Inside California’s original Zen retreat

Everyone from Buddhist monks to pop stars has come to Tassajara for spiritual enlightenment. Now people come to unplug and recharge

Rachel Levin

The first gong I hear isn’t really a gong but a gentle ding-ding-ding as a monk moves down the path in front of my cabin. I struggle to my feet, grab my water bottle, and shuffle out into the pitch-dark on my way to morning meditation. It’s 5:20 a.m. and I’m wondering, What am I doing here?

“You can’t sit still,” everyone from my mother to my husband to my therapist has always told me. It’s true. I’m the always-running-around type. Running late. Running errands. Running just to run. I talk as fast as I move, and if I do sit still for any length of time, it’s because I have a laptop propped against my legs.

And I’m not the only one. We live in the Always-On Age. We text while we walk and IM while we talk and spend more time with our screens than with our spouses. I needed a serious reboot, if not a full-on rehab: an escape to a Wi-Fi-free world where people do nothing but sit. Statue-still. Facing a wall. In silence.

Just as thousands of monks, teachers, and students have done here—at the bottom of a Big Sur canyon deep in California’s Ventana Wilderness—every day since 1967, when a Japanese Buddhist monk founded Tassajara, the first Zen monastery outside of Asia.

Surrounded by rising mountains and old-growth pines, Tassajara is an off-the-grid alter-universe, where kerosene lamps are lit by matches and time is marked by a cloud-shaped gong. Spiritual seekers from San Francisco to Stockholm, Moscow to Missoula stroll softly in dark robes, bowing to each other and to mini altars erected everywhere. And from late April through mid-September, Tassajara opens to the hedonistic public. Guests come, 80 a night, for meditation mixed with soaks in the hot springs, hikes along the river, maybe an outdoor massage or yoga retreat—and all the kale, polenta, and whole-wheat sourdough they can eat. Once was, a large majority of Tassajara’s guests were repeat visitors. But these days, 50 percent are here for the first time.

Like me. Curious, if skeptical, types who’ve meditated maybe once in their life (Buddhism 101, freshman year). So I signed up for the Guest Practice Program: 10 slots for those who want a taste of the real Tassajara, at a fraction of the price. For the next four days, I’m half-student, half-guest, straddling the two worlds like Baby in Dirty Dancing.