Pacific Crest Trail

As a young man, I trained for a year at Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, a monastery in Southern California, in the mountains near Idyllwild. I meditated, mixed concrete, scrubbed toilets, felled trees, and meditated more. How much credit that year deserves for who I am is tough to measure. I know that before I entered the monastery I was a bad programmer, I was a pothead, and I disliked myself. When I finished my year there and came to New York, I wasn't exactly fixed—indeed, I was mad at Zen for not making me perfect after all that effort. But in the years that followed I stopped smoking weed. I became a pretty good programmer. I realized that the aim of practice is kindness, not perfection. I achieved a measure of peace with myself. Everything I've done since feels like a long stumble from Zen's first shove.

This July a forest fire tore through the land around my old monastery. Initial reports suggested the monastery had burned down, but the facts are almost worse: the fire burned the ridge above, and turned the forest there to ash. Cruelly, the fire was followed by a week of storms, and each rainfall dragged a river of mud and ash through the monastery, burying cars, destroying the water pipes and gas lines. As I write this, we don't know if monastic life can ever resume there, or if the community must find some other place.

Car buried under mud at Zen Mountain Center Car buried in mud. Photo: Jim Yugen Lakey

I'm going to republish a story I wrote about my first weeks living at Zen Mountain Center. I've added some photos of how the mountainside looked before the fire, when I visited last year. I hope you enjoy it. Consider donating to Zen Mountain Center to help them found a new way of life, so they can continue to offer Zen training to the next generation.

In September 2003, I went to stay for a year at Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, in the San Jacinto mountains of Southern California. I was a bright green young Zennie, so I was given simple tasks at the beginning. I spent most of my days outside clearing brush and slash, and "leveling the road" with a rake. During chanting services, I bonked the fish.

The road to ZMC is dirt, winding around a slope and prone to washouts. On my first full day at the monastery, I got on a tractor with the work leader, Shinko, who drove me down to a warty stretch, handed me an aluminum rake, and said, "make this a little more level." Shinko drove off to level another stretch with a more appropriate tool: the tractor.

I, a young software engineer, who had never completed a day of manual labor in my life, contemplated the road, my hands, the rake, and the year ahead. I was at a loss. In what way could these things be combined productively? "Level the road"? I pushed some rocks around with the rake. In a desperate burst, I tore at a hump in the road, breaking off a clod here and there. I stopped to see if I'd gotten blisters. It started to rain heavily.


Once both I and the road were too wet to continue with our exercises, I found a manzanita bush to squat under, and I asked myself what the hell I was doing there. How could I survive a year of this? I was a wimp, and lazy, and a failure at Zen. Real monks level the road with their fingernails, probably, but I had gotten nowhere. I was about to commit seppuku by throwing myself on my rake when I heard the tractor coming back up the road. Shinko yelled, "The road looks much better! Let's go inside."

For my service position I played the makugyo: a hollow wooden fish. Bonking the makugyo seems hard to screw up: a monk named Kampo led the chanting, and the makugyo-bonker bonked in time, synchronizing with Kampo's pace. Kampo bounced on his heels as he chanted, so sometimes I watched his lips, sometimes his heels. But I could never quite get it right—over the long minutes of bonking, I seemed to hypnotize myself into a reverie, and slowed down. I'd tense my shoulders and try to bonk faster, but I felt stuck in molasses, as in a dream. Kampo would bounce higher and make a lifting gesture with his hand—I can see him now through the haze of remembered makugyo-trauma.

After service Kampo couldn't wait to correct me. He would pull me out of the meditation hall at the first opportunity to berate me in a whisper. Why couldn't I follow his lead? Was I asleep at the makugyo, or what?

Looking back, I see there was a mousetrap at the door of the zendo, and Kampo and I had stepped on it. We were trying to do the service perfectly, and our agreed-upon strategy for accomplishing this was to be as neurotic as possible. But the trap can be escaped, and eventually I did. And I believe I'd have lost an essential aspect of Zen training if I'd had weeks of rehearsals before the performance. Now I wish I'd screwed up worse: lost control of the mallet and given myself a bloody nose, some really disastrous makugyo-bonking accident—because screwing up a service is a profound teaching. The service doesn't matter! (The service matters.)

Yokoji ZMC snow Photo: Jim Yugen Lakey