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When a massive wildfire surrounded Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, five monks risked their lives to save it. A gripping narrative as well as a portrait of the Zen path and the ways of wildfire, Fire Monks reveals what it means to meet a crisis with full presence of mind.
Zen master and author of the classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi established a monastery at Tassajara Hot Springs in 1967, drawn to the location’s beauty, peace, and seclusion. Deep in the wilderness east of Big Sur, the center is connected to the outside world by a single unpaved road. The remoteness that makes it an oasis also makes it particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes. If fire entered the canyon, there would be no escape.
More than two thousand wildfires, all started by a single lightning storm, blazed across the state of California in June 2008. With resources stretched thin, firefighters advised residents at Tassajara to evacuate early. Most did. A small crew stayed behind, preparing to protect the monastery when the fire arrived.
But nothing could have prepared them for what came next. A treacherous shift in weather conditions prompted a final order to evacuate everyone, including all firefighters. As they caravanned up the road, five senior monks made the risky decision to turn back. Relying on their Zen training, they were able to remain in the moment and do the seemingly impossible-to greet the fire not as an enemy to defeat, but as a friend to guide.
Fire Monks pivots on the kind of moment some seek and some run from, when life and death hang in simultaneous view. Novices in fire but experts in readiness, the Tassajara monks summoned both intuition and wisdom to face crisis with startling clarity. The result is a profound lesson in the art of living.
“Fire Monks sets itself three difficult tasks–to reconstruct exactly what happened at Tassajara Zen Monastery during the great fire of 2008, how zen prepared the monks to meet the fire, and to make us passionately absorbed in this story of burning and calmness–and succeeds in all three splendidly. I’m afraid I raced through this vivid, unusual, resonant story more like a wildfire than a monk myself.”
-Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
“This is an exciting and heart-warming read – exciting because wildfire is unpredictable and dangerous, and heart-warming because this is the first honest account I have read of the simple unadorned courage you find in American Zen communities. After all the spiritual self-help manuals and self-focused memoirs, it’s good finally to hear a well reported story of real life spiritual grace under pressure.”
-Norman Fischer, Zen priest and poet, Founder and Teacher, Everyday Zen Foundation. Author of Sailing Home: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls.
“Fire Monks is a careful recounting of a brave, intelligent, and successful effort to defend the oldest Zen monastery outside Asia. It’s a charming tale, the Zen of fighting wildfire. But it’s also a case study of ‘stay and defend,’ the gritty and controversial tactic of remaining on site when wildfire strikes.”
-John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire
Book review: ‘Fire Monks’ by Colleen Morton Busch
The Los Angeles Times Book Review – July 13, 2011 (Excerpt)
In the summer of 2008, a wildfire burning in California’s Los Padres National Forest swept down on Tassajara Hot Springs, a historic resort not far from Big Sur that was home to the first Zen Buddhist monastery in North America.
Little stood in the way of the wind-whipped flames except five monks with hoses pumping water from a creek. The odds were decidedly not in their favor, but after the inferno passed, nearly all of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center’s historic stone buildings and wooden cabins remained unscathed.
A monk’s dramatic report on the firefighting effort inspired Colleen Morton Busch, a Zen student and sometime Tassajara visitor, to make a devoted study of what had transpired.
Busch interweaves Zen teachings with firefighting lore in the manner of Norman Maclean’s classic “Young Men and Fire.” If she lacks some of Maclean’s lyricism, Busch nonetheless offers an absorbing account of how two priesthoods — professional wildland firefighters and Zen monastics — confronted the fire’s threat.
The professionals charged with managing the conflagration worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Mindful of previous tragedies in which fire crews had lost their lives, they felt their resources were stretched too thin to defend Tassajara and wanted it evacuated.
Tassajara’s residents, on the other hand, had regularly practiced firefighting drills, cleared fire lines and rigged a sprinkler system (dubbed “Dharma Rain”) that showered the main buildings to protect them from drifting embers. Based on assurances from area residents who had come through earlier fires, they believed that when the time came they could fend off the flames. [Read the full article...]
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Paul Kirk is a librarian and one of his town’s quirkier residents. In a childhood home lacking parents (his mother dying of MS and his father an alcoholic) Paul had imagined himself a member of the neighboring family. Now in his late twenties, Paul vicariously participates in the households of his community. His peeping-Tom proclivities express his awkward need for social bonding.
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