Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-19


Screams from the next room. Jim and Jeb were at it again. Jim was Rolfing him. He'd picked up a little of the basics from someone who'd taken a course at Esalen Institute from Ida Rolf. Structural reintegration. Made me cringe to watch. Super invasive bodywork. Jim's naked boney bald sweating body sat on Jeb's naked boney sweating bald body as the former dug his elbow into the latter's back. "The pain is a sign that you you're up tight there," he said as he dug in to the thigh. "Breathe into it. Don't vocalize." But Jeb couldn't help but vocalize as in groan and cry. It was at times like living next door to a torture chamber.

The first three creekside cabins beyond the bridge over Cabarga Creek had two rooms in front and two in back with a sink and toilet in a room at the very back of each side. During guest season we'd double up but afterwards each would have their own room. Bob and I were in back of one of these and they were in the front. They had to come through our room to brush their teeth and we left all the doors open during the hot days to increase the draft. We had ring-side seats to each other's show. Theirs was decidedly more severe than ours. And more consistent.

For instance, we all four were influenced by the Macrobiotic diet philosophy of George Ohsawa with some individual modifications drawing from other health food regimens and a traditional Japanese diet. Brown rice was our preferred staple.

As for Tassajara at large, there was a tug of war going on between the cooked food and raw food factions from the first. Baker preferred salads to cooked vegetables and potatoes to rice. He said those of us into rice, sesame, and so forth ate like birds - seeds. Whole grains and cooked food definitely won out, but there was still some white rice, potatoes, raw veggies in salads. The number one evil agreed on by various schools of food fetishism was sugar. The most fanatic among us saw a connection not only between diet and health but diet and state of mind - and spiritual progress.

The sensitive and sincere head cook Ed Brown was an omnivore. He'd put a small amount of sugar in the bread we ate. Some students would beg him not to do that and castigate him for poisoning us. Bob and I thought it best to consume as much of this poison as possible so that our fellow students would be spared. Suzuki was for plain food, but primarily he wanted us not to obsess about it and eat what was offered.

I'd had one little victory in this area in the early months we were there. I'd been doing a lot of cooking before Ed Brown arrived and, until the guest season started in May, worked with him in that tiny old kitchen. For breakfast we were mainly serving hot cereal like oatmeal or brown rice cream with an array of condiments to cover everyone's preferences. Thus there was milk, white sugar, brown sugar, honey, yeast, sesame salt, and more.

I made the sesame salt. Learned how from Loring back at our Buchannan Street apartment. He ground his in a ceramic suribachi with pestle. It was great sesame salt - not like the Japanese gomashio with a few black seeds in the salt but sixteen parts roasted whole brown sesame to one part roasted sea salt ground up together in our hand mill. Vast volumes of it were used by us all on the brown rice and other grains and veggies served.

One morning I was in charge of breakfast and just served the oatmeal with sesame salt. None of the other condiments. A number of people were clearly not pleased to have their choices removed but it was a silent meal so they could only express themselves with eye daggers. I wondered if I'd gone too far. I was definitely pushing my trip on others.

At the conclusion of the meal, Suzuki spoke. He said you all notice that there is only gomashio with the grain this morning. That's because we should be experiencing the essence of the grain and that from now on that's how we'll be serving the morning cooked cereal.


Suzuki's teaching to eat what was served without discrimination gave Bob and me permission to eat everything in sight while preaching our preference of simple Macrobiotic type fare, but left Jim and Jeb torn between two rigid ideals best expressed in their leader Jim's dilemma as told to me one day.

In the afternoon there was a tea break around 3:30 and frequently there would often be fruit or a small treat. One could partake or not. Some would eat a cookie if it had honey or brown sugar as a sweetener but not if it had refined white sugar, others only if it had honey. yet others like Jim and Jeb would forgo cookies with any sweetening. Most people were happy to get the cookie and didn't care what it had in it. On days off we'd have a sit down tea with treat.

As I approached the dining room one such afternoon, Jim came out looking distressed. "I don't know what to do," he whimpered. "There's a cookie with sugar in it that will be served today. If eat it, it will have a bad effect on my consciousness and practice. And if I don't, I will not be following Suzuki Roshi's teaching to accept what is offered." He broke down and started sobbing. I told him I would eat his cookie for him, thus relieving him of all practice oriented obligations. Later that day I heard him berating Jeb for eating the cookie and thus lowering the overall spiritual vibration of their quarters and practice relationship. I started humming the Electric Light Orchestra's "Don't Bring Me Down."

The first time I saw Jeb was on the porch by the kitchen. It was night and he was standing with hands in gassho reverently looking at the moon. He'd been living in one of the communal apartments across from Sokoji and one day had decided that in order to have a more open relationship with others that he would go naked while inside. Suzuki had heard about this and asked Bob to get Jeb to start wearing clothes again or else, he said, he'd have to ask him to leave.

Jim and Jeb, which means Jeb going along with Jim, had created rules and schedule for the two of them that was superimposed over the existing Tassajara rules and schedule. It included extra zazen and study, other rules for conduct such as a more strict code of silence - small talk not allowed. There were also strictures in regard to food and drink consumption. It was by then practice period so, except for the four-and-nine-day off (4th, 9th, etc), we were eating three meals a day oryoki style in the zendo. The first two meals had three bowls each and dinner was only two bowls in which leftovers were served. The grain would go in the first bowl, served with a ladle or paddle. Many, especially males, would take the maximum three. Soup in the second could take two ladles and salad or vegetable in the third two helpings with serving spoons or tongs.

Calling each ladle a serving, Jim calculated how many were offered a day not including seconds which were off limits to them and they agreed on reducing the number allowable to them by one third. After all, they were only eating to the extent necessary to sustain consciousness in order to practice the Buddha Way and strive toward enlightenment and the liberation of all sentient beings.

Hard sitting, hard working mainly young people on a vegetarian diet ate enthusiastically at every meal. The guys definitely ate more than the gals. Actually men need to eat more to produce the same amount of energy as women. But Jim and Jeb were eating less than most of the women - while sitting uprightously and chewing each bite fifty times as Ohsawa suggested.

Jim created a chart which was tacked to the redwood board wall of his room and on which each of them could write the number of servings they had accepted for each meal. After dinner one day I overheard Jim's review of how well they'd done that week. Jeb had fallen long. He'd had four extra servings. Jim was distraught. "How can I practice with you if you won't follow the rules we've agreed on?" he cried out. Jeb was apologizing, sniffing, begging for forgiveness. I feared he'd have a breakdown. Poor guy, a couple of hours previously I'd seen him shoveling gravel for a cement pour.


They were reading the same sutra and had time to discuss it in which Jim would tend explain what it meant to an obedient Jeb. They sat next to each other for the early morning study period in the dining room. That was a practice period when there was a monitor who periodically walked around the room waking those nodding and checking to make sure people were reading something Buddhist or practice oriented. One morning the monitor stopped at Jeb who had been staring blankly and urged him to return to reading. Jim leaned over and scolded the monitor, saying that Jeb might have just had an enlightenment experience and was being absorbed in the white light and the monitor might be interfering with his becoming a never returner by disturbing him that way. Jeb returned to reading.


Heavy March rains had swelled the creek to such an extent that it took away the bridge to the baths. I stood looking at the incredibly fierce flow with its thunderous sound and watched branches and whole trees being swept downstream swiftly, could hear boulders being moved beneath the surface. There was a large sycamore tree that leaned over the creek next to where there had been a bridge. Up in the shop Paul and Niels were preparing boards and supports for a temporary bridge. Jim, Bob, and I brought long runs of heavy three quarter inch rope. There were already spikes driven into the leaning sycamore trunk for climbing up. Bob who was great at heights was to scoot across the narrowing trunk to a spot above the baths. Bob tied the rope around his waist and started to climb up. I grabbed him and said, "You are not going up there without safety gear."

Jim spoke. "If he is mindful, he will not fall."

"What, you think he's perfectly mindful all the time and if not he deserves to die?!" I spoke in a loud irritated voice. "He will not go up without safety gear." No one was in charge but there are times...Uhg.

Bob put on the safety gear that kept him tied to the tree till he undid it. It did slow him down but we were in no hurry. It was still scary watching him slowly crawl up and along the trunk leaning above the torrent. We lowered him down onto the roof of the bath house and soon we had two lengths of rope stretched above the creek. Two and a half foot wide four by fours with holes at the far sides for the rope to go through were spaced a few feet apart with planks nailed on top and pushed toward the baths until a walkway was created. There were no hand rail ropes yet. For that we needed something to hold them - a beam to be placed behind the sides of a thick wide opening at the men's plunge. The beam was a six foot long six by ten or so. Heavy. I was to carry it across balancing on the walkway which swung to the sides somewhat and was only a couple of feet above the rushing, threatening flow. Where's Niels? I wondered. He could dance across that. But I said I'd do it. About half way over my weight had lowered the bridge-in-the-making so that the water was lapping at my feet but the walkway was reasonably steady. I carried the beam like a tight rope walker carries the balancing pole. Then one end dipped a bit into the rushing water which grabbed hold of it. I fought, tried to pull it back. I could hear fearful voices yelling, "Let go! Let it go!" and I realized I had to. In a flash it zoomed away from me at incredible speed quickly disappearing into the downstream distance. I had a strong flash of loss that in retrospect seems archetypal, like losing a loved one in such an emergency situation. There was another beam and on the second attempt that beam and I both made it across. Soon there were two rope handrails with vertical lengths connected to the walkway rope ever few feet. It all held together. Designed and overseen by Paul and tightened with trucker's hitches by Niels so that it stayed well above the fray. It was a couple of months before we had a replacement bridge. Lost it too another year.

A few of us sat on the steps to the dorm. Bob and Jim were arguing some long forgotten dharmic point. Bob had a sort of folksy way with words. Jim was more eloquent and self-assured. He knew his stuff too. Sounded good to me. He was shiny and smiled in a beatific manner, with gesture and countenance like a holy figure from a film. Bob looked him in the eye. "Oh yeah?" he said, and hauled off and slapped Jim in the face. Jim recoiled and cried out, "You can't do that!" Bob slapped him again. Jim stood his ground insisting that Bob is not allowed to express himself that way in a monastery or civil society. After a third slap, Dianne intervened calling out "Tea time!" and led Jim by the hand to a table under the grape arbor with hot and cold refreshments and cookies with sugar.


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