Tassajara Stories


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last edit 3-2-18


The first couple of months of guest season in May and June we'd continued to use the old dining room which became the zendo almost overnight for the practice period. After that the dining room was across the courtyard in the old stone building with hand-hewn logs spanning the ceiling, holding up the dorm rooms above where staff used to live back into the prior century. From old-timers I'd hear of Chinese cooks smoking opium in those rooms. There’s a deck outside with a railing overlooking the junction of little Cabarga and Tassajara Creeks.

On that deck one morning Baker and Suzuki had breakfast with an elderly, rather proper-looking couple that had driven all the way in on the perilous rutty road in a big black Cadillac. They’d been sent by Elsie Mitchell of the Cambridge Buddhist Association. I assumed they were considered as possible donors and I could feel that managed, somewhat nervous vibe that comes with such hopes - wanting everything to go smoothly. That not coming from Suzuki but from his disciple who worked tirelessly to see that we could keep that place running - and keep it at all. I brought the food and drinks from the kitchen across the courtyard. At that point I was the entire dining room crew as all the other guests had left, this being the very end of that season and of October.

The woman told Suzuki she had a question of which she was most eager to know the answer. She had been looking at a copy of the Conze book that she found in the reading area. The same one we’d shamelessly photocopied. She was concerned about something she read in the Diamond Sutra translation. Suzuki of course was most gracious and ready to answer whatever question she had as well as he could.

"Now, I've read a great deal about religion," she said. "and I consider that I know quite a bit about the different spiritual paths. But I have never, ever read or heard anything like what I read in that book. It said that there is no self, no being, no person, no soul. What is that all about?" I stood nearby listening to her heartfelt question about the dharma which was, to my mind, more to the point than most questions we students had asked him all summer.

"That is fundamental teaching of Buddhism," Suzuki began, and he was about to continue when Baker, interrupted with, "And how are the colors of the leaves in Massachusetts this fall? I do miss that here on the West Coast," and he successfully diverted the conversation to a more comfortable topic. Suzuki poured more syrup on his pancakes.


It's written the Sixth Patriarch got enlightened by hearing a monk recite the Diamond Sutra passage at the point that it said "no abode." I dearly loved my new abode Tassajara, but sometimes I was dying to get out.

Those East Coast folks wanted someone to drive their big black Cadillac out of Tassajara. The road indeed can be seen as treacherous and it was much much more so back in 1967. That narrow, windy rocky dirt road was built in the 1880s. It goes from a little over 1700 feet at Jamesburg to a little more than 5000 at Chew's Ridge back to almost 1500 at Tassajara. I agreed with them that it would be better that they were driven out and that I was experienced and available to do so. I quickly got ready, informed someone not too high on the authority tree, and waited outside their room reading - the Diamond Sutra.

Rather than get out at Jamesburg and take the next ride back in as would be expected, I continued with them to Big Sur where they dropped me off at Nepenthe Restaurant. On the way I brought up the lady’s question to Suzuki and went on about no self, no being, no person, no soul  for a great deal longer than the few seconds he would have and without knowing what I was talking about.

I had loved reading the Diamond Sutra during the practice period, was attracted to the nobody thereness nor anything thereness. In it Buddha would say things like that all beings are beingless and therefore are called beings. Infinite world systems are systemless therefore we call them infinite world systems. Our thought streams are streamless therefore we call them thought streams. And then he’d deny he’d even said that. To me it was like Buddha writing something on a blackboard and then erasing it before he goes on to the next point to make before erasing it. And he’d ask if he’d just said whatever to his disciple Subhuti who’d answer of course not because I wouldn’t be a real disciple if I thought that. But I could easily see how this sort of teaching might disturb someone with a more normal, sensical way of looking at it all. In the Sutra, written over a thousand years after Buddha’s time, Buddha is talking to Subhuti. But Suzuki ignored that and said this is Buddha giving this teaching to Buddha. Not like a person Buddha but a more cosmic one – Vairocana Buddha. Maybe we could say that it was Not Buddha not giving the not lecture to not buddha and not so forth. Didn’t really understand it. Just let it sink in. Suzuki said in a lecture, “Your conduct should not be based on just verbal teaching. Your inmost nature will tell you, you know. That is true teaching. What I say is not true teaching. I just give you the hint.” [Quote from a sesshin lecture, July 1965 [65-07-29-C)] And one way he hinted was to get us to study the Diamond Sutra.

In Big Sur I ended up getting stoned with friends I'd met at Tassajara in the summer, visiting some communal scenes in the woods with welcoming revelers, ecstatic music and free dancing, warm libertine openness. Dozed off at sunrise in a tree house. There was a wild scene in Big Sur back then - like at a lot of places. Hitchhiked back through Carmel, Carmel Valley, Jamesburg to Tassajara. Went to Suzuki Roshi's cabin to say hi. He was in his garden working. He said hi and kept working. After a moment I said I’d tried to complete his answer to that woman who asked about the Diamond Sutra saying no self, no person, no soul, no being. He just nodded and then remembered something and changed tone, scolding me for leaving and staying away without getting permission, saying that monks don't leave monasteries on their own. I wasn't a monk but I knew what he meant. I snapped back at him that I had told someone and blurted some other excuses.

What I remember about the exchange with Suzuki though is that as soon as I rudely barked back at him, he backed off and said, Oh okay. I see - and he apologized. There was something about the way he just politely dropped out of it when I resisted. For a second I didn't know where I was. I'd expected a counter-attack. He'd made his point and clearly had no interest in arguing, instead sort of tripping me with kindness. But what he'd said sunk in and I was less sneaky after that - a little less. And I thought of that when he'd say he'd only be strict or hard on someone if they were a good student. He was never strict with or hard on me. But still he left me with a feeling of not being so sure about where I stood.


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no self, no being, no person, no soul