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


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By Colleen Morton Busch, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011
256 pp including photographs and notes
reviewed by Vladimir K

In June, 2008, a lightning storm hit Northern California setting off a number of wildfires which became known collectively as Northern California Lightning Series. At the height of the emergency, over 2,780 fires were burning, eventually burning 1,157,930 acres (4,686 km2). Twenty-three lives were lost in one of California’s worst wildfire events. One of the fires near Big Sur turned towards the Zen monastery Tassajara in the Ventana Wilderness of the Las Padres National Forest. Fire Monks, by Colleen Morton Busch, is the story of how Tassajara was saved by a handful of Zen monks.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was created from the Tassajara Hot Springs when the San Francisco Zen Center purchased the property in 1967 under the leadership of Shunryu Suzuki. It was the first Zen monastery outside of Asia. The 127-acre site is very isolated, located deep within the Ventana Wilderness, some 26 kilometres (16 miles) from the nearest paved road. Access is via a single steep one-lane dirt road that winds its way into a valley where the hot springs of Tassajara Creek are located.
book cover
On Monday, June 23, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency for Monterey and Trinity counties due to the extreme peril of the fires. At Tassajara, forty-six summer guests and twenty-three Zen students were evacuated from the center. Forty-seven residents remained and began the arduous task of preparing Tassajara to face the on-coming fires. Underbrush was cleared, fire lines were cut and sprinklers fed by the creek water were set up on the roofs of the main buildings. The remaining residents were drilled in uncoiling fire hoses and connecting them to standing water taps. The vital pumps were serviced and tested. Tassajara was getting ready.
On June 25, just two days after the summer guests had left, Tassajara received word from a fire commander that the center should be evacuated as the fire had entered the Tassajara Creek watershed. Only eight residents were permitted to stay behind and continue the preparations. David Zimmerman, the director at Tassajara, decided eight was not enough to save the center and so fourteen stayed behind. Difficult decisions were made about who could stay and who had to leave but in the end, four women and ten men, some senior staff and some who had arrived at Tassajara just a few weeks earlier, stayed behind. Between then and July 9, preparations continued. Everyone expected to remain behind when the fire struck. They also expected help from the professional fire-fighters who were battling the blazes. But on July 9, Stuart Carlson, CAL FIRE captain who was helping with the preparations, ordered Tassajara to be abandoned as the situation was becoming extremely dangerous. Kern County Fire Department battalion chief Jack Froggert ordered his air  tankers to protect the only road out. And so the final evacuation of Tassajara began.

About half an hour into the evacuation, Jack Froggert met the six-car caravan at the appropriately named Ashes Corner. It was here that Zen Center Abbot Steve Stücky decided that he couldn’t abandon the monastery and turned around. Four others joined him. Froggert tried to convince them that it was too dangerous but in the end was powerless to stop them. Abbot Steve Stücky, Director David Zimmerman, plant manager Graham Ross, head of shop Colin Gipson, and head cook, Mako Voelkel, the only female of the five, returned to Tassajara, knowing that there was no way out once the fire cut the road.

A wildfire is a terrifying thing. Temperatures can reach 1100 Celsius (2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), boulders and trees can explode. A firestorm creates its own weather, sucking the oxygen out of the air and creating huge winds of more than 80 kilometres per hour (50 mph). Spot fires, downwind from the fire front, can occur up to 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the front. Wildfires are deadly. In 2009, in the Australian state of Victoria, 173 people died, 414 were injured and over 2,029 homes and 3,500 other structures were lost. Facing a wildfire is not for the faint hearted. Nor is it for amateurs.

Busch’s Fire Monks chronicles the events leading up to the Tassajara five facing the fire and the aftermath of that event. It is an exciting read, well researched and well-crafted. Busch weaves personal recounts, history, Zen lore and teachings, and, importantly, the politics of California fire fighting, into an engaging narrative. She has written the definitive story of the saving of Tassajara from the 2008 fires. This is not a tale of bravado in the face of adversity but of careful preparation and calmness in the eye of the storm. The book will become part of the San Francisco Zen Center history, alongside the center’s other books such as The Tassajara Bread Book and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.
The five monks who faced the flames with the Zen mind of years of practice were undoubtedly brave. However, the question of whether they were wise has to be asked. Tassajara will certainly face fires again, just as it did in 1977 and the decisions as to whether to stay and fight or flee will again have to be faced. Will those responsible look back at the 2008 fire and make decisions based on what went on then? Colleen Busch also asks that question: “Will the 2008 fire’s lessons have any bearing the next time fire comes to Tassajara?” and answers,  “It will be a different fire. A different Tassajara.” (p 244) While Abbot Stücky refuses to consider what could have happened, how it could have all gone wrong, saying “It’s not so helpful to judge it good or bad. Was it an appropriate response? That takes it beyond good and bad…you accept the karma that comes with it” (p 235), had the five been tragically killed by the fire, the repercussions would have been devastating not only for the friends and families of the five, but also for the Zen Center itself. It’s a difficult call to make — stay or flee — and it’s fortunate that this time it worked out. The five took a huge risk; next time may not be so lucky.

Finally, a word about the subtitle, Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara. I must agree here with David Chadwick at http://www.cuke.com/tassfire/index.htm when he writes, “we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others --- as if the Zen folks had some edge they'd gained that made them superior. I know it's said to be that way but I've never noticed it.” The actions of the Zen group preparing for the fire were no different than any other cohesive group would have done under supervision in similar circumstances. As for the Tassajara five, they showed incredible courage and strength to stay behind and protect something they and so many others  cherished and valued. Zen mind? Maybe. Or maybe just dogged determination not to lose something they treasured.

In the end, it all worked out and I am glad that Tassajara is still there, at the end of a long, winding dirt road in the back country of the Ventana Wilderness in California.