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Last night and this morning Clay chatted with  me about Tassajara for a short report he had to write for school on some sub-culture he was familiar with. There wasn't much time so I typed it as he decided what to say. Here it is. - DC

Clay Chadwick
November 13, 2007

The Tassajara Subculture

Throughout my life the San Francisco Zen Center has had a tremendous influence on me. Since I was three, I’ve been going to their monastery deep in the Los Padres National Forest in Monterrey County for ten days every summer. Many people assume that everybody there is perfect and enlightened because they study Zen, but that’s not true. Most of the students there are just the regular type of people that you’d meet at a party or that you’d work with. They just happen to be there at that time in their life. I’ve only been to Tassajara in the summer guest season or the work period that precedes it, so that is what I will refer to rather than the two ninety day monastic practice periods that happen every year. Many people are serious about their Zen practice, but some people don’t take it that seriously and still participate. In Buddhism, especially at Tassajara, it’s less to me a belief than an intention, a willingness to wake up. And by wake up, they mean awaken to your true self.

Tassajara life is full of rituals. The main one is zazen, sitting meditation. This is the central practice of Zen Buddhism. They wake up ridiculously early, when it’s still dark, walk to the zendo, meditation hall, many in robes, and sit for an hour with a silent five minute break in the middle where people can stretch, stand, or change position. There is also zazen at the end of the day. During the practice periods there is also walking zazen. Zazen is very challenging for some, simple for others. It’s mainly about whether one can stay still that long. Mental progress is another thing. Someone can sit perfectly for the whole hour with a smile on their face and be thinking about getting revenge on their enemies.

After zazen there is service, the ritual of rituals, where they chant sutras, Buddhist teaching, and other traditional texts, some English, some Japanese, some brief, some long. It begins and ends with bowing to the floor and throughout there are various bows and incense offerings by the officiator. To an outsider, service especially would be weird but I find it invigorating and enjoyable and it only takes a few days to get used to. It also helps that we’re not bowing to anything outside of ourselves. To a lesser extent, chanting goes on all day at Tassajara. There’s a service before lunch and evening dinner. There’s chanting before meals and individually at the baths. Each work crew has an incense offering before and after work that sometimes includes chanting, bowing in and out.

Throughout the day one can hear the music of Tassajara which is bells, drums, and other instruments in between which punctuate the rituals and the schedule. To some people, the experience of Tassajara is the experience of following the schedule which one can do by merely listening to the sounds starting with the early morning wake up bell then moving on to the sharp sound of the han, a wooden slab hit with a mallet. To continue with the schedule, directly after service there is a fifteen minute communal cleaning of the central area. Then there’s breakfast which, like every meal, starts off in silence – until the wooden clackers are hit. After breakfast there is a half hour or so break and then the taiko drum sounds for work meeting. There’s also one after the break after lunch but that one is much smaller and doesn’t serve the same purpose. Everyone goes to the morning work meeting where the work leader asks for people arriving or departing to introduce themselves or say farewell. All important announcements are made, including lost and found, and then those who don’t know already meet with the work leader to be told where to go such as to the kitchen, guest dining room, cabin crew, baths, and shop, and various other jobs. One part of the schedule that is unique at Tassajara is bath time. Tassajara is famous for its hot springs and is maybe the oldest and best known resort in the Monterrey area. Student bath time is silent and not co-ed and happens before dinner. My father and I usually add our own bit of ritual and go to the bathes after evening zazen to join the guests till it closes at ten. We soak in the hot water inside, go to the sauna, and look at the amazing stars from the outdoor plunge. It’s said that it’s one of the best places to look at stars in California. All bathing there is naked. This is metaphorical for stripping away from all standards and expectations that we are attached to.

The food at Tassajara is amazing. It’s all vegetarian but there’s not an idea that one can’t eat meat once one leaves. Some people are vegan. I’ve talked to guests there who go there only for the food. Tassajara cook books are famous. The guest food surpasses the student food in quality and appearance but the student food is still great and also includes lots of leftover guest food. Some of it is from their own garden. At the back door to the kitchen one can get wonderful Tassajara bread, butter, jam, peanut butter, fruit and various leftovers. There’s also a coffee and tea area where people meet and talk during breaks and throughout the day though there is silence after evening zazen and before breakfast. In the practice periods they eat in the zendo in a ritual form with wrapped bowls known as oryoki. Hardly anyone at Tassajara smokes but there is a smoking area behind the student dining area down by the creek behind the ruin of an old wall that dates back to before their first zendo burned down.

When I’m there in July or August there are usually around eighty guests and also eighty students and teachers, all of whom are working or doing something to contribute. Some people live there for years, some for months, some for just a few days. Some are there for the first time, some go there often. They range from teenagers to old people. There are male and female lay people and priests. The priests can get married and some are gay. Most people are friendly but many of them are quiet. There’s a lot of variety in the types of people there but most are white and educated pretty well.

Tassajara is beautiful and surrounded by rugged wilderness. I love to go on hikes there. It’s like being in biology class all the time. I’ve learned a lot there. I’ve learned how to work with people, had a lot of kitchen experience and waiting on guests in the dining room. People don’t tell me who to be or what to think. It’s not about that. It’s about waking up.

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