Intrigued by a secluded monastery type of Zen hot springs resort in Carmel Valley, California, we begin driving into the Santa Lucia muntains even though it is quite late. We decide nighttime driving will be the best way to endure a long bumpy drive. Tassajara is an extremely isolated and rustic place. The drive is 16 miles off of any paved road through the mountains which then drops into a granite rock and hot springs valley. It is clearly a very remote space to practice Zen. There were dozens of reasons why the zen practitioners might have hidden themselves in this place: most of the personal Buddhist retreats are carried out a far as possible from civilization, and some had found no where else like it to practice in a community.
Suzuki Roshi is the spiritual master that manifested the 126 acre Tassaraja Zen Center. This was the first monastic Zen center outside of Asia, and focuses on a tradition from the Tang dynasty dating back to the 12th century. It is included in a circuit with the San Francisco Zen Center and Green Gulch Zen Center in Marin. These adjacent communities participate in a unique work trade schedule. The students can work for several months, and in exchange meditate for several months at one of their centers. The result is a large community of Zen practitioners who maintain the properties, and cater to guests and residents with an elegant dining experience.
There is a "green" conference center that is newly constructed and one end of the property adjacent to the hot springs pools. The property has a large number of solar panel installations that power the facilities. There are rooms and bungalows that are even spaced throughout the property and range in price from $260 up. In the middle of the center grounds, there is a large Zendo meditation hall where there are group meditations and evening dharma talks. There is a large dining area for students, a separate dining area for guests, and a huge kitchen. If you're on a budget, camping is available in designated camping areas back down on the road. Staying for a day the pass is $35, and that includes soaking in the hot springs and participating in any Zen meditation classes that are offered that day. The center also features week long and weekend courses and retreats about meditation or yoga that are separate and have their own pricing.
The Zen students occupy the facilities during the winter months for intensive monastic practices which is called a practice period. The center re-opens for guests beginning in mid-April - September. During this time the students serve the community at large and earn work-trade credits to participate in the practice periods in the winter. The Zen students engage in a rigorous schedule involving zazen (meditation), study, and work. The central theme of work is preparing gourmet vegetarian food for the guests. The internationally renown artisan Tassajara Breadbook, published in 1970, is a bestselling vegetarian cookbook created by the authors living on site.
"What were we to do first? The hot springs, I think. Yes? And then the river- I want to go to the Narrows- and the Zendo- will they be having a talk today, do you think? Oh, I want to see everything!” He smiles and drew me closer to his side. He loves me for my impatience and eagerness. There are monks and nuns wearing traditional clothing suited for Zazen meditation practices, heads shaved, and disciplined and intentional demeanor. We try to keep the PDA to a minimum, finding it difficult not to seem boisterous or obnoxious in such a well-mannered place. Gradually a sort of peace pervaded us. We know that we need to be grateful for the chance to behold the natural pace.
The hot springs are separate for men and women until after 9pm or so. We decide to go in together since it’s about that time. The bath houses are elegantly constructed chambers, with finely jointed marble floors. The mineral pools are large and have a number of steps to sit on or stretch on. There are large open doors on both sides of the main pool, and outside there are places to soak in milder temperatures and dip into the river. From the main pool, there are carefully designed runnels to drain excess water into the dank wooden sauna. We were struck with admiration for the cleverness of the sauna construction. We peered under the sauna chamber to see how the conduits and ducts were arranged, and the hot mineral water fills the entire room with steam. Soaking for an hour or so calmed our energy. All of a sudden we are so quiet, and neither of us could abide silence for very long. Questions burst into our consciousness while we sit in the hot mineral springs, like Who am I? Why am I here?
Looking for answers after we bathe, we wander the pavilion for tea, and find the tiny library building. Despite the size the library is filled with books about Zen and Buddhism, and other subjects with serious matters of the mind; they have a complete Tibetan Buddhism section, and other treasures of ancient Buddhist literature- memoirs of famous Buddhist reincarnations, large photo books, and art books. Zen Buddhism stresses that enlightenment comes from within and not through any specific doctrine. This place is prepared for those willing to go into a deep introspection and do deep spiritual work, so the library reflects the teachings of thousands of years of Buddhist teachings brought up to date.
It was getting late, and we had forgotten our flashlight. It was completely dark outside, and luckily there are oil lamps conveniently placed near the library, and Zendo. Everyone is asleep by now so we borrow the lamp and walk back to our camping spot. That night, much midnight oil was burned at the camp. I was frankly skeptical that I would ever be able to turn myself into a human capable of seeing more in the present, having already built up an elaborate superstructure of American lifestyle focused on the past, future, and among other ways of conditioned life here. That night I did not sleep well. I dreamed that I was walking along a road that stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. I had been walking for miles, lifetimes, when I came to a signpost, and when I reached it I found that it was broken and the two arms were revolving in the wind. As they turned I could read the words on the pieces. One said simply: To the Future; the other: To the past. Suddenly I felt like an object moving in two directions at once.
In the morning we soak separately in the mineral springs, where on the ladies side are less than ten people lolling in the water, and dipping into the cool river.
Afterwards, we catch up with each other and walk out into the courtyard. We decide go to “the narrows”, which is a long natural granite rock slide that falls into a large deep pool. The river in this area is so remote that it’s clean and cool. In the heat of the morning we can hike and play in the water feeling a little bit giddy diving off the cliffs into the waters.
Above the dining area towers the Zendo meditation hall where meditators sit, which is organized with Zazen cushions lined up around the walls of the room and next to walled dividers. This practice of meditation is to face one of the divider walls, with eyes barely open and to focus on counting the breaths. Everytime you lose your count, you start over. This practice can take one into a deep meditation where difficult lessons reemerge, distractions, and emotions can all be observed from within.
We hear bells ringing, which signal lunch, dinner, and meditation times. We decide to go in for pre-lunch ceremonial chanting, and carefully step into the Zendo. Gongs are ringing, chanting books are passed around, and we’re finding the full Zendo arrayed: young San Francisco students, black robed monks, and a swarm of visitors. The head resident monk walks fiercely into the room, bows and lights incense. He stretched forth both his hands, and enormous gongs began to sound. We’re standing in rows facing different directions doing prostrations, and reciting the booming Japanese prayers in unison with the practitioners and monks. It is a scene of grandeur, and feels quite overpowering.
Most of the resident monks here are westerners, of European decent, but what we saw in terms of ritual and ceremony was authentic, and a function of the same obsessive discipline that had given Zen meditation its rigidity of form. Not that we had noticed an excessive concern with authenticity on the part of the practitioners, it is full of casual recognitions and bowing towards one another to create a substantial sacred culture.Several rounds of prostrations later, we finish the session and go to the lunch area for delicious beet soup, tea, and Tassajara bread. It is absolutely delicious. In the dining area we sat together at a table, a large wooden slab draped with a maroon cloth, and decorated with a candlesticks.
We stood talking by the side of the dining area for some time before a friend came up to us. She had been staying at the center for the last several months. I started joking to her about a book I found in the library about the Laughing Buddha, and how there were statues around the complex with these image of a fat happy Buddha with his arms raised into the air. She was telling me that the Laughing Buddha was a lot like a Santa Claus in Buddhism and he would laugh, and give presents to the children. He's an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha. There was a long silence. Then our friend spoke in a very thoughtful voice. She said that everything was done intentionally, every movement, every word. She also mentioned that the discipline is revolutionary, preserved by a miracle and brought down the ages for the self-control and enlightenment of mankind. If enlightenment was important as she believed, then their caution, dedication, and behavior is understandable.
The silence was complete. We moved and noticed at the Zendo, at the practitioners, and the overall harmony that had been created for the last 40+ years.
We take to the car again, and driving back down the 16 mile dirt road during the day showed us a vast view over the Big Sur park property. From here we could see far down the valley, and the coast was clearly visible against the mountainous landscape.