Don’t Know Anything: Seven Days of Ventana Zen

A journey to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the Esselen 'Hand' shelters, and the heart of the dharma in the Ventana Wilderness.

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters
I have just hiked 14 miles of dirt road; it has led me up and over a 5,000-foot ridge in the Ventana Wilderness. Now I am resting beside a green post that marks Mile 0.0—the end of the road. Zenzen, nada, nothing, zero. I am “here”.

This sounds like the beginning of a profound Zen koan; it is not. I know almost nothing about Zen. I was once advised, “Don’t know anything and go from there.” This is the ‘almost’ in the ‘almost nothing’ I know about Zen.

A large Japanese gate with a smartly trimmed thatch roof stands at the main entrance to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Adobe walls buttress each side of this elegant gate like ungainly earthen wings. The structure appears to be under construction.

If the goal is to not know anything, it occurs to me I should turn around and leave right now—before actually entering Tassajara. Perhaps this is some kind of test. I look around me suspiciously. No one is in sight.

Hiking back out of here is not an option. Chew’s Ridge was a brutal climb and I am exhausted. So, as the evening Zazen bell rings through this steep, remote canyon, I enter the monastery known as Zenshinji or “Zen Heart-Mind Temple."

Place where Meat is Hung to Dry

Tassajara is the oldest Japanese Buddhist Sōtō Zen monastery in the United States and the first founded outside of Asia. It is fairy tale beautiful. Rustic yet refined, its grounds are immaculately kept. Paths, bridges and trails connect acres of Japanese and California architecture, cabins, temples and shrines.

As I wander on to the monastery grounds wearing my boots and backpack, I encounter both robed monks and what appear to be lay visitors such as myself. In greeting, each person pauses, gazes into the other’s eyes and bows, hands in prayer, before continuing on their way. I involuntarily begin mimicking their behavior with bows like stiff spasms. This is the first of many Zen etiquette lessons. Over the next seven days, I will be learning on the fly. There is no instruction manual.

Tassajara Creek runs through the center of the community, its gurgle an endless, immaculate sutra. I stop and watch a small, shadowy trout slip upstream through the crystal water like a wisp of thought. It is so quiet here you can almost hear the fish swim, I think.

The monks have recently emerged from their formal, winter-long cloister. April is the monastery’s designated “work period.” Roughly 30 members of the public have volunteered to spend a week or more sprucing up the monastery in exchange for…well, being here—and sharing the monks’ daily practice.

Peter, an architect from Berkeley with one disarming, gray eyebrow, notices my scattered expression and directs me to a list of room assignments. A long-practicing Buddhist, he has been attending the Tassajara work periods for years. He kindly points out the dining area, hot springs and zendo. He suggests I unpack and take a soak before dinner.

I find my cabin, peel off my boots and walk upstream to the hot springs with a towel slung over my shoulder. A number of people are returning from the baths so I bow incessantly as I go. While this practice of bowing feels awkward and time-consuming at first, eventually it doesn’t. I realize there is no rush. It is hard to be late for anything here.

What’s more, simply looking into the eyes of another human being is a pretty potent connection. In what I have already begun to think of as the “outside world,” I can go days without intimately acknowledging anyone. In fact, we seem to go out of our way to avoid this kind of connection— and when we do connect, we’re usually sheathed in some technological condom or another.

The baths are empty when I arrive. I bow at the shrine and enter. Shrines are hidden all over the Tassajara property—in the nooks of rock gardens and crooks of trees, at entrances and exits, at eye level, at shin level, outside of toilets, on top of mountains. It is not mandatory to acknowledge each, but I bow to every one I encounter—I’ll take all the dharma I can get.

The main hot spring pool is 105 degrees. The water feels miraculous on my sore muscles. The wall of the traditional wooden structure housing the pool slides open to reveal a sharp crag looming over the monastery’s canyon; a nearly imperceptible string of white prayer flags flutters at its peak.

These hot springs have been the site of a resort of one kind or another since the 1860s. Before that, the native Esselen gathered here. Tasajera is actually a Spanish-American word derived from the Esselen language, which designates a “place where meat is hung to dry.”

Buddhists, of course, are vegetarian.

Dharma Talk

Dinner is eggplant lasagna, kale salad and chocolate-dipped strawberries. Ravenous from the hike in, I devour the food. Any concerns I had about eating vegetarian for a week are immediately dispelled. I could eat like this for the rest of my life.

As I begin to settle in and meet the larger community, it appears that I have become known as “the guy who hiked in.” I sense they view this less as a remarkable feat and more as just a very curious thing to have done.

At dinner I chat with Leslie James, a woman with long, flowing white hair and kind eyes. She has been practicing Buddhism at Tassajara since 1971. We talk about various things—none of them related to Zen. I am later to discover that she is the abiding teacher of the monastery. As one monk tells me, “Leslie basically is Buddhism in these parts.”

When I return to my cabin after dinner, I meet my roommate. An older, bearded gentleman with a big smile and a large cardboard box full of supplements, unctures and treatments. Hummux, as he was once dubbed by Tom Little Bear Nason, is the official historian for the Esselen Tribe. Recent conflicts between opposing Esselen entities and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, however, have left him out in the cold. He is not particularly bitter about it—merely philosophical. In fact, he has a pleasantly philosophical take on just about everything. Except 9/11. He gets downright frothy about 9/11.

A bell rings and Hummux tells me it’s time for the evening’s dharma talk. I ask him if such things are mandatory.

“Mandatory?” he laughs, spooning a large glob of red palm oil into his mouth. “Nothing is mandatory. The monks will do their thing regardless of whether we join them or not.”

The zendo is the monastery’s central structure. It is a meditation hall and gathering place for all formal Zen activities. It looks the part. You could film a credible ninja movie in the zendo. I shuffle in barefoot and take a seat on a meditation cushion.

Zenshin Greg Fain serves as tanto or “head of practice” at Tassajara. With his shaved head, geometric robes and Buddy Holly glasses, Greg looks the part. Refreshingly, this evening’s dharma talk focuses on tanto’s “big gripe” about Zen.

Zen loves lists, which tend to be hierarchical and not a little confusing in their relationship to one another. Shila, or right conduct, is one of three categories that make up the Eightfold Path which, in turn, makes up one of the Four Noble Truths—the other two categories are right view (Prajna) and right practice (Samadhi).

Tanto’s big gripe is that many famous Zen teachers possess Prajna and Samadhi, but fall a little short in the Shila category. In other words, they gossip, get drunk and high, engage in sexual misconduct, leverage their positions to accumulate wealth and otherwise act like normal human beings. In order to help maintain right conduct, tanto believes teachers should strive to make Zen “ordinary”—a daily practice as integral as breathing—not some rock-and-roll saturnalia of spiritual intellectualism (my words).

“The bottom line,” tanto says. “Is it’s just easier when you conduct yourself properly.”

There is a very famous, very confusing Zen koan about a wild fox. In it, a Zen master is delivering a dharma talk to a group of monks. When he is finished, all of the monks leave—yet one old man remains. When the master asks him who he is, the old man replies, “I am not a human being now, but I was a Zen master and lived on this mountain when Buddha lived. At that time, one of my students asked me whether the enlightened man would escape the yoke of causation. Foolishly, I told him, ‘No.’ As a result, I became a fox for 500 rebirths, and I am still a fox. Now I ask you, ‘Can the enlightened man escape the yoke of causation?’ In reply, the Zen master says, “The enlightened man would not be baffled by the yoke of causation.” Suddenly enlightened, the old man is freed from the burden of any more fox rebirths.

“Work is Zen,” tanto says, concluding his dharma talk. “Zen is work.”

All My Ancient Twisted Karma

Before dawn, a monk runs through the monastery grounds ringing what sounds like a sleigh bell. The community slowly stirs to the repeated thock of wooden blocks; deep, resonant chimes; the haunting percussion of the zendo drum. I follow a dreamy string of orange lights along the path to zazen.

I have experience with meditation, but don’t considered it a strength. I’ve always been more drawn to yoga because I can’t sit still. Yet practicing zazen around a bunch of highly focused monks amplifies my focus and expands my capacity for stillness. It is like finding a strong Wi-Fi signal in the large, empty amphitheater of consciousness. Monks line the wall on either side of me. They are as motionless as stones in a stream. They seem to hum like silent tuning forks.

After silent meditation, we chant sutras. Even the English sutras are delivered in a staccato, guttural Japanese monotone. It is weird and jarring, but like all things at the monastery, the chanting quickly becomes normal…even perfect:

All my ancient twisted karma
From beginningless greed, hate, and delusion
Born through body, speech, and mind
I now fully avow.

Sitting With Fire

As “unskilled” labor, I am assigned to work on the main gate under the direction of a bespectacled Hungarian elf named Erik Ven. Erik is a master of Superadobe, a form of earthbag construction, and I spend most of the day slathering a mud-and-concrete mix on to the gate’s wall and smoothing it with a trowel. It is hard work but Tanto instructs that work is Zen. And so it is. So it is.

I work next to a woman from L.A. She doesn’t “dig” Zen’s suppression of sexuality and invites me to peruse some book about Native American sacred sexuality she has brought with her. “We’ll have to study it in private,” she says. “Even the cover is too provocative for this crowd.”

I pass. The fact is, I am enjoying the asexual atmosphere of the monastery. Whether we realize it or not, nearly every interaction we have in the outside world is informed, to some degree, by sexuality. It’s exhausting and I’m enjoying a break from it. Besides, as Buddha puts it, “Those who walk in the Way should avoid sensualism as those who carry hay would avoid coming near the fire.”

As we work, I notice monks marching in a procession behind a professional wildfire fighter. This week they are training for the impending fire season. Because of the drought, it is forecast to be one of the worst in history. What the monks learn may save their lives if these near-vertical, tinder-dry box canyons go up in flames. … Around here, it’s not if but when. Tassajara’s history is punctuated by devastating fires.

In September 1949, the “fashionable” Tassajara Hot Springs Resort made national news when a wildfire nearly burned it to the ground. The fire stranded 40 guests and 22 employees. Despite the best efforts of 300 firefighters, the main hotel, 10 cottages, a 20-car garage and a number of other structures were lost. The resort never quite recovered. Eventually it was sold to a Japanese Buddhist priest named Shunryu Suzuki and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was born.

Fifty years later, Tassajara was almost destroyed by the third largest wildfire in recorded California state history. The 2008 Basin Complex fire approached gradually at first, forcing the evacuation of guests and staff, before rapidly converging on the Zen center from four sides. In her excellent book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire, Colleen Morton Busch recounts how five Tassajara monks stayed behind to fight the fire and help save their monastery despite very good odds of immolation. Such good odds, in fact, that the authorities requested dental records and next-of-kin contacts before allowing them to remain behind.

That night at dinner, I sit with three monks—Milo, Benson and Hiro. All three are funny, normal, cool guys, but when the topic of fire arises, the conversation turns serious. In 2013, a 200-acre fire burned near Tassajara. The fire separated Benson, who had been hiking to the west, from the monastery. He was forced to escape into Carmel Valley and wait it out. It was days before the flames were under control and he was allowed to return.

That night I lay in bed reading. The mosquito hawks at Tassajara are gangly, prehistoric and plentiful. I click off the light and lay in the darkness. The mosquito hawks bumble clumsily against my face. Eventually they wander off and follow walls to corners and corners to walls.

When I sleep, I dream of monks hurling their bodies on to a wildfire. I cannot tell if they mean to staunch the flames or feed them.

The “Hands” Rock Shelters

Work at Tassajara is four days on, one day off. Today is my day off. After coffee, zazen and breakfast, I throw some peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, apples and water into my pack and hike alone into the Ventana Wilderness.

Today I will make a pilgrimage to a sacred place—a spot I have dreamed about visiting for nearly 20 years. In his poem, “Hands”, Robinson Jeffers describes it like so: “Inside a cave in a narrow canyon near Tassajara / The vault of rock is painted with hands.”

Although it is not a tightly held secret, I am not going to reveal how I got there. If you really want to find this place, you can. But bear in mind this is hallowed ground. Follow the proper legal and spiritual channels before visiting the “Hands” rock shelters—and treat them with the same respect you would treat your own house of worship, whatever that may be.

My hike to “Hands” takes me up a magnificent canyon. I pass a team of trail maintenance workers from the Ventana Wilderness Alliance. These people do vital, selfless work out here. If it wasn’t for them, most of the trails in Ventana would be impassable. Once I am beyond their point man and his loppers, the trail is again choked with chaparral and poison oak.

The spring air is wildly perfumed with thick inflorescences of creeping sage (Salvia sonomensis). Clouds of bees swarm around these pungent blooms. Their collective buzz is a dull roar. I am deathly allergic to bee stings.

These bees are one of California’s 1,600 indigenous bee species, most of which inhabit underground tunnels and cluster during spring nesting. Unlike introduced Eurasian honeybees, which operate in a queen-centered colonial structure, these bees are “solitary.” Fortunately, they aren’t aggressive and rarely sting, but I practice zazen as I walk through them, thinking calm and peaceful thoughts. Oblivious to my presence, these essential pollinators go about their affairs, descending and emerging from tiny tunnels in the earth around me.

The trail climbs up into a landscape of wind-warped sandstone. Known as Wind Caves, this phantasmagoric landscape is a surreal wonderland of curves, holes and arches. I spend an hour clambering around on the soft, smooth rock, poking my head into caves and peering out natural windows at the spectacular vistas.

The trail winds over numerous drainages, through meadows and past stately valley oaks. Across the canyon, a massive cliff dominates the landscape. It looks exactly like a 200-foot hand in prayer—as if one wall of the canyon is bowing in greeting to the other.

For decades, Gary Breschini and Trudy Haversat have been the local archaeological authorities. They excavated dozens of significant Esselen sites over the years—including the “Hands” rock shelters in 1972. Both believe the hands motif in Esselen artwork is somehow associated with this enormous cliff. From this perspective—and knowing what lies in the rock shelters nearby—it is hard to argue with them.

The rock shelters have a caretaker named Greg. Images from the caves are tattooed on his biceps. He quietly assesses me when I approach the trailhead to the rock shelters. Although a calm and friendly man, he clearly falls in the “not to be fucked with” category. Greg reminds me of a mythic gatekeeper, a giant—a magic protector of this holy place. It is easy to imagine him lumbering out of the forest and exacting a swift and terrible retribution on anyone foolish enough to desecrate the land he protects.

After conferring with Greg, I pass between two mighty oaks. It is clear that these two trees were intentionally planted centuries ago. They feel like a gate to another dimension. I feel a jolt of energy as I pass between them.

The main cave is a natural amphitheater. The shady overhang fosters a microclimate. Ferns and cool grass grow inside this hidden pocket. On the walls are the paintings—stylized white handprints, various dashes and marks in red ocher and black; a latticework symbol that resembles a ladder.

The hands are not prints, they are painted. Each is composed of eight or 10 parallel white lines and appear to have been applied with a brush. They represent both left and right hands. There are nearly 250 scattered through the three shelters. They mesmerize.

It is impossible to know the Esselen’s intentions. Breschini believes they might be clan symbols applied during initiation rituals. These shelters have been occupied for over 3,400 years. The hands are signals of human consciousness which have traversed time, but also space—they seem as if they have been placed against the other side of some foggy, trans-dimensional wall. They feel both ancestral and like mysterious salutations from the future.

I sit crossed legged before the paintings and study each one. Why here? I wonder. As I think this, a hummingbird swoops into the shelter, startling me. The natural amphitheater powerfully amplifies the thrum of its wings. Of course, I think. A shaman’s voice would sound magnificent narrating the secrets of the universe in here.

The other rock shelters have less artwork, but more bizarre, natural articulation in the stone. They are gorgeous. Smooth tentacles and honeycombs warp and pit the roof and walls. Graceful concavities and shadowy caves, bright windows and dank depressions decorate their interiors. In places, thousands of years of hands and feet have worried the stone smooth as gems.

These caves are as beautiful to me as the Sistine Chapel. I wander through them with my mouth open in awe. The last cave is actually a giant, freestanding arch—the kind of formation that would not be the least bit out of place in Southern Utah. Outside of the arch are a series concentric stone daises—the vestiges of ancient undersea furnaces.

When I return through the gate of oak trees, leaving the “Hands” rock shelters behind, I am overwhelmed with a sense of grace and humbled by the beauty and mystery of the universe.

I am here.

The Boulder Koan

The day before I leave Tassajara to return to the “outside world,” I eat lunch with Greg, the tanto. When I ask him what led him down this particular path, he shrugs and says, “Buddhism.”

I have come to appreciate how these people keep it simple.

We talk about my life, particularly many of the mistakes I insist on making. As I stand to leave, Greg paraphrases Shogaku Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of Tassajara with a smile, “Ryan,” he says. “The ground you trip over is the same ground on which you stand.”

With that, I say goodbye to Greg and promise him I will return.

The night before I leave, I hike up to a place called the horse pasture before dinner. I find a boulder poised precariously on the edge of a 100-foot cliff. I am tempted to topple it.

Why? To witness the Götterdämmerung of some huge rock tearing down the hill? To hear its thrashings reverberate through the canyon? To rend a gash in the stillness? And then what? The squawks of blue jays; the final thud; the trickle of pebbles and dirt in the wake of the stone? There would be a return of stillness—but a different stillness. My action would have altered the universe in some way forever. What does it all mean?

Fuck if I know. However, I no longer feel like toppling the boulder so I continue hiking. The universe chugs onward, unmolested by my impulse.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.

More Goat Trails by Ryan Masters:
Harbin Hot Springs and the Ten Thousand Fragments of Brahma
Bosysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion.
Pico Blanco: Bushwhacking to Big Sur’s Sacred Peak