Tassajara’s Healing Hot Springs
Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit” is competing with the sound of my Big O radials down to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The car’s hot, I’m hot, “the white knight is talking backwards” and the brakes are probably smoking. A four-wheel drive vehicle would no doubt be better, but my 120,000-plus-miles Saturn is just ducky. Besides, the A/C is switched off, I’m careful to pump the brakes and at around the halfway mark, I pull over for 20 minutes to let everything cool down. This strategy works, and I snag a parking spot near the entrance gate without any problems.
A rewarding experience at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in Marin, where I first heard about Tassajara, and my love of hot springs convinced me to book two nights as a personal treat to myself at Tassajara, the first Zen training monastery in the West.
Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist priest, and the San Francisco Zen Center established the center in 1967; as a means of generating income, the center opens its doors to the public each year from late April to early September. The comfortable tree-shaded cabins, swimming pool, hot springs, gourmet vegetarian cuisine and an extensive calendar of Zen-themed retreats provide an ideal refuge from the Bay Area’s traffic and congestion.
Tassajara, I discover, is really all about slowing down and learning to appreciate life. At the front desk the clerk shows me how to use the kerosene lamps that illuminate each room. Only the dining hall has electric lighting, and there’s no air conditioning anywhere. Water conservation (and conservation in general) is also important. Buddhist volunteer housekeepers make the beds each day, but visitors are encouraged to use a single set of sheets and towels during their stay.
After check-in, I head to my room in the men’s dormitory ($105 per day on the weekend; private rooms go as high as $350). I remove my shoes and step inside onto the bare wood floor and take in the surroundings. There’s a small, blue ceramic vase holding freshly cut flowers from a nearby organic garden. There’s a sink, but no bathroom (flush toilets are nearby). After the five-hour drive from the Bay Area, I’m beat, so I flop myself onto the bed for a nap before dinner.
Three square vegetarian meals a day are included in the price of every room. The menus are similar to Greens at Fort Mason Center, but there’s less emphasis on presentation, the portions are bigger and there’s no wine list (you’re welcome to bring a bottle or two of wine from home). Everything’s served family style in the dining hall at fixed times, but for lunch, there’s an option of preparing a bag lunch to eat elsewhere, which may seem rather pedestrian—until you see your choices: mushroom pâté, avocados, dried fruit, organic tortilla chips, three-seed whole-wheat bread and so on.
Dinner is at 7 p.m., and when I arrive at the dining hall, a large crowd is already milling around outside. A napkin with my name on it has been laid out on a table near the entrance.
After dinner, I grab a towel and wander over to Tassajara’s Japanese-style bathhouse. There are separate facilities for men and women, with showers, indoor and outdoor pools (filled with water from the natural sulfur hot springs) and a steam room. As I walk along the path, I listen to the sounds of crickets and frogs. I shower away the day’s dirt and some job-related stress, and by the time I’m squeaky clean, lamplight fills the bathhouse. Now at last I’m ready for the big indoor pool, so I find a place to sit amid the other guests and then slowly submerge my grateful body into the steaming hot water.
I’ve brought a small, white towel soaked in ice water to place on my forehead, a trick I perfected while soaking in Tokyo’s bathhouses with Japanese salarymen. After a bit, I need a break, so I wander outside and sit down briefly in the ice-cold creek.
Guests can hike, swim, play bocce ball, do yoga, read books or sign up for retreats like The Zen of Baking and Jackal Taming: Developing Nurturing Relationships. (The retreats cost extra, though instruction about zazen, or sitting meditation, is free, and everyone is welcome in the zendo, or meditation hall.) On my final day, I hike over to the Narrows—a swimming hole where I find a married couple, naked as jaybirds, standing in the creek. I wave hello and then focus on where the icy water flows over smooth granite and splashes 4 or 5 feet into a natural pool. I take one look, decide that my health insurance, which frowns on things like motorcycle racing, amateur wrestling and skydiving, is up to the task and strip off. How often do you get a chance to shoot over a waterfall under clear blue skies on a warm summer day in your birthday suit? A few minutes later, I’m plunging feet first into the pool. It’s exhilarating.
I could easily have stayed longer at Tassajara, but I’m pleased to have had such a wonderful time, and I leave feeling refreshed. I’ll definitely visit again. I concluded my trip with a last meandering look around the grounds to soak up as much ambience as possible, and then I stopped by the office to purchase a loaf of freshly baked bread before getting in my car for the rough drive home.
—By Eugene Borglin
—Photography by Renshin Judy Bunce