Reflections on Tassajara Sangha Work Week

Mako Voelkel News Archive


Let’s begin with the sound of croaking frogs at Tassajara:


The alarm goes off at 0515 hrs and, stretching, I rise from bed with a little trepidation. The floor is chilly but I know that I will soon be dressed.

Upon dressing, I head out into the chilly air, I want to do a few breathing and stretching movements, and be sitting in the Zendo, before the second rolldown. Pretty much, this was my morning routine while at Tassajara.

The time spent at this remote locale was, well, almost beyond description. I went with no expectations and they were all, not, met . . . . . my attempt at humor. Actually, the time spent there was truly fantastic. Works days were chore laden but they offered bonding opportunities that one can only obtain from working in close proximity with others. The feelings derived from knowing that one is part of helping this haven prepare for the season could not have been more rewarding.

These things, along with the other amenities that I enjoyed, were well worth the trip. I think that if one has the time, and the slightest of inclinations, to go to any of the open seasons at Tassajara, they should most definitely do so.

I will go again . . . . . .

– Harold E. Rose, Jr.


The drums, the bells
The wind, rain and hail
The birds and oh…..those frogs
The silence and the chanting
The river

The flowers, the food, the incense, the bodies, the offerings

The road going in, the shadows left behind by the practitioners before me …here
The abundance of stars on a clear night, the view from the ridge
The lights ….. and the absence of lights after fire watch
The robes flowing in the dark…beautiful bodhisattvas….sages in the mountains

Waves of emotion
Fears of uncertainty giving way to unlimited joy, unlimited space, unlimited love, unlimited freedom within restriction, unlimited acceptance, unlimited beauty
Cold crisp mountain air, silky hot springs water
Gratitude for Mako and my sangha families and this wonderful practice that we all share

The car ride! And the road to Tassajara
The gate upon entering
Morning wake up bell, work circle, meal chant and offering, the shoe racks, the flashlights, back door to the kitchen, deep cleaning…..I mean deep!, cracking 192 eggs, chopping gallons of onions and mushrooms, the springs, the mountains, awakening the spirits, ceremonies, the cabin, the hugs goodbye
The gate upon leaving
My last bow

– Lysa Allen


Tassajara. I’ve been there three times in the past three years, each time for Work Period. When you think of a monastery, you usually have images of large austere buildings with brown robed monks. But this is a Zen monastery, and an American one at that.

Hidden in the middle of a wilderness, it’s more like a small village, with some hints of Japanese architecture, so much so that on a rainy day you can feel transported in space and time. Like a village, almost everyone knows everyone else. There are the residents, like Greg with his unique chanting voice, and there are the work practice regulars like Ron, always telling someone a story about a rinpoche he knows.

I forget who said it, but it definitely does feel like a work-practice sangha, a group of people who are always there for work period and have been coming for years. When people ask how many times I’ve been there, I can only say “Only three times so far, but that’s hopefully the first few of many many visits”. I feel like I’m slowly becoming a part of this group.

Then there are the traveling companions, the ones who go with you to get to this out of the way place at the end of a 13 mile dirt road through the mountains to where the electricity comes from the sun, and cell phone signal is non-existent. These are usually people you’ve seen many times at AZC, but never had the time or opportunity to talk to, to get to know better, yet on this trip, you can’t help but get to know them.

Whether it’s discussions over a hearty meal from the amazing kitchen, or while chopping gallons of onions — shhh, it’s only supposed to be functional speech in the kitchen — or while enjoying the outdoor plunge at the bathhouse as you watch light hail melt as it touches the soothing hot water, you’re constantly in contact with everyone around you. Without cell phones, you can’t check out and ignore the beauty around you, whether it’s the people or the environment.

There’s something here for all the senses if you stop and pay attention to them.

So many little things to see, the beautiful vistas, it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of the wilderness, where the wild animals aren’t quite as afraid of humans as you’d expect. The bold squirrels and stellar jays in the courtyard looking for food, the deer that stand and watch as you walk by, the baby skunks crossing your path at night as you walk back to your cabin. The people, how each person bows a similar but distinct way as they come into the zendo for the Dharma talk, individuality showing through the uniformity.

The smells, of the springs, of the incense, of the food being prepared in the kitchen, the dirt and the trees.

The taste of the teas, and coffee, and of course all the delicious delicious food that you can so easily forget doesn’t include any meat.

There’s the feel of the boards of the engawa — the walkway surrounding the zendo — smoothed by thousands of kinhin steps of those who have come before, and cool on the bottom of bare feet in the mornings.

Then there are the sounds. The ever-present babble of the creek, the tap-tap-tap of the woodpeckers, the chirping of all the various birds, the croaking chorus of frogs during evening zazen. The bells, and the drums, and the clacks, and the chants. Dogen talks about being deeply touched at hearing monks chanting the robe chant in the morning, and I can see what he means. It’s usually the first voices you hear in the morning, assuming you’re keeping to the silence overnight, and hearing it, along with the densho bell accompaniment is very moving. And the chanting, each person with their own voice adding to the whole.

I always leave refreshed from this place, a little sad to go, but energized to go out and try to get involved, and bring compassion and maybe a slower way of life to the wider world that seems to desperately need it. I plan to keep going back as often as I can. I hope one day to go with you and get the opportunity to practice together and get to know you better.

– Onryu Shoemaker


Mako in the Fire Shed – 2004

It’s been 10 years since the Basin Complex Fire of 2008, and 14 years since I was assigned the position of ZMC Fire Marshal for a year. A lot has changed, and it’s been wonderful to see some of those changes in recent years, thanks to the work of the ZMC Staff, Practice Leadership, and especially retired Fire Chief Joe Rawlitzer, who’s been spending his summers at Tassajara for the past few years to train Fire Crews. 

2018 Fire Academy in the Retreat Hall

For example, this year marks the 2nd annual Fire Academy held at Tassajara to train not just the Tassajara student body, but other wildfire crews as well. Tassajara has come a long way from 2004 when I practically had to beg for the funds to purchase a replacement Y-valve for our rusty old Boeing and Porsche engine Fire-pump hose-lines (I remember it was less than $100). Back then, I painted a large sign with the word “FLAMES” on it, as well as some orange and yellow blazes at the bottom.

Tassajara 2018 – Fire Training 

I’d set it up somewhere at Tassajara (against a cabin, on the hillside, on a car windshield) as a target to aim the hoses on during drills. It was low-tech, but tons of fun! 

Now at Tassajara the little fire-shed at the corner of the zendo has been moved to the old bathhouse across the creek, with multiple rooms to hold both the new and old equipment, including all the MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) left behind by countless crews that swung through the valley in the weeks leading up to the 2008 conflagration.

There have been at least three wildfires that have threatened Tassajara Zen Mountain Center since the Basin Complex Fire of 2008 (see photos here), each with its own experience of evacuations, fears, and exhilaration, but so far none have yet made it into the valley. Eventually it will happen again. And when it does, may all the students and fire crews (ready-for-anything, immediate response, communications, pump, hose, and medical) be as prepared as they can be: with their newly developed skills of wild-land fire protection, but especially with their own finely-honed practice of meeting whatever arises with composure and equanimity. May we all be just like this.

– Rev. Mako Voelkel

“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire.”

      – Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


More Tassajara Spring 2018 Sangha Week Photos

More about Tassajara in the Basin Complex Fire: The Day the Fire Arrived

Fire Monks, by Colleen Morton Busch