Everyone from Buddhist monks to pop stars has come to Tassajara for spiritual enlightenment. Now people come to unplug and recharge.
Located in Carmel Valley, this zen retreat offers serenity and peace to all who venture there.
Life at Tassajara follows two seasons. From late September until early April, 50-60 students rise before dawn and begin a full day of zazen (seated meditation), study, and work, following a traditional Buddhist monastic schedule that dates back over thirteen hundred years to the early Tang Dynasty in China. When our Guest Season commences in May, the monastery opens its doors to the wider community. Our focus turns from the primarily inward activity of “practice period” to serving the wider community and sharing the experience of Zen practice and the joys of Tassajara. Since Zen Mountain Center’s inception, the Guest Season has been an integral part of the yearly cycle in these mountains.
There are a wide variety of ways to experience Zen practice at Tassajara.
The first gong I hear isn’t really a gong but a gentle ding-ding-ding as a monk moves down the path in front of my cabin. I struggle to my feet, grab my water bottle, and shuffle out into the pitch-dark on my way to morning meditation. It’s 5:20 a.m.
Life at Tassajara follows two seasons. From late September until early April, 50-60 students rise before dawn and begin a full day of zazen (seated meditation), study, and work, following a traditional Buddhist monastic schedule that dates back over thirteen hundred years to the early Tang Dynasty in China. When our Guest Season commences in May, the monastery opens its doors to the wider community. Our focus turns from the primarily inward activity of “practice period” to serving the wider community and sharing the experience of Zen practice and the joys of Tassajara. Since Zen Mountain Center’s inception, the Guest Season has been an integral part of the yearly cycle in these mountains.There are a wide variety of ways to experience Zen practice at Tassajara, from the daily introduction to Zen meditation offered during guest season, to the fall and winter monastic practice periods. We warmly invite you to explore at whatever level you choose – See more at: http://www.sfzc.org/tassajara/display.asp?catid=4,29#sthash.7BMHqPSX.dpuf
Surrounded by rising mountains and old-growth pines, Tassajara is an off-the-grid alter-universe, where kerosene lamps are lit by matches and time is marked by a cloud-shaped gong. Spiritual seekers from San Francisco to Stockholm, Moscow to Missoula stroll softly in dark robes, bowing to each other and to mini altars erected everywhere. And from late April through mid-September, Tassajara opens to the hedonistic public. Guests come, 80 a night, for meditation mixed with soaks in the hot springs, hikes along the river, maybe an outdoor massage or yoga retreat—and all the kale, polenta, and whole-wheat sourdough they can eat. Once was, a large majority of Tassajara’s guests were repeat visitors. But these days, 50 percent are here for the first time.
Like me. Curious, if skeptical, types who’ve meditated maybe once in their life (Buddhism 101, freshman year). So I signed up for the Guest Practice Program: 10 slots for those who want a taste of the real Tassajara, at a fraction of the price. For the next four days, I’m half-student, half-guest. I take my assigned spot and try to mimic the woman next to me: barefoot, legs linked, back straight. I’m ready to sit. A bell rings and my mind races. Look at me! Meditating. At the bottom of a canyon. I’m hungry. Tired. What’s she thinking about? Are we supposed to be thinking? How much longer? How much … Then: snooze. I break the cardinal rule of meditation and fall asleep.
I awake feeling disoriented but semi-rested. Everyone stands and chants for what seems like a long time before we file out. As I pass the Zendo policemonk, she whispers, “Please go to the kitchen for soji.” I’m hoping soji is Zen-speak for omelet and hash browns. Instead it means “temple cleaning,” and I find myself tearing romaine lettuce in silence for the next 15 minutes. Then a gong. Finally, breakfast.
I stare inside my bowl of rice porridge, inspecting every surprisingly tasty kernel so as to avoid eye contact with the student sitting across from me. “Good morning,” says a hoodied dude in his late 20s as he bows his bald head.
Modern-day Zen Buddhists aren’t necessarily the wise, wrinkled Mr. Miyagi types you might expect. Nor are they ’60s counterculture castaways in late-model VWs searching for some fashionable Eastern enlightenment. There was a time when you’d stumble on Joan Baez or Linda Ronstadt dipping their toes in Tassajara Creek, when everyone from California governor Jerry Brown to actor Peter Coyote came to the canyon to ride the Buddhist bandwagon.
Today’s visitors are a mixed bag of stressed-out executives, artists, high school math teachers, recovering alcoholics, and, increasingly, technoholics at a “tipping point in their lives,” says Minoria Franks, Tassajara’s reservations coordinator. “We’re seeing a huge wave right now of people fleeing technology for a digital-free environment. Younger people, especially, in their 20s and 30s, who hear about us then come to unplug and practice.”
I think about the late Steve Jobs, a practicing Buddhist and Tassajara visitor. Here was the person perhaps most responsible for busying our lives, and he got his spiritual nourishment at the very place we go to escape the digital noise he helped create. Then I think: There’s something about all this—the isolated beauty and simple schedule, the logic of the gong—that feels deeply, if strangely, familiar. Like we’re tapping into some forgotten algorithm.
After breakfast, we circle up outside. It reminds me of summer camp, except my counselors are monks in dark brown robes. We’re all assigned chores: weeding, dishwashing. I’m on cobwebbing. For 2 1/2 hours, I walk peacefully around the property, over wooden bridges and past creekside cottages, with a 10-foot duster, swabbing away any and all webs I encounter. Work, I’m told, is part of the practice.
The next day, I’m chopping apples into ¼-inch cubes. The supply of apples seems endless; the bucket I’m filling, bottomless. But by the time the bell rings a few hours later, signaling the end of work period—and the beginning of my afternoon freedom—something comes over me. I feel, for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Calm.
I ride the wave of bliss back to my cabin, change into my bathing suit, and set off for Tassajara’s hot springs. And once I lower myself into the 100°+ water, I know why. My calm kicks into another gear. I close my eyes, float, and wait for the next gong. “Tassajara’s role is the same today as it’s always been,” says Norman Fischer, the Buddhist priest. “When I first got here, I thought this was the most sensible way a human being could live. The way human beings have lived, for centuries.”
Four days later, I’m in my car, winding slowly up the canyon, back to civilization and the noise of my life. Back to my laptop with its clogged calendar and in-box full of unreads. I have no delusions. I know that the calm will eventually clear, and that I’ll return to my always-running ways. But not right this moment. Not now.