On the Path to Enlightenment
Life at Tassajara Zen Center provides a rigorous retreat, for guests as well as students of the ancient practice of meditation.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
The road to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is the ultimate in karmic jokes: a 14-mile roller coaster ride on a track of rutted, rock-strewn dirt, sometimes straight up, sometimes straight down, and almost always with a sheer dropoff on one side. If karma, as defined by zenguide.com, is indeed the law of moral causation – past wholesome acts lead to happiness, past unwholesome acts lead to suffering, and the effect of past karma determines the nature of one’s present life situation – then somewhere along my life’s journey, a whole lot of unwholesomeness has gone on.
For on this road, there is suffering. My already tenuous relationship with nature (it stays outside, I stay inside, preferably with a pane-glass window in the middle) was left tattered somewhere on the turnoff from Carmel Valley to Tassajara Road. By mile three on Tassajara – the dirt roller coaster is the only way to drive into the Zen center – my companion on this journey and in life has gone silent, gripping the wheel in anxiety. Heights aren’t his thing, and making this trip in a two-wheel-drive, manual-transmission Mini Cooper, a car whose tires have diva-like tendencies on even the smoothest roads, was foolish; the Zen center recommends four-wheel drive, or taking their shuttle service, but on this day it runs at an inconvenient time.
At mile four, I try to speak to him and he shakes his head. “No. No. I’m sorry. It’s just that right now, I hate you for making me do this.”
I understand. I hate myself too. But it’s one of the points of this journey: I am trying to make peace with nature, and find peace within, to turn off the internal dialogue running constantly and just calm down.
As it turns out, peace and calm aren’t the point. Acceptance is. But what exists at the end of that bitch of a road results in more questions about my life and choices than I anticipated finding.
“I was drawn to this practice because I wanted to be happy,” says Greg Fain, the “tanto,” or head of practice, at the Zen Mountain Center – one of the three locations, along with City Center and Green Gulch Farm, operating under the umbrella of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Fain’s shaved head gleams and his eyes, behind thick geek-framed glasses, alternate between seriousness and mirth during a lunchtime conversation over bowls of hearty pasta-bean soup, a salad of fresh organic greens and warm slices of Tassajara’s famous bread (for more on the center’s food, see p. 37). Every word out of his mouth is, well, mindful.
“Happiness comes naturally to some people, and some people have to work at it,” Fain says. “But I’m a down-to-earth, basic guy and Zen is down-to-earth, basic Buddhism.”
Fain, along with his wife, Zen priest and psychotherapist Linda Galijan, is on staff at Tassajara. From April to September, it’s open to visitors who come for varying lengths of time – from day trippers plunging into the swimsuit-optional hot springs, to individuals or groups on weekend or weeklong retreats, to Zen students who stay to work, study and meditate for months – surrounded by the wild beauty of the Ventana Wilderness.
Since the late 1800s (and really, for at least a thousand years before that), Tassajara drew first the native Esselen people, then travelers, with its natural hot springs reputed to have healing properties that many called “The Cure.” In 1966, Japanese Buddhist Priest Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, was introduced to Tassajara, and found it the right place to open a Zen monastery – the first one built outside of Asia.
From late September to early April, it reverts back to that original mission, a place of study, work and practice for students of Zen Buddhism.
Zen means meditation, and at Tassajara, students practice “zazen,” literally translated as “seated meditation.” There’s a focus on breathing, on posture and the most difficult task of all, training the mind to clear it of all thoughts, to concentrate only on your breathing, your posture and the absolute present in order to get back to what Fain calls “our original nature.”
“Our original nature is Buddha nature,” he says. “It’s calm and luminous, and meditation practice helps find that original nature that’s been there all along.”
As hard as zazen sounds, it’s really even harder – sitting in the lotus position, posture erect, clearing the mind of all thoughts and simply breathing. For someone with serious monkey mind, it’s far worse, sitting, breathing and trying not to think thoughts like, “We’ve been gone for six hours. Is my 13-year-old currently breaking his big toe by trying to kick his older brother in the shins?” (The answer, as it turned out, was a swollen, purple yes.)
But at 4pm every day, guests are invited to introductory zazen instruction, one of several times throughout the day, starting at 5:50am, staff and students gather to meditate.
“Every day, 4pm. It’s a mere $25,” Fain says. And then he laughs uproariously. “No no, that was a joke. It’s free. It’s free.”
During a visit in May, just a week into the 2011 summer season, Tassajara was on the verge of opening a newly constructed facility, an expansive yoga studio and center that can facilitate larger groups and retreats.
But the fact that Tassajara still exists at all, much less is close to launching the new facility, is something some might call miraculous. In June 2008, two fires burned for weeks in the Los Padres National Forest before merging into a giant. That union of flame, the joining of the Indian Fire and the Basin Complex Fire, became the third-largest forest fire in California history, and Tassajara was in its eventual path.
“We knew it was likely to come in our direction. It was a question of how soon it would arrive after we saw it was continuing to grow,” says Kansan David Zimmerman, the San Francisco Zen Center-based program director for Tassajara, City Center and Green Gulch.
In 2008, Zimmerman was in residence as the center’s director at Tassajara. For weeks, the staff had been told the fire was on its way, and they prepared by clearing brush from around buildings, jury-rigging a sprinkler system they dubbed “Dharma Rain” for the roofs of buildings, and conducting drills to prepare if the fire came. Department of Forestry crews retreated out of the area on July 9, and they asked those who remained at Tassajara – a group of 20 called the “sangha,” or community of practitioners – to do the same, because the department couldn’t provide them ground support.
Stuart Carlson, an off-duty CalFire captain who had studied at Tassajara and had helped the center prepare during previous fire seasons, also offered assistance and advice; but when the wind suddenly shifted, the forest service issued a “red flag” warning, and the fire pro recommended – begged, even – everyone to leave.
According to an account on the Zen Center’s website, the sangha turned on the Dharma Rain system, activated the pumps which had only enough fuel to last three hours, and then left.
Twenty minutes down the road, five of the monks, including Zimmerman, made the extraordinary decision to turn back, to use their Zen practice and focus their intent on keeping the fire from taking Tassajara down. Their story will be fully told this summer in the book Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Berkeley-based writer Colleen Morton Busch. Other accounts of the fire, and the monks’ response to it, can be found on the Zen center website.
Zimmerman says the return wasn’t planned, it wasn’t conspired. It simply happened.
“I think each of us who returned had somehow made that decision, once we knew we were evacuating, to go back and take care of the sprinkler systems,” he says. “The thing that most strongly remains with me now, several years after the fire, is how the experience was a burning away of what was extra – both in the wilderness and myself – and this burning away allowed what was essential in life to come forward.”
It’s a metaphor of how nature and life regenerates itself.
“It’s also a metaphor of the human capacity to refocus on what is most important and true in our lives, particularly during times of crisis,” he says.
In the end, only four small buildings were lost.
A pair of Tassajara students, women in their early 20s, hurry past. They’ve just dunked their legs in the creek to cool down, but water has soaked one of them through. She’s walking back to her dorm at a fast clip, trying to cover her upper body because she’s having what she apologetically describes as “mammary issues.”
In other words, her white T-shirt is drenched. At a place where the bathhouses are clothing optional, you wouldn’t think this would be an issue.
“We’re expected to maintain modesty,” the chagrined woman explains. “I just didn’t think this through.”
Dress modestly. Don’t lie, steal or abuse substances. Don’t harbor ill will. Don’t praise yourself at the expense of others. Don’t hoard teachings or materials for yourself. All Zen axioms that help students and staff live in an environment described as intense and physically demanding, requiring a lot of self-motivation and self-discipline.
Motivation I have in spades. Discipline, not so much. Is the former even useful if the latter is lacking?
The need for self-motivation and discipline are born out in Tassajara’s summer schedule: informal zazen at 5am. Formal zazen at 5:50am. Morning service at 6:50am, followed by temple cleaning at 7:15am. Then breakfast, work, lunch, more work, several more informal and formal zazen periods, dinner, zazen, study and fire watch for those assigned that job.
Galijan says the intense schedule, the weeks of practice and study, all go back to what she calls “the flow.
“There are many views in Buddhism… but the practice is more important than the view.”
That view, both metaphorical and literal, has drawn a select group of students to Tassajara. About 15 Salinas High School students, plus chaperones, are spending the weekend as part of Cynthia Hess’ honors philosophy class.
It’s a trip Hess, a teacher at Salinas High since 1989, has taken for the past eight years.
The students paid their own way to Tassajara, working the parking lot at football games and holding pancake breakfasts to raise the funds. They spend an hour Saturday morning peppering Fain with questions, (“Why do you have a gift shop if you avoid materialism? What is Zen?”). After lunch, a group of girls takes a four-hour hike while a few boys hike to the waterfall to splash.
“People think teenagers aren’t interested in stuff like this,” Hess says. “But in the world to come, kids need to understand there is an Eastern way of thinking. They have to learn to understand it if they’re going to negotiate a peaceful existence in the world.”
Lunch winds down with a plate of brownies. I ask Fain what role deprivation plays in Zen, and he explains that Zen isn’t letting go of desire, but letting go of the attachment to desire.
“If I’m of the mind that I won’t be OK unless I have this brownie, that’s suffering. I don’t want to suffer, because life is painful enough,” he says. “Buddha says the enlightened person has few desires, not no desires.”
I ask him if he knows any good Zen jokes. He chews a bite of his brownie pensively, and swallows. He says no, but just as quickly, he says “Wait.”
“How many Zen Buddhists does it take to change a light bulb?” he asks.
“I don’t know, how many?” I say.
“Two. One to change the light bulb, and one not to change the light bulb.”
Pause. “Wait, I think I screwed that up.” His laughter echoes in the dining room.
I leave with my neuroses, a husband who wants to meditate and a Tassajara water bottle in case the car breaks down. In the week that follows, I question everything, especially my own attachment to desire: Why do we own what we own, why did I think it was important at the time? Writer Leo Babauta suggests the Zen beginner should figure out what’s important, and let go of everything else.
I’m figuring out what’s important. And like the light bulb, the changing may be neither good nor bad. It just is.