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by Jill Wolfson
I am in the passenger seat of an SUV bumping along a narrow, winding, climbing, 14-mile dirt road with a Buddhist monk behind the steering wheel. David Zimmerman is pointing out the notable spots along the way to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, where I am going to spend the next few days. There are incredible vistas in this part of the Santa Lucia mountain range. In one direction, the Salinas Valley stretches out, and in the other direction I get peeks of the rugged Big Sur coast. There’s a rock formation that looks like a gigantic set of hands in prayer and large swaths of fire-damaged forest, reminders of the flames that rampaged through large sections of the Los Padres National Forest several summers ago. Zimmerman is one of the famous “fire monks,” part of the crew that stayed behind to save the monastery.
Most of the year, Tassajara, which is part of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC), is closed to outsiders. But between May and mid-September, it opens for the guest season. The last time I came here as a guest, I was several months pregnant with my second child and looking for a way to celebrate the good news and also to get some serious downtime to digest the idea of my expanding family. That “baby” recently graduated from college, so a visit to Tassajara seemed like an appropriate bookend to my parenting experience.
The SUV descends the final steep grade and comes to a stop. As I load my small bag into the Japanese-style handcart and steer it through the gate, I see immediately that not much has changed over the decades. There’s a deep quiet except for squawking jays, lots of trees, Japanese-style buildings and a patio overlooking the creek. There are guest cabins, a meditation hall with a giant bell that calls people to religious service and a charming garden full of herbs.
So began a long weekend of soaking up the contemplative atmosphere and soaking myself in the natural hot springs baths. Over the next few days, I hiked a challenging trail, took a gentle yoga class, dove into both the cold creek and sun-warmed swimming pool. I ate a lot of really delicious vegetarian food. This is an ideal spot for busy parents hoping to recharge.
“We do have some children come during the guest season,” explained a staffer. “But we usually tell parents to check it out first and see if it’s suitable for their family. The atmosphere is definitely quiet.”
During my stay, I saw several kids who were having a blast in the swimming pool. But my suggestion? If possible, leave the children at home. Take this time for yourself.
Long before Tassajara was a Buddhist monastery, it was a place known for its healing waters. The hot springs were first used by the native Esselen people, who lived in the area for a thousand years or more.
Jump ahead to the late 19th Century when people from the Bay Area began making the arduous journey into the mountains to “take the cure” in the natural hot springs of Tassajara Creek. A resort later opened, drawing vacationers for its natural setting and fine dining. In the summer of 1967, the Japanese Buddhist priest who founded SFZC turned the setting into the first Zen monastery outside of Asia. This year, the organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
The Tassajara website explains the basic monastic schedule: “…50 to 60 students rise before dawn and begin a full day of zazen (meditation), study and work, following a traditional Buddhist monastic schedule which dates back over thirteen hundred years to the early Tang Dynasty in China.”
As a guest at Tassajara, your schedule will definitely be more laid-back. You are welcome to jump out of bed at the dawn wake-up bell to join the spiritual community for morning zazen (sitting meditation) and service. Or you can turn over and sleep in. You can sit by the creek in the evening or you can attend a talk in the zendo by a priest. (The time I was there, she spoke about “perseverance” – not a bad topic for parents to ponder.)
During the summer, numerous special retreats are offered, such as yoga, the culinary arts, “Zen in the workplace” or “writing poems with a generous heart.”
“During guest season, it’s kind of Zen-lite,” says Zimmerman, who serves as the SFZC program director. “Most people come for the Zen atmosphere – the quiet, the body work, the lifestyle. And, of course, for the food.”
The famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco’s Fort Mason operates under the auspices of SFZC, and at Tassajara, there is the same culinary creativity, product freshness and attention to detail coming out of the kitchen. For the most part, meals are served family-style in a rustic but attractive dining hall with serene views. During my stay, I dug into pancakes and hot grains in the morning, both accompanied by fresh fruit. My most memorable meal was an amazing vegetarian pizza with a side of jewel-colored beets in the salad. For lunch, you can choose to pack your own meal if you are heading out on a hike or sunbathing at the Narrows, which is a nearby chilly swimming hole (Nude bather alert!).
The accommodations are lovely in a “less-is-more” kind of way. There’s no TV, not even any electricity. Kerosene lamps provide the light. I stayed in one of the high-end Stone Rooms. Built around the turn of the century and renovated in 1989, each has thick stone walls, a wood stove, comfy bed and armoire. A private patio along the creek is perfect for reading and napping. Tassajara recommends the Stone Rooms as best suitable for children.
Rooms might seem a little pricey for such simple surroundings (as high as $388 for a double on the weekends), but the price includes all meals and use of the facilities. Prices drop dramatically if you are willing to stay in a dorm room.
The only other thing you might want to buy is a book on Buddhism, yoga or cooking from the small gift shop.
Or before setting off on your return trip on that bumpy 14-mile road, you might do as I did. I picked up a loaf of hearty Tassajara bread to take home with me. The next morning in the busyness of job and family, I toasted a slice and ate it covered in jam. It was a tasty reminder of a truly unique vacation where time stretched and slowed, where a weekend felt like a week.
For information about guest season at Tassajara, go to www.sfzc.org/tassajara.
Jill Wolfson is the editor of Bay Area Parent.
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