MONTEREY COUNTY -- The road to enlightenment is rocky and long, and so is the road to Tassajara. But at the end of the unpaved 14-mile track leading up into the Santa Lucia Mountains lies sweet, restorative reward.
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is a Buddhist monastery perched like an eagle's aerie in the Ventana Wilderness, 25 miles inland from central California's Big Sur coast. About 50 men and women reside here full time, supporting their study by hosting paying guests during the summer "hospitality season."
Gary Morgan, 54, is one of them. He recently quit his job as a San Francisco accountant to live here and pursue spiritual practice full time.
Like other lay practitioners and Zen priests we met at Tassajara, Morgan seemed to radiate an enviable "I've got a secret" kind of inner glow. My companions and I peppered him with questions about the monastic lifestyle while he tidied our cozy cabin.
"The spiritual practice either draws you or repels you," he said, reciting at our request the details of a daily schedule that starts with a wake-up gong at 5:20 a.m. and runs solid with work and meditation until lights-out at 10.
"Ritual," he assured us, "is a powerful thing."
Maybe so, but my companions and I had come here precisely to escape the rituals that bind us in our daily lives. Our agenda was focused instead on invigorating hikes, relaxing soaks in Tassajara's Japanese-style baths and lingering conversation over what has to be some of the world's best vegetarian cuisine.
Along the way, through the simple osmosis of being here, we got a brief introduction to the restorative way of life that took root in this remote valley back in the 1960s -- with the help of the rock band Jefferson Airplane, no less.
Tassajara, whose name is derived from an indigenous Esselen Indian term meaning "place where meat is hung to dry," is one of three enterprises associated with the San Francisco Zen Center. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese priest, founded what was to become the West Coast's foremost institution of Soto Zen teachings in 1966, when the City by the Bay was erupting with new ideas. The center acquired Tassajara the next year, establishing the first Soto Zen monastery outside Asia.
The place already had a long history as a rustic hot-springs resort. Visitors in the late 19th century came to "take the cure," traveling by stage via a road so rocky and steep that tree trunks were chained to the vehicles' rear axles to serve as brakes on the downgrades.
Even today, in a modern four-wheel-drive vehicle, it takes a solid hour to cover the rough, winding dirt-and-rock road leading from the chic Carmel Valley wine lands to the secluded retreat 5,000 feet above sea level.
And that's in dry, summertime conditions.
"Everything has to come in and out over that road," notes Diana Gerard, a Zen priest who serves as Tassajara's director. "And it's the only road in Monterey County that receives snow."
The road is a metaphor few are likely to miss. It slows you down, for one thing. And slowing down serves to illuminate the possibilities that Tassajara presents.
My friends and I arrived in a cloud of dust, as with the stages of old. Taking a cue from others, we plopped our bags into wheelbarrows and rolled them first to the registration office and then to the bright and airy cabin to which we'd been assigned. It was one in a row of buildings aligned along a crashing stream -- Tassajara Creek -- that provided a constant white-noise backdrop to our visit.
The simple furnishings included four old-fashioned, glass-shaded kerosene lamps: Except in the kitchen, there is no electricity at Tassajara. At night, lanterns illuminate the pathways, and buildings glow in a quiet way that reminded me of warm, welcoming pumpkins.
Wandering the grounds, we admired the Japanese-inspired zendo, or meditation hall, with its wide verandas, multi-tiered shoe cubbies and gongs that serve, like church bells, to call people to morning and evening zazen (meditation) and services. The building, the Japanese-inspired landscaping and the sight of monks drifting about in dark, flowing robes struck me as both exotic and transporting.
As we learned from talking with Morgan and other monastic residents, Tassajara's April-to-September guest program is a way for students to earn their keep for the winter practice periods, a time of intensive meditation and study. The students, who range in age from 19 to 74, perform all the functions necessary to operate a resort, from housekeeping to groundskeeping to food- service work.
Tassajara guests are a loyal bunch, according to Gerard. "Many return year after year, for anywhere from a day to a week," she said.
For most, the getaway is not so much about Zen as it is about the simple pleasures of fresh air, fresh food and warm water.
"Guests can attend meditation if they want to, but most don't," Gerard said. "Some, however, become interested in the Zen Buddhist part and come back later as students."
Many guests also partake of Tassajara's rich menu of multiday retreats, which range from "Zen and Yoga" and "Zen and Baking" to programs focused on relationships, bird-watching, writing and art. Some of the most popular workshops are led by Edward E. Brown, an iconic figure who helped found the center back in the '60s and went on to write "The Tassajara Bread Book," a 1970 food-for-thought classic that continues to sell well.
Brown, who was at the center during our visit, took a few minutes out of his schedule to show me around.
"I first came here in 1966, so this is my 41st year," he said, pointing out old photographs in the dining hall and a flight of stone steps he helped build. Musing about the early days, Brown recalled that acquiring the 126-acre mountain property -- the price in 1967 was a whopping $300,000 -- presented a huge financial challenge for the fledgling San Francisco Zen Center.
"We had to come up with a $25,000 down payment," Brown recalled, flexing his expressive eyebrows. "And so we threw a 'Zenefit' in San Francisco, with Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company. And that's how we raised the money."
After that, he recalled, "there was a tremendous burst of energy and interest."
Brown started his monastic service work as a cook in Tassajara's kitchen.
"They taught me how to bake bread and somehow I and other people started the tradition of having good food here," he said. "Even though it's new people in the kitchen every year or two, they keep up pretty well. The emphasis has always been careful attention to what you're doing, rather than culinary genius."
In fact, food is one of the main draws at Tassajara. Three vegetarian meals are included in the daily rates, and they are nothing short of exquisite.
It would be wrong, however, to equate "vegetarian" with "diet;" the potato-and-mushroom cassoulet we devoured at dinner and the cinnamon rolls we savored at breakfast only could be justified with a serious, calorie-crunching hike.
For lunch, some guests pack a lunch of items selected from a gourmet buffet. The alternative is a sit-down repast of soup, salad and more of that aromatic Tassajara bread. Guests are welcome to bring their own wine to dinner, and many do; the conversation it fuels around the shared tables often stretches into the night.
Speaking of night: One of Tassajara's most alluring amenities is its Japanese-style baths, which are separated by gender and open certain hours for students, other hours for guests. The bathhouse lies a distance from the monastic complex, down a lantern-lit gravel path.
Custom calls for showering before sinking into the indoor or outdoor soaking pools or taking a turn in the sauna. Some hard-core bathers follow a steam and a soak with a plunge into the frigid creek that flows just beyond the broad wooden deck.
The hot-water treatment was enough for me. Between the warmth of the water, the cleansing sound of the stream and the stars sparkling a message of eternity overhead, I felt washed of worry and intoxicatingly serene.
Was it Zen?
Whatever it was, our mission had been accomplished.
IF YOU GO
Tassajara is a Zen Buddhist monastery that welcomes seasonal guests.
When: Guest season runs from late April to mid- September (Sept. 10 this year). The monastery is closed to the public for the remainder of the year.
Where: A secluded setting at 5,000 feet above the Carmel Valley in Monterey County's Ventana Wilderness area.
Getting there: The only access is via the extremely rough 14-mile Tassajara Road, which takes at least an hour to drive and cannot be navigated by all cars. SUV drivers are advised to activate the four-wheel-drive. An eight-passenger vehicle known as "the stage" provides alternative transportation from Jamesburg, boarding at 10:45 a.m. and departing Tassajara at 3 p.m.; cost is $35 round trip and reservations are required.
Actvities: Hiking, swimming, hot-spring soaks, classes. Complementary instruction in zazen (sitting meditation) is offered at 4 p.m. daily. Guests are welcome to attend evening services and weekly dharma talks.
Rooms and rates: Accommodations are in cabins and yurts sleeping two to six. Some have private toilets and sinks and some have shared facilities. All bathing facilities are in a communal bathhouse. There is no electricity; lighting is provided by kerosene lamps.
Rates are per-person, ranging from $85 per night in a dorm to $170 per person per night in the nicer cabins.
Retreats: Many workshops and retreat programs are offered, with tuition ranging from $120 for a weekend to $300 for a five-day course.
Meals: Three vegetarian meals, served at shared tables in a camplike dining hall, are included in the rates.
Day guests: Daytime visitors are welcome at a charge of $25 per day plus $12 for lunch (optional).
Reservations: Mail-in reservations for the 2007 guest season (forms available online) will be taken beginning in mid-February, with phone reservations accepted starting in late March; (415) 865-1899.
Information: www.sfzc.org/tassajara or (415) 865-1895.
Note: Tassajara does not take credit cards.