Friday Open Thread: "What are you reading?" edition. ~ Fire Monks

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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.

Video by Mako Voelkel.

June 28. Simon Moyes sets up Dharma Rain on the bathhouse roof. Photo by Johan Ostlund.

July 2. Resident Bryan Clark looks up the Tassajara Creek watershed from Hawk Mountain.

Almost two weeks after the lightning strikes, flames had not been spotted yet from within

Tassajara. Photo by Shundo David Haye.

Tassajara director David Zimmerman (left) gives Basin Complex fire branch commander Jack Froggatt (in yellow) and Abbot Steve Stücky a tour of the residents’ fire preparations on July 2. “Copyright © 2008 The Monterey County Herald.

Abbot Steve Stücky’s notes, jotted down in his tidal calendar, reveal the fullness of the days surrounding the fire at Tassajara.

July 9. Head cook Mako Voelkel and fellow residents leave Tassajara during the final evacuation. But Mako and four others would return within the hour. Photo by Shundo David Haye.

A dragon of fire near the confluence of Tassajara and Church creeks. This photo of the advancing fire front was taken at dusk on the evening of July 9, a few hours before flames closed the road, cutting off access to Tassajara. Photo by Ivan J. Eberle

July 10. Flames descend from Flag Rock, above the zendo, into Tassajara. Photo by Mako Voelkel.

Graham Ross, Mako Voelkel, David Zimmerman, Steve Stücky, and Colin Gipson—“the Tassajara Five”—posed for this portrait after facing the flames for six straight hours. Photo by Mako Voelkel.

July 14. Abbot Steve Stücky and Colin Gipson clean the Buddha after unburying the statue from the bocce ball court. This 2,000-year-old Gandharan relic had previously been restored after being damaged in the 1978 zendo fire. Photo by Mako Voelkel.

July 26. Sixteen days after the fire’s passage, Shundo David Haye hikes the Tony Trail, surveying the bare ridges and burnt brush left behind. Photo by Simon Moyes.

Cartoonist Tom Meyer’s take on what it means to be a fire monk. © 2008 Tom Meyer.

Stripped of vegetation four days after the 2008 fire, Tassajara Road appears even more

isolated and exposed than usual. Photo by Mako Voelkel.

Tassajara Road in May 2009, nearly one year later. This photo was taken from Ashes

Corner, where five priests turned around during the final evacuation to stay at Tassajara

and meet the fire. © 2009 Dan Quinn

Colleen Morton Busch, author of Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara, tells the remarkable story of how, when wildfires blazed across California in June 2008, five monks refused to abandon their monastery to the flames, choosing instead to risk their lives in an amazing expression of their own carefully honed Zen consciousness, courage and wisdom.

BestofEastWest features excerpts of talks, concerts, and workshops held at the legendary East West Bookshop in Mountain View, California.

http://www.eastwest.com

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Anja Geitz's picture

A house you can rebuild; a bridge you can restring; a washed-out road you can fill in. But there is nothing you can do about a tree but mourn.
~ Louise Dickinson Rich

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Anja Geitz's picture

@Anja Geitz

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Anja Geitz's picture

@Anja Geitz

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

Lookout's picture

I've fought fires, but using a tractor with blade, shovel, rake, and fire flap. Our fires are understory and nothing like the fierce flames out west. Back burning with a drip torch is the last line stance I've used here a couple of times. We have a firebreak all the way around our place which gives us a line to work from. Fortunately it has been years since we've had to. We do use controlled burns every few years if fuel starts to build. Our wooden house would go up like a campfire if one did jump our lines. Another joy of country living!

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

@Lookout "fighting" grass fires back in Texas as a kid with wet gunny sacks..
And yeah, these fires here out west are a whole different animal.

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travelerxxx's picture

@peachcreek

..."fighting" grass fires back in Texas as a kid with wet gunny sacks...

I have that experience, too! Last time I did it was in Kansas, many years ago. A Rock Island freight burned up a wheel bearing and threw burning crap from the axle for almost 20 miles, setting the prairie alight. We kids were let out of school midday to go grab gunny (burlap) sacks and head out to fight it. We thought it was exciting, but it was actually damn dangerous. Nothing like what's going on in the West right now, though.

In fact, I figured I wouldn't mention it as it doesn't compare to the magnitude of the western fires. Since you did, I thought I'd chime in.

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Anja Geitz's picture

where spirituality is being used to deal with something other than an existential crisis. Sounds like they got very lucky. I can only conclude that since the firefighters felt the fire was too dangerous for even them to stay, that these monks were prepared to die if need be. The questions is why? And more curiously, what was the thought process that allowed them to come to that place in their thinking?

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

snoopydawg's picture

He wrote the Sword of Truth series which I have listened to numerous times starting with Wizards First Rule. If you are looking for a great book series to while away the days I highly recommend this.

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher's forest sanctuary seeking help...and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In a dark age it takes courage to live, and more than mere courage to challenge those who hold dominion, Richard and Kahlan must take up that challenge or become the next victims. Beyond awaits a bewitching land where even the best of their hearts could betray them. Yet, Richard fears nothing so much as what secrets his sword might reveal about his own soul. Falling in love would destroy them - for reasons Richard can't imagine and Kahlan dare not say.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword - to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed...or that their time has run out.

Wizard's First Rule is the beginning. One book. One Rule. Witness the birth of a legend.

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“An addicted underclass is easier to control than one that is fully functional and aware of its oppression.” - The Elite
Centrism is the failed political philosophy of those “despised elites.” Centrism gave us Trump.

God bless the London bus drivers and shame on USA mass "media".

London bus drivers resolve to fight for Assange’s freedom

The extradition hearings underway in London are a grotesque show trial staged by the British state. We reject the lies against Assange by the media, the Tory government and their allies in the Labour Party. Assange is not guilty of “espionage” or “hacking.” He has been targeted for exposing war crimes by the US, Britain and their allies—crimes that led to the deaths of 1 million people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/09/16/rafa-s16.html

Caitlin has a few choice words- https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2020/09/18/exposing-war-crimes-should-alway...

as a USA citizen I feel I need a bath.
it won't be enough.

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Anja Geitz's picture

Because there was so much fire activity last night, the Incident Management Team did a morning briefing to get residents caught up. In addition to these briefings being useful for residents in the evacuation zones, they are also a fascinating peek into how strategic firefighting works. As Granma said to me in last nights EB, they have contingency plans that go way beyond plans A & B. These guys are freaking amazing.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

magiamma's picture

@Anja Geitz
We had them every morning and evening. It was a big deal when we went to one briefing a day and then to as needed. Learned a bunch. And they were so together, so coherent, so organized. When I drove up to the vet in Boulder Creek on Highway 9 there were tons of signs everywhere thanking the First Responders. They saved a bunch of towns. Did a controlled burn all along the highway.

We can be amazing. It is possible.

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Anja Geitz's picture

@magiamma

Were you in need of daily briefings during this fire season?

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

magiamma's picture

@Anja Geitz
If the fire broke through To ucsc or jumped highway 9, the whole town of Santa Cruz was in danger. I checked their Twitter feed several times a day. My car was packed and pointed out. My clothes were laid out each night. I learned a lot when I was on rapid response team for the sanctuary movement. Was one of the first responders to the first ice raid here.

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Anja Geitz's picture

@magiamma

with the rapid response team. Have you done any writing about that experience?

Santa Cruz. I had forgotten where you lived. Jeez. You know exactly what I'm going through right now. Although for the time being, I think Altadena, Sierra Madre, Morovia, and Arcadia may have dodged a big bullet. Eyes are now on the winds coming from the southwest blowing the #BobcatFire north into Antelope Valley at speeds that are jumping containment lines. Incident Management Team is saying they are expecting structural losses. It's just awful. I cited a few other stats in the EB that simply blew my mind.

Nice to know I have another "neighbor" here in California.

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There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but our hearts must be very quiet to hear it. ~ Minnie Aumonier

enhydra lutris's picture

remember that there were stories about it at the time.

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

magiamma's picture

And fought the fire because the firefighters were spread to thin to help.

https://www.kron4.com/news/bay-area/neighbors-build-fire-break-to-save-2...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgVNEPBAyUQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6cd-P0J56B4

Thanks for your report and the video. Take good care.

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Granma's picture

My Life's History by Grandma Moses right now and enjoying it.

Your fire book about the monks sounds amazing. I'll look for it later on. Too much fire in real life right now to read about it too.

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