[Tassajara monastery has no internet and I had no computer there in 2000. 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]
Like last year, I am existing this winter at the Tassajara Zen Monastery, a complex of about ten large buildings and seventy smaller ones in the Ventana wilderness, twenty-five miles from Big Sur.
I am writing this on January twenty-third. It is strange to me that almost a quarter of the practice period (ninety day retreat) has already expired. The first three weeks when I was here last year lasted for years, but my time here this year has passed in a blink.
I have been feeling less of a need to write a letter like this one than I did last year. I’m feeling more socially connected here; less alone. In general, it has been easier, more pleasant, less difficult, less raw to be here this year.
The main reason why I think that this is is the fact that I came here this year together with a girlfriend, rather than, as last year, in conjunction with a painful breakup. I will admit however the usually pleasant comfort of being with Kendra, rather than the intense rupture and suffering of last year, seems to mean that I must constantly re-generate my reason for being here, instead of it being burningly obvious. The same is true for my reason for being with Kendra.
Another big reason why being here is more comfortable this year may simply be that this is my second practice period rather than my first, and this means, for example, that I know more how things work here, I know more what to expect, I have more of a connection and informal relationship with the other monks here, and people ask me what I think more and tell me what to do less. I am also better prepared this year. For example, I wear slip-on shoes in the zendo (meditation hall) and back instead of lace-up. That’s easier. And also I thought ahead to bring a big box of snacks – trail mix, Cheerios, potato chips, Ritz crackers – so I have been rarely hungry.
I have noticed my comfort being here in my different reason to seeing airplanes in the sky. Many days, I see confer trails inching across the high bright blue sky; it would seem that this part of the world is a well-travelled passageway for north-south flights. Last year, when I saw planes in the sky, I often noticed a longing desire to be on those planes, going somewhere interesting, anywhere but here. This year, however, usually, they are just planes in the sky, and I am glad to be right where I am.
Last year, during work periods, I was constantly shuttled around to something different and beginner-level each day, which was a strain. This year, in contrast, I have a regular work job, which has been more stable. Specifically, I have been working as the tenzo’s assistant (the tenzo is the head of the kitchen). So, my work has involved putting the big boxes and bags of food away after they arrives here over the mountain by truck, making sure that the food storage areas are kept neat and organized, keeping an eye on any sorts of foods running low, taking recycling from the kitchen out to bins, and making granola and gamasho (a salty Japanese condiment that people are oddly enamored of around here – I don’t understand). I like my job – I enjoy having my own area of responsibility and supervising myself, working physically, feeling like I am helping the kitchen monks and the sangha (community) at large. Some days I work past the end-of-work bell to get a job finished, defrosting a freezer, waiting for the granola to bake, separating out what’s still good from a box of moldy yams.
The schedule I am living on is similar to last year’s, which is probably similar to the schedule kept here thirty years ago, and perhaps similar to the schedule kept by Zen monks a thousand years ago in China. I am up at 3:50 am, on my meditation cushion by 4:15 am, being evenly and non-reactively aware until service (bowing, chanting) at 6:10 am, eating an ornate formal breakfast in meditation posture at 6:45, studying (reading Buddhist books) after that. Then, at 9 am, comes either twenty minutes of soji (temple cleaning: raking, scrubbing, sweeping) and then an hour-and-a-half of meditation, or a lecture and then some sitting, or a morning of work. At 11:20 am comes a ten-minute service followed by another formal meal. At 1:15 pm is work, in work clothes, which lasts until 4:15. At 5:50 pm it’s back into robes for anther service followed by a formal meal, and at 7:30 pm is an hour-and-a-half of meditation. About every fifth day, we sleep an hour later and have two of our meals at tables and have most of the rest of the day off. For a five-day period coming soon, we have sesshin (which means meditation pretty much all day). We will have a nine-day (!) and seven-day sesshins later in the three months.
Meditation, watching and experiencing how my mind creates my experience of myself and of the world around me, has been great, as it always is. I have, however, been falling asleep in the Zendo during meditation periods more than I am used to, which bums my trip. I am unsure what, if anything, I can do about it. In the beginning it was more understandable, I was up all night the night before we got here, emptying my bedroom for my sublettor and packing up for here (once we got out the door, Kendra drove most of the way here while I slept). But now, I have been sleeping whenever I can, a little over six hours each night, during breaks during the day, on days off, and I am still putting the Z’s into Zazen. Some people here, especially the older ones, are apparently fine with four to six hours of ordinary sleep a night, but not I am not.
Tenshin Reb Anderson is officiating this ninety-day retreat. He is the former abbot of the SFZC, one of my teachers, and, in my experience, a brilliant and inspirational teacher and lecturer. In his classes, we have been studying shamatha, which means meditation characterized by focusing the mind, deep concentration and letting go of analysis. Shamata is one of the two traditional aims of Buddhist meditation – we have been informed that we will later be studying vipassna, the other one, which is seeing beyond the “illusion” of a world of independently existing, real things and instead experience life as. . . I’m not sure what, an interconnected flow of impermanent events happening is, I think, the idea. In any event, on the topic of shamata, we’ve been hearing the regular Reb teachings that ask us to not activate our minds when a thought or perception arises, not to spin off into additional story or analysis, but just to notice the original thought as a thought, to have “a mind like a wall” instead of a mind like a hysterical monkey, to shine the light of the awareness back on itself and watch what we are aware of, moment by moment. That has felt great to listen to, clear and liberating. But he has also been quoting some old scriptures about, for example, watching out for the danger emotions, “they’re like a coiled snake,” that I am less subscribed to.
Like the time I was here last year (and like my life in the City, for that matter), I have started a number of books and stopped a while in to them because I was not finding them valuable. This has included “Krishnamurti for Beginners” from the Readers and Writers Series, a book I would recommend avoiding even for people that are fans of that series. A book that I have enjoyed has been “Thoughts Without a Thinker” by Mark Epstein. It’s not the most mind-blowingly cosmic Buddhist book I’ve ever read, but it is otherwise great. I appreciate its integration of the settled-down spaciousness of Buddhism with the depth and tricky wizardry of psychoanalysis, and I like that it is full of practical insight about the mind and its pacification.
I’ve also been reading an amusing, strange, and interesting book called “The Record of Master Yun Men”. It consists of transcripts of interchanges between a tenth Century Chinese Zen teacher and his students. Yun Men used sarcasm, double meanings, subtle hints pop-culture phrases (the equivalent of advertising jingles), and told students to go to hell in an effort to cut through the delusions and fears of his students and have them realize the perfection of the moment here-and-now. It’s fun to read.
I have started sewing a rakusu, which is a small cloth item that looks like a bib that figuratively represents the robe of the historical Buddha and more concretely signifies commitment to Zen Buddhism. It is unusual that I have lived at the various San Francisco Zen Center complexes for two years and sat about a hundred days of sesshin and have not sewn one yet. “Finally!” is what long time Zen priest Gaelyn Godwyn said when I told her I was joining the sewing class. Also in the class are four friends who are all sewing okesas (huge priests robes that take a long time to make) for priest ordination with Reb in April, and a whole bunch of friends who are sewing rakasus for Jukai (lay ordination). The teacher who I am sewing to do lay ordination under is Ryushin Paul Haller.
When Kendra and I first got together last year, she had just ended a two year relationship with a guy who lives here and who was also my friend. The guy was understandably upset over how events unfolded. I was uncertain how it would be to be around him, but it has been a pleasant surprise. We went on a long hike together two days ago (it was pouring rain) and talked it out.
The weather has been unmistakably warmer this year than it was last year – although I still often feel resistance in the morning to getting out from under the warm covers and standing up in the unheated, uninsulated cabin in the below-freezing woods. Kendra and I share a tiny chilly cabin (number nineteen) that we have made cozy and livable by putting a rug on the floor and five comforters on the bed. Kendra spent a lot of both her childhood and adulthood at Tassajara, and knows how things work around here – so, she knew to have us raid many of the rooms that are used in the summer but not in the winter to obtain three painted wooden dressers. So, now, I like being in our room, even if it is sometimes cold. We have a “Butt-a-Day” calendar that I gave her for Christmas, each day it has a new picture of some cheeks, some arty, some pornographic, some not that interesting in either direction. Living and being with Kendra has been mostly pleasant – often great, sometimes a challenge. No big surprise, I suppose, that’s how relationships go. For example, I was not aware before coming here what a rural girl she seems to be and, in contrast, what a non-rural guy I seem to be.
Every once in awhile I notice how clean, beautiful, and nature-ful it is here. There is a river/creek-themed phenomena that breaks over rocks fifteen feet from the biggest window in our room. Right now, it is swollen and violently rushing, muddy and overflowing, since we have had rain for three days straight.
The air also seems to be notably clean here. Most mornings and nights when I am living in the City, I rub a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol over my face to clean it. When I’m done, the whole thing is usually brown and gray, covered with the exhaust and other city grime that my face collected over the day or night. Here, I only do this ablution once a day, and when I’m finished, the cotton ball looks about the same as when I started. I am trying not to think about what this means for my lungs’ health in the City ….
I am feeling concern about money these days – I don’t have much right now. I am also feeling a concern about getting a job and, once I start a new programming job, maybe getting more irritable and maybe not feeling as expansive, nowhere-to-go, nothing-to-do that I often feel here in the monastery, even when I’m busy. I do feel pleased, however, because I believe that I can find well-paying and reasonably pleasant employment once I look.
… now it is February sixth – it’s taken me a while to finish and copy this letter from its first draft. I realize, reading it over, that it covers a lot of the same ground as my letters last year, but I suppose that is because my experience is not that different except for, as I explained, being easier.
As with last year, please do not respond to this email; I wrote it out by hand and my main man Rich typed it in and sent it out. As I’ve said, there is barely electricity here, much less email. Also, as with last year, this letter goes out to lots of people with whom I have lots of different types of relationships, so if its tone or content seems unusual to you, that’s why.
I will be here until April fourth.
“Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise.”
—The Lankavatana Sutra