Friday, October 7, 2011

Day Two at Tassajara

I don't sleep well my first night at Tassajara, and though I hoped for better, I'm not really surprised. As delicious as that dinner was, it's a pretty dramatic shift to go from the diet at the Little Farm (lots of meat, dairy, and cultured foods) to the all-vegetarian, grain-heavy menu of the monastery. I know that wheat is one food that consistently challenges my digestive system, so I resolve to avoid it until I can sleep through the night again. This fast shouldn't be too hard, I figure; the menu for each meal is written out on a whiteboard, with common allergens (dairy, nuts, sugar, garlic) clearly marked.

At 5:30 I hear the wakeup bell: it's a monk or a student running past, ringing a bell, from the student sleeping quarters all the way down to the farthest guest quarters and back again. The two passes have a nice snooze-alarm interval inbetween, but I still have no intention of getting up for this morning's meditation. I rise groggily in time for breakfast at 7:30.

Every breakfast and lunch here begins with what I can't help but think of as a prayer, which we recite together in robot-voice. (Dinner happens immediately after evening service, so presumably the food-blessing is covered in there somehow.) There are laminated copies for those of us who don't know it by heart.

(If you can't read it, click to see it bigger.)
I like this verse, the mindfulness and humble gratitude it communicates, even though I have no idea what some of it means. About a week in, another volunteer explains about the Three Treasures: they are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha is the teacher (of the truth), and the Dharma is the teaching (the truth that is taught). The Sangha is the community (of truth-seekers).

After breakfast we gather for the first work meeting of the day. The work meetings, after breakfast and lunch, bring the community together for announcements and work assignments. They follow a predictable pattern: bowing to the shrine and to one another, introductions from new arrivals, farewells from those who are leaving, announcements from senior staff, general announcements, lost-and-found announcements, and work assignments.  Everyone stands in a big circle (after lunch, most of us wincing in the bright sun), and the proceedings are guided by that day's work leader.

My first assignment is to work with three other women to deep-clean the Upper Shack, a kind of pantry which will see less use in the winter months. It's pleasant work, with no rush or stress attached to it, and I enjoy getting to know my fellow workers as we scrub and sweep. I'm grateful to be doing something low-key today, because I'm not in great shape after last night. We continue this job after lunch, wrap up and go find the work leader for another assignment, and are sent to clean the bathroom attached to the zendo. As this three-seat bathroom is cleaned daily, it's hardly grueling work either, and we finish up with a little time to spare. Thus ends my first seven-hour work day at Tassajara.

We have a new roommate, Karen, filling the empty third bed in Cabin 10. Elaine (my existing roommate) has news: she's leaving. This morning, while working, the thought came to her: "This is not where I need to be right now." She let the idea linger for a while without latching onto it, and finally concluded it was, indeed, time to go. She speaks with the work leader and one of the priests and gets their approval (reluctantly, I suspect); she'll be leaving in the morning. It strikes me as ironic, how settled she seemed last night, and yet how certain she is today that it's time to go. I respect her ability to listen to her intuition -- this is something I'm trying to be better at, myself -- but at the same time I'm sorry to see her leave. There has been something very familiar about the easy way we latched onto each other from the get-go, something that reminds me of summer camp cabin-buddies and the way little girls can form instant friendships based on proximity.

As dusk begins to fall, the sound of mallet striking board rings out over the grounds, and I shuffle over to the zendo for evening zazen, or meditation. You remove your shoes and place them on a shelf, then walk down the engawa (the exterior walkway, worn smooth by many bare feet) to the zendo's front entrance. You enter with your left foot first, bow, and fold your hands properly before proceeding to the other side of the zendo, where someone with a clipboard will assign you a seat. (The clipboard is only necessary in seasons when there are visitors, such as now; the regulars have regularly assigned seating.) Then you bow before entering the row you've been assigned, and bow to your seat before arranging the cushions, parking your bum on them, and rotating clockwise to face the plain white wall. You arrange your legs as close to the lotus position as you can manage, and maybe stretch a little, and then you stop moving for 40 minutes. Or at least, that's the idea.

The first ten or fifteen minutes of this are wonderful. It's been quite a while since I took time to just be still, to stop overthinking everything and just rest my mind. And here in this quiet place it is easy to be conscious of the Divine, of how beyond close and how beyond vast is God. This awareness is deeply joyous for me, and I silently revel in it.

Then, alas, my body catches up with me. My thigh is sore, my shoulder hurts, my neck is stiff, my ear itches. I can temporarily resolve many of these discomforts with a few moments' focus, concentrating on sending warmth and light to that painful joint or stretched muscle, but it's a short-term fix, and I end up spending the rest of the time chasing discomfort around my body and hoping it's over soon so I can lie down. I'm no meditation expert, but I'm pretty sure that's not the way this is supposed to work.

The session closes with a slow pattern of drumbeats and bells, and a small amount of singing/chanting words I do not understand. I return to my room feeling stiff, but stilled, and sleep much more soundly.


  1. You seem to mediate like a master. Meditation is not the absence of thought, but the absence of intent. As one of my instructors once told me: "You acknowledge the body's discomfort and then go back to following your breath." Maybe for you that would be "follow the discomfort"

  2. Thanks, Chris! I'll be writing more on what I learned about meditation at Tassajara, but I am still very much a novice.