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Reflections and Lessons with “Abbot Steve” at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

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Often when we are in the midst of something special or significant, we don’t take note of the fact as it is happening. Even if we do reflect enough to realize that the moment were are experiencing is of greater than normal importance, it doesn’t have the gravity or true depth that a memory over time creates. Like a stone being pushed down the river, our mind constantly turns these memories over and over again, and as a result the memory becomes more refined, smoother, more eloquent than the original event. Its only through the long lens of time that we are truly able to appreciate the depth of things that have happened in our lives. And so it is with my experience, and my memories of Abbot Steve at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

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How I came to meet Abbott Steve was completely by chance, but now seems as if it was meant to happen. I had often heard of a mysterious Zen monastery in the mountains of Big Sur. Having gone to college at Cal Poly in nearby San Luis Obispo, and being a surfer, I was very well travelled in the Big Sur area; but I had never seen any physical evidence of the whereabout of this monastery, just that it was “somewhere in the mountains”. Over the years I had dabbled in Zen through what I could teach myself from books, but I knew I wasn’t getting the essence and I was just walking around in the dark. Really the only book that grabbed my attention was “Conversations with Suzuki Roshi”. It is an edited series of lectures given in the 50′s and 60′s by the first Japanes Buddhist monk to teach Zen in the west, Suzuki Roshi. Suzuki Roshi has had a great impact on western views of Buddhism and Zen, without being expressly accredited for his contributions. I read some of his lecture, and meditated from time to time, but that was the extent of my involvement with Zen.

Flash forward ten years or so to my life working as a professional stuntman and living in LA. No longer living life in the quiet, pastoral hills and valleys of upcountry Maui or San Luis Obispo, but now I was in the heat, smog and traffic of LA. I felt very detached, very disconnected from myself. The exhilirating feeling I had as a man living month to month as a martial artist and surfer was gone. A sense of balance and ease that came from constantly being checked in with myself and my actions, and having a quiet spiritual relationship with myself based on meeting simple needs and make moral analysis’ of events and decision in my life. This reflective young man got lost somewhere in the complicated city life working as a stunt man. I had lost scope of these simple things that had once brought me so much pleasure and satisfaction such as a freshly made hot cup of tea, or a good book, stretching, or just sitting in the sun. These simple things had somehow lost a little bit of their appeal to me, and I was very self aware of that fact.

So I decided I was in need of a spiritual boot camp, something that was going to ground me and get me back to my core identity. I remembered this mysterious “Zen Monastery in the Mountains” and did some exploring online. It did’t take long for me to find this mysterious places’ website, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Not only was it famous and easy to find, online at least, but I discovered that it also was founded by the famous Suzuki Roshi himself. Apparently the Grateful Dead helped finance the purchase of the remote resort and it’s conversation to a monastery. I was immediately sold on the idea and discovered that there was a week long workshop that taught both Zen and Yoga that fit in my travel window, so I booked it.

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It was slow going down the dirt fire road in the steep mountains of Big Sur. But every turn revealed turn and pass revealed another panorama of unspoiled forests and mountains as far as the eye can see. Truly an inspiring part of the world, hours from cell service, with an hour and a half of winding dirt road ahead. I felt like I was going in the right direction. When I got their I was immediately greeted by the enormous Meditation Hall which sits tall and proud at the entrance, visitors walking on a path well below it’s foundations. A sense of reverence was immediately instilled in me for this quiet place dedicated to self exploration and self improvement. I checked into my shared room, met my roommates who were doing other events at the Monastery, and I set of for the first meeting of my week long workshop in Zen and Yoga.

Abbot Steve was co-leading the retreat with another Zen Monk, Shoguchi. Shoguchi lead the Yoga portion of the retreat while Abbot Steve lead the Zen portion of the retreat. We had three or four activity sessions a day, either just yoga, or zen and yoga. I will admit I didn’t attend all of the sessions because I was very curious about the Monastery and all the monks and lay practitioners who lived and worked there. I also was very enthusiastic about filming video and taking pictures of the monastery; I was very much enamored with the place and it’s people. I made many friends there, and from these Zen practitioners I often heard them say how lucky I was to be having a retreat with Abbot Steve, and how amazing he is. During his discussions and lectures in the retreat I didn’t find him a very engaging public speaker, to be quite honest. He didn’t seem to have that sharp wit and charm that Suzuki Roshi had, at least from a distance, and even though I paid close attention to his talks I didn’t feel I got what everyone was talking about.

One night I decided to attend one of his Dharma Talks at the Meditation Hall, and again I had the same reaction. I liked what he was saying and who he was, but I didn’t get this “amazing” quality that everyone kept talking about. As the Dharma Talk was winding down, he announced that he was going to sing a song, and that everyone could join in. The song was “Relax Your Mind” by Leadbelly. This is a classic folk song recorded in the field by American Anthropologist Alan Lomax, and performed by Huddy Leadbetter, or Leadbelly. Alan Lomax had a huge impact on me as a documentary filmmaker and as a musician because through him I discovered a passion for Anthropology and of recording culture for preservation and posterity. This was exactly why I was documenting my experience at the Monastery with photos and videos, to provide a cultural glimpse into this mysterious world of “the Zen Monastery in the mountains”. With this random and obscure connection, to have Abbot Myogen sing this song that I knew all to well and held near to my heart was like getting hit on the head with a bell. It was such a clear sign to me, and I remember Abbot Steve’s voice in my head, saying a phrase I had heard him use a lot in his talks, the voice in my head said “inquire further’.

The next day I asked him if I could interview him about Zen, the Monastery, and his own personal life. I told Abbot Steve about my love for Alan Lomax and Anthropology and what I intended to do with this interview. As I talked to him and explained my intentions, I saw his reluctant and reticent posture slowly dissolve and turn into a big smile from ear to ear. Abbot Steve is a Mennonite, originally. Mennonites are known for being tolerant and peaceful people, so naturally he became very involved in the civil rights movements of the 60′s, and this is where he became a fan of Leadbelly. Folk music became an important vehicle to get messages across and to inspire people during the 60′s, and may folk classics originally performed by Leadbelly had be used during this movement. Ironically, I discovered Leadbelly on iTunes. As an avid Delta Blues aficionado, I scoured for the rarest most obscure recordings I could find. None were better than the recordings of Alan Lomax, who recorded and discovered Leadbelly. To have this shared connection over such a huge gap of generations was pleasing to both of us, I think. Although we never expressed it, I think this is what really made us instantly comfortable with each other, despite being complete strangers.

Not until you get to sit down one on one with Abbot Steve do you truly get to appreciate him. His Dharma name, Myogen, means “Subtle-Eye”, and it is a well given moniker. He is extremely observant, and lives in the moment, like a true Zen Monk should. When talking with him you really get sucked into this blissful place called the present, and conversations are effortless yet have so much sincerity, lightness, and dpeth. Such is the amazing grace and subtlety of Abbot Steve. In a large crowd talking to a great many of people his subtlety is easy to miss, but one on one you have no choice to be drawn in by it. We went 15 minutes over the short 30 minute block he had set aside for me in his busy schedule, and I do mean BUSY schedule. As the Central Abbot he has many top level duties and obligations, he doesn’t have to lead workshops, he doesn’t have to be taking meetings with anyone and everyone that wants his time, but he does it anyway, and that is why he was Central Abbott. He truly lead by example, it showed in his actions, it showed in his personality, it showed in his smile. After our short time together in the interview I felt like I had made a close friend, someone who in some way I was akin too, in what way I couldn’t tell, but there was something.

This interview happened towards the end of the retreat, and my time at the Monastery was coming to a close. I had been reading a book while I was at the Monastery called “Fire Monks”. It is a story about a small group of monks who stayed behind to defend the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center from wild fires in 2009, after the monastery had been evacuated. I was still in the middle of reading it, and Abbott Steve played a central role in the story line, for he was the Central Abbott in ’09 as well. However, I didn’t know how central his role was until I finished the book a week later. I think it’s best I didn’t know what a legend Abbott Myogen is until after I met him, so that I got to meet him without a filter, and truly get to know him as a person, not as a mythical creature. The story goes that the Monastery had been working with fire department constantly though the Summer of 2009 to prepare for the worst wildfires in California history. California Department of Fire (CDF) and the Sherifs department worked with the monks deep in the mountains to help prepare the monastery for the various wildfires that were basically surrounding them. When it got to the point where the CDF declared it was no longer safe for its personnel to stay at the Monastery, they evacuated the monastery. CDF, the Sheriffs Department and all the Monks left in one big convoy up the mountain, abandoning the Monastery to the oncoming wildfires. At some point on the drive up the mountain Abbot Myogen had a premonition of some sort, his subtle eye caught something that everyone else missed; he he pulled over on the side of the road and waved all the monks, fire men, and deputies by. After a short conversation with the authorities who expressly told him not to do so, Abbot Myogen returned to the monastery with three other monks by his side to defend the Monastery from the wildfire. Four monks versus one of the largest wildfires in California history. I don’t have to tell you who won. These monks today are known as the “Fire Monks”, and Abbot Myogen was their leader in chief.

Without knowing this dramatic ending, I gave Abbott Myogen, the Fire Monk, my copy of the book for him to sign. I’ll never forget him taking the book in his hand, sitting and thinking for one or two breaths, Zen breaths mind you, which take quite a while. He than scribbled a short little something in the book, closed it and handed it back to me. In the commotion of everyone departing and saying good bye I didn’t read the inscription right away. I wanted to savor it for a moment when I had time to give it attention. When I opened it, I saw Abbot Myogen had written me a short little koan, or poem-like message….

Dear Fire-in-the-body
No Path, No Obstacles
Please Continue

This short little phrase wrung my bell; it stunned me, quite literally, my eyes popping out of my head and my mouth opening. It felt like I was in a dream. How had this man, who knew me for so short a time, could see who I was, what my problem was, and offer me a solution, all in three short little phrases? And it took him about ten seconds. I felt like a nail and he had just hit me square on the head and drove me straight down into the board with one hit, like a master carpenter. Anyone who knows me would agree Fire-in-the-body is a perfect moniker for me, but I was quite calm and zen at this retreat, at least for me I was. I obviously didn’t fool “Subtle-Eye”. By telling me to have no path, to not identify too much with anything or any course of action, Abbott Myogen gave me a way to cease having obstacles. Finally, Abbott Myogen gave me what I needed most, which was an affirmation, “please continue”. Affirming people is one of the most powerful things you can do for another person, and Abbott Myogen quietly yet resoundingly affirmed me. I had gotten in trouble with some of the higher monks at the monastery for my filming; even though I was told it was okay to film people and places as long as I had their consent, some of the monks really didn’t like it, and they told me so. After my interview with Abbott Myogen, all of the looks and questions stopped, and everyone who was giving me a hard time before let me be. This to me was a clear sign that Abbott Myogen affirmed me and believed in what I was doing, just as much as him writing it on the inside sleeve of my book. Being recognized by such an esteemed and respected individual has had an astounding effect on me to this day.

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Two months after my interview with Abbott Steve, he passed away with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It came as a sudden shock to everyone. The week after the interview he started to fell sick and went to see a doctor. Test results came back that he was late in the stages of Cancer and that it had spread throughout his body. It was now just a matter of time until Abbott Steve passed on to the other side. Our conversation was the last recording of Abbott Myogen before he fell ill. After Abbott Steve passed, I was very anger and bitter at the universe for taking this new friend away from me. I couldn’t understand this, but than I realized how wrong I was looking at the situation, and not in the way that Abbott Myogen would want me too. I was looking at the glass as half empty, but it was very much half full. To think that I was so lucky to have this amazing experience with this great man so close to his death is nothing short of a true blessing. I knew this was the case but I hadn’t yet let go of my attachment to my desire to have a wise, grand-fatherly role model. Once I let my attachment to this idea go, something I learned to do from Zen, I became extremely grateful for the friend that I had and the effect he had on me, and no longer mournful because of the friend I lost. After looking at this experience more and more through the long lens of time, I can see this all the more clearer, and I am eternally grateful to have known Abbott Steve, and for the effect that he had on my life.

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