All being well, I will be ensconced at Tassajara by the end of the afternoon. Christmas at Tassajara is a time to cherish, not least because the likelihood of hearing a carol piped over a speaker is zero; it is also just very special to be down there at a time when there are not so many people about and almost nothing is happening apart from some communal cooking and enough work to keep the place functioning.
I have been thinking back to my first Christmas at Tassajara, eight years ago, during my first stint of living there. The trigger for this reminiscence was this, which lives on my altar with other things that also contain much resonance for me:
The card was sent, as you can see, by Amy, who had lived at Tassajara before I arrived, and whom I knew slightly before the adventures of that Christmas.
As I remember it, once the practice period ended, there was the usual mass exodus, leaving probably less than a dozen people in the monastery, and the numbers kept diminishing - eight, four, and I think for most of one day there were just three of us, before we went up to five or six for Christmas itself.
It rained incessantly. This was not a bad thing in itself, as we had warm rooms to retreat to, but I wasn't content to be completely idle. I had decided to try to rebuild a stone wall which I had always thought very shoddily put together, but which it would have been hard to convince anyone to let me work on during normal working hours. This is generally a bad thing to attempt - it would have been easier to pull the whole thing down and start afresh; trying to partially reconstruct it meant I was always working within certain limitations, and I was never happy with the outcome, for all the soggy hours I put into it. At one stage while I was outside, there was apparently an earthquake. I had no idea until someone who had been indoors told me, but Madra, the dog at the time (who has just recently died), certainly knew all about it. A day or two before Christmas, I was down by the creek, throwing stones up the slope of the bank to use in the back-fill when one of them, not larger than my hand, rolled down again. I tried to catch it, but the speed of it knocked my hand down onto another rock, leaving a sharp pain in my ring finger. I could flex it a little, so I was fairly sure it wasn't broken, and the thought that the nearest hospital was more than two hours away over the treacherous road meant I did not get it seen to; to this day the knuckle is swollen, and I have limited flexibility in that finger.
I was also, having been on the shop crew, in charge of supervising the water system and the electricity, which in those days meant getting up early to go and turn on the generator. One morning I was just about to get up when I saw flashlights on the path outside. Knowing how few of us there were, I went to investigate, and it turned out to be some young people from Carmel Valley trying to sneak in to use the baths, as sometimes happened. They were completely bedraggled, and looked totally crestfallen, probably unable to believe their luck to have got so far, and then been turned away just yards from the bathhouse, but I could have told them, if I had been feeling more sympathetic and less territorial, that they would have had a better chance of getting in undetected by monks if they had come at midnight rather than six in the morning.
Happily, the generator behaved itself throughout, but when I went to do the water readings, it appeared that this small number of people had managed to get through three thousand gallons of water. I assumed I must have made a mistake in my calculations, and didn't think more about it, but the next day, the figure repeated itself, so I realised there must be a problem. This was on Christmas Eve; when Amy arrived, just as it was getting dark, I roped her in to doing a complete tour of the cabins to see if there was a toilet running or a tap left on. We came up empty-handed.
If it had been dry, it would have been easy to see if the water main had cracked somewhere, but everywhere the ground was completely water-logged from so much rain. I had a sudden idea though - a few days before, a couple of residents had backed one of the vehicles up to the door of the courtyard cabins to load up their stuff. I knew, from having had to crawl underneath those cabins during the summer to fix another plumbing problem, exactly where the water main ran, and pacing around the area, I thought I could feel a spongier patch of ground. I stuck a stick in to mark the spot where I thought we would find the break. Amy and I spent much of Christmas morning in the pouring rain digging down to the pipe - I was only about a foot off in my guess - and then she, being an all-round superstar, did the plumbing part (though I had bodged enough pipes by then that I could have probably fixed it if she hadn't been around).
The day ended wonderfully, and more festively: Amy had a Brazilian girlfriend at the time, who not only cooked a delicious dinner for the handful of us, but also played guitar and sang afterwards (a winning combination that Chinh also pulled off a while ago here in the city, with a Vietnamese dinner and some beautiful folk singing). As I remember, Amy also took a turn at the guitar to play some of her punky songs, one of which had the unforgettable refrain "May all beings be happy - except you!"
When she sent the card for the New Year, I wasn't familiar with the phrase on it, but it deeply resonated with me, and I loved the drawing of the monks. That year, 2004, turned out to be momentous for me in many ways, and I had to look long and hard at my devotion to what I loved; in the fall, after several upheavals, I was back at Tassajara, and studying the Lotus Sutra with Linda Ruth. Having found the first few chapters pretty heavy going, I somehow really clicked with chapter sixteen (in the translation we were using), 'The Revelation of the Eternal Life of the Tathagatha', where the phrase comes from, and having been encouraged by Linda Ruth to memorise and recite parts of the sutra, as Buddha himself recommends in the narrative, I chose that chapter, which has been with me ever since - I still recite it to myself as I walk around the city, which gives it, and the walk, and everyone I pass by, a richer flavour.
So that was the Christmas of 2003 for me. I wish you all a peaceful weekend. I suspect I will have stories and photos when I return.