Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-25

In the early '70s at an evening meeting of students, the agenda had been covered and there we all were sitting around the dining room, enjoying the energy of being together and not wanting to go back to our cabins and to bed. The tables were pushed against the walls and 50 or so of us sat on straight-backed wooden chairs loosely arranged in an oval, our faces highlighted by the flickering light from the kerosene lamps. We didn't meet much like that. Someone broke the silence by saying he'd like to conduct a poll on a topic of interest to him. The director, who was leading the meeting, said "Okay, why not?"

"How many people here have taken LSD?" he asked. Most hands shot up. The room filled with laughter.

"Do mescaline or psilocybin count?" A student asked. "Yes," she was told. The student added her hand and a few others went up. More laughter.

Then the pollster asked who'd had more than one trip and a number of hands went down. This line of questioning continued. How many have had 5? More hands down. Ten? Fifteen? And up the line with oohs and ahs until only a few hands remained. At 100 only one person's hand was up - Reb's. He'd meditated frequently on LSD for several years before coming to the Zen Center.


Ministers, priests, psychologists, and various types of spiritual teachers back in the sixties had an interesting situation to deal with. Young people were coming to them who'd had psychedelic experiences and who were looking for an explanation of what they'd experienced, seeking a more grounded and lasting way to meet the vastness of higher consciousness. Most of these counselors had no idea what to say or summarily dismissed these experiences as bogus.

Some, like Shunryu Suzuki, were more helpful. Suzuki had a way that worked well with such seekers. He did not dismiss the validity of their experience but said that enlightenment was not a state of mind, was not contained in any experience, and he guided us away from trying to recreate past profound events and toward accepting ourselves as we were. He taught a disciplined life of zazen, attention to the details of life, not wanting too much (especially another state of mind), and not getting too worked up. He said that people will have enlightenment experiences without spiritual practice, but only with such practice will their revelation continue and not come and go like psychedelic experiences. He made us feel confident that we could wake up to who we were without any chemical aids, and he did it without taking any strong stand against marijuana and LSD, though he really didn't want his students taking them. He accepted psychedelics as an initial impetus, but not as a way of life.

A Stanford professor, told Suzuki in the late sixties that he appreciated the open minds and curiosity of this new breed of young people but wished they'd stop being stoned long enough to pay more attention to their studies. He asked Suzuki how he dealt with that problem. Suzuki said that he just taught his students how to sit zazen and that they soon forgot about these substances. But if he thought they weren't forgetting about it he could be stricter. He asked his students not to come to his temple under the influence of drugs or alcohol. At the wedding of Jack and Ellen Van Allen, that colorfully dressed bride and groom were actively involved in the local psychedelic sub-culture. In a stern tone Suzuki admonished those assembled, many of them stoned at the time, that "we do not take drugs." After he had made that clear, he spoke playfully and admiringly of the flowers and spirit of those at hand and the room filled with laughter and good cheer. Suzuki had a light touch, and he offered an alternative.

Taking LSD without proper precautions can lead to some unexpected initiations, even if one thought that every care had been taken. I am reminded of Mark Lewis, a high school student from Carmel, who in 1968 went with a friend to Tassajara, an hour and a half away, for their first acid trip. Anyone who'd read about how to take LSD knew that one should pick a trouble free setting, preferably a natural one, and take it when one has a calm set, or state of mind. Mark and his friend took it en route, figuring they'd be at Tassajara before the acid came on and that all they'd encounter would be the inspiring vibes of the monastery and the nurturing warmth of the hot springs there. They were coming in late after everyone was asleep. They thought they were in a safe and controlled setting. But they didn't count on Larry.

Larry had been in a biker gang in my home town of Fort Worth. He had a steel plate in his head that was inserted after a motorcycle accident. He was a big tough sweet guy who was trying to set his life straight. Larry had stumbled upon Tassajara a few weeks prior. Normally we didn't take students off the road and would not have let him stay without first having some Zen practice experience elsewhere, but he was a mechanic and we didn't have one at the time. So he'd been living there on a temporary basis, working in the shop, trying hard to sit zazen at least a little, and to fit in with the community. Sometimes he'd get out of sorts and I'd take him to the kitchen and make him a stack of cheese sandwiches and that would calm him down.

Larry had gone to Monterey in our pickup truck to buy parts and get a lumber order. Kathy Cook, a sensitive and attractive young woman student who needed to go to the dentist went with him. He'd promised he wouldn't drink but the urge got the best of him. On their way back to Tassajara that night, she did not like the way he smelled or his driving and thought the lumber on the rack was not loaded properly as it kept shifting. When they stopped to view the stars from the top of the mountain, she got out of the vehicle and said she'd walk the rest of the way. Larry, who had a hopeless crush on Kathy, sat in the pickup and sulked.

The acid was beginning to come on earlier than they expected and time had become elastic. They couldn't tell if they'd been driving for minutes or hours or days. Mark and his friend Kelly pulled up in Kelly's 1956 Chevy next to Larry on the dirt road and asked how far Tassajara was. Larry told them it was about five miles down the road. He added, “And if you see a woman up ahead, it’s my old lady, and don’t stop for her.” They perceived menace in his voice. They drove on and indeed came upon a woman waving her arms at them. She stuck her head in the open window and told them she'd just gotten out of the pickup they'd passed because the driver was drunk and she was sure he was going to go off the road. They told her they'd give her a ride but warned her they were on LSD and for the first time. They continued down the road with Kathy sitting between them and Larry following. Kelly drove very carefully, slowly due to his mind-expanding condition and also so that Larry couldn't drive too fast. They were not too stoned to have forgotten what Larry had told them and how scary he was. Now he was driving behind them looking at her sitting between them. The boys discussed this and worked themselves up into a state of near panic which didn't ease Kathy's mind. On the final stretch they sped up, leaving Larry behind.

Down at Tassajara, I was the firewatch, the person whose duty it is to walk around, blow out the Coleman lamps on the pathways, make sure all kerosene lamps in the cabins were out, and periodically strike together two wooden clackers that announced all was well and nighty-night. It was summer guest season. I heard a vehicle approaching and could tell by the engine's whine that it wasn't the pickup truck I was expecting. I walked up toward the gate in time to see car lights pull over to the side and shut off. I heard car doors open and close and soon Kathy was walking fast down the road crying. I tried to talk to her but she went right past me. Looking back, I saw two shadowy figures dart into the tall grass between the road and the creek.

I was just about to go check them out when the pickup truck came weaving in through the open gate and screeched to an abrupt halt beside me. I was confused. Why didn't she come back with Larry? I shined my flashlight on him and saw his puffy unshaven face with a menacing gleam in his eye. A gust of alcohol laden breath wafted into my face. He asked where Kathy and the two guys were. I said she'd gone to her room and I didn't know where they were. He looked back outside the gate then abruptly went to the tool shed. While I asked things like, "What's up Larry?" and tried to talk, he single-mindedly went through the sharpened axes. I was greatly relieved, though not for long, when he finally settled on a long ax handle.

"Those goddamn guys picked her up after I'd told them not to and I'm gonna find them and beat their goddamn brains out," he said. He then proceeded to walk toward the exact spot where they were as I stayed close to his side and tried to dissuade him. Finally I said they weren't up there, that they'd gone to bed and we could all talk about it the next day. "They've gone to bed where?" he asked. I said I had no idea - probably some cabin. "Then I'm gonna go through every goddamn cabin till I find them," he said and started down the road with me literally hanging on to him and pleading for him to reconsider. The students could deal with him but the guests - oh lord. I finally convinced him that at least he should take a break and have some cheese sandwiches. We went to the kitchen where I lit a lamp and made him five thick cheese sandwiches. He ate them, got sleepy, and soon I was tucking him in bed. Mark and his friend lay in the tall grass all night surely hallucinating mind-expanded nightmares of violent death. The next morning Larry was driven out - sad and ashamed.

Mark was much more careful after that about his use of psychedelics and went on to become a Zen student who didn't use them anymore - maybe a little pot now and then. But he never forgot his first time. Just think - he could have been arrested and sent to jail for taking LSD by a legal system which has no more sense or subtlety than Larry did, a zealous persecutorial type legal system which can't be deflected by bribes of mere cheese sandwiches.


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