by Judy Bunce
I live at Tassajara, the Zen Mountain Center, which is one of three temples belonging to San Francisco Zen Center. We're in the middle of the Ventana Wilderness, about 90 minutes south of Carmel Valley in northern California. The nearest outpost is Jamesburg, and that's at the end of a 14 mile dirt road. Tassajara is beautiful, and Tassajara is remote. It's also off the grid; my room is lit by kerosene lamps and heated by a wood burning stove. I have permission to use my laptop computer, so after charging the battery in the hair cutting shack and writing in my room, I send the results out on a floppy disk.
Half of the year Tassajara is a zen monastery, and the other half we're open to paying guests. By April, 2002, I'd completed nine months of residence as a monk, and was entering into my first summer. At the start of the year, my teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, co-abbess of San Francisco Zen Center, had given me permission to begin the process of ordination by sewing my okesa, the large robe worn by priests.
April 5, 2002
Yesterday at the end of the practice period we had a quick breakfast and then half the residents zoomed over the mountain to return to civilization. The 30 of us who are left here are mostly moving and getting settled in our student housing, though a few are just lingering before they go over the hill.
During the winter we live in the rooms that guests occupy in the summer, so at this time of year we move down to tiny little horse stalls in two ramshackle barns. Today I got settled enough in my new room to spend the night here. I'd had two sleepless nights worrying about how I'd fit all my stuff into this tiny space, so I wanted to get on with it. Student furniture is very old and battered, and there's not that much of it, so there's a kind of gentle furniture grab that goes on during moving. My new room is just wide enough to place the bed along the window wall with a few feet left over for storage, and deep enough to accommodate a bookcase and a rod to hang clothes on. The bed is placed along the window wall, and mostly my head is turned to look out at the maple trees that are now in full leaf. The freshness of the green at this time of year is exhilarating. I'm now about 30 feet from the creek, so its noise is always a presence. I slept here last night, and I slept like a rock.
We had a meeting of continuing students on the final night, to go over guidelines for the summer. We were told about proper dress (spaghetti straps: no; lasagne straps: okay), proper decorum (at the Narrows, a spot downcreek which is coed nude, we're expected to keep our bathing suits on), and proper sexual behavior (no sexual involvement with anyone, guest or student, who hasn't been here six months). My favorite was the little speech that said "Guests will fall in love with Tassajara, but they'll think they're falling in love with you. They're not. In fact, once they get to know you they might not even like you." Okay. We also learned the summer schedule: we wake two hours later than during the winter, and only sit three periods of zazen a day. And we work. A lot. I'll be continuing as the librarian half the time, and working in the front office with guests the other half.
April 25, 2002
So now it's three weeks into the work period and four days after my return from a short vacation. There are 70 people here, working hard on Tassajara. We're getting major construction on the kitchen, on the drainage project down by the baths, and on one cabin. There's minor construction everywhere else: cabins are getting painted, floors are getting refinished, and gardens are getting weeded. The people who come and go during this month of work period are the angels. They're mostly Buddhist or Buddhist-friendly, and they come down and do this hard work for nothing but room and board and the love of Tassajara. It was a shock when they first arrived (and some of them camped in the parking lot waiting for it to be time to come in on the first day) since we'd been so locked in here alone for three months. Once that shock settled, the only hard part has been the noise. People talk! The real introverts among us are having some trouble with the social interaction. I, being just barely an introvert, talk some and sneak off alone some.
On my vacation out of Tassajara, I finally saw what a strange thing moving into the monastery is. The ladies in the dentist's office gave me my first hint on this ("She's a monk!" "No way!") and it was confirmed by my stepmom. When I was moving down here, I was entirely driven by necessity. Now that I'm living it, I still have no regrets, but I'm also pretty amazed at what I've done.
May 1, 2002
Last Sunday, the director came up to me at afternoon work meeting and asked if I wanted to drive out in an hour and pick up Blanche at Jamesburg, the little cluster of houses at the other end of the 14 mile dirt road that separates us from the world. Of course I gave her a very enthusiastic yes.
Once a year we do an event in between work period and guest season called "sangha week." People who are members of small groups all over the country -- about 100 in all, I think -- come here and do a combination of work practice, study, and vacation. That's what Blanche was coming down to lead. While she's been here I've been both her anja (the personal attendant who takes care of her and her cabin) and the jisha (the ceremonial attendant who follows her into the zendo with incense and schedules her private interviews with students). It's been wild. My other two jobs and my personal maintenance have gone to hell, because Blanche has kept me running from the time I wake her in the morning until I prepare her cabin for sleep.
The first morning, I woke her five minutes before the wakeup bell (that's the anja part) and then got ready to start our incense offering at four altars plus the zendo (the jisha part). It was raining, of course. I dropped one of the sticks of incense on the ground and it went out. She waited patiently while I got it together. We're supposed to be doing a formal procession, she sweeping along six feet in front of me, but since we were sharing an umbrella we walked with our arms around each other. I did something wrong at every altar. It's the way it's been with every other job I've had at Zen Center: they give me about two minutes of training, tell me I'll be fine, and then I learn how to do it right by doing it wrong. But no one ever gets mad at me or chastises me. Blanche just gives a little blink and I know that I need to pay attention to whatever caused that blink.
The interaction with her has been wonderful. I'm in and out of her cabin all day, tidying up, putting her bed away and putting the mats down for dokusan (private discussion with students), lighting the fire, bringing in cups and cookies and hot water for the teas that she gives, bringing the students to her for private talks, and throughout it all we're talking, talking, talking. This morning when we set out for our little parade I smiled and said to her, "I'm having so much fun." After we'd lit our first altar and were going down to the stairs toward the kitchen, she paused and said "I'm glad you're having fun, I was afraid I was working you to death." She moved ahead, and then I caught up with her for a step and whispered in her ear, "It's both."
May 4, 2002
Working for Blanche threw me back into practice period, but without the protected environment that we create when it's just us monks here. I crashed hard after she left. I was so tired. Normally I work four days on and one day off, but I didn't take my day off while she was here and ended up working seven days straight. I promised myself that I could take off after she left; when I heard at work meeting that I was assigned to get up an hour early today and light the lanterns, I nearly cried. But it wasn't that hard to find someone to switch with, so I stayed in my room last night and slept in this morning -- and still, I was weepy and sad during the morning work period.
The official guest season started yesterday. During the four weeks of work period we all ate in the dining room. During sangha week we ate partly in the dining room and partly in the student dining area, a screened in space with dirt floors and picnic tables that's between the kitchen and the office. Now we eat entirely on the student side, our schedule's shifted slightly, and our entire practice is about serving the guests.
In the office I discovered a serious fact about summer at Tassajara: practice may have made me raw and vulnerable, but there's no time for tears and facing your feelings when there's an office full of people who want to buy their cookbook and check out of their room. I splashed cold water on my face and did my time on the cash register, and then ate my lunch alone at the silent table in the student dining area.
May 17, 2002
My birthday was yesterday, and at lunch, after the clackers hit, everyone burst into the happy birthday song. It was finally enough. Enough attention, enough affection, enough enough. I do love my sangha.
It's starting to get hot. The end of my room on the creek side is about half screened in, and those screens have been covered with heavy plastic for insulation. I pulled most of it off this evening -- it's 74 degrees at 8:10 p.m. -- and my room's even more full of trees and the sound of the creek. I also put a discarded puppy gate across the door so I could leave it open for the cross-breeze without inviting in the little wood rat who lives in this building.
May 19, 2002
Myo gave me a sign to hang outside the library that had been under his bed, waiting to find its place. It's a smooth half-round piece of wood about 20 inches long, silvered by age and exposure to the elements, with the kanji for "Namu Amita Buddha" lettered on it. The other day I noticed that something seemed to be falling from it; assuming it was the powder post beetles that threaten the library, I left a note with the head of the shop asking again for him to call the exterminator. Yesterday there was such a pile of stuff below it that I pulled the sign off the wall to take a look. I brushed it, then finally, to try to knock off whatever was eating it, I gave it a little slap. Was I surprised when a big bee flew out of it. I turned it upside down and saw the hole the carpenter bee had made, burrowing in to create a nest. These are the biggest, blackest, slowest bees in all creation, and they eat buildings. And also little signs. I asked the guys in the shop to put some putty in the hole so the bee would move on. When I told Gaelyn about it, she asked if the bee was humming Nammmmuuuuu Ammmmmita Buuuuuudha as he flew by.
It appears that I pulled the plastic off my screens too soon: it's raining today, and the temperature's dropped to 60 degrees at 8 p.m. But putting on another sweater is a small price to pay for how beautifully green Tassajara looks.
May 21, 2002
Everyone talked endlessly about how hard the summer is, but no one ever told me that this is a practice period, too, even though we're no longer the only people at Tassajara and even though we work more than we sit. There's a lot less zazen than in practice period, a lot more opportunities to watch self-clinging as I interact with both friends and strangers throughout the day, and also a lot more time for reading and staring out the window thinking. I think I'll turn this infernal machine off and do some of that right now.
May 31, 2002
They call it "getting a date."
First your teacher says you can ordain, then the other abbotts and former abbotts agree, then you start sewing the thousands of stitches it will take to create your sacred robes, and then, finally, your teacher says when the ordination will be.
The phone situation here goes from bad to worse in the summer (more people and less phone access) and the only time I can reach Blanche is a little 15 minute window between morning service and breakfast. Often she's away from the phone at that time, talking to the real live people at City Center. Today, after several frustrating misses, I talked with her.
Once we got the conversation about logistics out of the way, I moved right in with my request. I knew that often ordinations were held at City Center in January, and that traditionally in Japan they're in the winter. So I asked "Could I be ordained this winter?" Blanche suggested that we have the ceremony down here at Tassajara just before the last sesshin of the winter practice period, the long and serious and cold rohatsu sesshin. She laughed and said that then I'd have to struggle with my okesa for the whole sesshin, and I told her that I'd welcome the practice. So the date is set.
June 5, 2002
People have been stealing stuff from the library. I know because they return the stolen goods to the book return box, cards still in the books' pockets. When I complain about it, I'm asked "Don't you think it's guests?" And I say "Guests don't know how to open the door to my closet, take the key to the locked cabinet, take a book out, lock the cabinet and replace the key and then walk out without filling out the checkout card." My startled fellow students are forced to agree.
And the Walkmans! We have a few grungy old portable tape players (for listening to tapes of dharma talks) that are checked out through the library which are disappearing rapidly. I locked them up to stop the outflow, and today saw that they too are disappearing from my closet. I happened on Myo on my way back from the library and aired my grievance; after work meeting (which I didn't attend since it's my day off) several people told me that he'd made a short speech to the group about not taking things from the library.
Then I could see how personal it all was. I like to fume about how this is a monastery, that we're living by the precepts and one of those is not taking what's not given, but my reaction is really centered around the feeling that this taking is disrespectful to me as the librarian. And I saw that Myo's little speech made me feel cared for -- not the library, but me personally.
Yesterday I got a package from a benefactor, and when I saw a check from her I thought Oh my goodness, but when I read her note and saw that she was just passing on an anonymous gift, and read the card from the anonymous person who'd sent me money for my photography, I cried. Rereading the card just now, I cried again. This is a new realm. I recently spent some time during zazen running through a list of people on my old online community who I haven't heard from, brooding over the nature of friendship and so on, and that adds an interesting layer to this experience of generosity.
This morning Ben was in the screened porch, trying to read last Sunday's Times while I was talking to him. First I talked about the thing with the library thefts, and then I told him the story of the anonymous gift. He asked, "And can you not take that personally either?" Well, no! May I please choose this and not that?
July 20, 2002
I say, "Tassajara is so hard." I want to retire the last word of that phrase, and have been trying to find a replacement. It might be "challenging" and it might be "relentless." They're both true. Still, I don't think either catches the essence I'm reaching for in the way "hard" has up until now. But words are too powerful, and I need to let go of that idea. Maybe "Tassajara is so Tassajara." Part of that is the summer weather. It's been up to 113 degrees already, and the only way to cool off is to go sit in the creek.
Reb Anderson, the ex-Abbott and still one of the strongest Zen Center personalities, was down here about a month ago and someone asked him whether he thought Tassajara was a monastery during the summer. I loved his answer, which was essentially that if two or three people treat it like one, and live as monks, then it is. There are about 60 students here during the summer, maybe 20 holdovers from the practice period, 20 young people who've come down here to live and work for the whole summer, and the rest short-term people who come and go. That allows for a big range in commitment to monastic practice. It's my intention to be one of the people who's way, way over on the monk side of things.
July 23, 2002
I've decided on a name for this feeling. It's: homesick.
I talked on the phone with my original teacher, Myogen Steve Stucky, this morning, and when we hung up I cried and cried. Rather than putting on a happy face for the sake of the younger students, I got my mush and tofu hash and went to the silent table and ate with tears running down my face. Our conversation was nothing but good news, and the tears came from missing him so much. Similarly, when I was up in the city recently I spent the night with my stepmom and, in the morning, we were playing some music and I opened the cabinet to find another CD. I saw all of the CDs I'd given to her last fall, my complete Beethoven sonatas, Mozart concerti, Bach cello suites, and was overcome with great gusting sobs. I came to the monastery because I found life so difficult, but on those mornings when the sun was coming in the window and I was playing music, it wasn't difficult at all. I do miss comfort here, and I do miss certain pleasures. Music is primary among them.
July 30, 2002
Someone left a beach chair out on the deck by my room. The kind with plastic webbing and aluminum frame. I took it down to the creek and sat in it while I sewed on my okesa. It worked very well, and my feet are still cool and comfy. Someone who I passed on the way down said, "Don't drop it!" I could only think that I should drop the self and save the okesa.
These measures are necessary because it's so damn hot. Right now, at 4:50 a.m., it's 90 degrees in my room. Most days the temp gets up to 100, and during our heat spell it was up over 110. At those numbers, it's like walking around in an oven. Ah, a little breeze just started blowing. That, and the fact that there's virtually no humidity at all, makes it bearable. But still -- damn hot. The nights get down to 45 or 50, so it's jackets in the mornings and shorts in the afternoon. Yikes -- too hot to write.
September 24, 2002
Now it's the second day of the fall practice period, and I'm partially moved into my winter quarters. The choice was between a dorm room which stays warm, or a cabin which will be cold most of the time, but has a private bathroom. I opted for the cabin. I'd rather wait an hour for heat than live in a dorm again. I realized toward the end of the summer that I hadn't had a minute's privacy for six months, and I realized how very wearing that was. So here I am in wildly cute cabin 12. This is one of the original summer cabins that were built in the 1930's, and which we've improved over the years -- but not much. I have windows with screens (originally the windows were just screen and in the winter we'd tape on plastic to winterize them) and the beloved wood burning stove. The room is about 12 x 15, with a little rectangular space along one end creating the bathroom, and in the nook left over from that space, a little writing area with a built-in desk and a beautiful oval window looking onto the hillside. Cabin 12 also has a real bed, and I'm already sleeping better here than I did all summer in my little horse stall by the creek with its worn out student futon.
I took the Greyhound from San Francisco to Monterey earlier this month, returning from my vacation in the Bay Area. I looked out at the early morning world, gas stations and liquor stores and taquerias whizzing by outside my window, and I wondered, What do you all think? What is the meaning? Is life about survival? If so, is that enough? Of course that thought had a snooty little aspect of monks having the answer to that question, and in fact now that I'm back here, I don't see much particular meaning going on. I used to, but I don't any more. However, I do see a way of passing my days that suits me better than the getting and spending (and deliberate time wasting) of the life I spent there, so I guess this will have to do.
Yesterday we did the numbers on summer guests: 80 a night times 129 nights at an average stay of two nights makes 5000 people. I interacted with a ton of them, since I checked them in and out in the office and also drove some of them over the mountain and back. What I least liked was being an object of curiosity for the guests. Our monastic life was pared way back, but it was always there, and sometimes as we'd go through one of our rituals around the zendo, there'd be guests standing and staring at us as if we were animals in a zoo. I really didn't like that. What I liked most was hearing from people about the effect their annual visit to Tassajara has on their lives. I liked that even better than I disliked being objectified. In fact, my favorite job (next to continuing my reorganization of the library) was driving the stage (a big Suburban that we use to bring in guests over our horrible 14 mile road). I really enjoyed spending an hour with a small handful of guests, explaining our life to them and finding out about theirs.
Now the place is quiet again, and my life is my own until Blanche arrives tomorrow afternoon, when it will become hers. My job this fall is to serve as her personal assistant (anja) which is one of the most non-stop jobs there is. I spent yesterday cleaning the abbot's cabin, today is a free day for me, and tomorrow I finish cleaning her cabin and raking her garden and then drive over to pick her up. Tangaryo (the five days when the new students sit in the zendo to prove the sincerity of their intention) finishes in four days, and then, finally, the practice period begins.
October 9, 2002
We've been through a few cycles now (a "Tassajara week" is five days long), enough to get a feel of what this practice period is going to be like.
It's going to be busy. It's going to be very very busy. I asked our new director whether he'd ever been an anja. He said he had, thought about it, and then said that it was the happiest practice period he'd ever had, and also that it was more work than any other job. "It's devotion," he said. Yes. It is the job of intimacy. Sometimes I get a little frantic because I don't have the time to take care of my own life -- our personal days seem to be one of my busiest doing stuff for her -- but mostly I'm in the groove and it doesn't even feel like work.
October 19, 2002
At the start of the practice period, Blanche did Chosan -- a formal tea in the Abbot's Cabin -- every few days. On those days I leave the zendo before breakfast, eat a hurried meal in the dining room, and then go to her cabin to set up the tea, cups, cookies, maybe get fresh flowers for the altar, and so on.
The guests were selected by crew, and the last groups to come through were the newest students. They were by far the peppiest. I remember my first practice period, arriving here and being horrified at the way we were apparently being asked to act just like medieval Japanese men, how Tassajara seemed to be all form and no heart. There was a tangaryo student this time who was apparently having the same reaction. After some discussion, she told the story of the bride and the hambone, about the woman who always cuts the 4 inches off the ham because her mother always did, and it turns out that her mother always did it because her pan was too small for the hams the store sold. Much laughter in the Abbot's cabin. But then our new Tanto told a story about two schools of tea. Both use a little metal teapot to bring water into the tea room. In one school, the teapot has a cover over the spout which flips up. In the other school they only have a hinge because the little cover fell off the school founder's teapot years and years ago. When you're buying your supplies you have to specify which school you're a part of so you get the right supplies. This can sound stupid, like the hambone story always has. But Meiya said that this metal teapot with its tiny hinge flapping uselessly ties the students back through the years directly to the founder, that what he learned and taught is preserved precisely from student to student -- that, in fact, the student becomes the ancestor. To me, that put a whole new light on what I've seen as mindlessly following an old form. About the hardest part of Chosan for me is that I'm an observer rather than a participant; for the first few teas there were times when I just couldn't help but pipe up. But by the last few teas I was glad to sit and observe, and glad the tangaryo student brought her question so that I could learn from the answer she received.
October 30, 2002
I started the day yesterday with tears which came from the frustration that's a part of this way of life. Following the schedule completely and dropping preferences is a part of the training, and it's a part of monastic living that I've come to love. But its evil twin, powerlessness, gets me down. It can be so hard to get anything done here, take so many days to even make a phone call, and there's an inertia around stuff (one iron for 60 people who are required to present themselves without wrinkles???) that drives me nuts. That drives me to lie face down and sob every once in a while.
Blanche saw what was going on and came to my cabin to see what was up after breakfast. While we talked she idly picked up a piece of paper lying near her, then the one under it, and then the one under that which in fact I was hiding from her. Unbelievable. My little room is stuffed full of things, and her hand goes to the one that I don't want her to see. I talked as she read, explaining how an e-mail to her came to be lying face down under some other papers on the table next to my bed. She looked at it for so long that I grew alarmed. Was she pondering the way she'd found it? Was she mad at me? Was she asleep? Finally, when she looked up, her face was neutral, she commented on the content of the e-mail, and our conversation went on. Sometimes I think she's a zen master, and sometimes I think she's a psychic.
November 2, 2002
Back in my room after morning zazen, service, and breakfast, settling in to stay here and elevate my damaged foot, fire burning in the wood stove, getting ready to settle down -- and there goes a scorpion trundling across the floor. I did the old inverted glass trick, but these things are so nasty that, instead of slipping a piece of paper under him, I dragged the whole rug outside. Yick. This one actually wasn't as bad as the one I found on my pillow this summer, maybe because I saw this one move and saw how slow he was, but this is one critter that I really don't like.
I was going to write about two things: sex and the weather.
It's cold again. 43 degrees out now at 8 a.m. on a sunny morning. I'm gradually upping the ante in my zendo wear: today I progressed from the silk crewneck to Daddy's old v-neck cashmere sweater as my first layer. I've been in both the flannel kimono and wool robe for quite some time now. Before I go outside, the hat and wool shawl are added. The tangaryo students are already bundling up with full thermofleece turtlenecks under their robes, and those of us who've been through a Tassajara winter before tut-tut, "I wonder what they're going to do when it gets cold." One happy piece of news is that this little cabin heats up fast: I can feel the effects from the wood stove here within 15 or 20 minutes. Like: now!
The public rooms of Tassajara, and some of the residents' rooms, are heated with hot water. We're in a drought year and the rains haven't started yet, so we can't use the little water we have for heat. I've always been skeptical about how much difference the heat in the zendo makes, but now that the outside temperature's getting down to the high 30s and there's no heat at all, I'm a believer.
Okay, that's it for the weather. Now for sex.
We're all under "the six month rule" which is that we're prohibited from having sex during our first six months here, and from having sex with anyone who's been here less than six months. There was one cute thing who arrived at the start of the summer who proved irresistible to the baker and they eloped to Monterey after about a month. They were asked to leave, so that rule is serious. Once the six month period is past for both parties, though, sexual relationships are allowed. It's hoped that they'll talk with their practice leaders before becoming intimate, but I don't think there's a punishment if the act comes before the discussion.
This practice period we have seven couples in residence. One thing this means is that there's much less social life in the dining room on off days and in the break between dinner and zazen, traditionally a time for visiting together. Blanche noticed that we had an unusual number of couples, and once we were through with our formal teas with all the crews in her cabin, had the couples in for an informal cup of tea to discuss areas of practice around being coupled here (exclusivity, maintaining silence, etc.). One of the lesbians heard this was going on and registered a complaint, so Blanche's next tea was for lesbians and gays. I thought this was pretty silly and told her so. "Aren't we all celibate monastics here? What difference does it make who we'd be sleeping with if we had the chance?" She smiled, had the tea, and reported that it was a good tea and informative for her.
Yesterday I was one of nine self-identified celibate monastics who went to the Abbess's cabin for a cup of tea. We started by defining terms. "Celibate," it turns out, means no sex without marriage. "Chastity" means no sex at all, and is probably closer to the mark of what most of us had in mind. I was one of the first to speak, saying that since I had to stay out of new relationships for the first year after my ordination, I was looking at chastity for at least the next 15 months and, in fact, was interested in remaining celibate beyond that. Sexual energy has driven so much of my life, I think I'd like to give some other energy a chance; working on the addiction model, since I can't control sex, I can only try life with no sex at all. Another woman who's ordaining with another teacher said that her reasoning was similar, that her teacher had initially requested four years of celibacy, but "the sentence had been reduced to two years." A third woman who's ordaining will have to commit to five years. Which is when Blanche popped up and said that in fact she doesn't have any celibacy requirement. News to me! But I'm still interested in trying something else. Several other people spoke of turning to celibacy after finding themselves either heartbroken at the end of a sexual relationship or "not liking who I became" in the midst of one. My turning isn't that active, I think. I feel more of a quiet discouragement over the whole thing after 35 years of giving it my best shot.
When the other six people left at the end of tea, I stayed to clean up, and Blanche and I chatted while I did. This is one reason I'm not getting any breaks this practice period: while the other students are relaxing in their rooms or having a nice cup of coffee, I'm sitting on the floor of the Abbot's cabin talking things over with Blanche. Not a bad deal at all.
November 7, 2002
I was walking down to the baths after work, and saw my friend Katharine coming the other way, wearing a green raincoat and carrying a bucket. She's the one who read "Higgledy Piggledy Pop" by Maurice Sendak to me back when I was first getting ready to come down here over two years ago. She brought it with her when she came down in September, and loaned it to me while I was laid up with my hurt foot.
"Katharine," I said, "I don't get it. Jenny the dog has everything, leaves it behind, goes through an initiation, and then ends up with everything again, only in a more mysterious and glamorous form. What's the point?"
"But you've just described your path toward the priesthood," she answered. "And it looked like Jenny's new life was more fun than her old life. She found sangha."
Well all right then!
We're finally getting our first rain storm, and Tassajara is incredibly beautiful. There's a big tree in the courtyard whose leaves turned bright yellow a few days ago. Those leaves are now covering the ground, as are the deeper gold sycamore leaves around the cabins. There's a tree down by the bathhouse whose leaves stay a bright fresh green, but all go whomp and fall at the same time. Branches thumped against my roof as I prepared for bed, and there's lots of fallen debris on the paths.
My little cabin is set back against the hill, so I walk about 30 feet by two joined cabins to get to the main path. Since Blanche is out of town, I'm waking to the bell and moving with the group instead of getting up early to get her ready for the day. This morning I dressed in my robe, pulled on my little black "fur"-lined boots, put on my shawl and hat, stepped out into the 5 a.m. darkness, and opened my umbrella. Past cabins 10 and 11, I joined a stream of black-robed figures with big black umbrellas moving through the wind and rain toward the zendo. This is what we thought a monastery would look like.
There's a creek bed that runs between the cabins and the zendo which has been dry since maybe March. When it runs, it's called Cabarga Creek. It's running today, roaring in fact. The zendo was built as a temporary structure about 25 years ago after the original zendo burned down. It's about 60 feet long and 30 feet wide, two large doors front and back, a row of soji panel-covered windows above eye-level running all the way around the room. It was built in such a rush that we can see cracks of light between the upright pieces of wood and the white-painted panels of the walls. Its roof is corrugated something. When it's raining like this, between the sound of the rain on the zendo and the roar of Cabarga Creek, I feel like a very thin-skinned beetle. The noise is so great that it throws our chanting off. We "chant with our ears" but when the water's pounding, the people in one end of the zendo can't hear those in the other, and we begin to chant in different time zones.
November 9, 2002
After the rain storm, a huge old oak tree fell down. We heard about it in study hall, and later in the morning we all trooped down there and did a ceremony for it. I'd always admired the tree for its burl, and so was disappointed to see that, rather than being uprooted, it broke off at the burl, the victim of some sort of rot. The great part is the way it fell. It was right in front of the old bathhouse bathroom, about 15 feet from some guest rooms (the stones and pines) and it fell exactly between them, just puncturing the roofs but nothing worse than that. A few feet either way and it would have demolished a building. This is the Tassajara magic, and I think it's the same magic that led Blanche's hand to pick up the one piece of paper that I didn't want her to see when she came to my room. Magic is magic, sometimes working for the good and sometimes getting us caught when we're trying to hide.
November 28, 2002
One evening I was walking back from the baths and saw a couple of friends up ahead examining something in the road. They called out to me that it was a tarantula, and to be careful not to step on it. Okay! Talked me into it! They walked on slowly, and when I came up to the big furry spider I felt the fear. Spiders are fast. So I was faster, running until I caught up with and then passed my friends.
The next tarantula I saw was during the four day sesshin. I walked behind it and watched it negotiate its way along slowly, all those legs going this way and that. Although there's a restriction on reading and writing during sesshin, I went to the library and got a spider book and read up on them. Not poisonous. Make good pets! While I was at it, I went ahead and read up on scorpions, black widows and brown recluses. I held the pages of the book gingerly, by the edges, not even wanting to touch the pictures.
I know where there's a black widow. It's inside a warm cabinet that only a few people ever have access to. Someone told me about it, and as soon as I could I opened the door and took a look. Sure enough. A black widow spider and two dead ex-husbands. It's possible, just possible, that we go too far in this "live and let live" thing around here.
After ten months of steady work, I'm nearly through sewing my okesa (priest's robe). I did the math: took an average-looking 10 centimeters, counted the stitches in it, figured how many centimeters there were in the whole okesa, came out with 13,000 stitches. Since we have a tradition of sewing on each others' okesas, I haven't done all 13,000 -- but I'll bet I've done 12,000 of them. With every stitch we repeat "namu kie butsu" which translates to, "I take refuge in Buddha." That is a lot of refuges.
So what is this ordination thing I'm moving toward. It means more clothes (the big okesa instead of the little rakusu is the usual sacred garment, and the priest's robe has about a third again as much fabric as a lay person's) and less hair (I'll have to stay bald for a year). I'll also be restricted in my clothing to black, white and gray for a year. It's pretty common to concentrate anxiety on the baldness, but what about the rest of it? What about the, for instance, lifetime commitment!? What about how I'll actually be a priest, with whatever the expectations are around that on my part and the part of others. I can't think of any other experience in my life that has so combined inevitability and fear.
December 4, 2002
One month to ordination. The idea of doing it down here excluded too many people, so it's going to be at City Center after all. I've sent invitations, and people are coming from Vermont, Connecticut, and Oregon. And San Francisco too, I'll bet. It's happening.
On 4 and 9 days (days with that number in them, which are the days where we have free time between breakfast and dinner) monks shave their heads. During this practice period, I've shaved Blanche's. Today as we were walking to the bath house I asked her about my future. The last time the topic came up, she'd indicated that they might need me back at City Center in the spring. This has weighed on my mind. I pointed out that Tassajara was "terribly good" for me (and that both words were chosen deliberately) and that I'd like to stay here. "Oh yes," she agreed. "There's no better place for concentrated practice, and you really should stay here as long as possible." So, while this is the last practice period she'll lead here (she steps down as Abbot in February of 2003), I'll stay to do another winter practice period with our other Abbess, Linda Ruth Cutts, then another summer and at least two more practice periods next fall and winter, one led by Reb Anderson and one by the new Abbot, Paul Haller. It's a relief to have this settled. Suzuki-roshi said that living in community is like rubbing dirty potatoes together: we knock the dirt off each other. I still have lots of dirt to work with before I'm a nice clean zen potato, and I'm sure that Tassajara is the best place for me to do it.