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

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“No water bottles inside the zendo,” a monk reprimands in a surprisingly harsh whisper. I’m not off to a good start. She points to a cushion. I take my assigned spot and try to mimic the woman next to me: barefoot, legs linked, back straight. I’m ready to sit.

A bell rings and my mind races. Look at me! Meditating. At the bottom of a canyon. I’m hungry. Tired. What’s she thinking about? Are we supposed to be thinking? How much longer? How much … Then: snooze. I break the cardinal rule of meditation and fall asleep.

I awake feeling disoriented but semi-rested. Everyone stands and chants for what seems like a long time before we file out. As I pass the Zendo policemonk, she whispers, “Please go to the kitchen for soji.” I’m hoping soji is Zen-speak for omelet and hash browns. Instead it means “temple cleaning,” and I find myself tearing romaine lettuce in silence for the next 15 minutes. Then a gong. Finally, breakfast.

I stare inside my bowl of rice porridge, inspecting every surprisingly tasty kernel so as to avoid eye contact with the student sitting across from me. “Good morning,” says a hoodied dude in his late 20s as he bows his bald head.

Modern-day Zen Buddhists aren’t necessarily the wise, wrinkled Mr. Miyagi types you might expect. Nor are they ’60s counterculture castaways in late-model VWs searching for some fashionable Eastern enlightenment. There was a time when you’d stumble on Joan Baez or Linda Ronstadt dipping their toes in Tassajara Creek, when everyone from California governor Jerry Brown to actor Peter Coyote came to the canyon to ride the Buddhist bandwagon.

“It was mostly about being unbound by convention and living in the moment,” says Norman Fischer, a Zen Buddhist priest and former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center who raised his kids at Tassajara in the late ’70s. “It all sounded good to me back then. Still does.” 

Today’s visitors are a mixed bag of stressed-out executives, artists, high school math teachers, recovering alcoholics, and, increasingly, technoholics at a “tipping point in their lives,” says Minoria Franks, Tassajara’s reservations coordinator. “We’re seeing a huge wave right now of people fleeing technology for a digital-free environment. Younger people, especially, in their 20s and 30s, who hear about us then come to unplug and practice.”

There’s Mike Borozdin, a 32-year-old software guy who was “blown away” when he came to Tassajara for the first time. He tells me about a new group called Young Urban Zen that meets every week in San Francisco. Twenty-five people showed up to the first meeting. Today, a year later, the room is overflowing. “All of my tech friends are so tightly wound,” says Borozdin. “ ‘The server’s up! The server’s down!’ They’re freaking out about the competition. I’m learning to keep it in the now.”

I think about the late Steve Jobs, a practicing Buddhist and Tassajara visitor. Here was the person perhaps most responsible for busying our lives, and he got his spiritual nourishment at the very place we go to escape the digital noise he helped create. Then I think: There’s something about all this—the isolated beauty and simple schedule, the logic of the gong—that feels deeply, if strangely, familiar. Like we’re tapping into some forgotten algorithm.

 

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