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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Be a weekend monk

  • The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center opens to the public from late April through mid-September and offers a variety of visitor experiences—including 3-night monastic primers ($63/night) and day soaks in the hot springs ($30). sfzc.org/tassajara



    Tassajara is 2 hours south of Carmel in the Ventana Wilderness. A shuttle leaves from Jamesburg daily ($55).

After breakfast, we circle up outside. It reminds me of summer camp, except my counselors are monks in dark brown robes. “If anyone finds a striped towel by the pool, please let me know,” says one student. “There’s a dharma talk tonight,” announces another. Then we’re all assigned chores: weeding, dishwashing. I’m on cobwebbing. For 2 1/2 hours, I walk peacefully around the property, over wooden bridges and past creekside cottages, with a 10-foot duster, swabbing away any and all webs I encounter. Work, I’m told, is part of the practice.

The next day, I’m chopping apples into ¼-inch cubes. I have no idea what will become of my apples, but I chop and chop, occasionally chatting with the other students charged with chopping other things. Celery, oranges, tofu. The supply of apples seems endless; the bucket I’m filling, bottomless. But by the time the bell rings a few hours later, signaling the end of work period—and the beginning of my afternoon freedom—something comes over me. I feel, for the first time in a very long time, relaxed. Calm. 

I ride the wave of bliss back to my cabin, change into my bathing suit, and set off for Tassajara’s hot springs. More than a hundred years ago, long before this area became the birthplace of the Western Zen movement, stagecoaches would take the steep daylong trip into the canyon to bring people to the healing waters bubbling up beneath Tassajara Creek. And once I lower myself into the 100°+ water, I know why. My calm kicks into another gear. I close my eyes, float, and wait for the next gong.

“Tassajara’s role is the same today as it’s always been,” says Norman Fischer, the Buddhist priest. “When I first got here, I thought this was the most sensible way a human being could live. The way human beings have lived, for centuries.”

Four days later, I’m in my car, winding slowly up the canyon, back to civilization and the noise of my life. Back to my laptop with its clogged calendar and in-box full of unreads. I have no delusions. I know that the calm will eventually clear, and that I’ll return to my always-running ways. But not right this moment. Not now.

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