Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-22


Sometimes we'd have to tell people we were closed or full - refusing access to the baths, pool, and creek beyond to those who'd just driven in on that windy long road. During practice periods we put up a large Tassajara Closed sign in Jamesburg where the dirt road began and at our gate. In the summer we had a charge for day visitors including those who wanted to go to the Narrows. Eventually we set a limit on how many. There had come to be too many people and it wasn't fair to the overnight guests or to the students. If the population gets too high there the vibes aren't good. In 1972 we bought the Jamesburg house and that's where day guests would sign in and pay. And then they'd have the unpleasant task of sending folks away when the limit was reached. There wasn't a limit or need for one before that.

In the case of those who came anyway when it was full or who didn't have the money, it depended on whom they met. A lot of students at the gate would just say sorry but you can't come in. Someone might weaken and tell them to go on in but make a reservation next time - or suggest they go up creek where there's no crowd at all. I might tell them to go back up the road a few miles, take the horse pasture trail, don't miss the cutoff down to Tassajara Creek, enjoy yourself at the Narrows or beyond, and walk out through Tassajara and maybe get a ride back up to your car and if not, a healthy uphill walk on a wilderness road.

Dennis Kelly, a friend of Alan Marlowe's who came to visit, did the student schedule including work. One day he was on landscaping near the gatehouse when some happy hippies bounced up saying they wanted to go down creek.. But they had no money. The person at the gate told them they could walk around through the horse pasture. They said ah come on let us go downstream. You don't own it. We'll be good. They got no mercy. Dennis overheard and said he'd pay for them. The gatekeeper objected but Dennis went and got the money and that was it. He had plenty of it as he was a major manufacturer of LSD. Later, after an incredibly lucky only one year of prison, he got transmission from Eido Shimano in New York and now has many students.

Backpackers walking through we did not refuse or charge. Hunters the same though we asked them to unload their guns and hold them pointed down while walking or riding horses. Actual serious hunters I found to be a good lot, respectful of the forest and safety. But there are the undisciplined guys with booze and guns during hunting season. And there are guys who just like to carry guns and use them anywhere regardless of the season. I can remember once over by the Arroyo Seco walking up to a man with an automatic weapon like you see in movies. He'd been unloading it randomly into the hillside across the river. "Pardon me sir," I said. "But I'd appreciate it if you didn't fire that thing like that. I have friends over there coming in on a trail." I added that a teenage acquaintance when I was growing up had killed a man by shooting randomly and illegally into national forest in Colorado, learned it when the man's son came running out crying.

Bill and Jim and their wives were the caretakers of Tassajara when we bought it. They stayed till Suzuki segregated the baths. Bill was a tall, serious fellow. One day there were shots coming from Grasshopper Flats. Bill and Jim walked out to see what was up. There were a couple of guys, one with a bottle of Jack Daniels and the other with a rifle shooting at trees. Bill went up to them and said that they were on private property and that they had to go elsewhere to use the gun. "Yeah, and who's gonna stop me," the guy said, pointing his rifle at Bill. "I am," said Bill, stepping up to him and taking the rifle. "I'll keep it in the office for you."

Another catagory of folks who could come in anytime for free was, of course, public servents - forest rangers, sherrifs, building and health inspectors. Didn't happen much. We were so remote. We'd offer them the baths, food, tours. Usually they'd just want a cup of coffee but would accept a loaf of whole grain bread upon departure. Always had good relations with the powers that be. There was so much survelance going on back then that we assumed undercover FBI agents were coming in sometimes to check us out or look for someone. We'd speculate on whether one of us was undercover FBI. That would be an awfully demanding infiltration.

There was a scene before the opening of the first practice period with a woman who wanted to stay and be an artist in residence but not to have to follow any schedule. She was insistent but so was Baker. I recall her in some bushes by the dorm with a candle and a kitchen knife. I was worried she was going to hurt someone. She did. Herself. Gouged her had with the knife. I recall Baker carrying her to a car kicking and screaming to be given a ride to Monterey or San Francisco after her hand was bandaged.

A guy came in one day desperate for sanctuary. He was hiding, he said, from what he feared was a Scientology hit squad, said he was on their enemy's list. Really - holding on to me saying, "You've got to help me, please!" I had some friends of mine drive him out. Didn't tell him they were Scientologists. He was never seen or heard from again. Just kidding. We let him be a guest student for a few days and then he headed back out into the dangerous world to hide in shadows.

One group of four young drunk cowboys came in on horseback whooping it up and shooting their guns in the air. One took his horse down the steps into the swimming pool. Two of them went into the women's side of the baths. This was 1971 guest season when I was assistant director. The director was away. I found them and said they'd have to check their guns and do not shoot them here. They complied. I'd seen one of them at Lambert's and told him if they didn't behave I'd make him give them a spanking. They were on their way to go camping and boar hunting in the woods and rode out over the Tony Trail. I think you'd have to walk a horse a lot of that. Five days later they came back. Before I could deal with them, Marc Alexander just went up to them as soon as they got there and told them to keep moving. They did.

Sesshin was an additional problem. That's when we were most strict. There would be signs at Jamesburg and at our gate saying that we're closed but if it wasn't sesshin we'd be more flexible. Every now and then we'd get someone at that time who would want to argue and they'd have their minds made up that they should be there. Like one hippie told me he'd come there to meet god. I told him that god was everywhere and that he could just as easily meet god say on a walk to the Pines opposite the Horse Pasture trailhead. That worked. Another long hair was more persistent. He wanted god in the hot water and the Tassajara creek. I told him that there were three basic times at Tassajara. There was the guest season when we were open to guests and at that time and the interims we were open to guest students and were pretty flexible. I said that's like when you're hanging out with friends drinking a little beer. Everyone's welcome. For the practice periods, I told him we were more selective. It's really just for us but if someone shows up we'll be friendly. That's like when you're getting really stoned with some friends and don't want anyone to bring you down but you can be flexible. "But we're in sesshin now," I said. "That's seven days straight of zazen, Zen meditation, from early in the dark to late at night. That's like an acid trip. We've got the set and the mental setting under control and we don't want any distraction at all, even from friends. We're in sesshin now." He nodded. I walked him to his VW Bug and we bowed in parting.

Sometimes I'd fail. One poor lost soul had tried to convince me he should be able to stay during a practice period and when nothing I said worked, I took him to Katagiri. He sat with Katagiri for a while and on his way out said he'd met a real compassionate Zen master, and then looking at me he added, "Not like that uptight bureaucrat asshole I talked to first."


In the fall of 1967 during a seven day sesshin four young loud guys came walking into Tassajara. Most of us were in the zendo but I was on a meal server's break, hanging up my oryoki cloths to dry on the lines by the shop and heard them on the road coming in. Said hi and let them know that we were closed for a meditation retreat. They were inebriated students from a Catholic junior college I learned trying to buddy up to them and get their cooperation as they kept walking in. The one who set the tone and did most the talking for the group was hostile and vocal. He asked questions like What's this Zen thing here? Do you have women? Can we fuck them? Do you know karate? Why can't we go to the hot baths if you guys are all meditating? Do you think you could stop us? The only words of his I remember exactly are those from the strange phrase, "Do you mean you're telling us to make our bird!? Make our bird!"

Silas Hoadley and Norman Stiegelmeyer came up from the zendo. Silas calmly deflected the hostility by talking to the group of guys in his low key non confrontational style. The hostile guy was not retreating though. I started to bond with one I thought seemed to show some signs of being embarrassed by what was going on. Norman started talking to the hostile guy who was still incensed that they were being asked to "make our bird!" Silas shifted his attention to the other two who seemed ready to fight or leave depending on which way the angry leader went.

Norman was an artist and teacher from the San Francisco Art Institute who'd been sitting with Suzuki for years. He was lanky, friendly, and came across so differently, even strangely, from other people. His movements were sort of jerky and he frequently seemed to be amazed by whatever was happening. And he was fearless. I could see that his presence was throwing mister itchin-for-a-drunken-brawl off balance. At one point he asked Norman, "Do you Zen people believe in god?" Norman scratched his head, turned it from side to side and replied, "Well gee, let me think. No, I don't guess we do."

The ring leader looked startled. He took a step back. "What? Did you hear that guys? They don't believe in god! Let's get out of here! Let's get out of here!" As he ran back up the road he kept yelling, "They don't believe in god!" and his relieved friends followed him out. I think he was more afraid of Norman than the no god thing. We three went back to the zendo.


A couple of super tough Hell's Angels came in one day during practice period. They were fine. Respectful. But they made people nervous. I could see I was still a little nervous which made me more nervous. Found Tommy. His years of heroin, speed, female impersonation, and low life dives came in handy. He hung comfortably and gently with them, fed them, took them to the baths. Special treatment but we were all glad Tommy was being host. He walked them up the road and waved goodbye.


There were some fairly grubby, shifty looking dudes that came in one day in what looked like an old UPS truck. Said they just wanted to look around. Didn't want anything - bathes, food. Tim kept an eye on them. Not long after they drove off a guest who'd gone up beyond the gate to fetch something from his car reported things stolen from it. A quick check revealed that all the unlocked cars had been gone through. Tim walked to the office and called the sheriff. The thieves hadn't thought out their getaway route thoroughly. There's only one way out and it's at least forty-five minutes away in what they were driving. The sheriff was waiting for them.

A visitor people were truly disturbed about was a guy who walked into the office and said he'd just released five thousand black widow spiders at Grasshopper Flats. Before panic could spread, Sterling Bunnell stepped in. He happened to be there as our guest. He said not to worry about it, that in the first place it's highly unlikely he'd have five thousand black widows in a jar but even if he did and released them that the area can support only so many and the population would soon revert to the proper balance.

During the first guest season, Tim Buckley was running the office. He came to the dinning room and told me that a crazy guy with psychic power had come into Tassajara and not to let him get hold of my mind. He said the guy had been studying kundalini and gone psychotic and had been instantly hypnotizing everyone he walked by. Tim said the guy came through the shop and upper garden just zapping everyone. Somebody ran to the office to warn him so when the guy got to the office Tim was prepared. Tim said while they talked that the guy was literally raping his mind and that he started internally chanting the Padma Sambhava mantra and clung on to it as hard as he could. He said that made the guy angry. He called Tim the weirdest person he'd ever met. Tim told him we don't do that stuff here and told him to leave. The guy said, "Just try and get rid of me,” and walked away.

Tim was concerned the guy would be disturbing the students and throwing a monkey wrench into the workings of the guest season and felt it was his responsibility to deal with this situation. Suzuki and some officers were at a city board meeting and even Kobun was in Monterey seeing a doctor. I wasn't worried though because I was sure that fellow wouldn't get to some of us. Wouldn't get to me. I'd met a number of mind power trippers in my life, especially in the hippie word, without becoming their zombie.

But Tim was a sensitive and serious person whom Suzuki wanted to ordain early on. He'd have experiences I didn't have. Said that once he brought a sample of various drugs to a psychic in Boston - heroin, cocaine, speed, coffee, alcohol, marijuana - all hidden in containers. The psychic said that the pot was the most dangerous. He'd told me how he was in the pool in the creek outside the steam room when Suzuki crossed the bridge to go to the baths - that was before we made a special abbot's bath time - Suzuki stopped and stood on the bridge looking at Tim. Tim said he felt self conscious because he was sitting there in the creek naked looking at his teacher. Then Tim heard Suzuki's voice in his mind say, "Be yourself." Suzuki turned and continued walking into the baths. "His mouth never moved but I heard it," Tim said.

Kobun came back and Tim got him involved. The guy was respectful of a Japanese priest and agreed that he’d leave. Bob Watkins and Kobun drove him out to Carmel. They stopped up at the first ridge to look at the view and the guy jumped out of the car and over the side of the road into the chaparral and disappeared. A couple of hours later he was back at Tassajara. Kobun suggested they give him a room and wait for Suzuki to arrive the next day.

The next day Suzuki arrived, went to the zendo to offer incense and bow, and as he walked out Tim was waiting. They sat outside the office and talked a while. Tim went back in to answer the phone and from there saw the madman run up to Suzuki. As he described it to me later, "I don’t know if Suzuki Roshi even said anything but their encounter was incredibly brief, like five seconds. And the guy turned around and ran out the driveway never to be seen again."


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