Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-22


We were snowed in a good deal of the winter 1969. Some of our intrepid winter hikers found that geezer Larry and his wife Jules, caretakers of Church Creek Ranch, had mostly run out of supplies. We got hold of the Churches who sent a helicopter which also hopped over with some welcome supplies for Tassajara. And when the snow melted we still couldn't drive out because the road was out about a mile up from a landslide which included a giant boulder that took the road crew days to clear with dynamite. People had to walk in and out on the road. Once the snow was no longer an obstacle, we'd have trucks meet on both sides of the slide to transfer goods from one to the other.

Before that was possible due to the snow, we'd gone through all the brown rice, white rice, rolled oats, buckwheat, bulgur wheat noodles, flour for bread,  and were down to eating wheat berries cooked with some brown rice found buried behind boxes in the storeroom. The wheat berries were my bright idea. We could make our flour that way and eat them cooked like rice. But it was too time consuming to make our own flour more than every now and then for fun and they were too tough for normal eating. So there were a couple of giant burlap bags of them that had been sitting there waiting for an emergency. They should have been ground up into cracked wheat but we at them whole. Grain won't digest if you don't chew it somewhat. Proof of that was seen when the truck came in to pump our septic tanks late spring. We opened them up to discover a thick layer of undigested wheat berries floating on top.

I was sent out several times to get mail, a few supplies, and to communicate as the phone was out. The first trip Dan drove me up as far as the Land Rover would go with chains and four wheel drive. Then I headed out with heavy jacket, boots, muffs, gloves, and a large backpack containing only the outgoing mail. It was getting over two and a half feet deep. Stopped to rest at a camper stuck at China Camp and visited with a guy inside drinking brandy. He'd walked into Tassajara a few days before to let us know he was stuck up there but was okay. There was a knock on the door. It was Loring. It's comforting running into people I know way up on that chilly snowy mountain. He was coming in with snowshoes. He already had the mail. There was other stuff I had to get anyway. Later we realized I should have taken the snowshoes from there for he'd just come through a couple of miles of the worst of it. The snow got so deep in places I could hardly make it. Ran into Fred Mason in his pickup where the national forest ended and he gave me a ride to Lamberts where I had left my car. Went in to Monterey late afternoon and did some shopping. Bought another pair of snowshoes which would help me walk on top of the snow rather than creep and crawl through it. Stopped by friends' place in Pacific Grove, got stoned, drank wine, played music, slept on the couch, got up early and was snowshoeing back into Tassajara by ten in the morning.

The next trip I took the Land Rover up by myself to park it so I could walk back to it the next day and drive the last four miles instead of walk. I'd be pretty exhausted by the time I got to it anyway. We wouldn't normally leave a vehicle unattended up there for long because hunters or, better name, wrong people with guns, can shoot up a lone car. But unlikely anyone would get to that point and if so, unlikely they would be the wrong people with guns. Got as far as the chains and four wheel drive would go, and then thought what the heck and hooked the cable from the front-mounted winch around a tree, pulled the vehicle up fifty feet more that way, and kept doing that - for fun - till got to a place where there were only scrub bushes and they didn't hold. It would pull them out. Those trips over the deep snow and into the un-monastic were so great. On the last one I visited the Monterey Institute of Foreign Studies, a language school, and applied for the summer intensive in Japanese.

I wanted to study Japanese because it was the language of my teachers and of the country, the culture they came from. They taught in English but I was curious. I knew that the chants were in an older, classical Buddhist Japanese and Sino-Japanese, but studying the modern language would surely be a good first step to learning more about them. There was another reason I wanted to do this. I wanted a break from running the dining room.

The same traits that made me a problem during the practice period, made me an asset for the guests - talkative, outgoing, indulgent, and I liked people, distractions, involvement. Most were sincere students concentrating on their practice, limiting themselves. The main question I'd get from guests would be, "Why are so many people here unfriendly?" I'd say people were not unfriendly, but they were tired - got up early, worked hard. Guests also asked why the men shaved their heads and I'd say because our teacher does and that he says it's the ultimate in hair styling.

The same thing happened every year. The officers would be enthusiastic about me working with the guests all summer in the spring and then when the guest season was over they'd say okay, now it's time we got hard on you, you're going to have to straighten up and really practice Zen and stop kidding around and so forth. So I wanted a break from that cycle.

I knew the officers would be planning for the summer guest season staffing so I informed the director right away that I'd only be able to run the dining room for the first six weeks and then I'd be off to Monterey till the fall practice period. The immediate response I got was, "David, if you don't run the dinning room for the whole summer, you'll never be able to come back to Tassajara."

My response to that was, "Baloney."

"Okay," he said. "I want to talk to Suzuki Roshi and the staff about this."

I had to talk to Suzuki which was fine with me. He was completely against it. I said it was too late, that it was already paid for. That was true by then. I made sure of that because I knew it would strengthen my position. I think if I hadn't watched Richard Baker closely in earlier years when he related to Suzuki, I might not have had the confidence in myself and what I felt was right. Suzuki acquiesced.

The memory I have of those six weeks in the dining room is of falling down laughing from the antics and chatter of my two co-workers, Alan and Craig. Alan was older - maybe thirty-three - tall and Craig was short. Alan had been an actor, model, was grandiose, theatrical, worldly-wise, experienced, well-read, arrogant one moment and self-deprecating the next. Craig was sweet, humble, devotional to Suzuki and also to Meher Baba whose photo he kept posted in his room. Both of them were quick witted. I'm usually the blabbermouth, but I was like a spectator with those two. They kept it up day after day. The ideal example of when to break the silence in work practice was from Benedictine Brother David - "Pass the hammer." Alan and Craig stretched that to something closer akin to practicing for Vaudeville. Almost made me wish I hadn't signed up for the Japanese course. It was good to have a couple of up students to work with. Good staffing decision. Both these guys related well with the guests.

Most students were quiet, a few dour, morose. Everyone suffers as we learn in Buddhism 101, but some suffer more from depression, anxiety, or whatever. That's why most people come to practice or come to any religion or self help system or do a lot of things. And we weren't like Hari Krishnas with a culture that encouraged us to show how happy we were to have found the true way. Suzuki said that when we're pleased with our practice that he's not, but when we're discouraged, he can see us doing better. He said once, "Every great Zen master had an unhappy childhood." Of course then some might latch on to that and try to be unhappy so that they could become a great Zen master.

Met with Suzuki before I left. Told him I'd found a place to stay in Pacific Grove. It had a tiny living room, a tiny bedroom and a tiny kitchen. I told him I planned to turn the living room into a combination study and zendo and asked if it was okay if anyone else joined me. He said to sit with Jean Ross in Carmel. Jean was in her fifties and had started sitting with Suzuki regularly from the first week he arrived in America. She was the first person he sent to Eiheiji monastery in Japan. I said, oh yes, I plan to sit with Jean every Monday night when her group meets, but I will sit every morning and evening at my place. So if someone else wants to join me is that alright? Same answer came back - support Jean. If someone else wants to sit - take them to Jean's. I tried several other approaches to get his blessing for a little mini zendo open to others. No success. This time I obeyed.


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