[Reviewed by Sarah Melton]
In the summer of 2008, the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the U.S. sat nestled among the woods near Big Sur, alongside the tranquil hot springs of Tassajara…and surrounded by the 3rd largest wildfire in California’s history.
Fire Monks tells the story, from the first igniting strikes of lightning to the aftermath and recovery, of the Tassajara monks as they struggled to defend their home from the surrounding flames of the Indian and Basin Complex fires. It’s no wonder that the author, a regular visitor to the Tassajara center, chose to tell the exciting story behind the five (yes, only five) monks that stayed behind.
Firefighting fans would delight in hearing the detailed descriptions of the inner workings of wildfire crews, without an over-abundance of technical jargon to confuse the reader. For those interested in learning more about Zen Buddhism and how it applies to everyday life, there’s a great deal of information on the subject there as well.
At its heart though, there’s a clear theme running through this account that any reader can identify with – the theme of conflict and resolution. Not just conflict between the monks and the fire, or monks and firefighters, but the conflict between the Forestry and local fire districts (who had different philosophies on where resources should be distributed), between visitors and residents of Tassajara (throughout the many high-stress decisions and debates that went on as the fire grew closer), between a man and his wife (as a married couple working there grew tired and stressed beyond their limits in the increasing smoke), and the very core of the monks belief system, as they wondered whether the defense of the property conflicted with their own teachings. Busch had her own thoughts on that issue, stating in our interview:
“I don’t feel there is a conflict between the principles of Zen practice and the efforts made to save Tassajara. Nonattachment isn’t detachment or indifference. When you live in a place with Tassajara’s history and it’s threatened by wildfire, it’s natural to want to make an effort to save it. In my view, this isn’t at odds with practice. In fact, making a whole-hearted effort without knowing what the results will be is practice.”
Despite the authors clear support of the monks decision, however, her account of the ordeal remained balanced, showing the legitimate concerns the firefighters and relatives of the Tassajara residents had for their life safety, and not shying away from showing the inner motivations that some of the residents may have had, based on past experiences, to see this fire through (or their doubts as the fire grew closer and more out of control day by day). You learn key details about the prior lives and experience of the key people involved, helping to show the motivations of both the residents of Tassajara to stay, and the firefighters that tried to evacuate the center completely. It was an incredibly controversial decision to the surrounding community (and as the book describes, even within the center itself) to stay and defend, rather than go with the mandatory evacuation down the single road leading out of the woods. It doesn’t paint either side as the heroes or villains of the situation – it merely shows each of the different groups involved, with entirely different ways of handling the crisis before them, trying to understand and cooperate with one another in the best way possible.
The emotion behind the actions was well accounted for too, in an almost tangible way, from the tension that swelled days prior to the fire arriving, the mix of relief, anger and confusion of the evacuees, to the near-panic and then resolution as the remaining monks turned back to confront the oncoming wall of flames. The first half of the book portrayed those several days prior to the fire arriving, which were mostly planning and discussion. This could have been a really slow part in the story, if Busch hadn’t kept up the pace of the story with the intricate internal struggles and individual back-stories that became so crucial to the events that followed. In the final notes following “Fire Monks”, Busch writes of her own struggles at the time she wrote this – her husband had been diagnosed with cancer, and started an aggressive treatment cycle. Understandably, this must have felt like her own encircling wildfire, as she and her husband came to terms with the struggles that lay ahead of them.
I would recommend this engaging and thought- provoking story to anyone with an interest in the Fire Service or Zen Buddhist philosophy, or anyone who knows what it feels like to face a challenge that seems overwhelming and uncontrolled, and the courage it takes to face it head-on.
For more information on author Colleen Morton Busch, you can visit her website at http://fire-monks.com. Her site has info about upcoming projects, including an excerpt from her upcoming fictional novel about the powers of healing, friendship and forgiveness, entitled “What Lies Between Us.”