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Next: Other meditation places (continued) Up: THE QUEST Previous: Other meditation places


August 1976

Members of the Los Altos Zen community had told me that I would enjoy staying at Tassajara (pronounce Tassahara), the Zen Mountain Center in Big Sur, California. Just before my second visit to Stanford University, where I was writing a book on mathematical logic (lambda calculus), I set aside a week to spend there. Before going, I went to a meeting with Kobun Chino. After the `tinsel' experience at the Buddharama Temple I asked him what he thought of me going to that place. His answer was simple and effective. ``You go back there and see if you can learn something. If that is the case, then you keep going there; if not, then you stop going there.'' We came to speak about my going to Tassajara. I learned later that while it was Suzuki Roshi who had founded this monastery, it was Kobun who--as an assistant of Suzuki--did much of the starting of Tassajara with its groundplan, day order and rituals. ``Ah, that is good!'', said Kobun. Perhaps you can bring Joan Smith22 with you, who needs a ride.''

Joan was a typical girl of the American dream for males: pretty, blond long hair, polite. On the other hand she was atypical enough to go to a Zen monastery, which was in spite of the 1970-ies and California still not a common thing. She knew the road, which was convenient. We drove from the Bay Area via Gilroy to Monterey, the last part along the coast. From there to Carmel and then to the village Carmel Valley. After that we had to go to ``Jamesburg''. This was not a village, but just a house on the border of Carmel Valley and the wilderness of Big Sur. We stopped at the house. A couple lived there and welcomed us. Joan behaved as if she was at home and started to make some tea for us. This was a bit puzzling to me, as she did not behave completely familiar to the inhabitants. It turned out that the place was part of the Mountain Center and acts as a kind of relay. The couple stayed there as part of a work assignment during their longer Zen training. From Jamesburg to the monastery itself was still 14 miles on a dead-end dirtroad, crossing the mountains.

After the refreshment we left Jamesburg. The night was falling. We had to drive very slowly, as the road was covered by many sharp rock. The mountains had a powerful beauty and the stars were stunning. We stopped at a place with a particularly nice view. ``Those loud crickets are all dating, you know,'' I started. She pretended(?) that she did not know. This was enough for us to start some tender but French kissing. Having dissolved the erotic tension that had been there during the trip, we continued the journey. After in total an hour drive we finally arrived at the gate of Tassajara. It really was in the middle of nowhere. We parked outside and a female guard let us in. We passed the Zendo. Through a window one could see inside. There were 80 students all sitting face to wall. By coincidence the drum of 9.30 p.m. was being hit, indicating the time and the end of Zazen. The ritual drum beating was done by two cylindrical mallets that were held by crossed arms of one of the students in robe. This made a deep impression on me: the 80 persons sitting like Buddhas and then the drum. Joan and I were brought to different cottages. I was thrilled to take part in the sitting the next morning and did not even think about how to further be in touch with Joan, which was unusual for me.

At 4.40 a.m. the han21 started to be hit. The sound vibrated through the valley of the monastery, making it somewhat possible to understand our position. After 50 seconds a next hit followed. My roommate had told me that it would be the time to get up and brush our teeth. It was still dark, but the path to the bathroom was lit by oillamps. We had to pee in large jerrycans, later used as human fertilizer. After 15 minutes the han hitting went into a `roll', an accelerando finished off with one clear hit. Then the second hitting period would start, lasting only 3 minutes. We had to be in the Zendo for Zazen before the second roll ending by two clear hits was finished. At that time it was 4.58 a.m. and the headmonk could enter the Zendo without interuption of the traffic jam of 80 students. At 5.00 a.m. exactly the third roll and its three clear hits were finished. Sitting was as usual 40 minutes, interupted by 10 minutes kinhin walking followed by again 40 minutes sitting. Then at 6.30 a.m. there was chanting. At 7.00 there was breakfast in silence until 7.30.

After breakfast with excellent bread and other good food we had a break of one hour. Most of the students went to wash their clothes, write letters or do other personal things. Other students, inlcuding the newcomers, could make themselves some tea or coffee. For me this was a natural moment to enjoy the sober beauty of the place. Very soon afterwards I learned that the only other times that were not programmed was a similar break after lunch and one of 90 minutes after dinner.

At 8.30 there was work-assignment. We all stood in a circle. The leader asked wether there were any announcements. One girl stepped forward: ``Today I am leaving. Thank you all for the wonderful time I had here.'' She and we bowed. This is a very civilized ritual to say goodbye23. The regular students got their assignments of the day. The new guest-students, as we were called, were approached individually. I told the leader that I would do anything, but was unable to lift heavy weights. ``You work in the kitchen, Hendrik'', he said. After the meeting, that lasted about 15 minutes, we went to our jobs.

The kitchen was a paradise. Clean, spatious, light, efficiently equipped, again with sober beauty. The people, from the head cook, the assistant cooks to the students, were all concentrated on their work, not saying anything unless it was related to the cooking. Everyone radiated positive energy. My first job was to clean parsely for some recipe for over 100 people. I got a bucket full of it, just being picked from the garden. Some of the plants were yellow (there was often a draught at Big Sur) and had to be removed and all had to be washed. The kitchen leader set me up in an efficient way: bucket with raw parsely, waste bucket, bowl with clean water and bowl for the clean parsely. After the job I had to wash lattuce. ``This is guest-lattuce, Hendrik.'' The meaning of this was not yet clear to me so he explained. Next to the regular students and guest-students, like me, there were paying guests at Tassajara. During the summer the monastery is a popular place for `Zen tourists' and by charging for full room and board the monastery got its income. In fact Tassajara was a high-end popular resort, loved for its scenery, food and a touch of Zen. The guest-lattuce had to be impeccably clean. At 10.30 there was a short break for drinks. It felt as if the day had been a year since we got up at 4.40. Preparations continued until 11.45. We had to wash our hands and go to the Zendo for a short ceremony at 11.55.

At noon there was lunch. The food was delicious and beautiful. After I left Tassajara I bought the cooking book, wich includes ways to hold knives, and the bread-book. This latter book became an international bestseller and was translated into more than 20 languages. The first half of lunch was in silence. Midway someone hit two sticks to indicate that now we were allowed to speak.

At 1.30 p.m. work resumed. This time I had to work in the garden, picking flowers and arranging them in vases for the guest-rooms. Being outside in nature had a different feel from the kitchen. Less structured and pleasant in a different way. When encountering another student outside, one didnot start talking, but greeted by folding one's hands and making a bow. If one was carrying something one could greet even with one hand or none at all. Back in the kitchen. The people there all knew I had a problem with lifting heavy loads. It turned out that just one sentence to the workleader in the morning was enough. At 4.45 p.m. it was time for a ritual bath. This was one of the highpoints of the day. One enters the place, men and women separated, bows to a Buddha statue and crosses a bridge over the creek. There were small bath tubs with hot and cold water taps. Like in all Japanese bathing houses one cleans oneself first having a tap, soap and two bowls at hand. After that one takes the bath, not for cleaning but for relaxing. At Tassajara the bath was a natural water source with a temperature of about 100 F due to vulcanic activity. After the working day the bath was soothing. At this time of the day only the guest-students had their bath. It was never crowded. At 5.50 p.m. there was a chanting service in the Zendo. After that dinner at 6.00, with no compulsatory silence. From 6.30 till 8.00 free time. After all those years I forgot what I did then. But of my working time I remember the moste minute details.

From 8.00 till 9.30 p.m. evening sitting. No chanting and as usual 40 + 10 + 40 minutes for sitting, walking, sitting. Then at 9.30 it was bed-time. We could read until 10.15, but by then the oillamps had to be exstinguished, which was checked by the evening guard.

To be continued about dishes; diningroom.

next up previous contents
Next: Other meditation places (continued) Up: THE QUEST Previous: Other meditation places
Henk Barendregt