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

Booklist Reviews 2011 July #1
In 2008, two-thousand wildfires spread across California, stretching firefighting capacities to the max. Near Big Sur, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was evacuated, leaving only five senior monks on hand when the fire finally bore down on it. Longtime Tassajara visitor Busch recounts the fire's advance and the decisions of those whose hearts directed them to stay and fight. Through interviews with the "fire monks" and their fellows who watched from miles away, Busch tells a story of people and fire right out of Norman MacLean and reveals the profound connection these particular men shared. There are many heroes here, but Busch is not interested in heaping praise, which would be the antithetical to what Tassajara stands for. Instead, she focuses on what was significant about the fire and those who met it, how this shocking shared experience drew on and affected the monks' Zen spiritual practice, and what became of them afterward. Busch captures what is unique to this place and illuminutes the power of mindfulness within the most harrowing and frenetic of situations. Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2011 May #2

A former Yoga Journal senior editor's account of five Zen practitioners turned firefighters who saved a beloved California monastery.

Most readers, if they know it at all, will connect Tassajara to the bread-baking and vegetarian cookbooks inspired by its kitchen. For practitioners of American Zen, however, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur is an almost sacred place for meditation and work, famous for its monastic training and host to thousands of guests since its founding in the mid-1960s. In June 2008, lightning set the California chaparral ablaze. At the end of an unpaved road, in a canyon surrounded by mountains, Tassajara lay in the middle of what would eventually become the third-largest conflagration in state history, destroying more than 240,000 acres. For almost three weeks, the community watched the fire approach, reduced their numbers to essential personnel and took various steps—including an ingenious sprinkler system rigged to rooftops, dubbed "Dharma Rain"—to protect the monastery. Finally, down to a band of 14 and under orders from state and federal authorities who deemed the place indefensible, they evacuated. On the way out, five monks turned back, determined to protect the abbey. Their histories, the stories of other Tassajara disciples, an introduction to the tenets of Buddhism and a meticulous tracking of the devastating fire's progress are all part of Busch's story. Her main purpose, though, is to explore how the discipline of Zen uniquely prepared otherwise untrained monks to face the crisis. Herself a Zen student, the author explains how Zen practice teaches followers to live in flux, to recognize impermanence and to deal with uncertainty. Novice firefighters, the monks were veterans at practicing calm and taking care, of honoring simultaneously interdependence and individual authority. They smoothly turned toward the fire, not to confront or fight it, but rather to meet it, to "make friends with it" as the blaze lapped at their perimeter.

The awareness of the firefighter, the mindfulness of the monk, the principles of fire and the spirit of Zen come together in a well-told story about the effort required and the lessons learned from paying close attention.

Copyright Kirkus 2011 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly Reviews 2011 June #2

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. Busch, a writer and Zen student, weaves together the story of the lightning-sparked flames approaching the San Francisco Zen Center's isolated mountain monastery--only one road leads out of the canyon--with the personal experiences of members of the organization who responded. "I wanted to portray Zen... as a continuous practice, a way of life," she writes, "that cultivates a particular kind of fearlessness." She describes the complicated decisions that led up to the final defense of the popular retreat, stressing residents' moment-to-moment encounters with the fire's unpredictability using minds that are trained rigorously to accept rapid change and to evaluate the needs of the present moment. The motivations of the five monks who returned to protect Tassajara after the final evacuation are explored as well as the complexities of others' reactions. Busch skillfully blends firefighting politics and Zen insights in this suspenseful narrative. (July 11)

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