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Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire Paperback – June 26, 2012
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A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year
"Vivid prose as electrifying as any beach novel you're likely to find this summer."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"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."
--Publisher's Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)
"An absorbing account of how two priesthoods -- professional wildland firefighters and Zen monastics -- confronted the fire's threat."
--Los Angeles Times
"This book reads like a hair-raising adventure novel."
“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.”
"Fire Monks demonstrates the clarity of thought and action that can spring from Zen practice."
About 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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This gracefully and generously written story of real events creates a character of the place itself (Tassasjara Zen Mountain Resort, a remote and beloved sanctuary that was threatened by wildfire). The book also engaged my interest by providing background on the key actors in the drama of decision making and resolve under pressure, a drama in which everyone's roles and their different reactions are treated with compassionate respect and understanding.
What most surprised and touched me was how the book made the straightforward story of meeting a wildfire also an object lesson on the benefits of zen practice, elucidating its central lessons through simple examples. It did this without ever being preachy or smug or evangelizing, but, instead, simply pointing to how ancient teachings could help recognizable people (not heroes on pedestals) act in ways that fulfilled the promise of their best selves.
It was also interesting to see how controversies about wildfires and firefighting played out in a complicated application, where there was no one righteous way, but a humbling multiplicity of options and expert positions.
This is a work that should appeal to a broad audience: an exciting and heart-warming good read that also is satisfyingly thought-provoking and inspirational, without being simplistic, manipulative, or agenda-driven.
Tassajara is a retreat maintained by the San Francisco Zen Center, one of the oldest Zen Centers in the United States. Founded by Suzuki Roshi when he came over from Japan to teach, it is probably one of the most renowned as well. This particular retreat is located fairly deep within the Californian wilderness and is only accessibly by a single road. The SFZC uses this center both as a retreat for intensive periods of zazen meditation and as a sort of summer resort for those who are wishing to learn about Zen and other various subjects.
In the summer of 2008, this retreat found itself under threat by several of the numerous wildfires that threatened that area in what was the worst summer for forest fires on record. This book follows both several members of the SFZC in their attempt to save Tassajara as well as a handful of fire officials who were both for and against the attempt. It is to be noted that, in the end, the attempt to save Tassajara came without any official support - officials made it very clear early on that there would be no support and that they believed Tassajara should be abandoned.
The author actually turns this into a study of Zen Buddhism, by looking at the teachings in the context of fighting the fire. I this, she is broadly successful. The book is a great example of not only how a Zen Buddhist approaches a situation like this wildfire, but it is also great at presenting how that approach differs from situation to situation and person to person. Ms. Busch does a fantastic job of presenting the different viewpoints of the students and monks, whether they chose to stay or not to stay. She does not present the monks who chose to finally accept the advice of Stuart Carlson to abandon the monastery as cowards. She approaches their reasons and, in many cases, their regrets with a very open mind, and attempts to present absolutely no conclusion beyond "they did what was best, by their way of mind, in the moment". She also does a good job of presenting the motivations and reactions of the five who did end up staying throughout the fire, and does a terrific job of making the danger they were in very clear.
The book is weakest when it is attempting to analyze the actual response and motivations of the fire offiicials in their decision to not defend Tassajara. This seems to be the case for a variety of reasons, both that the book was not entirely about analyzing the policy decisions of offiicials and because she was, to a certain extent, stone-walled when she attempted to get those answers.
I would recommend reading this book to anyone with an interest in how Zen plays out in practice, as well as for anyone curious about what it is like to be in the path of a massive forest fire.
Of course anyone asking the question that way does not really understand zen (at least as I see it) nor do they understand the nature of wildland fire; you cannot fight something that big, only meet it and try to preserve something. This book does a good job of explaining how the massive inferno that swept 30,000 acres of Los Padres Forest in 2008 became a kind of meditation for the five monks who turned back from evacuation to meet this challenge of saving the monastery in the hills. It is also a pretty incredible human-interest story as well.
America, as well as Tassajara itself and the practice.
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I've always has an interest in and admiration for Buddhism, but Colleen Morton Busch’s narrative showed me how it...Read more