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Unplug and Zen Out at Tassajara

The zendo at Tassajara, where meditation and dharma talks are held.

I’ll admit it up front: I’m no stranger to the kind of “spiritual spa” experience that most people outside of the Bay Area—let alone most serious spiritual practitioners—roll their eyes at. I’ve been to Esalen Institute more than a dozen times, attended a couple of adventure yoga retreats, and paid my Sensitive New Age Guy dues to more massage therapists than could ever be justified. With my level of familiarity verging on jadedness, it takes a lot to make me feel like I’ve actually experienced something special, let alone sacred, but a recent weekend at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center did just that.

Located about five hours’ drive time away in Big Sur’s Ventana Wilderness, Tassajara is a working, Soto Zen monastery affiliated with the San Francisco Zen Center. Each summer, Tassajara opens its doors for public programs, which include yoga weekends, cooking classes and wilderness excursions. Guests stay in beautifully appointed—and lit-by-kerosene-lamp—cabins and yurts; my girlfriend and I enjoyed a newly renovated bungalow on the creek that runs through the middle of the property.

Unlike those of lush, Dionysian Esalen—with whom Tassajara shares a friendly relationship—the grounds of the Mountain Center are serene, even austere. The compact layout of the property is bookended by monks’ housing at one end and a newly built “green” retreat center at the other. The monastery’s stately zendo—where group meditation and evening dharma talks are held—rises from the center of the property, providing anchor to the surrounding, low-lying buildings. 

If you’re not participating in a public program, your days are left open for hiking the numerous trails running through the property, taking long soaks in the mineral springs-fed bathhouse, or partaking in prolonged contemplation in a thoroughly WiFi-free environment. On our second afternoon there, program director David Zimmerman suggested that I take a walk down through “The Narrows,” a riverside trail where, as he put it, “you might have to slip off your shoes once or twice.” 

To make a long story short, my hiking companion and I went, unintentionally, a little off-trail. Ok, a lot. Several waist-deep river crossings and one six-inch-long gash in my calf later, we had pushed the retreat experience a little further into adventure territory than expected. I wondered, only half-jokingly, whether Zimmerman had sent us on the hike as some kind of Zen-koan Ultimate Challenge. 

Which wouldn’t necessarily be out of character—in 2008, Zimmerman and four fellow monks remained on property while that summer’s Big Sur wildfires raged through the valley. Encouraged by local fire agencies to evacuate, the monks decided instead to hold their ground, pumping water from the creek to fend off the flames. The account of their heroic vigil forms the basis of Fire Monks, a just published page-turner that shows, at the risk of sounding flip, just how bad-ass Zen monks can be.      

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something—or a lot—about the food. Speaking as a veteran of many retreat centers’ mess halls, the Tassajara kitchen is a revelation. Which shouldn’t be a surprise; after all, the San Francisco Zen Center operates San Francisco’s renowned Greens vegetarian restaurant, and the Tassajara Bread Book has been a perennial bestseller since its original publication in 1970. Suffice it to say that Una Pizza Napoletana can’t hold a candle to the pizza coming out of these ovens, and the lusty, decidedly non-ascetic lemon bars would have made my grandmother weep.

Trying to describe what happens internally at a spiritual retreat center is a tricky business. To say that one leaves “refreshed” or “relaxed” can diminish the subtle shifts—in perception, in sensitivity—that can occur. At Tassajara, these shifts seem to be the direct result of being in close proximity to the monks’ meditation practice, which is elegant and orthodox without seeming over-serious. Each mealtime, we would hear long, spontaneous roars of laughter coming from the monks’ separate mess hall, indicating that spiritual devotion and rollicking joy are hardly mutually exclusive. 

Making the trip to Tassajara is not a casual affair. The last one-and-a-half hours of the car journey, through a winding one-way mountain road, will rattle your bones and nerves. But it’s worth it—there are many public programs left this guest season, and plenty of room for personal retreat. If you want to meet David Zimmerman and the other Fire Monks, they’ll be at the City Center this Thursday night, signing copies of the new book and previewing an in-progress documentary about the fire. You’ll be inspired; you’ll be stimulated; there’s also a good chance you’ll laugh all the way home.