lessons from tassajara

- 14 mins

I recently had the opportunity to spend a week in Tassajara, the oldest Japanese Buddhist Sōtō Zen monastery in the United States, with the Young Urban Zen group based in San Francisco. Before this experience, Tassajara was completely unknown to me, and I had never done a formal meditation sitting in a group setting. As I bounced along the bumpy road toward Tassajara, I had no expectations for the week ahead. I went with my friend who I’ve known since middle school and meditates regularly with the group, so I just trusted that it would be an interesting experience.

My brief time at Tassajara was deeply transformative and moving, more so than I ever imagined. Our days were filled with meditation sessions, morning and evening services, work practice, nourishing vegetarian meals, invigorating hikes through the valley and mountains, and soothing plunges in the hot springs and the cold creek. Being in the presence of such awe-inspiring nature and a vibrant community felt restorative and healing, leading me to five important realizations:

1. A deep resonance with Buddhism

Many years ago, my fascination with Buddhism was sparked while conversing with resident monks in a Buddhist temple in China. Their peaceful and perceptive nature astounded me, and I still fondly remember the delicious vegetarian cuisine we shared over our insightful conversation. Over time, I encountered teachings and ideas on Buddhism that resonated with me, like loving-kindness meditation and the concept of non-self, despite not receiving formal guidance or meeting many practicing Buddhists.

At Tassajara, I felt a deep sense of familiarity—like it had been exactly what I had been looking for all my life and what I already practiced in my own way. It felt like what happens when I read a good book—like the feelings and thoughts were already festering inside me, and I had been searching for the words to articulate, acknowledge, deepen, and question what was already there. The teachings and people at Tassajara touched me deeply, and I felt it in my heart and soul as much as my mind.

What draws me to Buddhism is its nontheistic nature. Unlike other religions, where I have never been able to believe in the existence of God or a higher power, the focus of Buddhism is not on God. Buddha was a human being, just like all of us. I resonate with the belief that everyone has Buddha within, and that the path is just as simple as sitting. When I spoke with people who practiced Buddhism for years, sometimes decades, at Tassajara, I felt a deep connection with their values. Buddhism, to me, is ultimately about compassion and acceptance of the self and others. It felt so different from other religions I’d been more exposed to in the past, where there is moral absolutism and a sense of trying to save people. I like how Buddhism helps awaken what is already within and around us.

The practice of constantly letting go in the present moment is a profound aspect of Buddhism that deeply resonates with me. I view art as the greatest form of spiritual practice, as I believe “good” and “true” art come from profound feelings and transformative experiences. Despite my love for photography and writing, I have come to realize that they occasionally hinder my ability to be fully present. As a result, I have established a personal “rule” for photography that I have been trying to follow for years: I only capture an image if it evokes deep emotions within me, such as awe, pain, confusion, or equanimity. If the essence isn’t there, I refrain from taking the photo.

During this retreat, I challenged myself to abstain from taking photos and to journal only at the end of each day. It was hard—when I saw something beautiful, my instinct was to capture it. When thoughts arose during meditation or work practice, I wanted to jot them down, fearing they might fade from my memory and be lost forever. Yet, through this experience, I came to the realization that letting go and creating space for the present moment is a practice in itself.

I will definitely still continue taking photos and writing in the future, but I will challenge myself to completely let go from time to time. I want to be even more intentional about how and why I create—not as a means to grasp the present moment, but as tools to enrich and deepen my spiritual practice.

2. Nature and science are my greatest spiritual inspirations, and I need to continue to fuel that life force in my everyday life.

Although I didn’t have a religious upbringing, spirituality has been integral to my life since I was young. My entire life, my spiritual view were most aligned with that of Carl Sagan, and the book A Pale Blue Dot, which profoundly impacted me during my teenage years. My spiritual perspective revolves around feeling humbled by the vastness of the universe and embracing optimistic nihilism—a belief that acknowledges our insignificance in the cosmos but finds liberation and strength in this realization.

For me, spirituality entails a holistic view of the world, appreciating both its profound depth and expansive breadth. Immersing myself in nature serves as a reminder that we are all interconnected and have a spiritual force within and around us. Engaging with science further enriches my spiritual practice, as I agree with Sagan’s assertion that “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” When I learn about different science concepts, it helps me appreciate the world on a deeper level. People used to believe in many things about the world that are now disproved, and future generations will look at us incredulously at how little we know. The feeling of awe and humility I have when I’m in nature or learning about the world is a powerful source of spirituality.

3. Embracing the power of structure and ritual

Going to Tassajara, I was shocked by how strict the rituals were. There were so many rules on how to carry yourself—from the foot you used to step into the Zendo (the meditation hall) to the depth and duration of our bows. In our first morning service, people around me were chanting in Japanese, and I didn’t know which page we were on. I felt so out of place and ashamed for not doing enough preparation. As time passed, however, I just surrendered to the experience. I felt the beauty and power of the ancient chants. I was in awe that the people around me practiced these rituals for years, even decades, and truly believed in what they said. At one point in my life, I may have seen chanting as archaic, but now I feel like spiritual rituals are vital.

Every day, we chanted numerous passages, many of which I didn’t fully understand. One reoccurring chant involved taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the dharma (teachings), and the sangha (community). Every day, I felt and internalized this more and more. Before breakfast and lunch, we would chant and thank our food, and I realized that it actually made a positive impact on how I saw our food, the way it came to us, and the impact it made on the planet. I now feel that chanting and praying are not just empty words. If you understand the impact of the words (and sometimes, even if you don’t) and hear it from the people around you, there is so much power. In the past, when I had performed religious rituals, they felt empty and self-serving, so I really didn’t expect to love the Buddhist rituals as much as I did.

During the retreat, we matched our sleep schedule to the rhythm of the sun, sleeping at 9-10 PM (after evening meditation, which would put me in such a relaxed state) and getting up at 5:30 AM (for morning meditation). This experience made me realize that I really want to try to sync my sleep with the sun (and seasons) in my daily life. I have always prioritized sleep because I’m extremely sensitive to the lack of it, and I generally try to wake up naturally without an alarm clock, but sometimes my schedule slips so that I sleep later and later. Sleep is my “keystone habit”; it’s even more fundamental to me than exercising and eating well because it’s what everything in my life revolves around.

A few years ago, I slept in a tent for a summer and would wake up with the sun. Maybe it was also the fresh air at night, but I felt so rejuvenated every day—I would start work at 8AM and go on long runs before sunset. I’ve noticed how much better I feel when I sleep and wake up early, even if the total hours of sleep remain the same. Although maintaining an early bedtime will probably be hard when I’m in grad school, I’m really going to try my best. This means being extremely disciplined and protective about my bedtime and sleep hygiene (with some flexibility, of course), even though it’s so normalized to sleep late in your twenties / in modern society.

4. Community (or sangha) is not just what I want, but what I need

Feeling connected to the self-sustaining nature of the community at Tassajara, I realized that a spiritual community where I could grow and feel understood was possible for me. Not only that it was possible, but it was what I needed. All my life, I have struggled with showing up fully as myself in groups. I realized it’s not that I don’t like groups, it’s that I feel vulnerability, trust, and intention are really important to me, and communities that prioritize spiritual development are where I feel I can more easily express myself. When I start grad school, I’ll definitely be seeking out a spiritual community.

While contemplating how I would integrate the retreat’s teachings into my daily life, I felt nervous about potentially feeling disconnected from people I love (and society at large) when I returned home. Then I recalled how, in my senior year of college in the spring semester as I returned to live on campus after nearly a year at home, I felt slightly isolated because of my spiritual beliefs that strengthened during the isolation of the pandemic. I felt different and changed internally, and it felt difficult to relate fully to others. It was then that I realized that I never wanted spirituality to bring me further from the people I love; instead, it should bring me closer, even if I disagreed with people on their values and beliefs, or if they didn’t fully understand mine.

It’s easy when you have glimmers of spiritual understanding to want to isolate from others, because you feel like your experience is so insular and unique—like when you listen to music or see a painting that brings you such ecstasy or despair, and you know that no one in your life could really relate to how you feel, not due to anyone’s fault or shortcoming, but simply because the individual human experience is entirely unique. This is nothing to lament over, because we all feel and experience life this way. These glimmers, while experienced in isolation, should bring us back to each other and closer to our shared humanity.

I think it’s terribly sad how religion can tear people apart and cause so much violence and pain, while the true purpose of religion is to bring people together, to gain greater understanding and compassion towards ourselves/others/the universe and the ways that we are interconnected, and to accept the endless contradictions that exist in life.

5. The unification of body, speech, and mind as a guiding tenet of my spiritual beliefs

I feel fortunate to have practiced martial arts for many years starting from a young age. Yet, growing up, I didn’t fully appreciate the spiritual aspects of the sport. Now, as an adult, I am grateful for the many lessons it has imparted on me in my formative years. As much as I disliked it at times, martial arts helped me connect with spirituality through the physical body.

Now that I’m practicing yoga consistently, I see that the core tenet of my spiritual belief is the unification of the body, mind, and soul. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj”, which means “to join” or “to yoke”, and the slowness of the practice helps me unify the different parts of me in a way I wasn’t fully able to through martial arts.

During the retreat, I realized that I don’t think I want to do long sits in the future, mostly because of how hard it is on my body. I could definitely feel that my body was sore, and my muscles were tight from the long sits. Especially since I sit so much for work, I don’t think sitting meditation is good for me, and I’m not willing to sacrifice my health for spiritual enlightenment or any religious practice. Realistically, I can keep up a habit of meditation for a short time every day, but anything too long would be a detriment to my health. I can find alternative ways to cultivate mindfulness, like running, engaging in mindful tasks like cleaning or driving without music, and taking slow walks with full awareness. This feels to me like my own Middle Way.

There is still much about Buddhism that doesn’t resonate with me, and I definitely would not consider myself a Buddhist (yet). I am only starting to comprehend its teachings, but some fundamental premises don’t always align with my beliefs. One of our teachers said meditation is supposed to help you not sway chaotically in the wind like an ant on a thin branch, and instead climb closer to the tree trunk where you’re less susceptible to being blown around. I understand the value of cultivating equanimity (especially during a meditation session), but personally, I love how easily swayed I can be by the winds of life. I embrace the highs and lows of human experience.

To me, Buddhism is more of a philosophy and tool to guide my life, rather than a strict religious practice. In my view, spirituality should not conform to religion; instead, religion should evolve alongside an individual’s spiritual journey. Some of the most self-proclaimed spiritual/religious people have the biggest egotism and malevolence, whereas someone with no formal religious practice could have the most wisdom and understanding.

I believe that true spirituality isn’t found primarily in books, teachings, or studying the lives of certain individuals, although they can certainly inform and give new perspectives. Rather, I think spirituality arises from deep questioning, rigorous examination, and observing nature and life itself. However, our physical limitations limit our understanding, and we are thus always grasping in the dark, akin to the story of blind men touching an elephant to comprehend its entirety.

There is a whole world to explore in spirituality that I am only beginning on, even though my entire life thus far has been a spiritual journey in my eyes. There is so much to study and read and learn. I have a feeling that at the end of my life, I will still feel the same way; there is still so much to explore, and I am only at the beginning. I do not know what will happen upon death, but I know I don’t fear it—not because I think I’ll go to heaven (which I feel is unlikely), but because I have spent my life exploring and attempting to understand the world beyond thought and feeling, however incapable and insignificant I may be.

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