Book Review: Fire Monks

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara, Colleen Morton Busch, 2011, Penguin Press.
Call Number HD8039.F52.C35 in the Sitagu Buddhist Vihara Library.

Tassajara is a Zen Monastery in the remote coastal mountains of California, the oldest Buddhist training monastery in the West. It was founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and is a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center where about fifty monks (male and female) can live and practice in seclusion. Interestingly a number of master chefs have emerged from its kitchen with skills forged in the furnace of Zen mindfulness practice and have produced a series of renowned cookbooks, starting with the Tassajara Bread Book. I lived at Tassajara myself for almost a year and a half many years ago.

In 2008 a forest fire broke out in the Ventana Wilderness in which Tassajara monastery lies, sparked by a flash of lightning. Summers are generally hot and dry throughout the coastal regions of California, putting Tassajara under threat of destruction a number of times in its history, and in fact all of the resident monks received training in fire control and the monastery kept a lot of firefighters’ equipment permanently at hand. This was finally the year the overextended United States Fire Service abandoned Tassajara to its fate and demanded a complete evacuation of the region as the fire swept nearer and would indeed soon engulf the frail compound at the bottom of the valley with its many wooden buildings.

Five priests however refused to evacuate! One of the five, Colin, was from the Austin Zen Center, where I also lived for six years, and two others of the five, one of them a woman, had been monks, not yet ordained, when I had lived at Tassajara.  The Guest Season residents at Tassajara had been arduously preparing for the worst in the previous weeks by removing excess underbrush around the compound, stowing away anything else that was particularly flammable and rigging a sprinkler system, dubbed Dharma Rain, that pumped water from the Tassajara Creek to soak buildings in water from the roof down. Colin and the others were foolhardy enough to think that by keeping the Dharma Rain pumps running and by squelching any small fires that would be likely to break out in the compound they might be able both to save Tassajara, and also to survive themselves. (When I was a kid if our school had caught on fire most of us would have been delighted. The fire monks were made of more principled stuff.)

This book is the gripping story of the of the Tassajara fire, of the preparations, the evacuation and the final stand of the five who remained to save Tassajara. It also offers much background information on fires and firefighting. It is a hair-raising (if you happen to have any) page-turner. It is a great book for young and old.

In the end the “fire monks,” as they came to be called, did just what they had planned. They lost only a few structures, none of the major buildings like the zendo, kitchen, founder’s hall or shop where 400 gallons of gasoline were stored, and moreover survived themselves, hacking and coughing from inhaling smoke. An embarrassment to the Fire Service, they became the heroes of American Buddhism.  They had rescued a landmark of American Buddhism, where many Zen Buddhists have supercharged their practice for many decades and where now many more will be able to for years to come. More than that the fire monks represent the finest in bold and selfless resolve in the face of the unknown, evidence of the strength, energy and depth of faith of Buddhism in America and an inspiration for all Buddhists everywhere.

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