Tassajara Stories


previous --------------- next

last edit 9-20


Richard Baker credits Silas Hoadley with the idea of continuing the guest season at Tassajara. We'd need the money and it would be good for us to have the grounding of interacting with the public and the public could know who we were in that way. It seemed like a healthy idea all the way around. The former owners, the Becks, had hoped we'd continue with the guest season and we did.

The Zen Center sent out a letter to the Becks' mailing list and our own and whatever other lists we could get. Good response. We did continue serving meat and fish to the guests at first, and continued with less each year until in the spring of 1970 visiting guest teacher Tatsugami told us to stop doing that so we did.

But did not serve or sell alcohol or tobacco. Some students smoked tobacco but they couldn't buy it there. They could order it on a town trip though. The Becks had had a full bar. Still, guests were free to bring their own booze in same as today. Some of the very first guests that came were a group of farmers and businessmen from Watsonville a couple of hours away. The Watsonville Domino Club. They'd get the best Pine and Stone Rooms and drink whiskey and beer and sometimes charcoal broil steaks on their back porches and get a little loud. No wives.

At first of course they were apprehensive about the new owners, wondering how cultish and weird we'd be, but after a couple of days on the first visit I could see they were getting comfortable. They loved the food and the students were not nosy or judgmental, were busy working and doing those things in robes. And we weren't proselytizers. Suzuki would occasionally chide us not to sell Buddhism as one interpretation of the precept not to sell intoxicants.

The Watsonville Domino Club came early in the guest season every year I was there, in May. I would visit with them, sometimes allowing them to bend my arm enough to sample their whiskey. They liked that but couldn't understand why I had no interest in their steaks. We liked those guys too. I remember Bud who owned Topless Vegetables and Burt whose family co-owned globally active Granite Construction with another family. He said they were one of the five biggest construction companies in the world and talked to me about the evils of the inheritance tax which he said would not allow him to pass his business on to his kids. That's been substantially changed since then.

And I remember Mr. Porter. He was the oldest, had a pot belly, spindly legs, and a reddish face. One year they had an 80th birthday dinner for him. He grew strawberries, lots of them. He'd always bring in a bunch of boxes for us when he came. At his birthday dinner we brought out a desert we'd made using his strawberries. There was enough to make that desert for all sixty guests and sixty students that evening. There were about eight men at the Watsonville Domino Club table, all fairly plastered by the time the desert came out. Mr. Porter blew out the candles. There were calls of "Speech! Speech!" He stood up. The whole dining room crowd was quiet. The staff stood by politely.

Mr. Porter picked up a large red strawberry from off his desert. "This is one of my strawberries," he said wobbling from left to right a little. "I'm very grateful to these strawberries. We grow fields of them that are covered in plastic so they don't get dirty and are easy to harvest. Then we burn the plastic and prepare for the next planting. Safeway can't get enough of them. They ship all the way to the East Coast and are still big and red and firm when they hit the stores there. These strawberries have made me a rich man." He paused. "And they taste like cardboard!"

Uproar of laughter and applause from the whole room.


John Stace was another guest who'd been coming there for years. Except he didn't use the road. He'd ride a horse followed by a whole party on horseback. They came in from the Arroyo Seco. They came from Greenfield. Would leave early dark and get in toward the end of the day. I'd see them riding their horses up from downstream and marvel that they'd made that rugged stretch from the Horse Pasture trail down to the Tassajara trail to the Narrows. Maybe ten of them male and younger female, cowboy hats, boots. They'd tie their horses out at Grasshopper flats, walk back in. They'd be happy to have arrived and ready for the baths but they'd have to wait till student bath time was over at five thirty. That's also when the men's side was open to women. Student dinner was six and guest dinner was seven and they'd spend as much of that time as they could soaking in the hot water and drinking beer. They'd have a party for about three days. Loved the place. Loved the students. Seemed they also loved each other in a less Platonic way. They'd learned to keep it down. In 1971 a whole bunch of them came in later over the road in their pickups for a special birthday dinner for John. I wasn't running the dinning room anymore, was assistant director, but came in to say hi. John said, "David, I want to introduce you to my wife."

I said, "It's a pleasure to meet you Mrs. Stace. You're the most attractive woman John's ever brought here." The table exploded in laughter - including him and his wife.


John H. Phillips and his wife came in with the Pages and Wenners. He was head of the prestigious Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Groove which was connected to Stanford University. The research he and his students had done was key in the banning of DDT. People had been wondering why some bird egg shells were tending to be so thin that they didn't hold together. That was just one of the deleterious effects that they linked to that pesticide. That was also just one chemical. His work covered a gamut of various substances that people are polluting the biosphere with. His recent research had been with PCBs, byproducts of plastic manufacturing. He said they were finding high levels of PCBs and other contaminants not only in Arctic mammals but in mother's milk in California. He said that formula might be a better choice.

We walked through our lush upper and lower organic gardens, ate some tomatoes we didn't have to wash. He said that the worst part of his work was being personally attacked by representatives of the industries that made the substances he was investigating. He said he'd have all sorts of accusations thrown at him while testifying before the legislature in Sacramento. "All I was trying to do was save some pelicans," he said.

I showed him a small can with an inch of pesticide left in it that was left over from the prior owners and said I didn't want to dump it in the ground. He said that there was twenty thousand gallons of that stuff going into the earth every day in Salinas Valley alone. I assumed he was exaggerating. He painted a scary picture of an exponentially expanding number and volume of inorganic substances we're adding to the land and sea, flora and fauna. He said there would be disastrous long term consequences. I asked what he thought about the work of the growing environmental movement. "It's too late," he said. That was 1970.

Still Phillips could forget our mutual doom and enjoy his vacation. Found him walking up the bank from the creek below the swimming pool, a bucket in his hand. It was full of crayfish. He was delighted, said they were the most delectable crustacean - better than shrimp. He was looking forward to cooking them up behind the Pine Room where he was staying. Walking that way with him we ran into Suzuki. I introduced them, explaining a little about what he did. Suzuki said that was very important work and thanked him for his effort. Phillips praised the way Suzuki and his students were maintaining and running Tassajara. Then he praised our crayfish and held up the bucket full of them that he was going to have for an appetizer before dinner with the Wenners and Pages. Suzuki looked down at the bucket and gasped then emitted a pained "Ohhhh" in genuine sadness. He half said goodbye and walked on.

Phillips said he was sorry he'd bummed Suzuki out. I told him not to worry, that Suzuki wouldn't hold it against him, that his wife fed him meat and fish at home. And we had fed it to the guests until this year. Suzuki would probably eat those same crayfish in a restaurant without thinking about it. We were vegetarians - lacto ovo dairy and egg variety - but were only bound to be so in the temple. Suzuki wouldn't even advocate strict avoidance of meat and fish. He'd say we had to kill vegetables too departing from Buddha's original emphasis. He didn't like rigidity. But he was also one of the many whose attitude of flexible choice doesn't extend to the slaughterhouse. After that we told guests the critters in the creek at Tassajara were under our protection. They could go fishing elsewhere but had to go beyond our property. Same as hunters.


I remember how when Bill Kwong came to Tassajara before the opening ceremony, he brought the same soup makings he'd used in the Sokoji kitchen for years as cook for Saturday mornings and sesshin. One item was Dashi no Moto, packaged stock. I was standing by him and Silas at the back door to the kitchen. Silas read the contents: sardine, bonito, mackerel, seaweed, salt, monosodium glutamate. He nixed it.

Bill said, "But that's what Sensei eats." He said that Okusan makes it for him every day and that he needs the protein he gets from the small amount of meat and fish she serves him. Silas said this is a monastery and that we won't be serving any meat or fish to students, not even the tiny amount in the Dashi no Moto. And Suzuki wants to eat the same food as the students. That was it.


Eldon Pura was always welcome. He was a farmer and electrician in Greenfield who'd come in and do work for us year round. He had the nicest disposition. He'd bring a gallon of his homemade wine to lunch outside and be reminded we didn't drink alcohol. He just couldn't keep that in mind. Students had gone to visit him and drunk wine and helped him make it, stomping barefoot on the grapes. But not at Tassajara. He had that wholesome Italian relationship to wine - just part of life, didn't drink too much or act bad. He also had a D9 bulldozer that he brought in and made what we called a damn for us in the creek out by Grasshopper Flats. It wasn't really a damn because it didn't go all the way across, a berm I guess - pretty far out there from the bank, maybe 150 feet. We could drive a truck on top of it and dump rocks down the side. The purpose was to divert the creek over to the other side and stop erosion of the creek banks on the side we used. We had little enough flat land as it was.

It was a winter interim December, '68. Fall practice period over. Most people were gone. Cold as heck, the sun behind the ridges almost the whole day and we hardly had any heating. Bob Beck was visiting, staying in Stone Room one. My sister Susan was visiting, staying in a priest's cabin with a little wood burning stove. It was especially quiet. During evening zazen a vehicle came in, didn't stop in front but turned and roared away past the zendo and toward the baths on our narrow dirt road only used for hauling things during the day. After zazen Stan was standing outside smoking a cigarette as usual. He'd been in the office, said that vehicle had gone out to grasshopper flats. I said I'd check it out.

There was a Volkswagen bus out in the dark at the end of Eldon's berm. A man was standing next to it with a flashlight. I walked out and said hi.

"Is this 101?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" I came back.

"One oh one - highway 101. Is this 101?"

"You're way in the middle of the wilderness, Los Padres National Forest. 101's an hour and a half from here."

"Ah shit," he said. "What about that freeway there?"


"Right over there."

"There's no freeway here. Just a flat piece of land with barely a dirt road and some oak trees. Maybe you'd like to rest?"

"You a Motel Six?"

It kept going like that. He was totally disoriented, more than I would have thought possible. He was acting fairly normal, talking matter-of-factly, but he could not interpret his surroundings. Reminds me of some of the subjects of Oliver Sacks writings on people with neurological brain damage. There were two women in the back of the bus. He'd forgotten. Bob Beck had joined us and found them. They were meta-disoriented too but quiet. The vehicle would have to be pulled out of there. The front tires were a good way down the berm slope. Beck had them join him in Stone One. He added logs to the fire. We gave them blankets to wrap around themselves and sit in front of the fire.

The guy was getting more coherent. He said they'd taken Belladonna. Ohhh. That made sense. Had never taken it. As I recall it was in some eye drops and was fairly poisonous. I don't know if the guy was right but he said that the amount to get you high is just short of the amount to kill you. Psychedelics aren't really hallucinogens. People don't normally see what's not there but they can interpret what's there as being all sorts of stuff or have visions which are in a more cosmic realm. But Belladonna makes people see realistic hallucinations. I'd met a handful of people who'd taken it and they all reported that. They also all had bad trips. Seems it's a guaranteed bummer. I talked to one guy who said he saw an army of witches with hatchets coming at him.

All of a sudden Belladonna'd guy jumped up. "Lee!" he yelled. "Lee's out there!"

Of course. There were two couples. The male from the other couple was "out there" and named Lee.

"Where?" Beck asked.

"On top of the mountain."

The guy, Beck, and I headed up the road, on the way to the top to look for Lee. The top could be a lot of places. I drove. going around the first hairpin turn Beck called out, "Stop! There's someone back in there."

A little creek came down through there, went under the road, then ran along it. About fifty feet back there was a guy sitting in the creek. Sitting in the creek in almost freezing weather. And it was so dark it was a miraculous that Beck saw him. His hands were in the air as if reaching for something. We asked him to come on with us.

"Wait a minute," he said. "I've got to get some underwear."

He thought he was in his bedroom in Berkeley looking in his dresser.

A while later he had dry clothes on from our good will and all four of them we're bundled up in front of the fire. Beck took three to the baths to soak in the hot sulfur water. The original guy wanted to keep talking to the fire. I went to the baths with them. While we were there I heard screaming. The other guy was gone. But he was still screaming. Found him in Tassajara Creek. Wow, that stuff sure leads people to make bad decisions, I thought. He wouldn't go back to the room with the fireplace. A scull had come out of it and threatened to take him back down where it came from.

All four of them ended up in the (no longer there) large four room cabin with a kitchen across from the lower garden. I stayed with them. No one was hungry. The three went to sleep. The original guy stayed up and talked crazy to me till it started getting light. He would be lucid one hour and then not. Lee got up. He was insisting that we were in Berkeley. I said otherwise. He threw open the door exposing the ground, trees, the hillside steeply rising beyond. "See! This is Berkeley! Look at the snow!" There was no snow and Berkeley's average yearly snowfall is 0 inches.

This was all having an effect on me. I was hallucinating a little myself, having to make an effort to hold on to the relative sanity I was used to. Realized how hard it would be to take care of crazy people. It seemed to me to do it right we'd need about eight of us rotating in shifts. No wonder most professionals depend on their patients taking drugs.

By nine they'd eaten food brought on treys from the kitchen, drunk coffee, come down, their VW bus had been pulled out and was waiting in front of the cabin for them. They thanked us for our help. Both guys were sort of banged up. The last thing the original one said was what a great trip that had been. But he had to understand it better, get a better grip on it. Couldn't wait till the next one.

previous --------------- next