Tassajara Stories


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last edit 11-14


I walked out to enjoy sunrise with the sheep. The morning fog from Carmel was coming in, blanketing the hills rising to the south into the Los Padres - Tassajara in there miles beyond. I'd moved to mid Carmel Valley for the fall semester at the language school. One other student and I with Mrs. Mink. It wasn't an intensive course but at that ratio it was intense.

Vasquez had needed his place in PG back. Lambert made a call for me and got a friend of his to rent me a cabin on his land. Beautiful view, lovely countryside, but a bicycle wouldn't do it anymore. Dot generously loaned me her station wagon.

Not getting out much. Jean's Monday night class was still meeting even though she was shuso, head monk at Tassajara. That was important to Suzuki. We'd had no head monk in the spring waiting for her, only time that was ever done. I was lonely. Looking at the sheep made me remember I was affection starved. Not for the sheep thank goodness but I thought about it because there are all these jokes and references to sheep and people being involved that way. Once when a group came to Tassajara on horseback, Jerry Fuller made the comment that he wondered if they were stump broken. I asked what's that? He said that some horses were taught how to back up to a stump in order to soothe the loneliness of their cowpoke out on the range. I had desires other than sheep which I doubted if were stump breakable anyway.


I now lived just off a little drive that went uphill from Carmel Valley Road above Russell Walter's farm. He was just starting to get notice of his organically grown lettuce and other vegetables. He'd done it that way for decades. Found it humorous that people talked about growing crops without poison as if it were something special.

Russell's brother Lou ran the small grocery store on the road - Walters Hacienda Market. When I got tired of studying Japanese or staring at the wall I might go down there and hang out for a while, eat or drink something. No cracker barrel but there was a bit of crude philosophy. Lou told stories about the Korean war. Guys would talk about women and machines.

Bob came to visit. He was living in the city doing iron work and came down for the weekend. He and I went Walter's Hacienda Market to get some beer at my suggestion. Billy and Don were at the counter talking to Lou. Billy's the guy who at Lamberts' was shooting off his six gun around our truck filled with gasoline and kerosene cans. They were big tough guys. Billy was heavy, swarthy. Don was tall. Both were muscular and sun scorched from working outside - firewood, backhoe, boar hunting. These two guys had the worst reputation of anyone I knew of in the valley. Always looking for trouble, getting into fights, especially in bars. I said hi as I passed them. Billy snickered at me.

I picked out a six pack of Dos Exes.

Billy spoke up. "God damn hypocrite."

"Huh?" I said.

"God damn hypocrite. We're bad and we know it but you people pretend to be good and then go out and buy beer."

"Good lord Billy, nothing bad about drinking a little beer," I said to him. "Billy, Don - this is my friend Bob."

"Pleased to meet you," said Bob sticking out his hand and stepping up to between them, looking them both in the eye with a fearless grin.

They each extended hands unenthusiastically.

I was in good shape from walking and working and living in the woods but I'd never been in a fight in my life and really wasn't even capable. Bob was thicker than I am, pretty strong from iron work, and might have been a bit aggressive with Reb in high school days, but both of us were the types who used words rather than physical prowess to make a point.

Billy looked for another angle to get to me. "How's them girls over at Tassajara?"

"Oh fine," I said. "Working hard. Getting up early to meditate." Trying to change the tenor I added, "Come over some day and take a bath. Stay for dinner. Be my guest."

"You don't eat meat. No beer either."

"You can bring your own beer," I said. "People bring beer, wine, even hard liquor."

"Those girls there," said Don. "Can we come in and fuck some of them girls there?"

I was just getting ready to say something else diplomatic and passive when Bob stepped right up into Don's head higher face and said, "Sure, you can come to my house and fuck my sister - if she's interested that is - if I can come to your house and fuck your sister - if she's interested that is."

Don's eyes grew large. His fists clenched. Lips trembled. Neck vein bulged. His wide shoulders were shaking. I saw him as a volcano ready to go off. I leaped in between them, put my hands up on Don's shoulders.

"Please forgive my friend," I begged sincerely. "He's insane - and suicidal."

Don turned to me, his whole body now shaking. We were no longer joking. He'd taken what I said had seriously. Bob was in his eyes now like an invalid in a wheelchair. "Okay, okay," he backed off and almost crying uttered, "But my baby sister is the sweetest little girl in the world and I... I..."

"I understand," I said, threw some money on the counter for Lou who'd been watching silently, and pulled Bob out of there.

Back home Bob chastised me for interfering with his exchange. He said he was going to take care of it himself and didn't appreciate my intrusion.

Really? I thought I'd just saved his life.


There was an attractive older woman who lived up the hill in a small cabin. She was twenty-nine. She did Tarot and massage. We'd say hi. One day she knocked. We talked. She was acting friendly. We walked up to her place. She suggested we go to a dance club in Carmel. OK. She got dolled up. Drove her there. She got out of the car, went ahead of me to the door. A man met her there. They embraced, went inside. She didn't even wave goodbye. I just got in the station wagon and drove back to what I called home for the time being. Was losing my enthusiasm for being alone there.

The occasional visit of a friend would help to fill the regular old emptiness. Niels dropped by on his way into Monterey from Tassajara. Getting all worked up talking made us want to indulge in the usual conversational aids. walked down to Lou's market and brought coffee and rolling tobacco. Niels had a sharp intellect and, despite his first impression as a cursing sailor character, was well read, better than I was. But he was not primarily into exhibiting his erudition but philosophizing and making psychological, social, and spiritual practice oriented observations. Making them firmly.

"What does Suzuki Roshi teach?" he asked me with his firm voice that told me whatever I said would be pounced on.

"The nature of mind," I said.

"No! He said, 'Actually there's no such thing as the mind.' I remember his words exactly!"

"OK," I said, "Tell me."

"Precepts! That is what Suzuki Roshi teaches! Just listen to him - everything he says gets down to how to conduct oneself, how to be, how we live together in such a way as to be enlightened! And where does his right attitude, right practice, right insight come from? From zazen! Not from memorizing rules and trying to follow them! Without he source of zazen we will inevitable fail and fall. The precepts are not written!"

"The ones that are written have some use," I said. "They warn us of areas of behavior where we've got to pay attention and be careful."

"No! Not careful! Mindful! Careful sounds like some nervous person who doesn't know how to be mindful."

"Come on - taking care, being mindful - they're the same thing, Niels."

Then turning playful and grinning, "You say that because you don't understand the profound way of the Buddhas!"

And then we'd laugh, drink more coffee, and roll another couple of cigarettes.

While in the midst of this deep exchange, got a knock on the door. It was Richard Baker. He'd been in Japan for a year, sent by Suzuki to study Zen and Japanese culture. Had been there since October of '68, with Ginny and their daughter Sally. Was back in the States for a short while. Now was on his way to Eselen to do a workshop with Bill Kwong. We grilled him about what it was like in Japan. He loved Japan, hated Eiheiji which he said was a finishing school for Japanese priests and not right for any of us. He'd been sitting at Daitokuji, a Rinzai temple, studying with Kobori Roshi. Said he was living near Myoshinji and the abbot there, Mumon Yamada was an impressive roshi with the same sort of feeling that Suzuki had. Talked about how Japan and especially Kyoto was filled with fascinating intricacies like a thread shop that sold only purple thread, over five hundred choices. Thousand year old ceremonies and the most modern electronic equipment. Artistry expressed in so many different ways from the old in temple architecture and Noh play to the new in gadgets and TV ads. Tee shirts with shocking profanity in English and senseless messages such as Harvard University above what looked like an official school seal, and below - Charlotte, North Carolina. He drank coffee but no nicotine.

Time for Baker to go. Niels asked him who paid for his flight to America, whether our hard work during the Tassajara guest season was paying for that. He said that was covered by Ed Johnston, head of Fidelity whom he was going to go visit in Boston and hang out a bit in their offices. Johnston had been a major donor since he met not only Suzuki but Baker as well. Niels accused him of being a capitalist pig and not a priest. Baker said that Buddhists were socially vertical and not horizontal and that he was committed to doing his part to planting Buddhism in America. Anyway, he said, he was broke, so not much of a capitalist pig. Niels pulled his wallet out and handed Baker a twenty dollar bill. Baker declined. Niels insisted. Baker continued to decline until Niels in a loud voice said, "What? You cannot accept a gift? Is that some sort of hangup? What sort of priest is that? You're denying me good karma!" Baker reluctantly accepted.


Dianne and Margret dropped by one morning. They had borrowed a car to go do some errands and see Dr. Wenner on their day off. It was practice period so students had to have a good reason to go out and going to the doctor was a reason that couldn't be questioned too closely. I could tell by their vibe that mainly they just wanted to play. They were planning on a picnic at the beach in Carmel after seeing Dr. Wenner early. He was friendly and always happy to see Zennies. He didn't charge us. He wouldn't even take insurance or government money.

They returned about nine that night all giddy and talkative. After a while Margret said they'd better get back in because they still had to get up at four thirty. I told her to go on, that I'd drive Dianne in later. Dianne concurred. Margret didn't like that idea and bade Dianne to come on with her. I told her not to worry and go on. She would not give up. I insisted she leave, eventually yelled at her, finally pushed her outside and locked the door.

Hours later on the dark Tassajara road. Safest to drive at night because headlights of approaching cars around turns could be seen. No one else on the road anyway. It was an hour and a half drive from my place. I coasted in quietly and parked outside the gate. We could hear the han for morning zazen. Dianne ran off to get her robe on. I went down to the baths - hmmm how good the hot water in the moonlight. Steam room in the utter dark. Creek was low but dammed up with rocks outside the steam room so I could dip into a shallow pool. Sounds of bells from the zendo. Slept in the car for a while. Got back to the cabin at ten and fell asleep as soon as I hit the mattress on the floor.

I'd hardly slept at all when I was awakened. Someone was calling, "David! David!" The voice had an urgent and demanding edge. It was unpleasant to come to consciousness. I groaned, opened my eyes and as they focused realized I was looking at a woman covered in blood. She kept calling my name. When she saw she'd gotten through to me she said, "We had an accident - motorcycle - Doug's hurt. On the road below."

It was Pat. Thoughts raced by quickly. How'd she know where I lived? She was totally covered in blood. Doug's hurt. Good lord. He must be about to die. I still had my clothes on. Helped her down to lie on my bed not worrying about the blood. Ran down to the road. Doug was okay. Sitting on his motorcycle. Mussed up. "Where's Pat?" he said.

He drove me back up couple hundred yards to my place. She was not only covered in blood but in gravel, much of it embedded in her skin. Made a bed in the back of the station wagon after laying the back seat down. Doug helped me get her in.

He'd driven her there from the city. She told him she wanted to visit me and he was on his way south. They'd been there earlier in the morning. He'd visited me before and knew the way. Had a spill on their return just below and she'd slid on gravel. I told him to rest in my place but he went on. Left a message for Dr. Wenner at his office and drove off to Monterey Peninsula Community Hospital. At the emergency entrance to the hospital, orderlies carefully transferred Pat from the station wagon to a gurney and rolled her in. A doctor was looking at her right away. He started screaming at me. "God damn motorcycles! God damn motorcycles! We're going to be picking rocks out of her for hours because of a goddamn motorcycle."

Pat was in the hospital for the night and then I drove her back to my place. Had two mattresses pushed together so took one of them and put it in a small back room for her. She mainly slept till the next day. Then she was up and I discovered why she'd come. She'd decided that she was destined to take care of me. She would cook, clean. We could sit zazen and chant the Heart Sutra together. She would be my lover, tend to my needs so that I could concentrate on studying. For a couple of days I let her recuperate while telling her that Dianne was my girlfriend and that she could not stay there. There were so few consequences for indulgent things we did back then but I realized that here was one. After some days against her will I drove her to the city still having to lie down in the back of the station wagon. Took her to Yvonne's, Yvonne always willing to take in any stray or wounded people or animals. Pat cried. I told her we'd be friends forever - but just friends.


I had five trips into Tassajara while studying Japanese. The first was in the summer half way through the intensive course. I ran into Suzuki on the bridge over Cabarga Creek and completely failed in an attempt to communicate in his native tongue. So embarrassing. The second was a midnight drive in with friends to sneak into the baths. We played around for a few hours and left as the wake up bell was being rung on its rounds. Left an empty gallon bottle of bad wine at the top of the steps to the zendo as a calling card. The third was the time I drove Dianne back in. The fourth was a clandestine visit to Dianne whom I missed. It was a night she was jikido and slept in the zendo. That was even better than Suzuki's cabin because no one else was within earshot. And the jikido has to be up an hour early to put out the Coleman lanterns so I had time to go into the hot plunge and cold creek and share coffee with her up by the gate before heading out. The fifth was to attend Jean Ross's head monk ceremony. Visited with Suzuki later that day. This time my Japanese was better. He was pleased. Now he was saying the opposite from what he'd said before I'd left. He said he hadn't imagined it was possible for me to learn that much Japanese that quickly. Now he wanted me to stay at the school for two years and then go to Japan to study Zen and Japanese culture.

Brother David had said that that St. Benedict's rules for the monks started off with the admonition to obey. He said that obey meant to listen. I did not believe in blindly doing whatever my teacher said. I did listen though and said absolutely not. I told him I'd keep studying but that I had to go to Tassajara, had reached the limit of what I could do out there. People had told me about the guest Zen master who was coming from Japan to lead the spring practice period. I wanted to be there with him. Suzuki nodded, "Okay," he said.


One more move - from Carmel Valley into Monterey. Dot needed the car back. I got a room walking distance from the school. Had a bad relationship with the landlady. Was not happy being there. My only respites were zazen and walking to friends' places. Like John and Beth Veglia's. He was a Latin teacher and had an office of his own in PG with a sign on the door that read: Nestor Marzipan, Imaginary Mysteries. Charles and Caroline Page lived nearby. No longer on the pure path, slugged down their expensive rare port and talked too much. They were most forgiving. Valued my friends but I didn't want the highlight of my life to be visiting. Told Mrs. Mink I was leaving early to drive to Texas for the holidays and then returning to Tassajara. She said I could come back anytime and finish up to get credit for the course, said I was the best student she'd ever had. I told her I'd never had a better teacher and that I'd keep studying but credit meant nothing to me. I'd not even finished a year of college and wasn't collecting credits, just knowledge.

The last month there I had an upset stomach. It was gurgling a lot and there was white wispy stuff in my stool. It was always with me. Didn't want to be there anymore. A friend from Fort Worth named Mary wanted to go home for Christmas so she, Bob, and I agreed to go together in her car. When they arrived we drove some possessions of mine to the Veglia's for safe keeping and were on our way. As we passed the Monterey city limit sign my stomach problem instantly vanished. No lie.


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She wanted to visit me and he was on his way south to LA.