I’ll be leading a Zen Meditation class every Wednesday evening at 7:15 pm at Yogavidala 4640 Franklin Avenue LA 90027 corner of Vermont & Franklin in Los Feliz (behind 7-11). Starts tomorrow! Be there!
A couple days ago I returned to Los Angeles from my month-long stay at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery. While I was there, I gave two talks. The first one was bad. But it’s somewhere up on the San Francisco Zen Center website (sfzc.org). The second one was called “Dogen’s Monasticism — What’s the Deal With That?” It’s also on the SFZC website and you can listen to it by clicking on the title that I just typed above this line. That one was OK.
Lots if stuff happened to me while I was there. A month in Tassajara is equal to twelve months anywhere else in the world. I don’t really understand why that is. But you’ll find yourself saying things like, “Last week I talked to Bill (or whoever)” and then realize that you talked to Bill (or whoever) that morning. I’m not the only one this happens to. Maybe it’s the water up there or something. I feel this means that my life is extended by a year for each month I spend there. A subjective year, I grant you. But a year is a year.
I worked on the dining room crew again this time, like I did in 2010. So I was ferrying food from the kitchen, pouring coffee, pouring wine (it’s BYOB, but guests often b their own b’s), ferrying uneaten food to the bussing tables, occasionally sampling said uneaten food, and generally helping make the guest season run efficiently if not always smoothly. Tassajara is a Zen monastery. But it supports itself by opening to guests for four months of the year. Some people seem to think that working the summer guest season at Tassajara is not true monastic practice, while doing an ango (or “practice period” in Zen Center Speak), in which there are no guests and the focus is supposed to be solely on zazen, is. These people are wrong.
Guest season at Tassajara is real Zen monastic practice. They wake you up at 5:20 each morning, you do an hour of zazen, a half an hour or so of chanting and bowing, then a short period of temple cleaning all before breakfast. After breakfast you work your assigned job for most of the day. Then there is a service just before dinner and zazen again at 8:30 for another forty minutes before lights out. The rules for students are roughly the same as they are during a practice period, although you are allowed to listen to your iPods or even play guitars as long as they’re far away from the main drag through the monastery.
My robes were stolen. Here’s the story.
Richard Baker came to Tassajara and gave a talk. For both of you who don’t know, Richard Baker was once the abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara. He was ousted in the early eighties amid allegations of sexual improprieties and financial misconduct. The details are in Michael Downing’s book Shoes Outside the Door: Desire Devotion and Excess at the San Francisco Zen Center. This wasn’t the first time Baker had been back since his departure. But it was the first time he’d been back in over a decade, and perhaps only the second time he’d visited during his years of exile. He came as part of Zen Center’s celebration of its 50th anniversary. He’d given a talk at SFZC’s City Center in San Francisco the night before.
I found his talk kind of lackluster. Other people loved it. So maybe it was just me. There was so much he could have said. He could have gotten right to the meat of what the problems were that led to his removal from office. But he didn’t. Instead, he talked about… uh… something else. I think it had to do with why monastic Zen is better than lay Zen. I couldn’t really follow it.
I was proud of the dining room crew that night, though. Because Edward from our crew asked Baker how he felt about being vilified by so many people for his actions back in the day, thus calling attention to the immense and stinky wooly mammoth squatting in the center of the room. Baker didn’t really answer him, unfortunately. He just talked about why Germans are less likely than Americans to judge a person by what they’ve read about him as opposed to what they learn from meeting him. Baker has a pretty big group in Germany’s Black Forest region. I wondered if Shoes Outside the Door was available in German.
The next morning weird things started happening. Greg Fain, the tanto (practice leader) at Tassajara, had asked me to act as doshi (officiant) at a number of services. Since the dining room was much closer to the zendo than my room, I’d gotten into the habit of hanging my robes in this little alcove behind it. The alcove is actually outdoors but it’s hidden under a staircase that goes to the women’s dorm above the dining room, so it’s a pretty concealed spot.
When I went to look for my robes to wear for morning zazen, they were gone. I ran back to my room to make sure I didn’t just space out and leave them there. But they weren’t there either. I spent the whole zazen period wondering who the hell would have taken them and why.
Every morning all students at Tassajara gather for what’s called the Work Circle. This is like the Facebook of Internet-free Tassajara where news is exchanged and work assignments are given to those without them. At the end of each Work Circle, students are able to make their own announcements or pleas to help find lost items.
That morning one student, an Austrian fellow in his sixties, said he had found a “large turd” on the pathway near the bath house, which he believed might indicate there was a bear roaming the area. Richard Baker said that he heard two women wandering near his cabin talking very loudly at around 3:30 in the morning. The person who had run the wake up bell said that he’d had to jump over a guy sleeping on the path near the swimming pool and asked whoever it was not to do that anymore. Another person said she heard someone drive a large vehicle into the monastery grounds at about 4:30 AM. Others reported hearing a dog barking. And I announced that my robes were gone and that I’d like them back, please.
It emerged that several people had seen the guy sleeping on the path. But there are lots of weird people at Tassajara. A guy sleeping on the path is unusual, but it could happen. After breakfast I found the inner portion of my robes, the white kimono, wadded up on top of the guest refrigerator stained with blood. But the much more expensive black outer robe called the kuromo remained missing.
Later that day, a guy named Steve discovered a wallet near the swimming pool. There was a driver’s license inside identifying its owner as one Mr. Holokai Brown. That afternoon Tassajara got a call from Mr. Brown’s relatives asking if he’d been seen in the area. It seems he’d gotten separated from a group he’d been hiking with in the mountains. A few days later, Mr. Brown reappeared and asked if he might have his wallet back. Brenden in the office asked Mr. Brown if he knew the whereabouts of a black Buddhist robe. He did. And he agreed to give the robe back in exchange for the wallet. The wallet was sent to the nearest station of the forest service where the exchange was made. About 20 days after this I received my robe back.
I wrote a song about all of this, which I will record and put up in a future installment of this blog.
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