CARMEL VALLEY, Calif. — If I ever decided to get “off the grid” to immerse myself in a life of spiritual study, this would be the place to do it.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center isn’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but it comes in a close second. Isolated in a narrow creek gorge in the Santa Lucia Mountains east of California’s Big Sur coast, Tassajara (pronounced ta-sa-HA-ra) is a Zen monastery that can be reached only by a winding and mountainous, 14-mile gravel road — one that climbs to a chaparral-shrouded ridge, then twists rapidly downhill more than 3,500 vertical feet. Guard rails are not included.

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One you get to this remote retreat, surrounded by the Ventana Wilderness Area, you’ll find that you have no cell phone or Internet access. For that matter, you’ll find electricity to be nearly nonexistent: The colony of cabins is provided only with kerosene lanterns.

There are touches of comfort — proper beds and flush toilets, three gourmet vegetarian meals a day, a swimming pool, a garden, a library and a Japanese-style, hot-springs bathhouse built to revitalize body and soul.

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But there are also rattlesnakes and mountain lions, poison oak bushes around every turn, and a constant threat of flash floods and forest fires. More than once, uncontrolled flames have threatened the very survival of this outpost of tranquility.

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Why, then, is a center for Zen Buddhist meditation and learning — one that welcomes summer guests from May through mid-September but devotes the rest of the year to a strict monastic schedule — located so far off the beaten path? And how did it succeed in attracting California Governor Jerry Brown, computer industry icon Steve Jobs and rock musician Jerry Garcia to a study of Zen meditation?

The answer might simply be in its ability to throw off the distractions of modern life.

Heart-mind temple

In fact, the Tassajara Valley has been occupied for centuries. The native Esalen Indians named it “a good place to dry raw meat,” a label that might lead one to believe there was excellent hunting here for deer, bear and other animals. Zen masters chuckle that their vegetarian enclave has such a name.

A handful of homesteaders established residence in these steep hills in the 1870s. One of them discovered the creek-side hot springs. In true California fashion, it didn’t take long before an entrepreneur had established a small resort on the site. By about 1900, visitors were traveling by stage from the James Ranch — now known as Jamesburg, and still the main access point to Tassajara — to “take the healing waters.”

By all accounts, it was a hair-raising journey. A fresh team of four horses led each stagecoach over the 5,000-foot pass at Chew’s Ridge and down the grade to the Tassajara Springs Resort. So precipitous was the descent that the stage driver would pause at the top, cut down a 20-foot pine tree, and chain it to his rear axle to slow the team down.

In the mid-1960s, the San Francisco Zen Center and its founder, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, discovered Tassajara as they searched for a mountain temple like the remote Buddhist monasteries of Suzuki’s native Japan. By July 1967, they had raised funds to purchase the former resort, establishing the first Zen monastery in North America and formally renaming it Zenshinji (“Zen heart-mind temple”).

Since then, several wildfires have threatened the retreat, most notably in July 2008, when five monks evacuated all guests and other residents before standing their ground against the encroaching Basin Complex blaze.

The fire ultimately destroyed more than 162,000 acres (254 square miles) of Los Padres National Forest land. But it spared Tassajara. The monks succeeded “by greeting the fire not as an enemy to defeat but as a friend to guide,” writer Colleen Morton Busch said in her widely praised 2011 book, “Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire.”

David Zimmerman, who as Tassajara’s director was one of the quintet of “fire monks,” referred to the fire as having offered “a profound teaching for me: When everything extra is burned away, what’s truly essential in our lives is exposed in all its beauty and defenselessness.”

Remote oasis

Zimmerman, 50, is now the program director at the San Francisco Zen Center. A native of Pennsylvania, he came to California in the late 1980s to work in AIDS education and began studying Zen meditation in 1991. Ordained a priest in 2006, he lived at Tassajara for eight years before returning to his city position.

“A lot of people don’t recognize how much we hold in our bodies until you get to a place where you can just drop it,” Zimmerman told me.

Tassajara is such a place. The 150-acre, solar-powered complex spreads along its namesake creek for perhaps a half-mile, on both sides of intermittent, snowmelt-fed Cabarga Creek. The road from Jamesburg comes to an abrupt end at the Stone Office. Visitors may drive their own vehicles to Tassajara, but because of the road’s rugged nature, most opt to leave their cars parked near Carmel Valley Road (Monterey County Road G16) and shuttle into the retreat in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, still referred to as “the stage.”

A variety of accommodations — 28 in all, from simple rooms to private cabins — spread on either side of the central office, kitchen and dining area. At the west end of the village are the hot springs, with two separate plunges (104 and 108 degrees) for men and women, a steam room, and the chilly creek below for cold plunges. Nearby is a new hall for yoga practice and other retreat subjects.

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A typical day at Tassajara begins and ends with “zazen” — that is, seated meditation.

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Guests leave their footwear in shelves outside the “zendo,” or meditation hall, beside those of several dozen residential students and monks, many of whom live and work here year-round.

When photographer Barb Gonzalez and I arrived at Tassajara for a three-day, two-night weekend visit, our first order of business — after a brief tour of the colony — was to learn the proper procedure for zazen.

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“The practice is one of mindfulness and concentration,” a lightly bearded resident named Francis told us. It’s also one of prescribed habit. We entered the zendo with our left foot first and bowed to the room, being careful not to cross in front of the altar with its Buddha image. We walked quietly to our assigned cushion on a platform, bowed twice more, and sat legs crossed with our hips above our knees and our backs straight.

We meditated with eyes open, hands in a “mudra” pose, palms cupped and thumbs touching.

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We faced the wall, ensuring fewer visual distractions. Francis recommended we keep our tongues on the roof of our mouths and follow our breathing through our noses. “It’s okay to think,” he said. “You can discover yourself through thinking. But don’t hang onto the thoughts.”

A day at Tassajara

The next morning arrived much earlier than I am accustomed. Just after 5:15 a.m., a resident walked the path through the village ringing a wake-up bell. A few minutes later, called by the sound of the “han” (a wooden plaque), we were seated in the zendo for silent morning meditation. The temple bell, a “densho,” signaled the start of our practice at 5:50 a.m. It is frowned upon for one to be late, we were told.

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Meditation ended after a full hour with another ringing of the densho. It was followed by a 20-minute ritual service, robed monks leading a chant in Japanese and English. Deep, head-to-the-floor bows and more chanting followed. Breakfast — eggs, bread and cereal, but certainly no bacon — was at 9.

An hour later, having assembled a bag lunch of salad, sandwich and homemade cookies, we joined Shundo David Haye, a Tassajara priest and outdoor enthusiast, on a moderately strenuous six-mile hike through the Horse Meadows on a hillside above Tassajara. Purple coyote mint, orange lizard eye, crimson sage and majestic white towers of yucca shared the landscape with California scrub oak, sycamore and madrone that were only now recovering from the 2008 Basin Complex fire.

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As we descended to Tassajara Creek around 2, Haye led us to a favorite swimming hole, a deep pool amidst barren rocks known as The Narrows. Our small hiking party joined other Zen practitioners, in various states of dress and undress, swimming beneath a waterfall and climbing up a rock face with the assistance of a dangling rope.

There was time for a soak in the hot springs (clothing-optional co-ed bathing is allowed only in the late evenings) before more meditation at 4 p.m. Dinner was at 7; the main course was stuffed eggplant, zucchini and bell pepper with Greek spanikopita, and it was delicious.

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We returned to the zendo at 8:40 p.m. for a “dharma talk.” Dharma has several meanings, but generally refers to Buddhist teachings. Some of the subject matter was over my head. So the next day I sought out Greg Fain, Tassajara’s “tanto,” or head of spiritual practice.

“Just sitting”

“My main responsibility is to energize people in their (spiritual) practice,” said the bespectacled Fain, 57. “A lot of my work is spent in individual practice discussion with students. They may ask: ‘Am I doing this right? How will I know?’ I answer, ‘You are.’ It’s not about getting it right. It’s about making your best effort.”

The Zen tradition, Fain said, dates back more than 1,300 years to the early T’ang Dynasty in China. There are several schools of thought; at Tassajara, monks follow the Soto Zen tradition.

“We teach just sitting,” said Fain. “Shakyamuni Buddha sat under the bodhi tree 2,500 years ago. That is our tradition. The emphasis is kind of formless meditation. It’s just sitting. It’s not sitting and doing something else.”

The monastery’s two annual teaching seasons, from September to December and January to April, are “formal, very traditional training periods,” Fain said. “There is a lot more silence than non-silence.

“Summer is work-practice season, where visitors can try it (Zen) on and see if it fits. Work is a core practice. The entire 24 hours are all work practice: standing, sitting, eating, lying down.” It also brings more money to operate the center, as guests pay $68 per day to attend.

“To really understand Zen, you have to practice it,” Fain said. “Zen is body practice. You do it with your whole mind and body. It has very little to do with thinking.

“Your breathing will tell you where you are. Your breathing is who you are. There’s something very powerful about staying connected to your breathing. Students sometimes ask, is it voluntary or involuntary? The answer is ‘yes.’”

In addition to breathing, Fain said, Soto Zen emphasizes seated posture: stable, balanced, with an upright spine, as if a string were pulling one upward from the crown of the head, pulling one’s shoulders back and opening one’s heart.

“Thoughts arise and you don’t need to do anything with them,” he said. “You don’t struggle. You don’t grasp, you don’t push away anything. Just allow it.

“If I were asked to distill my teaching into just five words, it would be, ‘Stay present for what arises.’”

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The practice of Zen meditation doesn’t negate or supersede one’s faith. The Buddhist religion is non-theistic, as the Buddha himself did not address the subject of a creator. Roman Catholic priest and writer Thomas Merton was well known for adopting Zen meditation practices, and Zimmerman told me about a Jewish group in San Francisco called “Jewbuus” for the way its members have embraced Buddhism.

Since our visit to Tassajara, I have tried to find a few minutes every morning, after breakfast, to sit quietly with my thoughts or non-thoughts — and to do nothing else but to “stay present for what arises.” I have made a special effort to be more mindful of my everyday actions and activities.

And whether or not I ever make it back to Tassajara, or any other Zen center, again, I’m convinced that my brief visit is something that will make a lasting impact.

— Reporter:

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