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