Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-24


The new kitchen was finally opened in 1970, a wonderful building, Paul's first masterpiece, with unreinforced thick stone walls and Niels' joinery, and the contribution of many Zennies and non, an edifice that still serves Tassajara well. Students may enter the back door at any time to get something to eat from the small but well-supplied snack area there. But in the early years only the coffee and tea area was available. The practice was to eat what was served when it was served. Sometimes that did not seem to be enough. Some of us would get physically weak and dizzy, maybe a low sugar rush or something, and go to a stash we had in our room or to the kitchen to beg for mercy which might work depending which kitchen worker begged - or sneak into the storeroom for a gob of peanut butter, an apple, or some crackers. One day I was so crazed I drank a whole can of evaporated milk. Another day I was so compulsively crazed I drank two cans of evaporated milk. That was too much. It made me crash. I remember how Paul couldn't get over that. He'd look at me and shake his head going, "Two cans of evaporated milk."

Not just me, some of us would stagger into the kitchen and announce we were going to faint if we couldn't put something into our stomachs. Some people thought we should get treatment for hypoglycemia. Yvonne called it being a boy. If Tommy was working in the kitchen, he'd help out. He immediately became like our den mother from the day he arrived. But if he was standing next to a certain tenzo, head cook, it would be her call. One time a young guy went in and said he really had to eat something right away. Aforementioned tenzo said to him, "No! It's bad for your practice!"

"You're not saying no because it's bad for his practice," Tommy said. "You're saying no because you like to say no."


The problem, however, was not only people coming in from outside the kitchen. People inside the kitchen had stomachs too and there was a strict policy of not munching while preparing meals. That policy worked at times and broke down badly at times. If the tenzo took a nibble, the dam could burst and everyone would start doing so. I've seen it become a compulsive habit like tobacco addiction where people couldn't stop even when they didn't want to eat more. I haven't seen this type of behavior in recent decades. We were finding our way back then.


In the first practice period with Tatsugami as guest teacher, It was brought up in an officer's meeting that food was being taken from the kitchen and kitchen store room. Tatsugami said lock the doors. The officers argued with him. Few sympathized with his solution. But Tatsugami couldn't understand why not. "Put locks on the doors instead of your minds," he said.  So it happened. The new kitchen wasn't finished yet so we were still cooking out of that little shack on the back deck overlooking the creek. There was now a lock on its one door and one to the nearby kitchen storage shed. A number of people were upset by the locks.

Founding Tassajara tenzo Ed Brown, now in the garden, thought it was terrible though he did not approve of stealing food. When Suzuki heard of it he didn't think it was so great either but he didn't interfere. Seemed to me he liked a combination of order and disorder. When I thought the tools and implements in the shop were in good order, he sighed and said that at Eiheiji the shovels would be polished, everything hung in neat rows. I wanted to say sure but I bet those shovels are used a small fraction as much as ours. The kitchen seemed a bit of a mess to him too, but nothing compared to the messes people would make with their lives. Overall he seemed to have a great tolerance for our chaotic stumbling, even to enjoy somewhat the problems we made for each other. Rather than deal with issues mechanically, he'd work on and get us to work on our attitudes and habits.

Maybe Niels, Bob, and I were principle, but not the only, culprits as far as food pilfering at Tassajara went. Some combination of us would sit up talking till late, the only ones awake in the whole place. We'd only do that on a night before a day off when we'd get up an hour later - at quarter of five in the morning. That happed on days with a four or a nine in them - four and nine days. In practice period that meant there'd be just one zazen, a briefer service, oryoki breakfast in the zendo, the whole day free till evening service and special dinner in the dining room. So if we were tired we could nap during the day.

Sometimes we'd walk down to the bathes in the quiet blackness. There wasn't a bath watch then. And we'd get hungry and go to the kitchen in the cold dark. We'd get inside and leave a flashlight on or go to the altar to get some matches, light a kerosene lamp, and keep it low so as to not put a telltale bright glow in the window. Then we'd see what we could find. Sometimes we'd cook eggs and make toast with butter and jam or cheese sandwiches and sit down to eat at the kitchen table in the center of the room. We'd clean and put stuff back as we went along, wash our dishes, and leave without a trace. We didn't take food that would make the kitchen noticeably short of anything or screw up a planned meal.

One night back in the unlocked days Niels and I went in and the big pot on the Wolf stovetop waiting to be heated early the next morning beckoned. Niels removed the lid. "It's gruel! Let's just eat the gruel!" he enthused. He stuck his hand in it and brought some to his mouth. I objected, told him that was gross, and got bowls and spoons. He was into it though, acting like a starving madman making grunting noises. I walked over to the oven but before I could dish up, Niels yelled out in surprise.

"God damn! God damn you fucking crazy!" I turned to see what that was about. In the dark corner, sitting full lotus on the grill top was Ed Brown staring at us with a large meat cleaver in his lap. Niels yelled at him some more with his customary cursing.

Ed continued to sit there quietly as Niels tried to engage him. I quickly re-covered the pot, put our unused bowls and spoons back in place, and grabbed Niels for our mind-blown and embarrassed retreat.


One might think that would be enough to discourage such raids but those of us with criminal minds merely learn from the mistakes of the past and thus hone our deviousness. During one practice period with Tatsugami, a small group for a time staged a rather brazen departure from the scheduled norm. About six of us would miss the day off oryoki breakfast in the zendo to cook and eat a meal together in Ken Sawyer's Volkswagen bus which was parked down below the lower barn well away from the central area. I also recall Jerry Fuller, Tim Aston, Larry Hanson, Dianne Goldschlag. Surely not always the exact same people as someone might have a responsibility in the kitchen or zendo at that time. We'd slip out of the zendo after zazen before the briefer day off morning service and saunter not as a group down Tassajara Lane. The night before two of us, in rotating responsibility, would have entered the kitchen late to borrow the required foodstuff for pancakes and scrambled eggs. Leaving the sliding side door of the vehicle open, we'd cook, eat, drink coffee, yak it up, and return, again not as a group, to enjoy the rest of the day off.


Dianne and Meg were sitting up late in Dianne's dorm room, the one nearest the creek. There was a blanket over the window so the fire watch couldn't see a kerosene lamp still lit the room. They were determined to circumvent Tatsugami's lock on the kitchen door, were waiting for everyone to be asleep so that they could take a ladder to the backside above the creek and enter the kitchen through the window. Just as they were about to leave, Dianne looked out to make sure the courtyard was clear and saw light from a flashlight moving on the other side of the kitchen. Someone with a ladder was beating them to it. They went down and looked into the kitchen and saw Craig carefully making himself a meal. They watched as he put the prepared food in serving bowls and carried them on a tray into the zendo.

Craig was jikido, zendo cleaner who sleeps there the night before the day to clean. Craig had his oryoki already set on the meal board in front of his zafu. He slowly walked down the aisle with the serving bowls held high and placed them on the floor in front of his seat. And then he took his seat, first properly bowing toward the zafu, then away, arranged his robe, put his hands in gassho, and started chanting the meal chant, opening his bowls in the proper way and serving himself. He did the whole ritual, finished eating, then cleaning his empty bowls with his cloth-tipped tongue-depressor-shaped setsu. He had not prepared the next two steps of the ritual though. At that point hot water is brought in by servers, then a brief chant accompanies the buckets for the wash water to be dumped into for that water to be offered to the garden. However, Meg came down the aisle at that point with the hot water kettle and bowed to him as is the custom. For a second he looked utterly shocked and then held up his large bowl with both hands to receive the hot water. When he'd finished washing his bowls, Dianne came in with the bucket while she and meg chanted, "The water with which we wash these bowls, tastes like ambrosia." He kept following the form and chanted along, "We offer it to the various sprits to satisfy them. Om Makurasai Svaha." He emptied the water now in his small bowl, saving a little for a customary final sip. Dianne bowed with him, walked out, and quickly watered a plant outside. He dried his bowls, tied them up in the wrapping cloth, finished the meal chant, placed his oryoki in its place by the wall, fluffed his zafu, and got up to return the serving bowls.

Dianne and Meg hid and waited for him to go to sleep and then went into the kitchen to make their snack and in the process of doing so, Dianne dropped a gallon jar of honey. It broke and I got honey all over her robes and the floor. She was cleaning up long into the cold winter night.

Dianne and Meg never discussed that clandestine meal with a twist with Craig afterwards. The most difficult part of the whole affair she said, was having to contain themselves to keep from laughing.

A few days later someone stole the locks. I think it may have been Ed.

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