[Tassajara monastery has no internet and I had no computer there in 1999. I completed writing this letter by hand and then sent the pages through the US postal service to my housemate and friend Rich, who typed it in, and emailed it out to a mailing list of friends]
I finally got here. “Yo, wassup” from Tassajara Zen Monastery.
Please do not reply to this e-mail, as I probably won’t see any replies until April; these words is being typed in by my housemate, who got a letter from me snail-mail. If you want to say “yo, wassup” to me, please send a letter to:
Adam Coutts, c/o Zen Mountain Center 39171 Tassajara Road Carmel Valley, CA 93924
So, here I am – two weeks into a three-month retreat at the monastery I have been hearing about for years. As people have told me for years, living here is indeed more intense and demanding that living at the other two campuses of the San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch and City Center.
The daily schedule here is packed to the rafters, starting at 3:50 AM four out of five days (the fifth day starts later and has more free time). On regular days, we have six periods of seated meditation, each between forty-five minutes and one hour long, as well as about a half-hour of walking meditation. We chant (in English, Japanese, and an ancient Indian language called Pali) for about an hour at various times throughout the day. We read Buddhist books for an hour in the mornings, we eat all three meals in an ornate, formal manner that takes about forty-five minutes each, and we work for four hours (so far, my work assignments have been monastic stereotypes: raking, sweeping, doing dishes and chopping vegetables). Various talks by priests, and special jobs like lighting lanterns and ringing bells, are worked into the mix also.
On “normal days”, until the schedule for the day completes at nine pm, we also have five free-time periods that aggregate up to three-and-a-half hours total. That may sound like a lot, but I have found that the time seems to fill up with many necessary activities: changing into and out of robes (we spend the work period each afternoon wearing work clothes, but spend the rest of the day and night in formal Japanese monastic robes), showering (there are some resort-quality hot tubs and baths here), sewing various things, taking care of laundry (which we do all by hand — I didn’t know what a washboard was used for besides bluegrass music before this), and napping.
I came here expecting the intensity to be a lot worse. We do not have much social time, but there is a little, which is a little more than I expected, and it’s been fun. I knew quite a few people when I got here from my past lives at other Zen Center. A few of them I would label “amigos,” most are more like acquaintances, and a few are what people around here call “opportunities to practice patience”. Generally, I’m sometimes comfortable with people here and dig the vibe, and at other times I feel like the new squid on the dock, which can feel stressful. Also, not talking for hours on end is intended, I suppose, to force us into ourselves in a positive way, and sometimes, yes, I feel at home in myself when we are not talking all day. Other times, though. I feel alienated and feel a desire to talk and connect with people. The social vibe here generally sometimes bugs me; it seems, to my just-arrived eyes, as, at some times and in some ways, negatively religious, hierarchical, rule-based, socially conservative, serious, and demanding.
Before I got here, based on what I had heard, I expected the temperature to be cold all day, with snow on the ground, or a cold rain falling continuously. And, yes my shared bedroom is in an unheated, always-in-the-shadows building informally known as “The Meat Locker”. When in my room, I can usually see my exhalation condensation, whatever time of day it is. But, to be fair, many days here are sunny and seventy degrees outside during the early afternoon hours, and not so bad the rest of the day. When the mist clears and the surrounding hills appear, with their strong trees and jutting rocks, it is amazingly beautiful here.
All of the meditating has been great for me. It has been kick-ass – energizing, clarifying, and calming – to be away from the struggles of my life in the City, and just be myself and watch that happen on the meditation cushion for hours on end. In fact, I started my residency here with the five days of just meditation, five-thirty am to eight-thirty pm. This practice emulates an ancient Chinese/Japanese ritual, called “tangario”, of requesting entrance to a temple by sitting by its front gate until allowed in. This sitting was difficult, in the form of boredom, anxiety, and knee and back pain. It was also, however, grounding, clarifying, liberating, exciting, mystical, profound … use your own thesaurus to come up with more such words.
Many times a day, however, I fantasize about, and almost begin planning, leaving here to go back to San Francisco. My reasons for wanting to and my reasons for not wanting to are extended and complex, but they may boil down to finding the spiritual work here valuable and something I am committed to, on the one hand, and, on the other, finding the social scene deadening (as I said, rule-based, religious-y, conservative) and feeling like other things in the City (buying a car, my friends, learning C++ programming, learning martial arts) are more important to me than renunciation and religion right now. My relationship breakup right before I left adds to the confusion of both wanting to be here and wanting to be in my City life. I suppose, if I am honest with myself, that I want to be able to date right now, so as to enable myself to forget my ex.
So, there is a chance that I will come back to my normal life before the April eighth date that this retreat is scheduled to end. You, my friends, will hear about such an event immediately if I do make such a choice. Assuming that I don’t, I’d love to hear from y’all while I’m here – letters gratefully welcome.