Tassajara Report: a personal account
This account includes some of what I posted before, but is more complete overall. Questions and comments are welcome.
Going to Tassajara was difficult for me. Three threads ran through my time there: homesickness, physical challenges, and working with my own personal karma. These three overlapped and were interwoven in significant ways.
Tassajara is a beautiful place, and a Practice Period of three months (of which they do two each year, Fall and Winter) is a wonderful way to step out of your daily life and deepen your practice. I found many aspects of the experience pleasant and rewarding: great food, lots of Dharma, daily study hall, beautiful baths, friendly supportive people, plenty of zazen, and a schedule that supported all of that. And still, there were times when I was miserable -- having, of course, brought my misery with me.
The intensity of homesickness surprised me. It started months before I actually left home, as soon as I knew I was going to go away. At some point I just got determined that I would go regardless of my feelings, and settled into preparation with an almost grim stubbornness, spending hours tweaking my application, making packing lists and travel arrangements, and doing my best to make sure things were covered here before I left (but how will they ever manage without me? and even worse, what if they do just fine without me? what does that mean about my value here?). In the end, of course, I left with some things still undone, but got everything packed up, and off I went.
My travel plans worked out okay, though hauling my luggage up the steep hill to San Francisco Zen Center was not the wisest move I ever made. I spent most of a day and all night at City Center (as they call SFZC) because of the train schedule. I slept in the Buddha hall on a monk's bed, which was wonderful from my point of view, having slept little on the train the night before. The next morning, several of us had breakfast, loaded all of our stuff into a truck and a van, and began the next stage of the journey. Much conversation and two stops for gas and last chance to buy a candy bar -- it occurred to me that I didn't have any ibuprofen, and it might be prudent to get a small bottle, so I did. At Jamesburg, the last outpost, we picked up a few more people for the last leg of the journey, and I ended up in the middle of the back seat -- the van was full with 9 people.
The last 14 miles into Tassajara is a more-or-less graveled county road that goes up and down, around hairpin turns, with significant holes and ruts, and takes an hour. Several people parked their passenger cars in Jamesburg and came in and out with the shuttles. From the middle of the back seat I couldn't see all that well, but got a little sense of the country, lots of steep hills, increasingly rugged cliffs, rocks slanted in chaotic folds, drop-offs on first one side of the road and then the other. People pointed out caves and said we could hike to them to explore (though I never did), and then we were there.
We arrived just at noon, as people were gathering to chant for lunch. We joined the chant and the lunch (I was relieved to note that the meal chant was the same, except for one word, which took me weeks to get used to). After lunch I got my stuff into my dorm room, and found out where the Zendo was, and then we met for Work Circle. It was hot, so we met in the shady courtyard rather than the usual work circle space up on the road.
All of the instructions about what to pack had emphasized that it gets cold at Tassajara, and talked about wool socks, hats, sweaters, gloves, scarves, coats, rain gear, boots, etc. When I arrived it was close to 100 degrees, and I was wearing the lightest thing I had brought, which was heavy cotton samue. I sweltered through the first few days and discovered in the process that there is also warm weather at Tassajara, hot weather, pleasant weather, and that people there don't wear samue all the time, which was pretty much all I brought with me aside from formal robes. I also eventually discovered "Goodwill," where a friend found a sun hat for me, and I found a tee shirt and flip-flops. That helped a lot.
Tangaryo started the next day. That's five days of just sitting in the Zendo for anyone who hasn't done a Practice Period before. There are regular oryoki meals and services morning and evening and 30-minute breaks after meals, but otherwise, sitting, maybe 10-12 hours a day. That actually went pretty well. When my knees got sore after a couple of days, I began taking ibuprofen and relaxing my posture. That was fine, except that it was so comfortable, it led to a lot of sleepiness. But on day five, I decided since it was the last day I was going to go back to half-lotus posture and my best posture and best effort. That day was wonderful, lots of silent, focused stillness.
The hardest thing about Tangaryo was emotional. I was in a place I didn't know, with people I didn't know, and sounds outside the Zendo that I didn't recognize. The birds sounded different, and there was a surprising amount of vehicular traffic for a remote mountain center. They would periodically ring a loud bell or play a loud drum, and I didn't really know why. There were people's voices in activities I didn't understand. I felt bereft, alone, exiled from my own home. My practice thus far, however, helped me simply to sit still through it, let the feelings arise and fall, and my own stubbornness did the rest.
The Tangaryo students (11 of us) were a cohort of people who were in a position similar to postulants here at Dharma Rain Zen Center. We had no ongoing responsibilities, though we were trained in various jobs that rotated on a daily basis (serving oryoki, lighting and blowing out kerosene lamps, cleaning the Zendo, and playing some of the outdoor instruments at various times). We had no authority, and seniors felt free to offer us feedback and correction. Our work assignments (3-5 hours a day, depending on the schedule) were, for the most part, General Labor, which in practice usually meant going to the kitchen to chop vegetables and such. Occasional changes in assignments to wash dishes (not in the kitchen, but in the Dish Shack), or assist with housekeeping, were welcome but few. A few of the Tangaryo students who had spent some time there before during summer had different assignments, in the shop or working on lanterns.
During Practice Period, participants stay at Tassajara, not leaving at all (with a few exceptions for senior staff who sometimes had business in the City). We sat meditation 4-8 hours most days (more during the three silent retreats we had during the Period), ate most of our meals formal oryoki fashion in the zendo, and had a regular schedule of chanting, work, study, and classes. We did get "days off" every 4-6 days (the number of days between varied, which is not typical for a monastery -- usually they are every 5 days without fail) where we sat and did morning service and breakfast, and then had about 8 hours off to take care of personal business (laundry, sewing new setsu tips for oryoki, hikes, naps, shaving, etc.) before evening service, dinner, and sitting again.
One thing I loved was Study Hall, an hour most days when we were to be in the dining room reading. I read through three books during the term (making notes, copying quotes, etc.), and looked briefly at a couple more. There's an extensive library there, but these were books on the "reserve" shelf in the dining room related to the classes being taught by the abbot. Some people used the time to study a language (one guy was studying Sanskrit, and a Japanese man was studying English), and a few were sewing robes.
As we settled into the schedule, I began to notice a strange sensation in my mid-back on the left side. It wasn't painful at first, and I wasn't sure what was causing it or how serious it might be. It gradually, continually got worse, though, until I could barely lift anything without pain, was in pain most of the time doing meditation, was lying down during every single break I could find during the day (including day off), and found many ordinary daily activities painful (eating, dressing, even walking when it was at its worst), never mind chopping in the kitchen.
So I addressed it in three ways, actually four if you count talking with practice advisors. I called Dharma Rain to ask them to send my own zafu, which I had made for myself and is bigger and thicker than anything they had there. I made an appointment with a chiropractor who came in one time during the 3 months. That cost me money, and I couldn't tell whether it helped or not; in any case, it was not immediate relief. And I began to bring mindfulness to my back -- what happens when I do this? how can I sit to find relief? how can I do this activity without hurting my back? When I realized that this problem with my back was not a distraction from my practice, but was actually what I had to practice with, things began to improve. Slowly, very slowly, but steadily. I would say that my back is still not back to "normal," whatever that is, but it is at least no longer painful.
My own personal karma has been a challenge to me for the past four years that I've lived at Dharma Rain, and the experience at Tassajara put me right up against it in a new way. I discovered that I still hold a deep belief that it's not okay to have feelings, much less to express those feelings, and I had a lot of fear that I would get into trouble if I made mistakes or ran into problems. That is part of what was difficult about working with the back problems at first -- it took a long time even to acknowledge that I had a problem, much less let others know about it. In addition, many of my past coping techniques were not available to me, since I wasn't allowed to take charge of anything, and when my back got worse, I couldn't even help people out in the ways I was accustomed to (carrying food from the kitchen to the dining room, helping to move furniture, volunteering to do extra things, etc.). I even had to stop serving oryoki for a month, as carrying pots of food from the kitchen to the zendo, and then carrying them into the zendo to serve people, were all painful and aggravated the back. Talking with practice advisors helped a lot as I navigated the feelings that came up around it all, and they assured me that I was right where I should be in my practice with it. Monastic practice is designed to put people right up against their stuff.
I ended up talking with three different practice advisors, including the abbot. I met with them for 45 minutes to an hour at a time every so often (maybe once a week or so). This happens during meditation times, and everyone is expected to stay in touch with at least one of the practice advisors throughout the Practice Period. I found it very helpful to keep checking in about what was going on with me, and to get some good advice and feedback about my practice. I was familiar with the process, because I get that here too, but it worked a bit differently there, and it took me a while to figure out the system for getting in to see people.
I would like to say that my meditation practice deepened and I got better at meditation, but I'm not sure that's true. When I told the abbot that I didn't think anything had improved in my meditation practice, though, he advised me not to be so sure about that. And I think that's good advice. It's hard to say right now what the overall effect of this three months of practice has had on me. There were no huge breakthroughs, maybe, but definitely some small ones. I feel a bit lighter, a bit less constricted, with a looser sense of identity/self, maybe a little freer. I'm smiling more these days, maybe just because I'm so glad to be back home, and maybe because I haven't entirely gotten back into the groove of lots of work. Or maybe I've let go of some of my misery and left it there.
In any case, it's clear to me that the time was well-spent. Stepping out of my comfort zone and routine here at Dharma Rain was very difficult, and also very valuable. I learned some good things in the process, and I trust that the experience will serve me well as I continue practice and training.