Emma Bragdon

‘While following a monastic lifestyle, for the first time I felt at home in this world. For the first time I felt I could live out my private life and my innermost longings. Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, nestled in the mountains behind Big Sur in California, was also the first place I met a group of people my age like myself. I could sense the longing they had, which matched my own: We all wanted to return to who we were in essence, to liberate ourselves from the attitudes and concepts of the collective society around us. We were all trying to get away from the deep pain we had seen in our parents and other relatives, and experienced through their stories of World War II or their personal lives of depression and alcoholism. We were all dedicated to finding a way to live on this planet that would not generate war and depression.

We rose at 4:30 a.m. for morning meditation. We went down to the meditation hall, an all-stone building with no heat. It was below freezing most mornings. We sat on our meditation cushions in long rows, facing the wall. We sat for forty minutes, trying to remain totally still to improve our concentration, to align with our will to stop all suffering. Several times during the day we repeated this vow:

Sentient beings are countless I vow to save them all.
Tormenting passions are innumerable— I vow to uproot them all.
The gates of the Dharma are manifold— I vow to pass through them all.
The Buddha's way is peerless-- I vow to realize it.

We were practicing an Eastern form of meditation based upon the teachings of the Buddha. Although most of us at Tassajara had grown up in Christian or Jewish families, none of us had found satisfactory ways in our churches or synagogues that offered direct access to the experience of Truth.

After forty minutes, we had a walking meditation for five minutes, then sat again for forty. This was followed by a study period in the dining hall, then a return to the meditation hall for twenty minutes of chanting and breakfast in silence. The day proceeded ritually, with work, meditation before lunch, chanting, lunch as a meditation in a ritual form, a short break, work, bath, chanting before dinner, dinner in ritual form, a break, then either a lecture or meditation. This was the measure of our days. I was twenty-one years old at the time.

In order to have the privilege of joining this life, I was asked to show my commitment in the traditional way. I was to sit continuously for five days, rising from my meditation only for chanting and meals, a bathroom break, or to sleep at the scheduled time at night. During these five days, through the chill of the morning and the 90° heat of the afternoon, the flies crawling over my lips, the devastating aching in my knees, I reached the depths of despair and the heights of ecstasy. My feelings covered all the territory: anger, rage, sadness, helplessness, power, joy, hysteria, peace, love, gratitude, longing, satisfaction, fear, courage, willfulness, surrender, excitement, boredom, endurance, ease. I would never be able to blame another person for giving me these feelings—they were all within me, just waiting to burst out in some unpredictable rhythm.

Accompanying this roller coaster of feeling were body sensations that were wholly new to me. As I relaxed deeper into my experience of my true self, the tensions that had held me captive as I tried to fit the mold of who I should be to fit into the collective world began to release. Suddenly my body would begin to shake, as if my spine were a whip in the hand of some invisible force. I would bounce and shake as if I were astride a wild bull. Afterward I would feel a calm, a sense of being more whole and closer to my essence. Somehow my body knew how to shake me in order to return me to who I was, to unbind me from the rigid conditioning that had confined my body as well as my thoughts and my feelings.

So the five-day meditation was one of the greatest gifts I had ever received. It taught me that my own body was a guide to my essential self. It taught me that I am not only a sensitive receiver, responding to the stimulation of others, but an organism looking for ways to express itself. The meditation helped me to study the action of my inner life, which seemed to move from high drama to undisturbed quiet, notwithstanding that no “thing” was happening to me; I was just sitting there.’ (from Cuke.com)

It’s amazing what you can find in the pages of David Chadwick’s site. I found this – just one of many stories about how the early years of Zen Center transformed people’s lives – after I discussed with Catherine using a photo from this series to accompany an article she published, and I realised that this was not a name I had seen in any of the other stories I had read:

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