“We don’t have much availability because that is the week we close for the season” the woman on the other side of the phone says. “Oh, but I can offer you a shared cabin, meaning you will be housed with someone, for $129 a night with meals included.” “I’ll take it,” I reply. I have vague childhood memories of the Tassajara Zen Buddhist Retreat Center in the middle of the Los Padres National Forrest, not far from Carmel Valley. My stepmother and father would take my stepbrother and I there in the summer to swim naked in the river and slip down the natural rock slide and waterfall.
I spend the night in Jamesburg with close friends – Abbe, Fred, Jenny and Billy – before I start my climb (and decent) to Tassajara. It’s only 16 miles from there, but the road is unpaved, dry, dusty and hot with steep inclines and declines. “Don’t be a dumb ass and ride your brakes all the way down,” Abbe says as I wave goodbye, “all you smell is burning brakes.” And it’s true; about 30 minutes in I can smell other cars‘ flaming drums. It’s not pleasant. Dusty (my Jeep) takes the journey in stride.
Dirt is everywhere in Tassajara. By the time I arrive at the center, I can feel it in the back of my throat and down my sinuses. “You’ll be in cabin 9. Can’t miss it,” says the young, distracted blonde behind the counter. I was half expecting to find Japanese monks, but the center appears to be run mostly by, uh, white folks. My cabin is nice, on the stark side, and something I would expect at a monastery. No one else in the room, so I grab the better futon, close to the door and away from the toilet, which is separated in the room by a piece of cloth. I grab my bathing suit, camera and towel and practically skip down the path towards the Narrows and my vague childhood memory.
I make it to the swimming hole and it is mostly as I remember. “They’re slippery,” a naked man calls out to me as I gingerly approach the river. “Thanks” I shoot back. Walking to the head of the waterfall I glance down. It is not quite as tall as I remember – though I must have been smaller when I was last here. “Can I jump,” I ask the two naked women lounging on the opposite rocks. “Yes! go for it,” they encourage. Stripping off my clothes and tossing the bathing suit aside, I take the plunge. It is nearly 100 degrees outside and the cool river feels amazing. I take a couple more leaps to get the dust out from behind my tongue and then position my body in the sun, imagining for a moment I am lizard.
Time passes quickly, or slowly, when you have no clock and no watch to check. Not only are there no clocks, but only minimal solar generated electricity on the property. At night, kerosene lamps light the walkway. My cell phone doesn’t get signal, so I turn it off and leave it in the room hidden under the futon in case someone come prowling for easy steals. I won’t touch it again until I climb back into the car for the return trip. This gives me a certain sense of satisfaction since I can now easily leave my cell phone alone. Progress!
The next morning, I get up with the monks . . . well, ok, I get up at 5:30 when the monks are signally everyone to morning zazen. I decide to take the plunge and sit with the Buddhists – they “sit” to release attachment to thoughts and mind, which I could use a bit of. At 5:40, half asleep, I stumble into the temple gripping my large Maglite flashlight (I fear leaving it outside with my shoes that someone might take it). The traffic cop at the front of the temple asks: “cushion or chair?” “Chair,” I respond. Smiling, she points to one in the corner of the room, facing the wall. I am tempted to turn it around, but notice that everyone sits facing the wall. Now I question what I have gotten myself into; will I have to stare at a blank wall for the next hour?
As people file in, I crane my neck to see if there is anyone I recognize (from where, I have no idea). My mind is incredibly active at this hour and starts jabbering to itself about this that and the other thing. At least in church you have the backs of people’s heads at which to stare. Why do they make us face at the wall? Thank god there are other people in chairs – I am not the only one. Tomorrow I will take a cushion, instead of this training stool, it will be a challenge and I’m up to a challenge. I wonder what Buddhist sex is like?
Other people, many in plain black robes, file into the room quietly and sit on stark black cushions. They fidget with their drapery and position themselves like princes and princesses at a reception. Next there is the sounds of gongs, followed by a series of bells. We’ve begun! Sit for twenty five minutes, then a five minute minute break – I am thinking tea and cookies – followed by another twenty five minutes of sitting. I can do this!
Sitting in my chair, I suddenly feel uncomfortable. I shift my weight from one butt cheek to the other. Then my throat becomes dry and I curse myself for forgetting my stainless steel water bottle in the room as I stumbled out. I cough. Someone else sneezes, I assume in sympathy, so I don’t feel so bad. People continue to arrive; I judge them. Someone else shifts. I get bored examining the paint and texture of the wall, so close my eyes and start to mull over the things I will do today: hot tub, breakfast, chitchat with the other guests, maybe find a monk and ask him the meaning of happiness . . . or life for that matter . . . then a hike, followed by naked dip in the river . . .
As I run through my agenda, I congratulate myself for doing so well in morning zazen. I will definitely be ready to sit on a zafu tomorrow, like the robes ones next to me. Then, the gong rings, followed by a bell. I squint one of my eyes open and notice that the room has gone completely quiet and still. We are just now starting! Those I had judged so harshly just a few moments ago weren’t late – I was early. I hate being early. Damn this place with no clocks! At the break our only reward is shifting. No one gets up, there are no cookies or tea. The bells and bowls sing again. I go back to listening to the incessant chatter in my head wondering if it will ever shut up.
By the time the finishing bell rings I am elated – I feel like I am being let out of detention. I stand up and afraid that someone is going to (gasp) say something to me, I make quick exit through the door where I see several of the black-robed-ones going. Just as I exit and the door closes, I hear “you’re welcome to stay.” I grasp my Maglight close and pull on my shoes. The room starts chanting; Buddhists chant their lineage back 1000 years. I was in such a hurry to depart that I miss the second – maybe more entertaining – part of the service. I berate myself for ten seconds, then walk back to my cabin to nap before taking a morning zazen in the hot sulfur springs.
I accomplish most of the other items on my mental checklist that I organized while sitting, with the exception of the meaning of life bit. That night, dinner is truly “Tassajara.” I am at a table with a lesbian therapist on my left, a nurse-turned-yoga instructor on my right, a Hollywood marketing director, a lawyer and a retired man who never reveals what he does for work across the table. It sounds like the start of a joke, but the conversation is one that I truly enjoy: intellectual and offbeat.
The next morning as a monk walks through the cabin area where I sleep banging a piece of wood to wake people up, I am determined to sit zazen on a zafu. I roll over and fall back asleep, comfortable that my intention, not realized, is good enough for today. I feel no guilt, which is tremendous progress and I am certain the Dali Lama would be proud.