A LAVA BED OF YELLOW BLOSSOMS
A journal of my first trip to Tassajara Zen Center
I am in a narrow valley less than 1/4 mile wide in the Los Padres National Forest east of Carmel), California – deep within the Coast Range. This is the peak season of wildflowers: monkey pod, fire weed, buck thorn, paint brush; I only know the names of a few of the ubiquitous flowers here. There was a severe fire two years ago and combined with this past winter’s rains produced mountain sides covered with a Van Gogh palette of blossoms. The high mountain which shields this valley on the East has a lava bed of yellow flowers flowing down its side.
The Retreat Center is part of the San Francisco Zen Center and has been trimmed, planted and walled, ageing half a century with that sleight of hand one finds in Zen gardens. Yesterday, while sitting in the sun, I watched a student hand trim the grass growing around a boulder. Low stone walls are ubiquitous – each bulk of granite carefully placed to complement one another by color in tones ranging from gray to pink to lavender as well as complementary shapes.
Wherever I turn, I see beauty. In the gardens, alongside the creek, in the hot baths and the Zendo, “See” is not an accurate word. This is the kind of beauty one feels – caressing my shoulders as I walk along the pathways; warming my heart, touching my soul
Tassajara is famous through its published cook books, especially the Tassajara Bread Book, but is also famous by word of mouth (and taste of mouth) for good reason, I sit down to a beautifully set table and am served the most amazing variety of delectable vegetarian food with fresh herbs that I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Asparagus and string beans are cooked just to that crunchy place of proper eating, The table cloths are bright red cotton with matching napkins and, when we arrive, we find our napkin ring with our name on it, arranged alphabetically at an entry to the dining room.
The whole valley is full of being alone spaces. At a bend in the creek, hidden within the trees, is a small writing table and chair. Along the major pathway is a congregate of long, wide, slender and tall hollowed redwoods carved for easy sitting. The major bridge across the Tassajara creek where one of its tributaries joins is lined on either side with long, comfortable benches. Often I saw one or two people sitting there quietly reading. Especially before meals, people gathered to chat along the bridge. Further on the main path of this narrow valley are a group of carved oak chairs that get moved from place to place depending on whether you’re alone or together. I was sitting in one of those cozy chair watching the woman hand clipping the grass.
The people, either priests, students or guests are quiet and respectful of one another, of each others’ space and of the land. Tassajara is a true retreat, beautifully away from whatever is happening in outside world. Just before I came inside this evening to write by kerosene lamp, I stretched out on a chaise by the pool and looked at the stars – so many stars, stars the way I remember from my childhood before city lights faded the sky. I could even see the Milky Way.
I am sitting on the women’s sun deck by the hot tubs. An indoor tiled Japanese style bath is quite deep – up to my chin – and very hot. Too hot, in fact, for me. Instead I relaxed in the outdoor tub, stretching out on a water smooth granite chaise. Above me, the sky is Crayola True Blue, a cloudless cloak over the wildflowered mountains. Before me on the private women’s deck is a gallery of nude women: here a large Ruebens buttocks, there a pale lean Kranach. A Matisse sits with her back to me, her legs folded beneath her with a background of underbrush and the song of the creek instead of wallpaper. A Modigliani rises from her nap, breathing in the sun and sweet air. A small child climbs over what is probably her grandmother – both quietly giggling.
Everywhere is granite and everywhere human hands connect granite walls to matching stones along the creek. There is a rock stairway with a wooden bannister leading to the water. The naked grandmother holds her granddaughter’s hand as they descend to rock seats submerged just precisely enough to cool one’s belly button.
Everywhere are signs of consideration. Like the creekside bannisters, there are carefully selected toiletries, chosen by Tassajara as “ecologically sound” shampoo, conditioners, soaps, lotions and poison oak cleanser are available to care for both guests and land. There are little thoughtfulness: matches and a small dish beside the kerosene lamps; a small table in front of the first aid station on which are provided mosquito repellant and sun screen. Each bed is supplied with a duvet and a goodly supply of warm Army blankets for folks like me who sleep cold.
Food! Try as I might to reconstruct those three delectable meals each day for five days, I cannot. It’s like trying to reconstruct a love affair. I will tell you about their “bag” lunches. The “bag” is a reusable plastic container with a lid. Choice of lunch includes roasted red and green peppers, tapenade, a variety of bread and rolls, hard cheese, soft cheese, goat and cow cheese, guacamole, hummus, half a dozen raw veggies, egg salad, tomato salad and green salad. I do remember a delicious breakfast surprise, semolina with gervasio (sesame salt). And I thought to myself, “you know, I can do some of this at home.”
Adjacent to the dining patio is a tea station with urns of hot water and every tea imaginable. A large bunch of orange monkey pods cheerfully bloom at the base of several shelves which are filled with clear glass tea cups, I’m, told, tea is available 24/7 although I had my last cup of tea early in the day.
The staff were gentle and thoughtful, especially when it came to helping me use my nebulizer. Once I mentioned to either a student or a monk that I was too short to reach those warm Army blankets. Presto! A genie appeared and carefully folded the blanks at the foot of my bed. Then this afternoon I was wandering aimlessly walking around, looking for a spot to sit by the creek when a pleasant young woman stopped, asking if I needed help. I replied that I was looking a chair I’d seen beside the creek. She wove me in and out of her rather labyrinthine collection of student housing to a secluded chair and writing table within hearing distance of the rapids.
I think I am beginning to get an idea of what is meant by zen “practice”, although I’m not altogether sure. Zen doesn’t seem to be a religion but rather a roadmap for day to day living. The core of practice is, of course, meditation. The emphasis is on giving your sole attention to what you are presently doing. To live in the present.
I watched my good friend Judith who came to Tassajara as a work-study person, standing at the kitchen prep table. There were eight people, four on either side of a long cutting board. Everyone was intently chopping – I didn’t see what they were chopping. I just heard the tap-tap-tap of the knives against the food. No one talked. No one chattered. I later asked Judith if they ever talked. “Only to discuss matters of food”. she replied. This is what Judith calls “practice”. The woman I saw cutting grass around the boulders, was that her practice? She was certainly focused on the present,
I found myself completely in the now with my hearing aids. The only time I wore them when I was a Tassajara was when I went to classes. When I’m in a large restaurant back home, I give up trying to have a conversation because of the noise. At the Tassajara dining room, which probably accommodates up to sixty persons, I wore no hearing aids and joined in conversation comfortably. I attribute this to two things: one, everyone spoke quietly and, two, I was so at ease and so completely living in the present that I didn’t have all those hundreds of thoughts running around in my head which I am sure get in the way of giving full attention to anyone or anything.
I’m thoroughly convinced that a once a year trip to Tassajara will keep me both physically and psychologically healthy for a long time These past five days have been the only time in my entire life that I almost never hassled myself. I had no ruminations, no repercussions, no guilt, no alienation. I was just there.
How to keep some of this now that I am home.
Find peace for myself.
Slow down. If it’s supposed to get done, it will get done sooner or later. Keep a mindfulness of touch.
Take time to feel where I am. Look up at the sky. Note the variations of blue. Feel the breeze on my face. Define the shapes and colors of the trees. Look for bugs and worms in the grass. Find the smallest blooms. Carefully watch where I step. Locate myself in space.
Be more attentive to others. A phone call, a drop by visit, a get well card, a food treat. A thank you note.
Take time and care with food. Let Tassajara food be a model. Learn new ways of preparing food. Find my center when chopping or stirring. Taste each ingredient as I add them. Take time to taste. Nourish myself. Give the gift of food to others. Say I care about you with food. Say I love you with food.