Entering the Monastery:
An Ongoing Journal
by Judy Bunce
September 26, 2001
It's the morning of the third day of the fall practice period at
Tassajara. For me, it's a day off. I'm on kitchen crew for this three
month practice period, which is something that everyone who stays at
Tassajara long-term has to do sooner or later. I'm sitting on my bed with
two kerosene lamps burning and my laptop running on its battery. What a
I got a great room assignment. It's one of the pricier rooms during the
guest season. It's in the yurt, a wooden structure way down by the pool.
It's insulated, and each of the three rooms has a wood stove, so the
prospect of not freezing over the winter is good. My room is
round, probably fifteen feet in circumference, with lots of windows, and even a
skylight that opens. It looks onto the hillside. It has two twin beds,
which I've pushed together to make one huge luxurious bed, but I've also
told a couple of friends that if they get too cold during the winter they
can come and stay with me, so the bed may be split again.
The strangest thing about being here is that it's as if I never left. Most of
the people who I started with last year are still here, and I seem to have
been inserted back into my "class," as if I'd been here the whole time. I
know that the seven months I was away happened, and my heart and mind turn
toward the people who I was connected to during that time. I remember
working and living in the city, I remember that the country's in a
terrible crisis, and roll the words "Osama bin Laden" around my mind, but
only this seems at all real.
Tassajara is a tiny bunch of buildings tucked into the middle of the
Ventana wilderness, and it could be that the animals think they got here
first. Last night when we were sitting in the zendo, one was gnawing away
on one side and another was flinging itself against the screens on the
other. They behave that way outside my room, too, usually around 1 a.m..
The mouse problem is so severe this year that I heard
about it when I was still at City Center. A raccoon tried to open my
screen door and waltz on in while I was sitting on my bed the first night.
I laid in my bed last night listening to the animal noises, feeling the
fear that they waken in me. I felt like Eve, all soft and unprotected
against creatures who were armed with sharp teeth and long claws.
Now I see a little bat flying around above the deck, snacking on some
tasty bugs before it calls it a night. The bluejays who decided to
winter here are screaming in the distance. The crickets are chirping, and
if the deer haven't worked the area recently they'll be here soon. There
was a great thunderstorm the first night here. I think that's pretty
unusual for September. It woke me, and I laid in my bed looking at the
lightning flash in my skylight. I wasn't the only one who wondered
whether this was a sign of what the practice period would be like.
October 16, 2001
Not long after arriving here, struggling with the physical demands of the
kitchen schedule and my feelings about not being in the zendo with the
Abbess, I saw the real price of renunciation: it's the people. Leaving
behind the car and the television and even the cat is nothing compared to
the people. I take naps on my breaks and have dreams that I'm with people
on the outside and we're saying goodbye and we're hugging and kissing and
tears are falling like rain. I had forgotten how isolated we are here.
Yes, there's a telephone, and yes, we get mail, but the phone is moody and
the mail infrequent. And what is there, really, to say to anyone on the
outside, anyone who's not a part of this one body with forty-five hearts living
this most peculiar life?
There's all of this, the beauty of the place, the amazement of dealing
with nature up close, the loveliness of watching the kitchen crew become a
unit and the larger group settle in -- and there's the big question on many
of our minds of what it is we're doing here and whether it's reasonable to
live like this when the outside world is going mad. This is no vacation,
but it is merely selfish if we're just forty-five people who have turned our backs
on the world to try to heal our own wounds, calm our own hearts and minds,
find a way of living that makes sense to us as individuals. If we truly
believe that we're all one, though, then it follows that there is a
benefit to these forty-five parts of the whole working on growing in wisdom and
compassion, that when one grows in understanding the whole world does. Or
I hope there is.
November 7, 2001
It's starting to get cold. I got a new wool robe and flannel kimono, and
am now wearing them both every morning with silk long underwear. I think
it's time to start adding the thermofleece vest under the robe. We start
the day by sitting for ninety minutes, and it's during that cold time before
the dawn. When we left the zendo after breakfast this morning, after the
sun had risen, it was 35 degrees, so it must have been down near freezing during
I'm using the wood-burning stove in my room every day now. My windows
face east but there's a hillside about twenty-five feet away, so I get no direct sun at
all, and it stays cold. When I get home from work after lunch, I light one
log and then let it smolder for the rest of the afternoon. It works well
to keep the chill off. But I think the mice like it too. I have finally
figured out that they're the cause of the noise near the head of my bed:
it's mice in the walls. I thought it was raccoons trying to claw their
way through the walls and eat me alive, but it's just little mice.
The raccoons are just awful. They know all of our bells, and they respond
too cleverly. If I don't keep the kitchen doors bolted when I'm there
alone on the days I cook breakfast, they try to come in and have shredded-wheat parties. There was a woman here from Florida for the Soto Shu
sesshin a couple of weeks ago who finally told me, after much hemming and
hawing and looking over her shoulder, that someone had opened her door at
3 a.m. and then slammed it shut when she called out. She said "I heard
footsteps, but when I looked out no one was there." I was sorry to tell
her that it was raccoons and not ghosts. As far as I know, the ghosts
confine themselves to the zendo.
There's an animal call that we hear before dawn that's just beautiful,
sort of chirpy and fluttery and sweet. I thought it was foxes -- and told
several new people that it was -- but someone said it was raccoons. If so,
at least there's one good thing about them.
One of my flip-flops was stolen from outside my door, and an oldtimer
guessed it was the foxes. When they get hungry they come down from the
hills and steal shoes for the leather. The flipflop is rubber, and
whoever stole it discovered their error and spit it out -- ptui! -- behind a
fence about fifteen feet away.
It's a pretty funny bunch of animals trying to find a way to coexist here
in the Tassajara valley.
November 23, 2001
The five day silent sesshin is over. Volunteers traditionally move into
the kitchen for this so that the crew can sit it. In addition to moving
from the kitchen to the zendo, I was asked to serve as the Abbess's Anja
(personal assistant) for the week.
The Anja job meant knocking on Blanche's door twenty minutes before each zendo
event, and spending about the same amount of time with her when we left
the zendo. I woke her, made her bed, brought her hot water, kept her
supplied with firewood, built her fires, and cleaned her cabin. After
meals I'd slip out the back door of the zendo so I could be in her cabin
when she arrived; I'd stand behind her and receive her okesa when she
removed it, and fold it and put it away for her. During work period I did
repairs on it.
This schedule meant that I got six hours of sleep a night and three twenty-five
minute breaks a day. While everyone else was resting, I was taking care
of the Abbess. We had a closing ceremony last night where I told the
group that the job's hours were terrible, but the pay was great.
I love abandoning the clock and going by the bells, but I couldn't do that
this time, since my schedule was different from the group's. One morning
when I heard the wakeup bell ring I said "Oh shit," hopped out of bed, and
sprinted for the bathroom. If the wakeup bell was already ringing, I was
late. I poured my thermos of hot water into my basin to wash myself -- and
then saw that it was only 12:30. I think the creek was playing a joke on
me. I told this story at lunch today, and several other people agreed
that they hear wakeup bells and densho bells in the creek. Too bad I'd
already poured out my hot water, though -- it was stone cold when I got up
to my alarm at 3:30.
November 26, 2001
The day after sesshin ended, I was summoned to dokusan with the Abbess.
For the third time, we talked about my ordaining. I initiated the topic,
and she very matter-of-factly agreed. The next step is to talk to the
other Abbotts and get their approval, and then (if they do indeed approve)
I can begin sewing my okesa, the large toga-like garment which priests
wear on top of their robes. The whole process usually takes about a year.
We talked about what it means to be a priest and she, as usual, quoted
Suzuki roshi, saying he didn't know. We've touched on the celibacy
requirement in previous conversations --- learning to be a priest takes total
attention and energy, and people who meet someone and fall in love are
required to put their priest training aside for a year while they work on
the new relationship. The entire period of close training is about five
years. As far as I know, the other requirements are to be kind and try to
see the Buddha in everyone. She asked me to begin acting like a priest
My mind was blown. This is what I came here for, but it seems too
daunting to undertake. On the one hand, I feel entirely inadequate to the
task. On the other hand, and that hand is currently the stronger one, it
seems like something I must do. There's a wonderful young Italian priest
here right now who asked whether I was going to ordain, and when I said
yes, he was very pleased. I indicated that I was nervous about it and he
said that ordaining was like riding in a plane through turbulence and then
rising above the clouds into the clear sky. That's useful information.
Blanche's regular Anja became very ill, so I helped out over the last
few days while I was working in the kitchen too. I did her laundry two
days ago, and the weather's been so heavy and the air so moist that it
never dried out. That's why right now I have Blanche's underwear hanging
all over my room and am burning logs like mad to keep the temperature up
so it can dry.
December 4, 2001
Last August I rented my apartment furnished, and about two weeks ago got
a message from my tenant saying he'd be leaving at the end of December. I
put my personal stuff in boxes in my cousin's garage and about a week ago
got a letter from her saying she was selling her house. I heard about a
self-storage place in San Francisco and learned that I could get a good
rate from them for long-term storage. I found my mover, and he's available
the day I need him. I even arranged to have my white couch cleaned before
I put it away. I have no desire to live in San Francisco right now, or to
live anywhere but at a Zen Center place. Still, this afternoon, when I
got mail from my landlord confirming receipt of my thirty day notice, I found
that I felt sad. It's like getting a divorce from someone who you don't
much like: relief that it's over is temporarily outweighed by sorrow over
such a good idea turning out so badly.
Last night I woke up to find that I was lying in the center of a circle of
moonlight, flooding through my round skylight. When I was walking up to
the kitchen to start breakfast while everyone else was still sleeping, I
was surprised to see that the moon wasn't even full. I've wakened other
nights to see it shining other places in my room, but this is the first
time it's been on me. I wonder if it does that every night. I suppose
December 9, 2001
Myo Lahey, the Tanto (practice leader) down here, has begun offering brief
dokusan -- five minutes, in and out, and I've taken him up on that offer.
The second time we talked, it was about renunciation being the primary
quality that makes a good priest. He defined renunciation as being free
from attachment to stuff and free from a separate sense of self, and I
said "Who wouldn't want that!"
The leaves have nearly all fallen from the trees, and when I walk back to
my room at the end of the night I can see the stars in the sky.
Yesterday was a work day and one of the crew was out sick, so we were
really kicking it. Toward the end of the morning I was getting something
from the walk-in, and this thought streaked through my head: What's the
difference between doing this and sitting in the zendo? I thought:
Nothing! and laughed and kept on getting lunch ready.
Rohatsu sesshin, the great celebration of Shakyamuni Buddha's
enlightenment, starts tomorrow. The schedule sounds grueling. When it's
over there's one final ceremony, a lot of running around, and we're done.
And after that: we start again.
December 20, 2001
Well, that's it.
One suitcase, two boxes of laundry (because I didn't want the funky
kitchen stuff to contaminate the rest of my dirty clothes), and the rug I
brought down, which turned out to be too fragile for this place, are all
waiting to get loaded on the truck for the ride to the city tomorrow.
My room is both clean and tidy, thermoses and flashlights have been
returned to their rightful owners, and I've even done my Christmas cards.
It's been pouring rain all day.
I worked my last shift in the kitchen yesterday morning. Tomorrow morning
we have zazen and a closing ceremony, and after a bowl of cold cereal we
hop into cars and leave Tassajara. Some of us are leaving for good -- a
few who came for just one practice period, others who've been here for a
while and are now going back to Green Gulch or City Center, and even one
or two who are just getting the hell out of here. A lot of tears were
Apparently I'll be staying in the same room for the next practice period,
which is great. I don't yet know what my job will be. Today I couldn't
stand it any longer and asked the director what I'd be doing, and she said
that was usually decided during the first week of the practice period, so I
just have to wait. I am so glad I'm one of the ones who's just leaving for
vacation and will be coming back. Three months is much too short a time
for this thing we do here.
(Continue to Part 3)
©2001 by Judy Bunce