Last weekend, I had one of those very California moments.
I was floating in a gorgeous stream about a half hour walk from a Zen monastery when a group of hikers wearing only their sneakers came upon our swimming hole and dove right in. Later that evening, I dined on amazing gourmet vegetarian food served and prepared by Zen students as people around me shared bottles of wine. Between the swimming hole and the dining hall, I did laps in an outdoor pool, practiced meditation in the zendo, and considered being mindful in all my activities for the weekend.
Where was this happy hippie haven where Northern California free spirits shared a community with devout Buddhists? Tassajara Hot Springs, the furthermost campus of the San Francisco Zen Center.
Now before I go any further, I should explain that Tassajara is a traditional monastery. For most of the year, it's closed off to everyone but monks and students. But in the summer, they invite the public to share in their serene, stunning surroundings, although the students don't partake in skinny dipping or wine drinking. They do, however, provide excellent instruction on meditation, one of many informative experiences people can have at Tassajara. (There are a number of different retreats the public can choose from. Or you can be like I was and just go there to meditate and mellow out).
My interest in the San Francisco Zen Center started last fall, when I decided to push my home meditation practice a little further by attending their evening zazen (sitting meditation) sessions at their City Center campus in Hayes Valley. From there I expanded into the scenic Green Gulch campus near Muir Beach, where you can follow up a Sunday morning zazen with a walk though the Green Gulch garden and out to the beach. But while I've fallen in love with both places, neither prepared me for the amazing experience that is a weekend away at Tassajara.
Tassajara is about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, tucked deep into a valley near Carmel (and by tucked, I mean an hour drive down a windy dirt road). The minute you get to the enclave, which became part of the Zen Center in 1966, it's hard not to feel at peace. The cozy, rustic rooms have no electricity (they're lit by kerosene lamps and heated by fire places). The buildings are a mixture of funky old cabins from when the place was a resort and newer buildings crafted in the Zen style. Everything about the place is simple yet elegant and environmentally conscious.
I was given the full tour of Tassajara by City Center Director David Zimmerman, who pointed out the woodshop, zendo, modest flower and herb gardens, library, swimming pool, dining hall, bocce ball court, and hiking paths (there are a number of gorgeous hikes from the cabins that take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours). David was one of five brave souls who stayed at Tassajara to fight the wildfires that raged there in 2008. One of the biggest selling points of Tassajara, aside from the very sweet people who live and work there, are the hot springs, which are located in an outdoor bathhouse.
I don't have photos of that area because it's clothing optional (separated by gender until 8:30 p.m., when it becomes very romantic), but believe me when I say it's the place to watch the stars. They had to kick me out of there at the end of the night. There are two hot pools, a sauna, and you can take a cold plunge in the nearby stream.
The other swimming hole where folks stripped down is called the Narrows because of the way the rocks close in on the stream (see photo to the right). The boulders are perfect for jumping into the cool water after a hot, dusty hike.
Of course, you can also take a swim in a more civilized manner in Tassajara's swimming pool.
It's a remarkable experience spending a weekend hiking, swimming, bathing, dining, reading, and meditating among such a compassionate community. Tassajara is a very special place. It contains many of the amenities that people flock to in a traditional Northern California spa/resort, but that's mixed with a deep commitment to living mindfully, something they never hit you over the head with, but seeps into your days very naturally. I hope to be able to visit again soon.