Amidst It All

This past weekend, my dorm took a 3-day trip to Tassajara Hot Springs, not a one of the 12 of us were disappointed. Coming off of week 6, better known as “exactly half-way through the quarter when it makes sense to have midterms and papers”, we were all looking forward to the chance to relax in the remote Buddhist monastery, with hot springs instead of electricity, meditation instead of problem sets, and pure relaxation instead of stress.

My car left Friday early afternoon and reached the edge of civilization around 4:30. From there, we drove along 14 miles of dirt paths. Out one side was a cliff wall, out the other was a straight drop, and ahead was a mass of bumpy rocks. Thanks to our intrepid drivers and 4-wheel drive, we arrived shortly before the dinner we were very anxious to have. As part of the guest practice program, we spent our mornings meditating and working with the residents and the evenings as guests. What that boils down to is that we ate a very tasty meal, then headed to the hot springs for some clothing-optional co-ed bathing before an early bedtime.

A few of us woke up at 5:20 the next morning to go to the morning zazen. The morning zazen is an hour of meditation followed by chanting. I myself was just glad to have not majorly offended anyone by desecrating any rituals or fallen asleep, though I later found out in training all of the things I had done wrong. That first morning, I worked in the kitchen, mostly cleaning and chopping vegetables. After lunch, I spent the day lounging around, writing and reading and enjoying the weather while cursing the bugs.

I found the entire experience very relaxing, though I remain deeply conflicted about the whole experience. Although I enjoyed the spirit of the community, I found the rituals unnecessary, like working in “noble silence” and walking into the zendo with the left foot first. That likely reflects my status as a guest who doesn’t understand the significance of much of what they do, but I imagine it would go from stifling to tiring fairly quickly. Beyond that, Tassajara has all of the features of an ideal life, which makes it all the more bothersome. Consider the following list of characteristics and practices:

  • constantly available tea and coffee
  • apparently rigid moral standards while not judging at all (as we were told, “We’re not moralists”)
  • meditation
  • organic, vegetarian food of very high quality
  • sustainable use of biodegradable soaps
  • no electricity in cabins
  • overuse of the word “zen”
  • yoga and tai chi sessions, even as time filler

So yes, in this context, that sounds an awful lot like the description of a Buddhist monastery in the United States. On second take, though, that sounds like the upper-middle class dream. For comparison, here are a couple things I found on the list of “Stuff White People Like.”

I certainly don’t mean to disparage Tassajara. In fact, it’s a credit to them that the American upper-middle class has borrowed so much from them. What it has made me realize, though, is that a lot of these things are luxuries by both common definitions. As incomes rise into the upper-middle class range, demand goes up, and they’re certainly not necessities.

All of these lifestyle choices, though, reflect what I see as socially-aware self-cultivation with a touch of snobbery. Combine the stereotypical meditating ascetic lifestyle with the pride of consuming more sustainable (but without sacrificing quality) goods, and out comes refined and thoughtful taste. It’s an attractive lifestyle, but I can’t help but to feel tinged with guilt about it. Perhaps it is more sustainable, but that’s something that most people can’t afford and can’t even afford to care about. In that sense, maybe the upper-middle class is just paying for peace of mind.

By the end of trip, I was certainly ready to go. The car ride back was filled with silly car games, radio scanning, and even a stop at a fast-food/dessert place. Although I was certainly happy for the experience, I ended up feeling somewhat ridiculous for having been at Tassajara and lived their lifestyle. When I was lying in bed Friday night after having used my bike light to find and use the toilet, I could only think about how strange my situation was. One choice different, and I would’ve spent the day hanging out on campus and been lying in my top bunk in my own sheets in my room. Instead, I got to get away, eat lentil cakes, dip in sulfur water, and learn how to meditate. What a luxury.

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