Tassajara, the Architecture of Silence

A photo essay about a Buddhist monastery in California's Carmel Valley, between hot springs, exceptional food, hard-to-reach peaks, and traditional Japanese architecture.

Welcome to the first installment of my “Photo” essays series.

During a brief zazen practice period in 2023, I had the opportunity to visit the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. It's a Buddhist monastery founded by Suzuki Shunryu in California's Carmel Valley, renowned for its hot springs, food, hard-to-reach location, and Silicon Valley guests.

The center was open to visitors before the pandemic, with notable local figures like Steve Jobs coming in the 80s and 90s. But access is now mostly restricted to practitioners.

The climate, topography, and vegetation of Carmel felt instantly familiar to me, echoing my Mediterranean roots and upbringing. Even just mentioning Tassajara among former residents evokes reverence. I hope that these photos convey both the reason for that and the mundane aspects of its life.

The carts are among the first to greet you. Even at rest, each one hints at the movement of its daily chores.
The bridge connects residences and shared spaces. Side benches invite both conversation and reflection as the creek's branching streams dance with stone and green. Flows of people and water.
A few steps from the bridge, you will find the kaisando (founder's hall.)
Inside the kaisando, the light travels from the garden through the shoji doors. If you look in the shadows, indoors or outdoors, many dragons dwell.
The kaisando's altar holds Suzuki Roshi's photo, the same one from the back cover of “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.”
Wooden shrines and structures rise softly at Tassajara. The pool, not just a place for rest, also guards against fire as an extra water reserve—shielding cabins and sacred spaces alike.
Rocks cradle pipes on the paths between buildings and creek. Tassajara leans on unseen structures and rhythms—like the han's call echoing in the valley—to support the community.
Tassajara's taiko (on the left) and bonshō (or ōgane, great bell, on the right.) The bonshō has no clackers and is struck from the outside with the suspended beam.
Around the Zendo, practitioners walk shoeless on the engawa before sitting inside.
Every communal space has a (sometimes cute) altar, like the kitchen's.
Residents mugs. Rinse and return after your stay.
A vineyard path from the zendo leads to one of the gardens.
The peaceful library's nestled second floor features poetry and floor seats.
Wood brings beauty and tranquility to Tassajara, but also warmth. Being off-the-grid, during the summer, wood is cut and stacked neatly for the winter.
Between the peaks, a waterfall flows for those venturing past Suzuki's memorial. Between counters, coffee on tap flows. Every so often, the pot runs dry.
Suzuki Roshi's memorial is a short hike away. Flowers and a water bucket resting nearby invite for an offer.
A mountain rock punched a hole through the old bathhouse (now the firehouse) landing between bathers (so the tale says.)
The bathhouse altar: Recite the verse aloud or in your mind, bow, cleanse in the embrace of the hot spring and the cold creek's water.
Natural luxury. We moved rocks in the creek by the bathhouse to landscape quiet spots safe from the current. Ease is born from effort.
The plunges in the bathhouse are filled with hot spring sulfur water, naturally approaching 100 F.
Looking up from the plunges at night draws attention to intriguing silhouettes. Eventually, the eyes find the light offered by the vastness of the nightly sky.
At late night, light dances with shadows on the path from the bathhouse to the residences.
A nocturne warm light poses on the wooden table and chairs of the courtyard, under a pergola.
Tassajara's entrance sign.

Tassajara feels more than a physical place, with many paths leading to oneself and our communities. It's a testament to how it is possible to connect in a meaningful and sustainable way with your surroundings.

If you are curious about it, there's likely an extension of Tassajara and the San Francisco Zen Center near you: start from the Branching Streams Map website to find one you can visit online or physically. Maybe one day you'll end up at Tassajara :)

Take a look at the Photos series page for more shots and stories, and sign up for the newsletter to make sure you don't miss out on any new installments.

  • Camera: Google Pixel 7 Pro, using Google Camera app.
  • Editing: Lightroom, Pixelmator Pro, ImageOptim.

Ready to make more by doing less?

Unlearn everything you thought you knew, find tools that won’t turn you into their tool, and discover why being too efficient is just inefficient.

Oops! There was an error sending the email, please try again.

Awesome! Now check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription.