job. And usually it's a job you've never done before.
"If you tell them you're a carpenter, they're going to send you to the kitchen," said 22-year-old Mateo Ramos, who this summer is head of dining room. "It makes you have to stop and think about what it is that you are doing."
It's one more reminder to be mindful.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few," Suzuki once said.
The hot springs
Breakfast this morning was amaranth quinoa cereal, vanilla buttermilk pancakes, strawberry-rhubarb compote, yogurt, maple syrup and pears. For lunch I had two bowls of yellow summer squash soup with curry spices, along with fresh-baked diamond bread and a green salad with sunflower sprouts and red cabbage.
I'm still thinking about the last meal while on my way to the hot springs for the second time today. I'm taken aback once or twice as the occasional monk bows while I pass. That's something else I've never seen on the Peninsula.
Inside the Japanese-style bathhouse, I hang up my towel, scrub off the dust with Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap, and then establish a routine I'd follow maybe six more times during my stay at Tassajara. First, a dip into the 108-degree indoor plunge, a designated "quiet area" with high-beamed ceilings and sliding glass doors overlooking the creek. Next, a quick stroll over the hot wooden deck, down some steps, and into the stone-walled steam room, where I try to look mindful while sweating.
Just outside the door is the 104-degree outdoor plunge. After 10 minutes of Zen-like contemplation about how quickly I've become used to this, I carefully head down the rocky steps to the 50-degree creek for shock therapy. Talk about waking up!
The bathhouses are clothing-optional, and pretty much everyone takes that option. There are separate sides for men and women, but at nighttime, co-ed bathing is allowed on the men's side.
There are a lot of hiking trails here, one with a waterfall at the other end. Another leads to a swimming hole. Still another leads to the founder's memorial, where the ashes of Suzuki Roshi are kept.
If you like wildlife, you don't have to take a hike to see it at Tassajara. During a chat on the lawn near the stone office building, I watch as squirrels dart from bush to pathway to tree, lizards warm themselves in the sun and jays squawk to each other about my bag lunch. When one swoops down to peck at the bag, a student claps it away with practiced efficiency. I've just heard the sound of two hands clapping, I think to myself.
Other ways to spend your moments include a round of bocce ball, browsing the library, taking zazen instruction or sitting in on daily talks on Buddhism. I spent 10 minutes one afternoon watching a monastery cat knock a mouse around the courtyard. And I spent a couple more hours talking to students about waking up.
But I don't wake up. My alarm clock fails me again the next morning. Where was that bell ringer, anyway? I had promised David Zimmerman, program director for San Francisco Zen Center, that I'd really, really try to make it to zazen this morning. I had the best of intentions, but, well — all things are transient.
Zimmerman has arranged for me to take part in guest practice today, which is supposed to include zazen with the monks. But I'm up in time for breakfast with the students (the first 10 minutes we eat in silence) and to take part in the work circle, where incense is lit, chants are chanted, and everyone bows and introduces themselves before receiving their morning assignments. I pull kitchen duty. Most people are tapped to make beds.
Room rates at Tassajara range from $95 for a bed in a dorm to $338 per weekend night in a spacious, creekside room with a fireplace and a private deck over the creek. Meals are included.
If you are on a budget, consider performing guest practice. It's only $67 a day, and the work is good. The crew I was on chopped scallions for most of our shift, under the helpful guidance of the kitchen crew. As mindful as I tried to be, at one point my chopping knife struck an empty metal food container, which resonated with a gong. I'm positive a monk or two stopped their work to figure out what the bell was saying.
If you go
Birth and death is given once.
This moment NOW is gone.
Awake each one awake!
Don't waste this life!
—ancient Zen saying
·The road: Tassajara Road begins at the end of Carmel Valley Road, and turns into a dirt road just past Jamesburg. Call for road conditions.
·Overnight rates: Rooms are $95 to $338 per night; guest practice $67 per night.
·Day pass: $30/adults, $12/children. Lunch $12/adults, $8 children. Reservations required for pass and lunch.
·More info: www.sfzc.org/tassajara/
If you go