Nirvana at the Hot Springs
At the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Monterey, guests are welcome but electricity, telephones, and televisions are not

Story & Photography by Randall Shirley

Below--The Details

It's 5 a.m. when the mellow clang of a cowbell stirs you. Outside, the white noise of a tumbling creek tries to soothe you back into slumber. Last night's soak in the rich hot spring lingers in your bones. You don't have to get up. There's no paper to read, no Today Show to watch. It's no use thinking about the phone calls you need to make because there's no phone. You hear the cowbell again, this time from the other end of the village. Maybe tomorrow you'll sleep in. You fumble for the matchbook you left bedside last night. Moments later the cozy room fills with the warm light of a kerosene lamp.
It's the start of a new day at Tassajara.

Stepping out your bungalow door you join a reverent group of other early risers bound for the Zendo, or Zen temple. Along the trail the flowers' petals are still tightly closed. The rugged mountains reach for the sky on either side of you. As nature takes her morning yawn, the students and some guests at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center remove their shoes, enter the Zendo, and take their places for a session of meditation and Zen Buddhist worship.

You find yourself seated cross-legged on a small pillow facing a wall. The rich tone of a large bell starts a 45-minute silent and motionless period. As the creek outside rumbles along and your legs begin to go to sleep, you wonder why you didn't stay in bed.

This is a curious place, Tassajara. It is a place where natural and human elements meet, seamlessly offering some of the last solitude in America. A place with an unusual mix of purposes. A place where you'll find a most relaxing hot spring bath, sumptuously simply accommodations, soul-soothing gardens, and some of the planets most glorious vegetarian cuisine. Here, your hosts combine religion and hospitality in a way that makes you feel Buddha himself would approve. You immediately know why many guests return year after year.

On a really good map this place shows up as "Tassajara Hot Springs." To the unsuspecting person in this state filled with herbal spas, mineral pools, and bubbling mud baths, Tassajara appears as just another name on the map. And if it wasn't for the Zen Buddhists who lovingly care for Tassajara, the place might be just another spa. But Tassajara's curious mix of purposes makes it truly special.

Tucked away deep inside the Los Padres Mountains near Monterey, at the bottom of a long east-west valley, Tassajara got its name from Native Americans. It means "a place where meat is dried and jerked." Mountain men knew of the hot, healing waters that flow here. An ancient legend explains that an all-powerful chief gave his body to the gods as a proxy sacrifice for his sick sister. The gods turned his body to stone, and hot tears poured from the rock. True or not, those hot tears create the richest hot spring in North America, containing 32 different minerals. And when someone recounts the legend while you're soaking your bones in Tassajara's steaming pools, it's hard not to believe.

The Native American gods made sure that a visit to the spring was snot easy. As the crow flies, it's only a few miles from highway G16 (Carmel Valley Road). As the earthbound human travels, however, Tassajara is at the end of a 14-mile mountain dirt road that winds steeply, offering spectacular vistas of the mountains, and breathtaking views of the valleys.

Those who consider navigating the rough Tassajara Road in their own vehicles should remember every movie scene with a car teetering at the edge of cliff. That scene comes true all too often on Tassajara Road. The sensible option is to take the Tassajara Stage, a low-geared, four-wheel-drive Chevy Suburban expertly piloted by Zen believer Keith Meyerhoff. With Meyerhoff at the wheel, the trip takes roughly an hour and a half, depending on how many rattlesnakes, squirrels, and other critters Meyerhoff brakes for. Meyerhoff drives the road each way once a day, bringing in guests, mail, and supplies. In the busy season, a second stage also makes the journey.

On arrival at Tassajara, you're directed to your lodging. The Zen students at Tassajara work throughout the year to maintain quality guest accommodations, with high-intensity work periods at either end of the summer. No matter what luxury level you choose, your bungalow, yurt, tatami room, or standard guest cottage will be wonderfully clean and fresh. Natural woods, stones, and fibers gently remind you of the wilderness surroundings. Fancier lodgings include ensuite toilet and sink, while those who choose the lower end share facilities with a small number of other guests.

Since Tassajara has no electricity (dictated partly by choice, partly by cost), there are no lights, air conditioners, or even fans. In the cooler months of late spring you might choose to light a fire in your personal Franklin stove and snuggle under a heap of blankets. In the heat of summer you slumber on top of the bed with windows wide open.

The soul-soothing waters of Tassajara are the primary draw for many first-time guests. In harmony with Zen's strong Japanese roots, the folks at Tassajara recently built a new Japanese-style bathhouse. The balance of nature and human handiwork is especially strong here, and you'll find it one of the most relaxing places you've ever experienced.

Stepping onto the bathhouse porch, you remove your shoes, give a polite nod to the Buddhist shrine and proceed into the structure. The bathhouse has separate, clothing-optional facilities for men and women, with the men's side going co-ed for a few hours each afternoon.

Once you're suitably showered, you may soak up to your eyeballs in the very hot "plunge" bath, lounge about on the multilevel sun deck, relax in the moderate temperature of the outdoor bath, sweat out your aches in the hot spring's harnessed steam or dip into the seasonally chilly waters of Tassajara Creek. Conversation at the baths should be minimal in deference to other guests' relaxation and meditation.

Three times each day a railroad bell clangs near the dining hall, and for many guests this is the best part of the Tassajara experience--and it's included with your room. The mountain retreat is owned by the San Francisco Zen Center, which also owns Green Gulch Farms and one of San Francisco's finest vegetarian restaurants, The Greens. Their tradition of gourmet vegetarian cooking is not lost at Tassajara, despite its relative distance from growing regions.

The cuisine is enough to convert even the staunchest carnivore to the healthy joys of vegetarian eating. Tassajara's chefs create satisfying meat alternatives such as tofu with traditional sausage seasonings to fill your burrito. Their soups are to die for, and their breads are a justifiably famous bit of heaven on earth. They'll even bake a loaf for you to take home.

Bob Hoover, one of several resident chefs (they call themselves "guest cooks") explains that the philosophy of the Tassajara kitchen is "to be able to use several simple things and create a really good thing. We try to get organic produce, and because it's guest season we try to get really good quality--when guests come here they aren't coming for some kind of austere diet!

"There is a style of presenting food at Tassajara," Hoover continues, "using flowers, using lots of care in the presentation, and care in how it's served. There's a certain feeling about eating here. A lot of attention goes into how our food is handled and prepared, and that's the quality."

If you wander into the immaculate kitchen, you'll find heaps of fresh veggies and loads of exotic spices. The cooks will gladly pass along their recipes, be they tried and traditional or a brand new concoction--something you'll rarely find at a fine restaurant. You also can tote home one of their many cookbooks so you'll never have to buy meat again.

The harmony you continually find at Tassajara is an extension of Zen practice and beliefs. You are always welcome to join the resident Zen students in meditation or worship, but they do little more than invite you. There is no pressure to participate and your hosts have no interest in converting you.

Tassajara's director Barbara Kohn not only manages the center, but also is a Buddhist priest. She explains that the Buddhist creed is to achieve freedom and enlightenment for yourself, and is not related to another force telling you what's right and wrong.

The Zen Center purchased Tassajara in 1966 from the Anna Beck family. As a stand-alone resort, Tassajara had never done well. The Zen group saw a perfect mountain home for themselves: a place where they could practice their faith in isolation yet welcome guests for a season each year to earn their living. It is an unusual "monastery," especially in the context of its Japanese cousins, as it embraces both men and women in the same facility.

"It's not a clear line," Kohn says of Tassajara's philosophy. "We're making some of it up."

Your hosts at Tassajara are all Zen students, and their reasons for being at the mountain retreat are many. The one thing they all seem to have in common, though, is their focus on peace from within, and peace toward everyone they meet. During the summer months most of their efforts are directed toward the comfort and enjoyment of their guests. During the winter months Tassajara closes its doors to outsiders, and the students engage in intense training that includes the practice of zazen (seated meditation), study, work, and formal study with a teacher. Anyone is welcome to join with the Zen group for sessions lasting from five days to several months. If you find yourself attracted to Zen worship and unable to leave the peace of Tassajara, you can make Zen and Tassajara your life.

In addition to the renowned baths, the Zen learning and worship opportunities, and the incredibly delicious vegetarian dining, you'll find Tassajara abounds with recreation opportunities. The retreat has its own Olympic-size pool, especially inviting in the summer months.

The mountains surrounding Tassajara are great for hiking and the staff will gladly suggest trails. If the solitude of the Zen retreat itself is not enough, imagine yourself wandering amid the dense foliage of the Central California mountains. You're welcome to come and go from Tassajara at your leisure, although you're requested to always hike with a buddy and sign in and out. As you hike downstream from the village you'll be tempted to remove all your clothes and lounge about on the rocks for an all-over sunbath. Feel free!

When the sun dips behind the mountains you realize it's time to sleep. While nothing during the day requires much effort, the mountain breeze and constant rumble of Tassajara Creek seem to encourage an early tuck-in. Its 10:30 p.m. when you hear the quite voice of a Zen student reminding nearby guests to blow out their lanterns before falling asleep. You realize that a day in Tassajara ends much like it begins, with your host's gentle invitation. But when he returns at 5 a.m. with the cowbell, you might choose to sleep in.

Frequent Orange Coast contributor Randall Shirley has soaked in many of the world's exotic baths, but he settles for a quick shower on a daily basis.

The Details

Tassajara's guest season is limited to the summer months from May through August. Reservations are taken beginning in April at 415-863-3136. Prices range from about $75 to $157 per person per night, all meals included. Although very mature children might enjoy Tassajara, there are no special amenities for children, and parents should visit the retreat without children the first time.

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