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Weekend Escape: Los Padres National Forest : A Retreat, and Zen Some : At Tassajara one doesn’t live by bread alone, but it’s part of the unique ascetic/sybaritic mix

TIMES STAFF WRITER, <i> Turan is The Times' film critic</i>

If you don’t need what Tassajara has to offer when first you think of going, by the time you reach its simple wooden gates and “Zen Mountain Center” sign, you certainly will.

For this Zen Buddhist monastery sits at the dead-end bottom of a twisty hairpin dirt road, rutted and rocky, that winds for 14 unnerving miles through the Los Padres National Forest and the Ventana Wilderness, first pointing up to nearly 5,000 feet and then heading what feels perilously like straight down.

Impassable when wet, a suicide mission at night, the Tassajara road is so formidable, such a threat to overheat engines and pierce oil pans, that the center’s brochure contains two full pages of warnings on how to drive it as well as the strong suggestion that its own once-a-day shuttle vehicle is the best way in. Just so is Helen Tworkov’s description of the route in her thoughtful “Zen in America”: “Not unlike the spiritual path itself, the no-exit dirt road to get there inspires fear and awe.”

And once inside those gates, southeast of Big Sur, the visitor is almost immediately handed a mimeographed sheet titled “Things to Watch Out for at Tassajara.” For during the summer months, the only time the place is open to outsiders, there is “extreme fire danger,” plus rock slides and such copious amounts of poison oak that a special soap is provided to counteract it.

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Also potentially harmful are the area’s ticks, black widow spiders, scorpions (“the species that inhabits this region is rarely, if ever, fatal”) and even rattlesnakes. And should one be undeterred by any of this and eager for a brisk walk, be aware that “over the years a number of hikers have gotten lost. Some were never found.”

As daunting as all this was to first-time visitors such as my wife and myself, the truth is that even getting that far has more than its share of difficulties--placed almost like hazards on a golf course--which almost seem planned to discourage those who have not previously sampled its pleasures.

To get into Tassajara, a monastic community established in 1966 on the site of several previous hot spring resorts by the San Francisco Zen Center, a guest brochure and registration form are necessary; a telephone call will not get you registered for the center’s May-through-Labor-Day visitor season. You must call or write to be put on a mailing list for the brochure, probably available around March 1.

In addition to the description of that dreaded road, the brochure reveals other things about Tassajara that are potentially discouraging to newcomers. Its cabins have no telephones, no electricity, no hot water, and no showers or tubs: All bathing is done in the sex-segregated communal bathhouse. Among the things forbidden are smoking, radios, musical instruments and pets. Children are allowed, but parents are pointedly asked to “be particularly attentive to your child’s behavior.”

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What the brochure doesn’t tell you is that despite all of this, despite a refusal of credit cards, a stiff cancellation policy and room rates that can run as high as $260 a couple a night on weekends, most of the available spots at Tassajara are gone within weeks of the registration form’s arrival. And the fortunate reality is, to spend a few days here is to understand it all, both the unwavering loyalty of those adherents and the reason the rules need to be as stringent and exclusionary as they are. For Tassajara turns out to be the most delicate of balancing acts, a careful combination of the ascetic and the sybaritic. If it did things any other way it would not be able to continue being the special place it is.

The key to understanding the Zen Mountain Center is that at its core it is a religious establishment, and the spiritual involvement of students and black-robed monks permeates the atmosphere.

Small Buddhist altars are scattered around the property; cleaning crews chant before beginning work; students gravely bow to each other when they meet on the paths. And the affecting sounds of bells and drums can be heard periodically throughout the day, starting at 5:30 a.m. when a hand-rung wake-up bell rouses everyone, even those who choose to fall back asleep.

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If, as one woman told author Helen Tworkov, what Tassajara in part offers is “a dose of spiritual virtue by osmosis,” what it tends to attract are people for whom that is a privilege. Its guests are mostly 1960s folk (primarily from Northern California) for whom the counterculture is still a vital force, visitors who discovered the place soon after it opened and have refused to abandon it despite the changes in both the institution and themselves.

And changes there have been. Though the funky one-room redwood cabins that have hung on since Tassajara was a secular resort are still very much in use, as are the dormitories where a bed can cost as little as $67 per night, there are some more recent accommodations as well.

My wife and I stayed in one of these newer rooms, a simple but restful space with an indefinably Japanese feeling that was perched just above Tassajara’s rushing stream. Its calming effect was apparent as soon as we walked in the door, and it grew so great that I left it with regret.

One of the things that never failed to get me out was the food. The cuisine here is strictly vegetarian, served family style at community tables promptly at the bell-announced times of 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. No one would dream of being late because everything, from such staples as salad and rice to more elaborate vegetable casseroles and soups, is exquisitely tasty.

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Even more celebrated than Tassajara’s food (which has spawned a successful San Francisco restaurant called Greens) is the monastery’s bread. The Tassajara Bread Book is one of the best-selling in the world, and no more than a single slice is necessary to understand why.

Tassajara’s other main draws are its natural hot spring baths. Last year was the first for a brand-new bathhouse, necessary because of the seismic instability of the hill behind the old one. Like the original, it has men’s and women’s sides, a hot plunge of a stiff 110 degrees, showers, a deck for sunning and the opportunity to dip into the stream to cool off.

And though no one would dream of pushing it on you, the ability to get closer to the practice of Zen, a strenuous and austere variety of Buddhism that evolved in China in the 7th Century, is also one of Tassajara’s attractions.

The Zen aspect is most intense during four- and five-day retreats and workshops the center holds periodically throughout the summer. But even during non-workshop times, visitors are invited to attend the center’s calming morning and evening services and to engage (with instruction) in zazen , the extended seated meditation that is at the heart of Zen practice.

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While many people do go hiking or swim in the complex’s pool or in a section of the stream called the Narrows, if you have to ask what there is to do at Tassajara, you probably don’t want to go. For what draws people back again and again is its ability to relax even the most stressed-out visitors.

For when there is nothing to do, it seems there is time for everything. It takes a remarkably short stay here, reading with the brook’s sounds as background music, watching the kerosene lanterns slowly illuminate the evening, to understand Tassajara’s rhythms and get in sync with them.

To fortify ourselves for the return to Los Angeles (a drive that takes between seven and eight hours and which we punctuated on the way up with an overnight stay at a pleasant B&B;, the Country House Inn in Templeton), we prepared a satisfying bag lunch to eat on the trip. And, to make the experience last even longer, we also bought a single loaf (the legal limit) of that remarkable bread.

And when we finally arrived home and discovered that that killer road had inflicted an oil leak on us, it is a measure of the strength of the Tassajara experience that I uncharacteristically did no more than shrug. A leak can be fixed, but the memory of tranquillity is forever. Or at least till next year.

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* Additional listings of Weekend Escapes are available on the new TimesLink on-line service. For information, call (800) 792-LINK.

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Budget for Two

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Gas: $30.73

One night at Country House Inn: $92.65

Three nights at Tassajara: $813.96

Bag lunches, loaf of bread: $19.09

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FINAL TAB: $956.43

The Tassajara Reservation Office is in the San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page St., San Francisco, Calif. 94102; tel. (415) 863-3136. Write or call to be put on mailing list. Reservations are not taken by phone.


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