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Restoration: Tassajara Zen Mountain Center

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In the last weeks of summer, I had the pleasure of visiting the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center for a Zen and Yoga Retreat. I had heard so much of Tassajara over the years, mostly because of my interest in the famous Zen Monk Suzuki Roshi and his pioneering work in the spreading Zen Buddhism to the West.

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Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was founded by Suzuki Roshi and his students in 1966 as the first place in the Western World solely dedicated to monastic training in Zen Buddhism. Tassajara was previously a hot springs resort before it was purchased by the San Francisco Zen Center. Suzuki Roshi and his students decided to leave the Monastery open for guests in the Summer and Fall Season, and closed to the public for dedicated monastic training during the Winter and Spring. I luckily attended the last weekend retreat of the guest season.

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The drive to Tassajara is far off the beaten path. Located in the Los Padres Mountains, just east of the Big Sur coastline, Tassajara is far removed from technology, cell service, and even electricity. The rooms don’t have electric lights or outlets, and the entire monastery is light at night with gas lanterns up and down the paths.

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Every day during the guest season, the morning wake up bell is rung at 530 am. Usually it is  delivered by a resident monk ringing the bell vigorously as they run up and down the pathways in the dark with a head lamp on. Morning meditation than starts at 6 am sharp in the Zendo. A wooden block called the “han” is struck in a sort of rhythmic pattern to let people know how soon the sitting mediation will start. The mediation lasts for an hour, at which point there is a 10 to 15 minute period of chanting.

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After the morning meditation, which lasts from 6 am to a little after 7am, we would have morning tea and than head to morning yoga by 7:30. The yoga classes was very gentle and subtle, perfect for all age ranges and for relaxing and getting grounded. The class lasted until about 9am, at which point we would finally have breakfast. This was a stretch for me personally, being up for almost four hours before putting something in my stomach, but I was committed to living and respecting the lifestyle they have at Tassajara.

As you can see, it really wasn’t that hard.

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The food is all vegetarian, but surprisingly decadent for a Zen Monastery. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all multi course meals with various choices at each sitting. People are allowed to bring in their own beer and wine, and many of the participants do so. Tassajara is part monastery, part resort. Not only are these two dichotomous elements joined together in Tassajara, but they are done so seamlessly. I’m sure the monks prefer to have the monastery to themselves and not have all the tourists around, but you couldn’t tell if that was the case because their patience, tolerance and cheerfulness towards visitors is very impressive. When you visit Tassajara, you are surrounded by people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to Buddhism, and you see all around you the authenticity of these peoples practice. It is a very humbling experience to see people dedicating themselves to what is essentially self awareness and being moral and ethical people. Not a bad bunch to hang out with.

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