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Direct Action Dharma in the Wilderness: BPF at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center


There’s only one road to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.

Dirt for the last fourteen miles before it dead ends at the center, the road snakes along steep ridges in the Ventana Wilderness, inland from the Pacific coastline near Big Sur in California. High clearance vehicles with manual transmission are recommended if you want to drive in on your own.

Deeply removed from our political work in Oakland, it was hard to imagine what Katie and I might share about socially engaged Buddhism with the Zen practitioners there. Invited by Shinchi Linda Galijan & Zenshin Greg Fain to speak last week, we had been told that many folks were grappling with big questions about how monastic Zen practice related to the horrors of ISIS, the conflict in Palestine, or solidarity with Black Lives Matter. While Tassajara has some practitioners who live there year round, the majority are students in residence for the summer season when Tassajara’s hot springs are open for guests.

At Buddhist Peace Fellowship, our focus this year is nonviolent direct action. While we could have talked about getting involved after returning to “normal” life, while at Tassajara we wanted to explore how steady, cloistered practice related to direct action and social justice. How can we practice compassionate confrontation around issues of justice, no matter where we are?

One question we explored with the community was: Can monastic communities be a place to practice prefigurative interventions, where we imagine and try out the kinds of worlds we want to live in?

In its wilderness setting, Tassajara residents must been keenly aware of resources. While the natural springs flow strong in the summer, the monks pray for rain come fall. And in this year’s drought, the clear creek that keeps the center hydrated is already a foot lower than normal. Mindfulness of water consumption is an active practice to keep the community sustainable. And while the land around Tassajara is mostly protected by its designation as wilderness, the demand for oil continues to threaten the area with the environmental and water degradation that come with natural resource extraction.

Monastic life at Tassajara is deep sangha practice. Meals are served in giant pots and eaten at large communal tables. Everyone showers in one bathhouse. Practitioners share bedrooms. Work practice – whether in the kitchen or on the grounds – is completed in teams. And most everyone shows up to the zendo (or meditation hall) at 5:50am and 8:30pm for silent meditation practice, called zazen. Everywhere you turn at Tassajara, you are practicing in community. There’s no easy way to leave, no internet access, and no cell phone signal – so there’s no easy escape. You are in it together, whether you like the people around you or not. You can’t help but live life at Tassajara from a sense of interconnectedness.

Yet sangha practice is also where the oppressions designed to separate us – racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, classism – get triggered. While Buddhism helps us be mindful of our own experiences, it is political education that helps us be mindful of how other people experience the world and how our own experiences are shaped by much larger forces. Without political education, it’s easy for our community practice to reinforce the same hierarchical ways of relating to each other.

I found myself at Tassajara dreaming of a spiritual community engaged in both spiritual and political education, deconstructing (or as Kenji Liu called it, decolonizing) how larger social forces shape our experiences and our ways of relating to each other. While Tassajara is like most Buddhist centers in just beginning to explore this intersection, I was encouraged that many practitioners and leaders were engaged and compelled by these kinds of conversations. Who knows – maybe someday we will get to study politics and spirituality together at a week-long (month-long?) Buddhist activist convergence, practicing in community at a retreat center?

Zen monks can teach social justice activists a few things about standing strong in the fire. Literally. As I walked through the center, I observed signs of the 2008 forest fire that almost consumed Tassajara. Without the efforts of the five “Fire Monks,” the Tassajara I was experiencing would have almost certainly been burned to the ground. I walked with gratitude, but also awe at the fierce commitment and fearlessness of these five beings. Not unlike protestors defending a forest or disrupting Arctic drilling, these monks showed up to fight a seemingly insurmountable foe with love and determination.

While it quickly became obvious to us that five monks with nominal fire fighting skills weren’t enough to fully protect Tassajara, our monastic training had taught us to simply offer our best, whole-hearted effort, unattached to the results yet still aware of our preference to save our spiritual homestead.” – David Zimmerman, writing about the experiences of Tassajara’s Fire Monks.

Despite our initial worries, Katie and I found out quickly that it doesn’t matter much if you are in the city or the wilderness, if you are a monastic or an activist. Now is the time for direct action and social justice. And the best place to start? Just exactly where you are.

Photo by Katie Loncke

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Comments (3)

  • Maia Duerr

    Love this article…. and so glad you and Katie brought BPF’s energy and insights to the good folks of Tassajara.

    When I teach the “Mandala of Socially Engaged Buddhism,” one of the quadrants of action is dedicated to “Building a Culture of Peace and Justice” (related archetype: Creator/Visionary) and I often refer to Tassajara and other monastic settings as a good example of this kind of action. Just as you note, these communal living situations give us a chance to put into practice the foundations of the ‘beloved community’ — shared resources, participatory decision-making, nonviolent communication, spiritual practice, and more. It’s great that you noted that as an example of a “pre-figurative intervention.” Even though a place like Tassajara may seem remote and removed from the issues that many of us are dealing with, they actually do have the potential to be a kind of social laboratory for creating a sustainable, loving, and just way of relating to one another and the earth.

  • Dawn

    Thanks Maia!

    It was interesting to think about how to *be intentional* about spiritual communities being a pre-figurative intervention. Without intention, it’s easy for those communities to also just fall into the same ways of being in the world – I think especially around race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.

    Mushim sent me this article that explores whether Occupy Wall Street was a prefigurative intervention which says even more about the need to intentionally be interrupting normal modes of power to call it a political intervention:

  • Dawn

    I finished reading Jonathan Smucker’s article that I linked to above, in which he says: “My argument is against a theory of change that is comprised of only these [prefiguratve] elements, without attention to whether they fit into a larger political strategy. I am neither against manifesting our visions and values in our internal organizing processes, nor against staging actions that put these visions and values on public display; my critique, rather, is of the notion that such practices can somehow substitute for strategic engagement at the level of political power.”

    [Here’s the link again:

    For me, monastic practice has the potential to trying out new ways of living together, but without a clear political strategy, it can be more about creating a certain experience for a small group of people rather than making a change in our larger world. What Smucker argues is that it’s often a false “theory of change” to think that just by demonstrating new ways of being, it will create larger changes in the world. Demonstration isn’t sufficient to create this kind of change.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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