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Karmic Memoir: Tassajara (August 17, 1973)
“I want some of that banana nut bread in your cookbook,” I told the monk.
(Editor’s Note: today we’re publishing a day early, and a little later in the morning, in order to honor the EXACT fiftieth anniversary of Ned’s carb-fueled enlightenment—and also his birthday!—TM)
Swami-ji parked the Nova in the middle of the dirt road and we rolled our sleeping bags out in front of the grill. No tent, no lantern. And fortunately, no traffic. We were a few miles shy of Tassajara Zen Monastery, but figured the monks might not appreciate a couple of ragged hippies crashing their meditation in the middle of the night. So we pulled a dharma bum workaround.
Early next morning, we pulled up to the monastery gate. The day was young and we were hungry, so I rang the bell and waited. Looking back, it was a crazy thing to do. But the early 70s were heady times, in more ways than one. And despite being from the land of cotton and kudzu, I was anything but laid back.
Suddenly a bald headed monk appeared and said, “What do you guys want?” This was years before Tassajara turned into an item on every yogi’s bucket list. So it wasn’t surprising that we might seem somewhat out of place. Then again, nobody in their right mind drives down the long dusty road to Tassajara by accident.
“It’s my birthday and I want some of that banana nut bread in your cookbook,” I told the monk in my best Southern accent. It was true: the legendary Tassajara bread book reputedly had the most delicious banana nut bread on the planet.
The monk looked us over and replied, “Wait here.”
After a few long minutes, the monk reappeared. “That’ll be $4.”
We’re talking some 50 odd years ago, so keep the fuzz factor in mind. But that’s what I remember, inflation notwithstanding. Accepting the deal, we were ushered through the gate and into the serene world of the Buddha.
I never got the monk’s name, rank, or serial number, but he was a good guy under that drab vulture costume. After a short stroll, he pointed out a large indoor hot pool and suggested we might want to try a soak. But only after warning us to ease in, as the water was hotter than our uninitiated skin was liable to appreciate.
A long immersion in a thermal bath has a profound effect on body and mind. Even with brief jaunts to the cooling stream, that hot pool turned Swami-ji and myself into mush puppies.
I don’t know what changes Tassajara has been through in the past five decades, but in 1973 there was a big meditation hall, complete with all the fixings required for a spate of wall gazing. So after our soak, we settled our butts on a couple of cushions, assumed pretzel formation, and imitated the photos we’d seen in one of the few Zen books available in Alabama. As for the neurological mojo, that would have to take care of itself, because I had no idea what transpired in the mind of a meditating Zen monk.
Thanks to the utter quiet inside the zendō, I recall becoming surprisingly serene, my breath going in and out like a summer breeze, posture ramrod straight, stable in my three point pose. Surely this was nirvana, or at least a whiff of it.
But sometimes reality has a way of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. You think things couldn’t be better and something decides to change the frequency, more often than not resulting in a slap upside the head.
Looking back, I realize that I hadn’t noticed a huge gong in the corner of the room. And in this case, out of sight out of mind didn’t hold water. Because just as I was beginning to ease into a profound samadhi, some sneaky devil slipped into the hall and banged the gong with considerable force. I don’t know if there are professional gong bangers, but whoever popped that one knew exactly what they were doing.
I always liked gongs. The way they resonate in soothing waves, vibrating the ear drums with a cosmic tonality, causing a mysterious sonic entanglement. But that particular gong sent a shock wave right through my body, prompting what can only be described as a sub-species of cerebral shock. Non-duality with a side order of goose bumps.
I can’t speak for the illustrious Tang Dynasty bodhisattvas, but my satori lasted less than two milliseconds. Then the karma of the situation yanked me back into the realization that somebody was probably trying to communicate that lunch was served.
There are few things in life more delectable than piping hot banana nut bread. Especially when it’s baked by the monks at Tassajara. At least that was my experience one toasty August morning in 1973.
Any sensible person would’ve stopped right there and pitched in with those monks. I can’t say I was much good at chopping wood, carrying water, or scrubbing the Buddha’s topknot, but Tassajara was about as serene an oasis as I ever saw. Then again, the chances of anybody talking me into shaving my head were slim to none.
Meanwhile, there was plenty of road left to wander, and I planned on enjoying every minute of it, no matter where it led.
Enlightenment would just have to wait.
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Ned Mudd resides in Alabama where he engages in interspecies communication, rock collecting, and frequent cloud watching. He is the author of The Adventures of Dink and DVD (a space age comedy). Some of Ned’s best friends are raccoons.