Sunday, August 26th 2001
Life section

On the way to a monastic resort...

A chance meeting with a couple and a sick child brought home a practical lesson as the Buddha would have taught it.

IF YOU meet the Buddha on the road, give him a lift.

My friend in Silicon Valley, Kian Jin, came up with this clever line, a play on the popular Zen slogan, ""If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him'', which he emailed me early this year.

It is a neat summary, in spirit, of our day trip to the Tassajara monastic resort in July last year.

Tassajara is a remote location, up in the Los Padres wilderness in the Santa Lucia Range in California, near Big Sur, the wild stretch of Pacific Ocean and mountain coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, after Monterey and Carmel.

The only access to the place is a 14-mile (22.4-km) dirt road at the end of Tassajara Road, which intersects the Carmel Valley Road 23 miles from Highway 1.

The track winds round treacherous cliffs with steep, sheer drops, up the mountains, peaking at almost 5,000'ft (1,520'm). Its last five-mile stretch runs along a narrow ledge which has been carved into the mountainside, which drops over 2,500 feet.

This is rugged America, breathtaking in its natural beauty and majesty, with its forests of pine and oak, and jagged mountains all around.

It was a sunny day, the sky was a clear blue, and the air smelled of the fragrances of wild flowers.

We went up the mountains in Kian Jin's new Honda four-wheel drive. After having some trouble finding the dirt road, we finally came upon a small wooden shack, which stood by the side of the entrance to the road.

It was a place that sold drinks and trinkets. We went down to ask for directions and have refreshment out on the front porch.

The owner was a woman who looked to be in her late 40s or early 50s. She wore a white cotton blouse and a pair of faded jeans, and strings of beads round her neck.

She moved with a languid grace that must have come from spending enough time away from urban centres. She was ""mellow'', to borrow a cue word used by members of the widely-dispersed global tribe of baby-boomers who grew up in the countercultural 1960s, and have resisted being absorbed into the consumeristic mainstream.

They have retained some of the era's ideals and mental outlook, as well as the adolescent uniform which defines them. You can find them all along the so-called ""dharma trail'', from Tangier and Marrakesh in Morocco, to Goa and Varanasi in India, Thamel in Kathmandu, and Kuta and Ubud in Bali.

Sitting on a rattan sofa on the porch were a young Hispanic couple, with their daughter. Their small son was sick, and was sleeping in a cool corner inside the shack.

The wife told us that they had hiked up the mountain trails and camped overnight in one of the cleared, lookout sites. In the morning, they found their son had come down with a fever.

As they made their way down the dirt road, they tried to stop several cars driving past, hoping to get a lift down to the Highway.

But none of the drivers stopped. They obviously did not want to miss their meditation class at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre.

""All these rich people in their big cars. They are all rushing to this spiritual centre. But they don't have time to stop for a child who is sick,'' the woman complained.

She tore out a sheet of paper from her daughter's exercise book and scrawled a note for Kian Jin to ""pass to the administrator of the centre'' when we got up there. She put down her complaint in a couple of short sentences, and ended it with, ""I hope your meditation classes will do these people some good''.

The lesson of this encounter was not lost on Kian Jin and myself, although we didn't talk about it subsequently. It alone was worth the long drive from San Francisco.

If you meet the Buddha on the road, do give him a ride, even when you are on your way to go sit still and learn to become a Buddha.

At Tassajara, we soaked in the hot sulphur springs bordered by granite boulders, which are right by a creek whose shallow, clear water was icy cold, even though this was July. It was afternoon, and there were only a few people about.

The place has a zendo, or meditation hall, redwood cabins and Japanese-style tatami rooms for those who come for overnight stays and longer retreats. There is no electricity, and all the pathways on the sprawling ranch are lit by kerosene lamps at night.

We had paid US$12 (S$21) each for a day visit.

As I soaked in the warm spring water and took in the beauty of the surroundings, I thought how places like this, besides the pampering spas, would soon become alternative holiday destinations for people whose jobs demand that they plug into a virtual world every day and who therefore need to unplug themselves - so as to recharge themselves - in rustic retreats where nature is not a simulation and the mod-cons are unavailable.

THE Tassajara Mountain Zen Centre is the first Buddhist monastery in America. It was opened in July, 1967 by the Japanese monk Shunryu Suzuki, whose influence among the growing Buddhist community in America is as strong as that of the other Suzuki, D.T., who brought Zen across the Pacific from Japan in the 1940s and 1950s.

Money for the setting up of Tassajara (the land was bought for US$300,000) was raised largely by people like Alan Watts, the Englishman whose books made Buddhism and Taoism accessible to a whole generation of Western baby-boomers, Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Synder, and a number of benefits, billed ""zenifits'' featuring Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin's Big Brother and The Holding Company, and Ali Akbar Khan.

Many hippies and acid-heads at the time found their way to Tassajara, but only those who could take the rigours and discipline of a monastic life as exemplified by Suzuki Roshi benefited from it. Suzuki, who spent 12 years in America, died of cancer in 1971. A biography of the teacher, called Crooked Cucumber, by his disciple David Chadwick, came out two years ago.

A slim volume based on his talks, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1970), is a good introduction to a way of looking at the world that goes back several thousand years, but is still as relevant today as a science of the mind.

This way of looking at the world teaches that what we see is not what is real, unmediated by our individual prejudices and habits - hence, even if you think you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. Or as the case may be, give him a lift.

When I called Kian Jin a couple of nights ago to refresh my memories of that trip for this column, he said: ""Don't forget to mention that we listened to 1960s rock on the car radio on the way there and on the way back.''

Right. The Beatles' Day Trippers - that's us, I guess.

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