People wanted to know what Tassajara was like. That's an easy one so I'll tackle that now.
For me, this time, Tassajara was mostly like chopping vegetables and washing dishes. I was invited down by Greg Fain who is the tanto (practice leader) of the place and a good friend of mine. Each summer guest season the tanto and various other staff members can invite people down on a work exchange basis. These folks come to Tassajara and get to enjoy the place for a few days in exchange for doing some kind of work. One guy was a masseuse and gave free massages to residents, one guy was an accupuncturist. I was invited down to give some talks to the students.
The first time this happened was last year. But last year I decided that it was kind of boring just to lounge around for a few days and then give some talks. So I asked Greg if I could enroll as a Tassajara student for a month and give my lectures during that time. He said OK, so that's what I did. This year I did the same thing, but for just three weeks instead of four. I figured I needed a bit more time at home to get ready for my upcoming European tour.
Last year I got assigned to the dining room crew wherein I was basically a waiter most of the time. This year I was on kitchen crew where I mostly chopped and washed (see above).
How Tassajara works is like this. During the Fall/Winter and Winter/Spring its a full-time Zen monastery. Only those enrolled as monastic students are allowed in. They follow a strict monastic schedule, rising at 3:40 AM, sitting lots of zazen, working to keep the monastery running, and studying the classic Buddhist texts.
In the Summer, the place is open to the public as a hot springs based resort. Tassajara was operated as a resort from sometime in the late 19th century until the late 1960s when it was bought by the San Francisco Zen Center. The Zen Center is now funded in a large part by the money brought in during Tassajara's summer guest season.
The costs of running Tassajara are kept down by staffing the place entirely with unpaid Zen students. These students can earn credit to attend the Fall or Spring practice periods free of charge by working as resort staff. There are also other benefits. The students eat great food (albeit not always as great as the guests), get free room and board, and get to experience most of what Tassajara offers its guests.
Students also adhere to a modified version of the practice period schedule. They're woken up at 5:20 AM to sit an hour of zazen and attend a service. There are two other services during the day and a 40 minute period of zazen in the evening. In between they work at various jobs to keep the resort running. They may make beds, clean rooms, fix the gardens, or, like me, prepare the food, among other jobs.
There is no Internet access in Tassajara. Your cell phones won't work. There is one communal telephone, but this is shared with the guests. There's another phone in the porch behind the office that students can use in the evenings. But you risk your call being heard by everyone else hanging around out behind the office playing board games or reading.
Most students have a room to themselves. The rooms are small, but mostly nice. You're almost always going to have a few rodent friends in your room. But Tassajara is deep, deep in the wilderness. You soon learn that you're in their world, not the other way around. It's not so bad as long as you don't leave lots of food laying around your place.
Students are required to follow Tassajara's monastic rules. These are not nearly as strict as the Southeast Asian vinaya rules for monks or even the kind of rules one must follow during training at a Japanese monastery. But there are rules. You're supposed to keep silence during the hours after evening service and before breakfast. You must attend zazen and services. And you can't have sex unless you either enter Tassajara as a couple or both members of the couple have been there at least six months. They don't want their monastery being used as a place to hook-up.
My days were usually spent in the kitchen. The kitchen is run according to the model provided by Dogen in his Instructions to the Cook (Tenzo Kyokyun). Work is done in silence except for functional speech. Each day near the start of work a portion of the Instructions to the Cook is chanted by all members of the kitchen staff in unison. Then the tenzo (head of the kitchen) gives a short talk about the passage and what it means to him or her.
In reality the work isn't done in complete silence. There's always a bit of chatting. But not much. This is a great relief actually. You don't feel the need to constantly come up with things to say. Awkward silences are no longer awkward. It's much easier to pay attention to the work at hand.
If you want to socialize there' always ample opportunity. The work schedule is very humane and you always end up with free time during the day. It's really not that much different from working a secular job in some respects except that the day is much more structured than most people structure their own working days. It's a lot like my days at home actually. Except with less mindless viewing of stupid YouTube clips about cute animals.
I learned to bake cookies. The last time I baked cookies at home for myself it was a catastrophe. But I baked several batches of delicious cookies at Tassajara without burning any of them. The cooks are generally amateurs. This surprised me because I'd always assumed that they were pros. But normally the chief cooks on any given day are pretty new to the job. But there are enough experienced people around to keep things from going terribly wrong.
The main inhabitants of Tassajara, though, are blue jays and squirrels. There are always far more of them than people. The jays are extremely clever and can dive bomb food right out of your hand if you're not careful. The squirrels know they're cute and work that to their advantage. Many of them walk right through the enclosed student dining area and sit there munching on whatever gets dropped on the dirt floor. Mice and rats are a bit more cautious, not having the cute factor to work with.
In addition to my two lectures, I led two services. One was a memorial to the people killed in the shooting incident in Akron last month. I also led evening zazen once. I had to wear robes for that stuff.
I attended dharma talks by several of SFZC's priests. One of those, by Norman Fischer, was about the Garrison Institute's Buddhist conference earlier this year. I found Reb Anderson's talk a bit confusing. It was something about his taking a vow to study delusion. But I never quite got what he meant by that. Linda Ruth Cutts played us a song about the Zen Hokey Pokey.
Loads more happened but that was all internal. Hope that explains things a bit.