Friday, September 30, 2011

Back From, and Arriving at, Tassajara

I'm back from the mountains, from the quiet and the measured pace of Tassajara. I've been holed up in Hanford, CA, in the spacious air-conditioned home of my dear friends Jason & Melonie, college chums and D&D-playing buddies from backinnaday. The house is quiet all day and in the evening, when they bring their sons home from day care, echoes with the sound of small children with big emotions.

The little ones are fun to hang out with about 90% of the time, which is a good percentage for kids of any age. Their parents have been my friends for so long that it really wouldn't matter if they were fun to hang out with, I would want to hang out with them anyway; but they are, and that's a nice bonus.

When it's just me in the house I am sometimes doing productive things, but mostly not. It's not that I need a vacation right now; it's that I'm reacclimating to internet access. (So! Many! Things! To look at!) The internet was one of two things I regularly lusted after at the monastery. The other was meat.

I've been somewhat daunted by writing up the two weeks' worth of journal entries I wrote at Tassajara. Every day was so full of new things, and yet had so much space for new thoughts. My entries got a lot longer and more detailed than they'd been before, and I've been trying to figure out a way to share it all without writing up all 14 entries, because I don't have time for that. 

At least I know where to begin: at the beginning.

* * *

The road to Tassajara is terrible, the monk on the telephone told me. "It's fifteen miles of unpaved, winding single-lane road, and it takes an hour and a half to drive. Do you have a vehicle with four-wheel drive?" No, I replied. "You can do it without," he said, "but you'll need to shift your car into a low gear and pump the brakes, or they'll overheat. Go slowly, five to ten miles per hour. Oh, and make sure you have plenty of gas, and your braking and cooling systems and your tires are all in good shape."  Okay, I said, and thanked him, and proceeded to spend the next couple of weeks dreading the drive.

That road is pretty hairy, no joke. The whole thing is basically one big pothole, with a couple of paved stretches a few yards long, just enough to remind you how much better it could be. Here's a fairly typical stretch (with feet for scale):

And then there are occasional monstrous rocks embedded in the middle of the road, just waiting to tear something off the bottom of your car. And long stretches of the road are dappled with shade, so you can't see the rough spots until you're right on top of them. And there are turns around which an unexpected vehicle may be approaching, which you'll need to pass without swerving off the mountainside. And, also, there might be a longhorn steer which just happens to be hanging out in the road, with horns that could nail you to your seat without even straining a neck muscle. ("Um, hello, cow! Don't mind me, I'm just gonna eeease past you here... Niiice cow....")

And there's also this:

Incredible scenery around every turn, which you dare not give more than a glance because you might damage your car OR MAYBE DIE.

But I don't die, and my car takes it like a trooper. Eventually, I run out of road, and park my car, and stumble out into the gravel parking lot, past the sign that says Tassajara Zen Center, and through a little wooden gate, and I'm there.

I'm ready for my fanfare, for someone to say "Congratulations! You survived the road!" or maybe "Oh, you're Lindsey? Yes, we've been expecting you," or even just, "Are you new here? Can I help steer you in the right direction?" But none of those things happen. I walk around until I find a sign that says Stone Office, and then I go in and ask where to check in, and am told I can find my housing assignment on the front of some cabin over thataway. That's it? Doesn't anyone need to know that I'm here? Apparently not.

I get over it. I rope a passing person (monk? volunteer? priest? who knows? I don't) into showing me where to find my quarters, and he does so very graciously. My cabin isn't much to look at on the outside, but clean and airy within.

No electricity, but kerosene lanterns, clean bed-linens, and a water closet (toilet and sink) shared with a second bedroom on the other side. I've never seen a toilet quite like this one before (you flush by lifting the knob on the top); I later learn it's from Sweden, but never mind. We have a toilet in the same building, and it is the kind you can sit down on. I am thrilled.

I'm kind of at a loss as to what to do next. I go back to my car, bring back an armload of stuff, and only then think to go look at the schedule I saw hanging up by the room assignments. Apparently I just missed the guided tour for new arrivals. Hmm.

I manage to slip in partway through the introduction to the zendo, the building in which meditation and services take place. And by "slip in" I mean "completely throw the instructor off." She recovered, and I managed to pick up some basic points of zendo etiquette:
 - When you enter, cross the threshold with your left foot; when you exit, cross it with your right.
 - Hold your left hand cupped in your right hand, unless you are using your hands for something else.
 - Don't cross in front of the altar (in the center of the room); always cross behind it.
 - Bow with your hands in "praying" position when you enter, when you proceed down an aisle, before taking your seat, after rising from your seat, and whenever everyone else seems to be bowing.
- Sit in lotus position, or half lotus, or with legs loosely crossed, or on your knees or on a chair or whatever you can manage.
- During meditation, try not to move if you can help it.
- During other activities, just follow along the best you can.

All of the more arcane details have a purpose: to help keep you mindful of the significance of what you are doing. The zendo is not a place for casualness or thoughtlessness; it's a place for focus, a place to be very present. As temporary volunteers, our participation in all zendo activities is strictly optional, but I'm eager to see what goes on here.

Here's the outside of the zendo (it seemed irreverent to take photos inside, so I didn't):

The wooden panel, bell, and drum are all instruments that are used daily in ceremonies and in calling people to the zendo for services. The interior is lined with wide benches (tan) on which cushions are placed for meditation, and more cushions are on the floor. Near one of these is another drum and the hugest singing bowl I've ever seen. The altar bears a heavy stone statue of a serene-faced Buddha, with a couple of smaller statues and some other items I don't understand the purpose of.

Our instruction over, I return to my cabin, pausing to look at the schedule along the way. It says "Bath and exercise time." I'm hot and could certainly use a bath, but figuring out where the bathing facilities are and the proper protocol for using them just sounds too exhausting right now. Maybe I'll just flop down on the bed and... "Oh, hello," I say to the woman who has just walked in the door. It's my roommate. Her name is Elaine, this is her first time here too, and she is headed for the baths. Would I like to come along? Well yes, I would, now that I have a guide.

The baths showcase the hot springs which have attracted visitors to Tassajara for centuries. The showers are geothermally heated, as are the hot tubs and saunas. I'm told that the hot tubs on the women's side are kept just a little bit hotter than the men's, to meet popular demand. I've always been the odd one out, I guess; the indoor women's hot tub feels like it's burning me alive, so I hop right back out again. (I once passed out after spending time in a hot tub that felt too hot, so I don't push it.) The outdoor hot tub is a few degrees cooler and feels just right.

I've lost Elaine somewhere along the way, but there is another woman in the outdoor tub. After we have both sat there in silence for a few long minutes, she asks if I've ever heard of a particular artist who makes lifelike, life-sized sculptures of human beings (I think it was this one). "If you went to his exhibit and stood still long enough, eventually people would gather around you and try to figure out whether you were a sculpture or not.... You were sitting so still, it made me think of that." I laugh. I'd like to continue chatting, but thanks to fatigue and the hot soak, I've temporarily lost the ability to make small talk, so I close my eyes and go still again.

[To be continued]


  1. I remember the too-hot tub... Glad you took it easy on the soak. Good to hear of you. -Meep

  2. What a great post! Glad you're back online. I was very amused to see the photo of the road (as you may imagine). And your phrase "small children with big emotions", I totally get that. Namaste!