For some travelers, getting off the grid is one of the main perks of an out-of-the-way vacation. The more remote and less developed the destination, the more desirable it becomes. That’s why for many travelers, particularly Northern Californians, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center has become their go-to destination to both unplug and recharge.
Nestled in a secluded valley of the Santa Lucia Mountains accessible only by a vertiginous, 14-mile dirt road that is closed during inclement weather and not recommended for vehicles without four-wheel drive, the Buddhist monastery is a haven for those seeking sustenance to revitalize the spirit. Tassajara’s remoteness means that many modern conveniences – cell phone service, Internet, and even electricity in the guest rooms – are non-existent, which is one of its most attractive features, next to its natural beauty.
Throughout most of the year, the center acts as a Buddhist training monastery, where students live in a communal setting, sharing chores such as cleaning and cooking in between meditation and studies. But during the summer season, the oldest Buddhist center in the Western Hemisphere opens its gates to visitors, who come to partake in the natural hot springs, world-famous vegetarian cuisine, and spiritual and creative workshops.
A typical day at Tassajara starts at 5:15AM, when guests awaken in the pitch-blackness of their rooms to the sound of drums calling them to the zendo, the meditation hall built in traditional Japanese style. Once inside, monks and visitors sit on zafus, traditional meditation cushions, observing their breath and clearing their minds in preparation for the day ahead.
A casual breakfast follows, which usually includes a grain such as amaranth or polenta, pancakes, or frittatas, as well as an abundance of fresh fruit. As tenzo (“head chef”) Denis Bozulich puts it, the goal is for each meal to be balanced, seasonal, and “delightful.” This means that while the fare may be simple, the freshness and care put into it are evident. All of the food, including the yogurt and Indian paneer cheese, is made right on the premises, both because of the center’s remoteness and its desire to control the high-quality of the cuisine for which it has become renowned.
If a workshop is part of the itinerary, guests might then head to an hour-long yoga practice, followed by a dhamma discussion, a session to enhance the understanding of Buddhism and conscious living. Then, before the sun gets too hot and the paths become too dusty to travel, guests set off for the Narrows, a picture-perfect bathing spot with plenty of boulders for post-swim bronzing. The quarter-mile hike, which requires some sure-footedness to hop across the boulders that bridge the stream, offers ample opportunity to spot ground squirrels and scrub jays, which are so plentiful that they seem to by vying for the position of sanctuary mascot.
At lunch, guests have the option of either eating in the restaurant (all meals are included with the room price) or packing a bag lunch so that they have flexibility to do as they wish throughout the day. The bag lunch is as plentiful as the full-service option, with a spread of food that makes it easy to overpack. In fact, while some guests come to detox both from diet and technology, it’s not uncommon to hear laments of overeating, despite stating at the previous meal that “I will not go back for thirds.” Such is the quality of the cuisine.
Afternoon provides private time for reflection or a little exercise in the form of hiking to nearby shrines and vistas, bocce ball, or swimming in the pool. Guests in the pine or stone cabins, the more exclusive accommodations on the property, might choose to relax on their porches overlooking Tassajara Creek while enjoying a glass of wine (brought in by the guests themselves, as the monastery does not sell alcohol). Workshop participants then enjoy another session of their interests before the final, grand meal of the day. This is when many guests overindulge in bread, which has been synonymous with Tassajara since the publishing of a cookbook back in 1970. Of course, the gift shop has that and many other Buddhist-inspired books, t-shirts, and trinkets for purchase.
As the sun sets and the temperature cools, most guests retire to the bath house, which abides by many of the same rules as in Japan, including separate sides for men and women. Here is not only where showers and baths are taken (only a sink and toilet are in guestrooms and are sometimes shared with a neighboring room) but also good long soaks in the sulphuric hot springs, which are just above the rushing stream, providing an opportunity for a hot/cold plunge, said to improve circulation. With no light pollution for miles around, the stars are ablaze, if you can see them through the steam of the water.
With no nightlife for miles and an early morning ahead, most guests retire early, some to shared cabins or yurts, where they prepare for bed by the light of kerosene lamps (these are slowly being replaced with safer, more environmentally friendly solar lamps). Aside from the occasional critter rustling in the trees or the stream gurgling outside an open window, the night is as still as the mind of the Enlightened One.
While the long drive to Tassajara makes an overnight stay more convenient, day rates are also available, although reservations are recommended. For those without the wheels or fortitude to brave the drive, reserving a place on the “stage” (so called in memory of the property’s former incarnation as a resort back in the 1800s) is advised.
Tassajara Zen Mountain Center | 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924 | 1-888-743-9362