Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara


The "vivid" and "electrifying" true story of how five monks saved the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States from wildfire (San Francisco Chronicle).

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.

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The "vivid" and "electrifying" true story of how five monks saved the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States from wildfire (San Francisco Chronicle).

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

When over 2,700 wildfires spread across Northern California in June 2008, thousands of firefighters from around the country rushed to join in the fight to put them down. None of these men and women was as strange or as brave as the five senior monks who turned their backs on safety to rescue their beloved Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Using Buddhist wisdom rather than flame-battling skills, they placed their faith in a spiritual path that others could not understand. Five Monks takes you inside the lives, minds, and meditations of men whose inner life got them through what for others would have been a harrowing experience.

Publishers Weekly
This day-by-day account of the defense of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center against massive wildfires in summer 2008 brings a Buddhist twist to the age-old preoccupation of humans living with—and trying to control—fire. Busch, a writer and Zen student, weaves together the story of the lightning-sparked flames approaching the San Francisco Zen Center's isolated mountain monastery—only one road leads out of the canyon—with the personal experiences of members of the organization who responded. "I wanted to portray Zen... as a continuous practice, a way of life," she writes, "that cultivates a particular kind of fearlessness." She describes the complicated decisions that led up to the final defense of the popular retreat, stressing residents' moment-to-moment encounters with the fire's unpredictability using minds that are trained rigorously to accept rapid change and to evaluate the needs of the present moment. The motivations of the five monks who returned to protect Tassajara after the final evacuation are explored as well as the complexities of others' reactions. Busch skillfully blends firefighting politics and Zen insights in this suspenseful narrative. (July 11)
San Francisco Chronicle
In 1967, the San Francisco Zen Center opened Zen Heart-Mind Temple, the first Zen monastery outside Asia, at the former resort of Tassajara Hot Springs in the Ventana Wilderness east of Big Sur. The rhythm it established that year continues to this day.

Two three-month “practice periods” take place from fall through spring, during which the temple is closed to outsiders while monks and other Zen students spend most of their days there in intensive meditation. Then during the summer months, the temple becomes something of a rustic resort again, opening its soothing baths to paying guests and serving the gourmet vegetarian food and fresh-baked bread that has
made Tassajara famous far beyond Buddhist circles.

The practitioners change each year, rotating through Zen Center’s other locations on Page Street in San Francisco and Green Gulch Farm in Marin. But Tassajara’s transient monastics still follow the same routine, with monks living and practicing on the grounds almost continuously now for more than 40 years. Almost.

There have been two interruptions. First, briefly, during a major wildfire in 1977. And then again, for about one hour, in the midst of the huge Basin Complex Fire in July 2008.

Berkeley writer Colleen Morton Busch’s captivating and often exhilarating new book, “Fire Monks,” chronicles the truly amazing story of how the intrepid residents of Tassajara came to evacuate on that one day three years ago, and how five of them then chose to return to face the blaze.

Many readers will remember the summer of 2008: As Busch writes, “If you lived in California, you smelled the smoke.”

Sparked by lightning on June 21, the Basin Complex Fire grew quickly, and within a couple of days Tassajara’s summer guests were asked to depart. At first, many resident students stayed. They spent their days clearing flammable brush and jury-rigging homemade sprinklers, preparing for the fire’s inevitable advance.

But as the fire gradually approached, their numbers were pared down in successive evacuations.

Finally on July 9, with the fire threatening to block the only road in and out of Tassajara and at the urging of fire officials who felt the compound could not be adequately defended, all the remaining residents left. And then, almost immediately, five monks turned around and drove back to brave the fire alone.

What exactly caused these five to agree to leave and then so quickly to return is a mystery Busch cannot entirely answer. Was it all a ruse to get the younger students to safety? Did the five senior monks — including Zen Center abbot Steve Stücky — simply change their minds as they drove up the winding dirt road away from their beloved temple?

What is clear to Busch, a longtime Zen student herself, is why these five felt qualified to stay, despite virtually no training as firefighters: “They didn’t need to know all the answers to act. They had shown a suppleness of mind, learned on the meditation cushion, that could be brought to bear on any circumstance.”

This intriguing notion that a clear mind conquers all will be familiar to connoisseurs of samurai movies and Jedi knights everywhere, and is a recurring theme in “Fire Monks.” Perhaps not every reader will be convinced, and some even at the Zen Center at the time felt it was irresponsible for the monks to remain.

Yet remain they did, and Busch recounts their harrowing experiences nearly hour by hour as the fire advances, her vivid prose as electrifying as any beach novel you’re likely to find this summer.

The fire, when it finally arrives, confronts Tassajara for just five agonizing hours. Perhaps inevitably, there is a slight sense of anticlimax when an event we have anticipated for nearly 200 pages passes so quickly. Yet Busch somehow manages to create suspense and tension despite the largely foregone conclusion.

Her pivotal chapter carries us from the fire’s initial advance into Tassajara itself as “thirty-foot flames tore down the mountains” to the “atmosphere of finality and transition” when the last of the spot fires had been knocked back and the monks can finally catch their breath. There seems little doubt in the end that without the valiant efforts of these five to keep the flames at bay, much of this precious place would have been lost.

Today the 14-mile road into Tassajara still wends through grove after grove of burned-out pines and skeleton forests full of gnarled, bleached-white branches and blackened stumps. But down in the valley itself this summer, evidence of the fire is not so easily found.

The wet winter has brought wildflowers and ferns, and the cabins are filled once again with well-fed and well-rested guests. Only two of the “fire monks” still live at Tassajara, the rest having moved on to the next stage of their lives.

Zen, after all, teaches that everything changes, that all life is impermanent. Yet in this stranger-than-fiction story Busch so expertly tells, Zen Heart-Mind Temple survives, thanks in large part to the courage, the calm and, yes, the heroics, of those five faithful monks.

Dan Zigmond is a contributing editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.
Kirkus Reviews

A formerYoga Journalsenior editor'saccount of five Zen practitioners turned firefighters who saved a beloved California monastery.

Most readers, if they know it at all, will connect Tassajara to the bread-baking and vegetarian cookbooks inspired by its kitchen. For practitioners of American Zen, however, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur is an almost sacred place for meditation and work, famous for its monastic training and host to thousands of guests since its founding in the mid-1960s. In June 2008, lightning set the California chaparral ablaze. At the end of an unpaved road, in a canyon surrounded by mountains, Tassajara lay in the middle of what would eventually become the third-largest conflagration in state history, destroying more than 240,000 acres. For almost three weeks, the community watched the fire approach, reduced their numbers to essential personnel and took various steps—including an ingenious sprinkler system rigged to rooftops, dubbed "Dharma Rain"—to protect the monastery. Finally, down to a band of 14 and under orders from state and federal authorities who deemed the place indefensible, they evacuated. On the way out, five monks turned back, determined to protect the abbey. Their histories, the stories of other Tassajara disciples, an introduction to the tenets of Buddhism and a meticulous tracking of the devastating fire's progress are all part of Busch's story. Her main purpose, though, is to explore how the discipline of Zen uniquely prepared otherwise untrained monks to face the crisis. Herself a Zen student, the author explains how Zen practice teaches followers to live in flux, to recognize impermanence and to deal with uncertainty. Novice firefighters, the monks were veterans at practicing calm and taking care, of honoring simultaneously interdependence and individual authority. They smoothly turned toward the fire, not to confront or fight it, but rather to meet it, to "make friends with it" as the blaze lapped at their perimeter.

The awareness of the firefighter, the mindfulness of the monk, the principles of fire and the spirit of Zen come together in a well-told story about the effort required and the lessons learned from paying close attention.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594202919
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/7/2011
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

COLLEEN MORTON BUSCH'S nonfiction, poetry, and fiction have appeared in a wide range of publications, from literary magazines to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal, where she was a senior editor. A Zen student since 2000, Busch lives in Northern California with her husband and two cats.

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Table of Contents

Cast of Characters x

Prologue 1

1 Lightning Strikes 5

2 Fires Merge 27

3 The Three-Day-Away Fire 43

4 In the Shadow of Esperanza 59

5 Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Effort 73

6 Fire in the Confluence 99

7 Buddha in the Bocce Ball Court 119

8 The Last Evacuation 137

9 No Leaving, No Going Back 151

10 Ring of Flame 163

11 Meeting Fire 183

12 Unburying Buddha 211

Afterword 241

Acknowledgments 245

Notes 247

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  • Posted July 11, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Two Extremes Come Together

    "Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wild­fire at the Gates of Tas­sa­jara " by Colleen Mor­ton Busch is the non-fiction account of the 2008 Cal­i­for­nia fire which almost destroyed the Tas­sa­jara Zen Moun­tain Cen­ter. The story is told from the per­spec­tive of those who stayed behind to pro­tect Tassajara.

    A mas­sive wild­fire has sur­rounded Tas­sa­jara Moun­tain Cen­ter. So mas­sive that even the fire crews have decided that it would be wiser not to fight it.

    Five monks stayed behind to try and save Tas­sa­jara. They risked life and limb to stand in the way of the immense wild­fire which sur­rounded them and became and inter­na­tional sensation.

    "Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wild­fire at the Gates of Tas­sa­jara " by Colleen Mor­ton is not only a grip­ping nar­ra­tive of the 2008 wild­fire events, but also how Zen allows peo­ple to meet such colos­sal cri­sis with a focused mind.

    The Tas­sa­jara Zen Moun­tain Cen­ter, near Big Sur in Cal­i­for­nia, is well known in the Zen com­mu­nity. The cen­ter is not only famous for med­i­ta­tion and train­ing, but also for their bread bak­ing and veg­e­tar­ian cookbooks.

    The 2008 fire, started by light­ning, con­sumed more than 240,000 acres. While the small group of defend­ers in Tas­sa­jara watched for three nerve-wracking weeks while the fire con­sumed every­thing in its path towards them. Watch­ing the weather care­fully before the order to evac­u­ate came, five senior mem­bers of Tas­sa­jara decided to stay behind.

    The book is not only the story of the fire, but also the his­tory of Tas­sa­jara, intro­duc­tion to Bud­dhism, and track­ing of the destruc­tion the fire cause on its path.

    I used to be a vol­un­teer fire fighter for about four years. Some of the things I learned are men­tioned in the book - the pres­ence of mind to meet emer­gen­cies, not pan­ick­ing and con­cen­trat­ing on one job at a time. How­ever, more impor­tant than all of those are the knowl­edge of when to fight the fire and when to sim­ply try and con­tain it.

    While I don't con­sider myself a Bud­dhist, I cer­tainly appre­ci­ate the ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion to the human mind. if you have a touch time falling asleep you might want to give med­i­ta­tion a try before open­ing up your med­i­cine cab­i­net. It might be dif­fi­cult, clear­ing your mind is an enor­mous task, but the ben­e­fits that come with it are more than worth the effort.

    Busch's book ties in nicely the dis­ci­plines of Zen and fire­fight­ing. While both seem to be extreme ends of the spec­trum, they have much more in com­mon then one would think.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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