Thursday, September 6, 2012

Into the Deep End

San Francisco Zen Center maintains three practice centers: Tassajara, City Center and Green Gulch. I've been known to quip that they represent the 'deep end', 'shallow end' and 'middle end' of practice respectively: City Center is accessible and urban, Green Gulch is just remote enough to provide a refuge from the urban environment but Tassajara is way out there, distant and quiescent.

Tassajara was the first of the practice centers to be established, in 1966, is the first Soto Zen monastery outside of Asia. It's history goes back to pre-Colombian use by the Essilan Indians who referred to it as a "place where meat is hung out to dry," which suggests that in one sense, things haven't changed there in hundreds of years.

The Road
Just getting to Tassajara is an adventure. Located within the Ventana wilderness, about two and a half hours south of San Francisco the location defines remote. Nestled in a deep valley, only accessible via fourteen miles of rugged dirt road, it's more than an hour off the pavements. Four wheel drive is recommended, I managed in a front wheel drive station wagon but I'm not sure I'd do it again. There is a stage that runs a few times a day, which I'd recommend unless your driver is very comfortable on dirt roads.

The Gates of Hell
Once in the valley, with the car parked, the monistary gates are the next thing to see. Gateways are traditional in Japanse religious spaces, many Shinto temples have no structure besides a gate and a small altar stand, the gate leading to a particular grove or stone worshiped for the kami which inhabit them. On passing through the Tassajara gate I was immediately assaulted with the smell of sulphur dioxide in the air, wafting down the valley from the baths, acrid, smelling of rotten eggs or satan's hamper.

Commenting on this to the residents elicits a bit of a chuckle, "you don't really smell it after a few weeks." I'm sure that's true, but it was still fairly pungent even after a few days. I asked my teacher about it and she said, "that smell is how I know I'm home." In the bath house it can become overpowering, especially in the small steam room built over one of the vents, which I found nauseating. It was an exercise in non-discriminating consciousness to say the least.

The Narrows
At the opposite end of the valley, downstream from the monistary and the hot springs is the real treasure of Tassajara: the narrows. The dry summer left the water level a bit low but this spot on the stream is famous for good reason. Cool clear water, hot sun, bare rock and naked bodies (but note, the average age of the guests is well above 40) come together to make a paradise. I was accused of frolicking by one of the other retreat attendees, and I'm perfectly ok with that.

The Retreat
The retreat itself was informative and entertaining, both Fu and Larry did a wonderful job of bringing the strands of dharma represented by Zen and Vipasna together. There were only two or three of us in the Zen camp and we managed to get through all the guided meditations withouth anything worse than minor annoyance.

My goal for the week was to face my aversion to Vipasna, which borrows the meditation practice of Theravada monks from South East Asia and brings it to the West without the associated cultural context. In my mind this is thorwing out the baby with the bath water, the cultural context is extremely important to Zen practice as is the ritual which was transmitted along with the Dharma. Paradoxically, the strictures of Zen form allow for completely freedom in Zazen: once you are on the cushion the next 40 minutes are yours and yours alone to do with what you will. By contrast, the looser forms of Vipnasa include guided meditation which is much more proscriptive about the content of the meditation, the don't tell you how to sit (and the array of cushion arrangements was somewhat impressive in its variety) but you do have an agenda while you sit.

Somehow, I managed to get through the whole week withouth using the phrase "Hinayana Scum".