Tassajara Stories


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last edit 3-1-18


The first practice period at Tassajara was divided into two thirty day slices. Some could only do one or the other but many of us did both. After that, practice periods would be in the winter/spring and fall and those attending had to sign up for the whole traditional ninety days. We started off with about eighty diligent practitioners – women and men, a tradition breaker thanks to Richard’s insistence. All braved the three day initiation, tangaryo, consisting of constant early dark morning to late night sitting interrupted only by a break after meals – no kinhin or walking zazen. Richard said we could move during the seemingly interminable periods, could even stand up – just stay there till the breaks, till it’s over. It was tough. Many of us had sat sesshin but only tangaryo was much more arduous.  A few dropped out because they just couldn't do it. We didn't realize we were getting a break for being the guinea pigs. Baker had worried about loosing people. He'd talked Suzuki into doing three days instead of five and then cut the third day short. At three forty-five we started preparing for a group entering ceremony. After that new students would do uninterrupted five day tangaryo at the first of every practice period.

There was a seven day sesshin after the first month for those who couldn’t stay and another concluding the sixty days. That was my first week long sesshin. I’d participated in day long sesshin in the city but those had a shorter schedule. I tingled with apprehension at sitting cross-legged forty-minutes at a time from four in the morning to nine at night seven days in a row.

We’d moved into the new zendo just in time for the opening ceremony of Zenshinji, Zen Mountain Center, the practice period, Richard Baker’s ordination, and his installation as head monk for the practice period. Carpenters had worked till late into the night getting the former dining room ready for the opening and wall gazing, an old Chinese term for zazen. There were two isles, four rows of tatami mats with a partition in the middle. Normally zendos don’t have elaborate alters and the abbot would have sat at the same level as the rest, but there was a large stone and cement block was in the way. A wood burning stove had rested on. It was easier to cover it and anyway the zendo had to triple as a hall for services and lectures, so there was a raised area at the end with an altar in the middle and cushions to the sides for the teachers, head monk, and students assigned to strike the bells and wooden fish drum called a mokugyo.

To us, this room and what we did there was the heart of Tassajara – not the mountains and woods, or the bathes, or the creek, or sky and stars. And the main function of this room was to have a place to do nothing, to be nobody. There we’d sit, walk, chant, eat, listen to lecture, mainly sit. A place to take a look at who we were beyond assumptions and notions. A place to observe body and mind which include each other and the mountains, woods, bathes, creek, sky and stars.

Sitting just one period could be painful toward the end. But sitting one after another made the aching come earlier and earlier in the period and more and more each day. And there wasn’t just one type of pain – sharp, dull, muscle, tendon, back, knees, thighs, neck, small, medium, large, extra-large. The pain was, the pains were, accompanied by sweltering summer heat and sweat running down the entire body, sliding into the eyes, and stinging. Not moving to wipe the brow. “Don’t move” like a mantra that had been and kept being drummed into us. The lectures and meals were also in the zendo so sitting on a cushion then too. Meals could last an hour and Suzuki would not limit his lecture to the forty-minutes allotted in the schedule. He might go on for twice that long which would turn a room full of students eager to hear his every word into one full of praying he’d bring it to a conclusion so we could move and stand up. I never met a Japanese Zen priest that didn’t seem to forget about the clock once they’d started lecturing.

Of course there would be people changing position now and then, and the room was so quiet that one could hear them readjusting. The noisiest thing would be the kyosaku, the long stick, smacking down on someone’s shoulders. For most of the period there would be an older student doing the rounds to whack a person who requested or someone nodding off. The sound would be sharp and loud and the stick could sting some, negligible compared to the discomfort most were having on their own.

I was taught how to carry the stick. An exciting and slightly scary new responsibility. Ten minutes into the period I'd bow, rise from my seat, walk slowly, softly to the front, put hands in gassho and slide my feet sideways to the mid point where the kyosaku rested on a polished board with short legs on the tatami before the altar. The kyosaku was made from hardwood, about three and a half feet long, round on the handle end, and flat on the business end. I gasshoed, picked it up with two hands holding it horizontally at eye height, slid sideways to stop before the abbot Suzuki, bowed with him, slid over to the center of the aisle, turned around, positioned the stick vertically resting on my cupped fingers and held firmly by thumbs. After a moment of surveying the silent, almost motionless sitters facing the wall and partition, I moved one foot forward slowly, then the next. If someone were nodding, I'd rest the broad end of the stick on their right shoulder, they'd put their hands in gassho and lean forward to the left and whack! Then the other side and then we'd bow together. People would request it - put their hands in gassho as I approached.

What a view of the zendo as I stood at the end of an aisle. Most men shaved their heads as the Japanese priests did. The women's hair up. Simple, thin grey robes had been quickly made for us by an industrious female sewing crew. Sitting together in pretty much the same positions. We'd rise together, bow together, fluff our zafu, and wipe our zabutan flat cushions with our hands, stand together. We'd become more uniform. But, as Suzuki said, within this sameness, he could see the distinctness of each. Some distinctness was easy to see. There were those who tended to nod, Ed to shake when he sat, Nelda would look around. Some would writhe or groan or laugh. Mainly the unusual shared stillness. Even in that stillness Suzuki, Katagiri, and Kobun Chino too would notice subtle happenings within that confounded me because I didn't think there was any outward expression - like mentioning that my mind had stopped wandering for a while in this morning's zazen. Or I made a friend of pain there toward the end and then it got to me again at the very end.

It's almost impossible not to, but we’re not to dwell on the pain. Rise above it? Better to include it and don’t fret. The deeper one’s zazen, the less hold the pain. As awareness expanded, pain shrunk. Kobun Chino said pain is like candy for the monk, making wandering mind a less attractive option. I was experiencing some truth in these encouragements but my basic program to prefer pleasure and avoid pain was yet dominant and how sweet the bell to end a period of zazen and give permission to slowly uncross the legs.

We’d stand up and do kinhin between zazen periods. I treasured kinhin and every activity that wasn’t done at ground level. The brief afternoon and evening services were done standing. Morning service was longer and seated. I’d do it in seiza, on my shins, like the Japanese priests did. At least it was a break from crossed-legs. When I first came to the ZC, I’d not been enamored with the prostrate bowing before and after chanting the Heart Sutra, but quickly came to see it as therapeutic, enjoy it as a way to stretch the legs and get the blood running again. Blessed gift was the hour work period outside after lunch. I’ve always enjoyed physical labor but had never enjoyed shoveling that much before. And bath time – briefer than usual but ecstatic. The pre bath shower such a relief. Stepping down into the super-hot water of the plunge, feeling it reach higher and higher to the neck and then over the head. Noticed that Japanese didn’t put their heads under. The steam room glorious. A dip in the creek a marvel. And there was a brief break after the meals. Many would head to bed for a quick relax. I learned that this just made it worse. Found it better not to like down till bedtime.

Just like we’d been told, the rewards of practicing thus were enough to keep us going. Our teachers weren’t big on the promise of enlightenment to come. The practice itself was enlightenment. Do it and don’t think about it. Anxiety did drop, mental pain did drop, and as Baker said, physical pain is limited but mental pain is not. And we were there because the big pain in life is mental and zazen did tend to reduce mental pain, greatly in some. I think I experienced less physical difficulty in sitting than most. I would almost never move my legs during zazen, found that alternating right and left full lotus helped, and then half lotus for lectures worked pretty well. But still it took endurance to keep going, and a type of endurance that gave neither gender or strength an advantage. We persevered supporting each other.

On the afternoon of the fourth day, toward the end of the last period before bath time, I took a step back in a sense to compare my present state of body-mind with what I normally would consider the height of pleasure - frolicking in the sun at the Narrows swimming hole down creek with fellow students on a day off. Immediately I was shocked by the depth of suffering I perceived in my normal waking consciousness in that scene. I could see that I was just telling myself a story that I was having fun. I felt great compassion for myself and for all beings that I could see were trapped in misery. By comparison, I was in a blissful state sitting still and sweaty with pain in my legs like a neutral energy that I was normally in the habit of getting anxious about. At that moment, the undesirable part of pain was seen as entirely mental, what I had made of it. When the bell rang I kept sitting another minute, in no hurry to escape the present situation. Not saying I learned how to turn that experience on as easily as flipping a switch, but it was not totally inaccessible.

Suzuki gave talks in the afternoon and evening on the Prajna Paramita, the wisdom gone beyond, the source of the Heart Sutra which used to be the only sutra we chanted in service. I remember Suzuki said that emptiness is the mother of everything. Who says Buddhism has no creation myth? Buddha said though, that there’s no creator other than mind itself. That’s mind as in Suzuki’s big mind, not a phenomenal mind limited to a being or to being at all. The term mind is used that cosmic way in some Hindu circles as well. In the home I grew up in, we used the word mind instead of god. So to me, even the Christian creation myth was not about a being creating anything but about mind which included me constantly creating everything including me. I was grateful to my parents, especially my father, for bringing me up in such a way that Prajna Paramita seemed familiar, was clarifying what I’d heard as a kid.

We’d been digesting the Prajna Paramita in the morning study which, horrors, took place seated in the zendo – at least at first. Later it would be done in chairs at tables in the dining room. Baker had told Suzuki we could get a lot of Buddhist books cheaper ordering from England, and Suzuki replied that rather than try to save money, we should buy books from local bookstores. But in this case we did neither. We each were given a photocopy of Conze’s Buddhist Wisdom: the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra. Conze would later do some teaching at the City Center and some of us would attend his classes at UCB. He was a cranky guy. I bet he never knew we’d pirated his book.

Back to Suzuki’s lecture. My seat was close to the front on the right. The wall was built of stone by Chinese laborers in the prior century. Where I sat there was a screen door of more recent origin. It was only used in informal situations but it served as a critical emergency exit eleven years later when fire swept into the room during a ceremony. The door was left half open to let more air into the warm room full of warm people, The first three nights that Suzuki lectured, three visitors came in through that opening and walked right in front of me. The first night was a large black beetle. I picked it up, leaned way over, and put it out. The second night a stinging scorpion. I quickly unwrapped my oryoki meal bowls, placed the middle bowl over it, slid the cover of my Prajna Paramita study book under the bowl and took it out and further away to up on the hillside across the road. Not far. Third night, a tarantula walked in right in front of me. Tarantulas have been used in movies to play frightening, aggressive, lethal roles, but you can actually pick them up. I’ve seen people do it. I remember a guy in high school who at some outdoor event in the country got a bucket full of them and went around scaring girls with it. Scared me too. I didn’t pick it up. I got the large bowl from my oryoki set and repeated the prior night’s procedure. I tried to be discrete and quiet each evening and not distract from the lecture, but I got a few stern and irritated looks from a few who, unaware of my heroics, were seeing a pattern of restlessness, inappropriate conduct for the zendo, especially during Suzuki’s lecture. I fanaticized that each critter had come to hear Suzuki preach the dharma like Hyakujo’s fox who turned out to be a former abbot of that monastery, something which would be impossible in this case as we had no prior abbots. I also wondered if such visits would continue but they didn’t – until the fox came.

After dinner on the fourth day, I walked in my thin grey robe down the dirt road past the baths to Grasshopper Flats and stood where the creek bends watching the pastel sunset sky, not the actual sunset which was obscured by the Hogback behind me. The water in Tassajara Creek runs East before joining with other waters that take it in a circuitous route to the nearby Pacific. I stood under a large Oak tree gazing east at the sky that shined like a piece of ethereal pie wedged into the valley, beyond the clouds the soft hues giving way to approaching darkness. Leaves like massive green stars swung from shimmering Sycamore branches  . Mind not racing, not glommed onto the future. All this sitting, hmm, not bad. How fortunate to be here. I just stood there taking it all in. The day cooling. A slight breeze, The complex, agreeable odors of the woods.

From the right periferal of my eyesight, movement. I turned slightly and saw a small reddish brown ... something. Oh, a fox walking down the road. I kept still. It got closer. I kept stiller. The fox sauntered right up in front of me, a few feet in front of me and stopped. Then it turned around in a circle, lay down, and shut its eyes. It seemed to be sleeping, sleeping at my feet. After a few of these unusual minutes, the distant sound of wood on wood, the mallet was striking the han, a sounding board that called us back to the zendo. I had twelve minutes to get to my seat. The last three were for the abbot to enter. I was not going to make the first move. The distant han struck again and a moment later again. The fox stirred, slowly stood, and walked back in the direction it came from.


Japanese Zen is group oriented. Japanese anything tends to be group oriented. On the last day of sesshin, walking down the one-lane dirt road that led to and from Grasshopper Flats, I was alone for the moment but still part of the sangha, the community that makes the effortless effort to wake up to no self, to big mind. I hadn’t awakened to any big mind but I felt bigger and my sense of self was not as concrete. I broke the rule of silence with a little improvised song to express myself and not-self.


Walking down dusty road
Sure am feelin’ fine
Finest feelin’ ever knowed
Because it is not mine.

Garden flows, river grows
Manzanita, oak, and pine
Finest feelin’ ever known
Because it is not mine

In the days there are gnats
In the night there are bats
In between suns come and go
The mountains so high
And the clouds they float by
What else is there to know

Walkin down dusty road
Sure am feelin’ fine
Finest feelin’ ever knowed
Because it is not mine.


Listen to a 1972 recording of the song.


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