Tassajara Stories


previous --------------- next

last edit 9-28


Ron Leyva had sat sesshin with Yasutani, Soen, and Maezumi for a few years before he came up from southern California in the summer of 70 and washed guest dishes. Returned the following spring for a practice period. He was a swarthy, solid, quiet young guy. Mexican ancestry. He stopped me on the path between the dorm and the kitchen.

Ron said something had happened he had to tell someone and decided on me.


"Now, I'm a matter of fact type guy, wouldn't you say?"

"Yep." He was on the no nonsense end of the spectrum.

"Well something happened last night that I wouldn't blame you for not believing."

"Try me."

He was jikido, the person who cleans and takes care of the zendo and sleeps there the night before. The jikido gets up early, lights the zendo lamps, and puts out the lanterns that light the paths so people can see on their way to morning zazen. One of the jikido's duties is to clean and refill the lanterns in the afternoon so they're ready for the next morning. It takes thirty minutes or so to get them all lit and placed so the jikido would get up before four.

Every once in a while a jikido would oversleep and that's what Ron thought had happened when he was awakened by light shining through the zendo windows. Thinking someone else was putting the lanterns out, he jumped out of his sleeping bag, slipped on his pants, rushed out the doorway, turned toward the path and stopped cold in his feet. The light was not coming from lanterns. It came from across the path by the han and densho not twenty feet away. What he saw was a brightness with oval form hovering a few feet above the ground. About the size of a human body but there was no body, just light, light that illuminated the surrounding area. In the immediate vicinity he could see details in the bricks, stones, wood, leaves. He could see his hands and feet. He knew he wasn't dreaming. He stood and looked. Was not afraid. It was not normal earthly light. He sensed being, a benign presence, a bright, silent presence that after a short while began to dim. Details faded. Dim and dim until Ron was standing in total darkness.

"What did you do then?" I asked after a moment I needed to take it in.

"Well, I went and looked at the alarm clock and it was still too early to do anything so I went back to sleep."


I didn't experience the light Rod did, but I know that total darkness. If there's a good size moon up one can see without the lanterns, even a little after it sets from reflection. But if there's no moonlight and the lights are out, you can't see your hand in front of your face. There's no city or even neighbor lights for miles so there is very little light pollution at Tassajara. I was so used to walking around after the firewatch that I would walk in the total darkness. It was such a rare experience. I'd go slowly because I'd naturally veer some and bump into a tree or stone and then correct course. Over the bridge to the baths. In the hot water in the dark dark. Alone. The windowless steam room was always dark but alone in there on a dark night was a challenge. Imagination would conjure up the scary. Stories I'd heard would come back to me. The hot spring area is where the Indians had come for thousands of years. Occasionally a guest would report seeing one or seeing something they couldn't explain.

Prior owner Bob Beck said they used to hear the bells from a mule train coming down the trail. In the old days there were minors that followed the custom of attaching bells to the mules' tails. Some would hear the bells coming down the Tony Trail but the mules would never arrive.

Marie Williams from Monterey had been coming for years to go to the steam rooms to commune with the Indians. The surface of the interior walls was crumbling so Bob painted both steam rooms with an expensive epoxy. Next time Williams was there she went to the office furiously complaining they'd killed the Indians. The paint peeled off. The next time she returned she said the Indians were back.

Bob had an experience on the trail coming down from the horse pasture on the path to the narrows. He saw two people in black robes cutting a tree down in the distance. This was before any contact with the Zen Center. When he arrived below there was a tree down but no one there. At Tassajara they said they hadn't seen anyone. Unlikely two people in robes would have gone down creek. It just didn't make sense.

An experience that made even less sense to him happened on a cold winter night when he and Anna were snowed in with their caretaker, Ralph Burdett. It rarely snows at Tassajara but there was snow on the ground that night. The three of them sat around the fireplace where the zendo altar would later be. There were partitions around them to help keep the heat in and they were bundled up reading near the fire. A knock on the door. They didn't respond because there couldn't be anyone who'd come in over the road. The snow would be too deep. Another knock. Bob went to the door. There was a man wearing a Mackinaw with one leg and a reddish white beard. He said that he was teaching his girlfriend to drive and wanted to know the way out. Bob said there's only one way out and that's the way he came. There was a car with its lights on up above the stone steps. The man said thanks a lot. Back inside Bob had a strange feeling. He, Anna, and Ralph went out, couldn't hear any car sounds, nor were there any tracks of a car having been there. The next morning at breakfast he asked if someone had come the night before. Ralph and Anna slowly agreed, yes, someone had come. But they couldn't remember anything beyond that for a while. Then Bob remembered the man at the door. He told that story to Richard Baker and some students years later and Baker said he'd met that same man or whatever it was.

Joanna Bull was a Tassajara student who said she hadn't seen a ghost at Tassajara but that the got into Zen because of one. Said she'd seen what appeared to be a ghost and it so mystified her that she went to a bookstore to read up on that but instead left with Alan Watt's The Spirit of Zen.

I've talked to several students who told of strange events in the zendo at night when they were jikido. Footsteps heard walking from the closed doorway down an isle, the isle furthest from the creek that's used by a priest approaching the altar. One told of seeing indentations on the floor sinking down as if a foot were stepping there. One reported howling following the footsteps. One reported seeing an apparition of Suzuki in his robes approach the alter and sit there. One woman was so terrified she refused to be jikido again. She was Mexican. I mention that for the Indian blood. I've noticed that people with Indian blood have a much higher degree of such stories. Phillip Wilson did and he saw spirits at Tassajara and Eiheiji and had other experiences beyond the norm.

Two people said they saw a monk without a face. I don't mention who because years later I asked them what that was about and neither remembered having said that. I've noticed that people tend forget unusual experiences. When we were in elementary school my friend Mary would tell me about how she flew around the house at night when everyone was sleeping. I asked her about that forty years later and she didn't know what I was talking about. Niels didn't forget. He said he used to astral travel when he was young and at home. He said he could make it happen by how he turned in bed and set his mind not to care, couldn't do it if he wanted to. Said he'd fly out to the streets and over the cars and houses and back. Personally I have flown high above San Francisco looking down on the lights of the city and bridges. I love those dreams which in my case I think are just dreams but what do I know?

A student told Baker privately that a tiny UFO was coming into his room at night. He had a friend stay with him and the friend saw it too.

Mel and Yvonne reported seeing a UFO appear to fly into a mountain on their approach to Tassajara on the road. Mel later talked of a blue light flying low. We've had other guests that had UFO reports on the road, one of them from a couple who said it was quite close and couldn't be explained away.

I was standing outside on a dark night and a super bright light flashed in the sky like a powerful explosion, far off, no sound. I suppose it was a meteorite. It was so amazing that tears flowed down my cheeks. Several times I was fortunate to see the flame and shine of a rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base 175 miles south. Sitting up on the hillside all one could see was a light moving up in the night sky. I've never seen anything like that - behind the initial bright exhaust was a v trail of glow that expanded as the rocket rose until a vast amount of the dark sky was a bright triangle with a fading base. The rocket seemed to rise slowly it was so far off and the brightness lingered for a surprisingly long time as if light were a substance that hovered and finally went out.

All four Becks saw a blue orb on the Tassajara Road coming down toward Jamesburg. Bob, Anna, and their kids Adam and Katie. Bob stopped the car. The blue orb was large and low and floating off to the side above the valley. Adam remembers it as purple, Bob and Anna as blue. Bob called it a flying object he definitely couldn't explain.


The Shushogi is a popular and central Soto Zen compilation of teachings from Dogen. Suzuki was reading from it in a lecture and came to the line:

Do not take refuge in the spirits of mountains or ghosts of the dead, and worship not the heretical shrines.

Suzuki's take on that was, "According to heretical understanding, we take refuge in something which is different from ourselves. According to our understanding, everything is within our mind. Our mind includes everything, and in our mind many things will take place."

By that we don't mean to say unusual phenomena is just something in ones mind but that people and rocks are not. All phenomena is within mind and that's not individual mind. Individual existence of you and me and the family next door and Andromeda are included in there with the ghosts. To me, no problem - nothing can be explained and nothing is more amazing than anything else except that we're used to some things. It's all in the phenomena box, imagined or real. Not sure what the difference is.

previous --------------- next