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Sabbatical - Tassajara, etc.

From the beginning of our journey to central California, Peg and I were continually surprised by what we encountered as different to what we had expected.  As is so often the case in life, anticipations and expectations give way to actual experience in ways that disturb, surprise, enlighten and inspire us.  More than once, one of us said to the other, "This is just not the way I imagined it."

To begin with, it was cooler that we had expected.  The long-range forecast said highs in the 80's and lows in the 50's.  Our experience for this time of year is that low temperatures are rather fleeting in the wee hours of early morning with highs dominant throughout the day.  Simply reverse that dynamic (add fog and clouds) and you have summer weather for the coastal area from south of Monterey to north of San Francisco.   We came to truly know what Mark Twain meant when he said, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."  But once you get away from the coast into the Carmel Valley and up in the mountains the clouds disappear and temperatures warm up.  Again, just the opposite of our East Coast experience - who goes to the mountains for warmer weather?

After spending our first night in charming Carmel Valley Village we headed into the mountains to catch the Jamesburg Stage to Tassajara.  The last fourteen miles into Tassajara is a narrow, winding, deep-rutted, cliff bound dirt road that takes from 1 hr. 15 min to 1.5 hours to traverse.  The description of this on Tassajara’s website is spot-on and a perfect sales pitch for taking the “Stage” (a supercharged, low-geared, 4-wheel drive Surburban).  All I can say is I’m glad someone else was driving so I could enjoy the enchanted topography and fantastic vistas around nearly every turn.  There are two men who share the duties of driving the stage, which also delivers supplies and mail in addition to guests and students.  The one who brought us off the mountain at the end of the week has been associated with the SF Zen Center and Tassajara since the 1970’s and said he estimates that he’s driven the round trip over 4,000 times.

Bottom line – It’s worth the trip!   Tassajara is one of the most peaceful serene places I’ve been and it’s not just that it’s deep in beautiful mountains with a cold creek running right through it.  The serenity and peace one feels almost instantly when arriving is created by people who are constantly present, aware, and mindful in a quiet gentleness that can only be experienced and not described.  To get a pretty good taste of the experience, I’m sharing an article that was in the Sunday Monterey Herald (7/19/11) that we left unread in our rental car at Jamesburg.  Fortunately we didn’t read it before hand, so were allowed our own experience, which in many ways mirrors the article (even some of the photos in the article’s slideshow are the same as ours).  It was far more meaningful to recognize some of our experience in theirs rather than to anticipate their experience in ours. Please read it right now in order to give the remainder of my reflections some context. 

One of the biggest surprises for me was what appeared to be the incongruities between the relaxed peaceful atmosphere and the technicality, precision, and structure in Zen practice.  As a totally ignorant novice to Zen meditation (ZaZen), I attended a Zendo (place where you meditate, etc.) orientation and quickly learned there are many details requiring attention, all the way from how you remove your shoes and step on to the exterior walkway, how to hold your hands and arms when you walk, which foot to lead with in stepping through a door, how many steps to take before you change hand positions and bow, how to get a cushion assignment, when to bow, how to walk to the cushion, mount the cushion, leg positions (half lotus, lotus, or in my case no-tus) which way to turn, what bells and bongs signal, and on and on…  And all of this is so you can sit still in silence, which in the end is what ZaZen means - “simply sitting.”

I was somewhat intimidated by all the rules, but more so physically limited by my inflexible legs that I chose not to participate the first morning.  However at breakfast that day a table mate shared that I could request a chair (an option not given at my orientation), which numerous people do.  So I went for a refresher orientation on using a chair.  I got up the next two mornings at 5:30 for ZaZen.  It lasts an hour with 25 minutes of sitting, a 5 min interval to relax, and then 25 more.  And I confess (not sure if confession is very Zen) that it took all the mindfulness I could muster to stay awake after the 5 min interval. However, I did begin to realize an important Zen teaching – there is no meaning to the ritual!  The position of hands, posture, breath, bells, bongs, are all there as points of reference preparing you for and calling you into full awareness of the present moment.  In my words, it is meaningless form that leads to formlessness filled with meaning.

All of this really began to click for me on Wednesday night when we gathered at the Zendo for a Dhrama Talk (for Protestants it’s not quite a sermon but a little more than a Church School class) by one of Tassajara’s longtime teachers, Leslie James.  To begin with the Zendo was less solemn than at morning ZaZen with the cushions and pillows on the floor and chairs set up in rows all facing front door side of the room.  People did wear robes, etc. and sat “in the position” on the floor, but others of us sat normally in the chairs.  Then the ceremony and ritual began with bongs and bells as a man entered and did numerous preparatory rituals.  Then the front door swung open (you could see a hand disappear around the corner) and in comes this petite, white haired grandmotherly woman dressed in all manner of robes, capes, and scarves.   She went through an elaborate process of bowing, kneeling, prostrating, and folding before approaching a cushion and pillow on the platform by the door. It took what seemed like five minutes for her to arrange all the different folds in her robes and capes before actually sitting on the pillow, then once seated and turned toward us, another eternity arranging them around her folded legs.   She took a drink of water, clipped on a lavaliere mic and finally spoke.

What came next was not what one would expect following such solemn ceremony.  Instead of words of wisdom from on high in hallowed tones, her countenance completely changed as a sweet smile came on her face.  Her voice was bright, cheerful and conversational as she chatted about her children and grandchildren and how raising children reminds us of the lack of control we have over others, and life in general.  She spoke of the “craft” of Zen as merely a way of positioning oneself to be open to the present moment.  Then she really got my attention by sharing how she often imagined Tassajara as a stage with all its sets, props, and stage directions, positioning the cast to be together and open to each other’s presence.

This metaphor immediately exploded in my mind leaping to Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage…”, then to Plato’s parable of the cave with its shadows and ideals, on to the formlessness of Genesis over which the Spirit of Creation moves, and finally Christian liturgical forms, theological constructs, and institutional polities.  Our world is filled with forms that mean nothing in themselves, but point us toward ultimate meaning that resists and even defies form, and the quintessential human form being physical life itself with its artificial boundaries of birth, skin, bone, and death.  It’s the Catch 22 of our existence; form has no meaning, yet form is essential in order to experience ultimate meaning in formlessness.  As a wise person once said, “To realize there are many paths to God is no excuse for not taking at least one of them.” 

It all sounds so esoteric and ethereal yet at the core of it all is the practicality and craft of paying attention to the here and now.  The bongs, bells, bows, and postures of everyday life are constantly calling us to experience what lies behind them. For a few days last week Peg and I lived in a community where people practiced this craft and even those who never set foot inside a Zendo felt the difference.

All the things we do in our religious lives ultimately have no meaning, yet when practiced with integrity of intentional attention, actually do create a new reality.  Now if this is all sounds too Zen try bouncing these thoughts with the following Bible passages in mind:

 “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”  Isaiah 43:19

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”  Matthew 6:21-23

“Then he touched their eyes and said, "According to your faith let it be done to you." And their eyes were opened. “ Matthew 9:29-30

Then, after coming down from the mountains we spent a couple of wonderful days on Monterey peninsula exploring many place (forms) we had only read about or seen in photos and movies, including: Asilomar, the 17 mile drive, Pebble Beach, Point Lobos, Big Sur, The Bixby Creek Bridge, and Cannery Row.

Hopefully the slide show below will help give you a better feel for our experience and now we’re off the next adventure…!   When you start it, the intervals are 10 seconds.  If particular form does not suit you and you want to pause or go faster, take control with the pop up control bar at the bottom of the frame.

1 comment:

  1. I especially enjoyed your word pictures of life at Tassajara!