Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara

Posted by nliakos on May 12, 2012

by Colleen Morton Busch (Penguin, 2011)

All I really know about the Tassajara Zen Center is Ed Brown’s books, Tassajara Cooking and The Tassajara Bread Book.  I don’t use cookbooks much (I either cook with a recipe, use a recipe I already have, or look on the Internet for recipes), but I do love Tassajara Cooking. Brown doesn’t write recipes so much as educate his readers about the different ways to prepare food, and encourages them to experiment. I refer to it when I want to prepare a food I’ve never used before, or when I can’t remember basic cooking times or ratios.

Fire Monks tells the story of the great California wildfires of July 2008, which threatened the Zen Center and eventually caused its (almost) complete evacuation–“almost” because five monks turned around at the last moment and went back to man the pumps and hoses and save the Center. Busch, a Zen Center student, researched the fires and interviewed numerous people, monks, students, visitors, and firefighters, to tell the story.

I was a bit put off initially by the amount of detail in the narrative and almost put the book down, but I kept going and did finally finish it. I learned quite a lot about wildfires and also a bit about Zen Buddhism, like its distillation down to seven words:

Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.

I like that. I also liked the idea of “meeting”, rather than “fighting,” the fire. Fires are natural to California, and much of its natural life depends on fire. The monks saved their home by keeping it wet, mainly, so that the fire went on to burn the dry forest around it. Busch writes in the Afterword, “The creek is the voice under every other at Tassajara, and in this story…. It flowed through the hoses and the … sprinklers. It revived tired bodies and filled every bowl of soup or cup of tea sustaining each human thought, feeling, and action. Named for a place it cannot stay, the creek is always there–the constant teacher and perfectly humble hero of Fire Monks.”

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