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Tassajara Area Fire History
 [send any comments to dchad at]

July-August 2016 Sobranes Big Sur Fire

A History of Fire at Tassajara by DC

1999 Kirk Creek Fire posts on

unrelated Fire report for the other Tassajara in Contra Costa Country, CA

July 2013 Forrest Fire near Tassajara

2015 - September 21 - Cachagua Fire - Firefighters Winning in Cachagua. 
Cachagua Fire approaching Jamesburg and Tassajara's road house seems to be under control.
Check out Cachagua Fire Dept. Facebook page. - thanks Jane Hirshfield- from the cuke blog


2008 Fire at Tassajara
in Los Padres National Forest

Wikipedia overview of this fire

The Indians Fire was a wildfire in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest in the Santa Lucia Range which that started on June 8, 2008 and burned uncontained until July 10 scorching 81,378 acres (329.33 km2) of land.[1] This fire burned predominately within the Los Padres National Forest, Monterey Ranger District, inside the Ventana Wilderness. Other affected properties include portions of Fort Hunter Liggett military base and private property. The suppression cost exceeded $40.7 million, not including resource damages and rehabilitation costs.

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

Colleen Morton Busch Fire Monks website

a book on the 2008 fire

Available July 7, 2011 - Fire Monks events page on Busch's Fire Monks' website

Fire Monks put a magnifying glass on this story, sucked me into the drama, and kept me up way past my bedtime. Zen doesn't have to be boring. - DC - Further DC comment on Fire Monks

Facebook page for Fire Monks

Sitting with Fire - an excellent blog on the 2008 Tassajara fire

SFZC Tassajara Fire Information

Firefighter Blog - Tassajara Fire Monks' Story Remains Untold

Flicker photo set of 2008 fire from makovoelkel's photostream

Shundo Haye set of photos on 2008 fire

No Zen in the West with Why I won't read Fire Monks

8-29-11 - How to Decide by Not Deciding - Colleen Morton Busch who wrote Fire Monks on the Huff Post.

4-28-13 - Leland Smithson remembers the fire of 1977

12-14-15 - Be Careful with Fire - calligraphy by Shunryu Suzuki

3-02-16 - I was going to go to sit alone in the Wind Caves near Tassajara but I started pissing blood. Saw Dr. Wenner in Monterrey. He sent me to a urologist. He said I had Prostatitis, inflammation of the Prostrate gland. I thought it was too much hiker’s mix that caused it. Later that area had a fire. Dick Baker was furious with me. He had some idea I’d started a fire, but I wasn’t there. I’d left some toilet paper. From Interview with Bob Walter [DC: I think this was 74 or 75 because I was there then and I remember Bob's prostate problem.

Posts from on the 2008 Tassajara
fire in reverse chronological order

11-18-08 - Judy Gilbert Tassajara fire photos. I've asked her for info to go with each but till then here they are.

11-15-08 - Terrific slideshow on the Monterrey Peninsula Herald's web site called Protecting Tassajara - with narration. - thanks to my sis Susan. See Tass 08 Fire.

10-08-08 - Notes on the results of the recent fire that threatened Tassajara

- filed in the Tass 08 Fire Dept

9-22-08 - Was standing at work meeting at Tassajara this morning when someone announced that at 8:44 this morning (Pacific Standard Time) we're officially in the autumn season. Happy equinox! - dc

9-17-08 - Photos of Tassajara after the fire by Shundo David Haye - more from him and others to come. Please pardon my tardiness. - dc

Flag Rock and Tassajara  

click thumbnails to enlarge

  Another view

Filed in Tassajara Fire '08

8-10-08 - Off to Tassajara for ten days - burglars take note.

8-02-02 - The Day the Fire Arrived more great stuff from David Zimmerman

Photos of Tassajara - by Mako (many) and Gene deSmidt (four) and a poem

And a photo of the Tassajara Five illustrating the point of Gene's poem

7-24-08 - The story is still being told at Sitting with Fire and on the SFZC Fire Info page. Make sure you haven't missed this account called The Events Surrounding the Third Evacuation and the Tassajara Five's Return.

Hooray for the Tassajara Five!

L to R: Graham Ross, Mako Voelkel, David Zimmerman, Steve Stucky, Colin Gipson

7-15-08 - from Firefighter Blog: Tassajara "Fire Monks" Story Remains Untold

7-14-08- Read Tassajara Director David Zimmerman's report.

7-13-08 - Tassajara Fire Update - various reports and media

7-11-08 - The links below are still the best links to info on the Tassajara fire which is there right now.

a Springs, Zen Mt. Center guests have had to leave due to nearby fires - the whole forest is closed. Hit that link on the SFZC site and there's more info. Students who wanted to stay were permitted to do so. I see it was closed on the 23rd. That's all I know. Here's a link to US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page.

6-27-08 - 6-27-08 - KUSP Emergency Big Sur - a good link to follow the fire in the Los Padres National Forest. We cams including one from Nepenthe. Thanks John Steiner. Here's a better US Forest Service link for updates on the fires.

Talked to SFZC co-abbot yesterday and learned that there are only 14 students now at Tassajara and that the Forest Service is advising them on what to do to prepare for the fire which should reach there in a couple of days. More people might go back in to help out. Right now there are a bunch of Tassajara refugees at the City Center. See entry for 6-25 right below. SFZC link. US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page. I think they're not too too worried but it IS fire and in the forest.

6-28-08 - There's an update on the SFZC site on the fires near Tassajara. US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page. But the best is Sitting with Fire, a blog from Jamesburg specifically on this fire.

6-25-08 - Tassajara Springs, Zen Mt. Center guests have had to leave due to nearby fires - the whole forest is closed. Hit that link on the SFZC site and there's more info. Students who wanted to stay were permitted to do so. I see it was closed on the 23rd. That's all I know. Here's a link to US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page.

A History of Fire at Tassajara by David Chadwick
Mostly written in the fall of 2010 for Colleen Busch as background for Fire Monks.
Posted April 4-14-2011 with the following note:

Fire Monks won't be released till July 7th, but advance copies are out and there's a note in the back that says for history on fire at Tassajara to go to So here it is. Corrections and additional information are welcome. Later I can add articles like from the Wind Bell that give more full descriptions and background. - dc

When Shunryu Suzuki arrived at Tassajara, he'd go right away to the zendo to offer incense and do bows. He'd do the same before leaving. At one such time after having driven him in, I handed him a lit stick of incense at the altar, and before he bowed, he turned to me and said, "Many temples in Japan have burned down from one stick of incense."

A month after the 2008 Tassajara fire I interviewed Fred Nason, a rancher descended from Esselen Indians who lives on the Tassajara road where private land begins.  Fred’s son Tommy is well known to people at Tassajara because he’s done bulldozer and backhoe work in there. I asked Fred what he knew about the history of fire in the area. I haven’t checked what he said with any other sources. Fred died in 2015.

“In 1924 on the eighth of August a fire started in Cachagua and burned all the way to Indians to the coast and back. It burned for 68 days. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned. In 1928 there was the Halleck Fire, Halleck Canyon where the Zens are. It burned everything again. Then there was nothing around here till the Marble Cone fire in ’77 and then the Kirk Fire in ’99. There had been no fire because the forest was over-protected.”

Cachagua is a community down the mountain next to Jamesburg on the way to Carmel Valley. Jamesburg is where the dirt road to Tassajara begins. The Indians is a section of the forest. I never heard of Halleck Canyon. Fred also said, “My dad bought two ranches from booze. My mom taught him how.”

This site has some great photos of The Indians and Arroyo Seco sections of Los Padres.

I think Fred may have forgotten or not been aware of one fire. I stumbled upon this sentence in something I was preparing to go up onto cuke: The Buckeye Fire burned 44,000 acres and got to Willow Creek just over the Tony Trail. That's from TASSAJARA AND SUZUKI IN THE TIME OF THE SANDOKAI TALKS which was 1970. I just Googled that and found this: - added 4-24-11

In September, 1970, 45,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest burned in the Buckeye fire including the Los Burros Mining District. The fire destroyed nearly all of the miners’ shacks and cabins as well as many of the timbers supporting abandoned mine shafts and tunnels. On the other hand, with all of the vegetation removed, the locations of a number of mines which had been lost for many years were revealed. From the Cambria History Exchange.



And reading about Church Creek Ranch history in an article by David Rogers at the Ventana Wild site in September, 2016 came upon this bit of fire history from before Nason's time :

In June of 1902 The Caves ranch house was destroyed by fire. The following report about the particulars of the event is from Eleanor Chew's "Jamesburg Gleanings" column in the June 19th edition of the Salinas Weekly Index:

The home of Andrew Church at the Caves was totally destroyed by fire last Thursday morning about four o'clock. Mr. Church arose early, built a fire in the kitchen stove and without awakening the other inmate of the house, went to the dairy to skim milk; in a few minutes he observed smoke and rushed to the house calling to his family to get up; the flames spread so rapidly that they could not dress themselves but were obliged to run out in their night clothes to save themselves. It was impossible to save anything from the burning building and their entire supply of provisions, clothing and household goods was destroyed. There was no insurance. Mrs. Church, who has a young babe only two weeks old, was compelled to ride on horseback to the home of her brother Frank Bruce. The fire is supposed to have caught from the stove-pipe.


Photo: The Caves ranch house in 1920. It is presumed that this is the structure built by Andrew Church after the original house burnt down in 1902. The photograph was taken L. S. Slevin 73 days after Fred Nason sold the property to William Lambert. Photo courtesy of the Monterey County Public Library.


In the same edition of the Index there was another account of the fire, which differed in some of the particulars of the event. According to this report (which was in error its statement that the ranch was located in Miller Canyon):


Church had retired early and was awakened about midnight by the smell of smoke. He arose and discovered that the whole upper portion of the residence was aflame and that the fire was spreading rapidly. He called his wife and children, who rushed forth, clad only in their night garments, just in time to prevent being cremated. The fire fortunately spread no further. It is supposed the cause of the conflagration was a defective flue. The loss will be about $1200, on which there was no insurance.


In any case, the Church family lived in a tent while the house was being rebuilt (Chew v/d). In the following year (1903) the Church homestead was again threatened with destruction, this time by a forest fire. According to Sterling (1904), the fire started in July in the vicinity of Chew's Ridge and burned for three months, consuming an area about a township (6 miles) wide that extended about 15 to 16 miles to the coast, where it widened out. There may have been more than one fire, for on July 21st Eleanor Chew reported that "a fire has been raging on the Carmel for some time past and the air is filled with smoke…," while on September 22nd she reported that "the mountain fire which has given the people of this vicinity so much trouble for the past month has again broke out... The coast fire has also come over the divide and crossed the Carmel river and threatens Andrew Church's place with destruction."


The Tassajara hotel fire happened on September 9, 1949. There was a two story sandstone hotel, where the zendo and upper garden is now. The fire went on to burn ten of twenty cottages, a shop, and a recreation building. Then it spread up canyon where it was engaged by three hundred firefighters. Forty guests and twenty-two employees were stranded there. Helicopters were on alert to evacuate but it wasn't necessary. Two people were treated for burns The fire was contained in a day. Helen Myers-Terry and Philip Terry (Joan Crawford’s ex-husband, an actor) were the owners then. He was there and I heard some suspected him of arson but that doesn't make sense to me because they only had $10,000 insurance. The remaining building stones were bulldozed into the basement by Bill Lambert. When we first made a garden there back in '67, I remember us digging up one big sandstone block after another. They were used for the deep and wide foundation for the stone walled kitchen we built. - DC

For much more on the hotel fire including photos go to a page for it here.

Anna Beck who owned Tassajara with her late husband Bob from '60 through '66 says she knows of no other fires in that area from the time of the hotel fire. She says that they had a pottery program with kilns down creek by the lower barn fired so hot that the Forest Service surely would have disapproved. We also had some worrisome incidents.

In Marilyn's Doyle's booklet Tassajara History, discovered that Tassajara opened for the 1950 guest season and that thee was a forest fire that summer that didn't reach them but which "rained ashes like snow."

Once in the middle of a frigid winter on a day off some of us went into the dining room and loaded the stove there with kindling and kept pilling it in till it turned red hot then the stovepipe turned red hot. The red hotness started traveling up the stovepipe and we stopped loading the stove and watched nervously as the stovepipe cooled while one of us kept watch upstairs to make sure nothing started smoldering.

There was a long-term compost pile at Grasshopper Flats that caught fire one night in 1972. Alan Block remembers it. He says it was spring, early in the guest season, May or June. For several years brush and deadfall too small for firewood had been cleared from the hillsides as a fire prevention measure. This flammable material was stored in an area surrounded by trees– straight ahead in the Flats as you approach from the road going by the new baths. Alan says there was a lot of cardboard mixed in which they’d pull out of the pile before it caught fire and so the water could get to the flames better, flames which licked the lower branches of the surrounding oaks, catching some of them on fire which was quickly and barely put out. Students, including David Silva, experienced in forest firefighting, manning hoses from the floating pump barely kept it from spreading. It was reported by Jed Linde who was taking a walk after evening zazen and students fought it all night. Dianne Goldschlag stuck with it till a fire truck arrived from Carmel Valley in the morning after it was completely out. I heard about it in the city where I was work leader and was relieved that it didn’t spread and become a major fire. I was also glad that no one seemed to remember that the long term compost and placement of it had been my bright idea as Tassajara work leader.

In 1975 when I was Tassajara director, I took all the old electrical wire we'd collected for years and put it in a 55 gallon drum in the middle of a space out at Grasshopper Flats where we'd have an occasional bon fire. I poured gasoline on it to get a fire going to burn away the covering before sending the copper in to be sold because it's worth more that way. It practically exploded with high flame and an enormous amount of smoke shot way way up. I ran to the office to call the Forest Service right away to let them know there was no forest fire.

I walked around Tassajara that year with a Forest Ranger who was assessing our fire-fighting capability and making suggestions and as we were saying goodbye in front of the old zendo, he looked around and said, “It’s not if you’re going to have a fire here, it’s when.”

In '77 the town trip truck got an engine fire and some shop rags caught fire.


The biggie came in August, 1977 - the Marble Cone Fire. I got a call about it and drove from Bolinas five or six hours to Jamesburg where all the students and abbot Richard Baker were staying, spread out on the floor of the rooms and the few out buildings. Tassajara had been completely evacuated. I remember visiting neighbor Danny Werner in Cachagua and he made his hot tub available to the Tassajara evacuees.

I went in to Tassajara with a group at night to do some preparation such as getting sprinklers on roofs. On the way in we stopped to look out over the ridges at the distant approaching fire. Beautiful. A pickup truck was there as well. Some people in our group were suspicious of them. I walked over to it and said hello. Forest Service truck. There were two Forest Service scouts in it who said they were looking for places from which to fight the fire. They didn’t know about Tassajara. I urged them to go in with us and, knowing this attempt to get them hooked to us would work better if relating to them included someone else, introduced Ed Brown suggesting that he show them around. Urged them to meet Richard Baker on their way out. I said that when I left he was on the phone to Governor Jerry Brown and General Frank Schober, head of the California National Guard.

Brown had first come into contact with us when I was director and he was governor elect. Baker and he became close friends right away. I’d helped to get the fire-fighting California Conservation Corps going and had had dealings with Schober too. I made a call to the director of the CCC who said they could only respond if invited and tended to stick to state controlled areas and not to be invited into federal business.

The two scouts did stop by the Jamesburg house and became key allies in helping to protect Tassajara. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Went into Tassajara several times with Baker who commandeered my car and drove it through areas where there was fire on both sides. I remember falling asleep and him waking me up saying, “Prepare to go through a wall of flame.” I hated to run out on him and my fellow students before the fire got down to Tassajara, but I had arranged to drive two four year olds, my son Kelly and Ethan Patchel, to Texas, and I didn’t feel like they needed more bodies. Ted Marshall was there and he'd fought forest fires with the Forest Service. Like the five fire monks in 2008, some students went back in with the abbot Richard Baker. Baker lit the first backfire and Forest Service crew chief Bob Crew (namephreak) lit the 2nd. The fire did arrive there slowly and Tassajara was prepared.

Colleen Busch writes about this fire some in Fire Monks.

[for appendix note] Wind Bell XVI 78-79 came out more than a year later with a report on the Marble Cone Fire of 1977, subsequent flooding and road damage, and the Tassajara zendo fire of 1978. Lots of good photos too.

In April of 1978 there was the devastating Tassajara zendo fire which also took the library, office, and food storage area. It started in the middle of a shosan, question and answer, ceremony in the zendo. During one of the early questions to the abbot Richard Baker, someone called out, "There seems to be a fire back here!" A few seconds later that fire was visible coming up the stairs through the open doorway. People exited through the side door to the zendo and I also remember hearing that the last ones out got the back of their heads singed. There was no time to get the big irreplaceable mokugyo (wooden drum) that had been a gift from Eiheiji monastery in Japan, or the standing taiko drum, or the wonderful big brass bowl bell, stone Buddha statue, and many more items. Don't know how much was lost in the library but I would imagine that we lost some Shunryu Suzuki lectures.

A late night shopping trip went to an all night market. The next morning the shosan ceremony was completed as well as the closing ceremony for the practice period.

Poor Tassajara had been completely unprepared. Alan Block was on the fire crew and said he’d impulsively written the abbot a letter earlier saying that Tassajara was not prepared for fire, was not protected, and that something should be done about it. Ted Marshall was the fire marshal (which is only natural, like Major Major Major in Catch 22 becoming a major in the army upon enlisting). Ted said he immediately ran to get a fire extinguisher and was poised over the flame when he was told by the abbot to drop it and get the fire crew together. He said he regrets having followed that order because he’s convinced he could have put it out. Alan and others say that they don’t believe he could have put it out.

Alan was the person in choki (sitting up kneeling) getting ready to ask the next question in the ceremony when the fire was reported and he says that he had the fire hose pointed at it with Ginny Baker assisting but that no water came out. The pipes had been washed out in the winter’s heavy flow of water following the Marble Cone Fire, the fire hose was running through the trees, and there was no pressure. Finally the floating pump was running and used to save the kitchen along with help from a few on the roof cutting away burning shingles, a bucket brigade from the creek, and a fire wall the county had made us put in a decade earlier.

Had a candle been left burning in the chiden (candle and incense prep) area? Did it come from one of the propane refrigerators? Was it arson from an old ZC friend who had arrived unannounced in the morning with a woman and was asked to leave after a nasty exchange with the abbot that she claims turned into a fist fight, something he denies and that no one else remembers and that I can't imagine.

Ted says there was a group meeting in the courtyard the day after which he was asked to skip so he could take care of some Forest Service personnel but which he watched and listened to from the dining room, a meeting where he was blamed for the fire. He says he felt betrayed, went to bed for a couple of days, left Tassajara, and a few days later was driving a logging truck. Marc Alexander who was working on a standpipe system that wasn’t finished yet says he was blamed. Alan says the work leader and assistant fire marshal Jay Simoneaux felt it was his fault. Marc remembers apologizing to abbot Richard Baker the next day and being told it wasn’t his fault and Baker said he knew who had done it. Baker has no idea about that now. Everyone seems to have been quite emotional at the time but not so later. No one blames anyone now or says they know for sure what happened.

I remember after the fire I was asked if I knew anyone who might be able to restore the Gandhara buddha from the zendo which had been smashed into pieces. I called Tassajara guest and former NY MOMA curator Lanier Graham who suggested someone from the de Young Museum in SF. Whenever I see that old stone statue from Afghanistan, I marvel at what an excellent restoration job. I can't tell it was ever broken into pieces.


There was a candle making operation causing a fire in the early eighties. They said there had been a small fire out at grasshopper flats in the winter that was related to an ashes spreading ceremony someone was doing.

In September, 1999 there was the Kirk Creek Fire which threatened Tassajara but which didn’t get there. was not yet a year old and served as a touchstone for many people to keep up with fire news. It’s all still there though surely many of the links are bad. Try it out - 1999 Kirk Creek Fire posts on

After evening zazen some time in 2000 on the back porch of the kitchen, a water heater shot flame out so that it ignited the bamboo fence and Gaelyn Godwin put it out before it spread.


In mid July of 2005, a student named Alexis who was living closest to the entrance in the old gatehouse on the road by the upper garden had awakened, couldn't go back to sleep, and was reading with a light on when someone started knocking frantically on his door calling out that there was a fire up the road.

Sonoma buddy and former Suzuki student Dennis Samson said it was three thirty in the morning when he was awakened. Quickly he and a few other students were dressed and driving up the road with some tools and fire extinguishers. The guy who’d alerted them ran up the road barefoot ahead of the Tassajara truck with a fire extinguisher in hand.

Dennis said the fire had gotten going enough to where the Tassajara crew was hesitant to get into it until the barefoot fellow went running right into the middle of it with fire extinguisher gushing. Eventually they got it under control. When asked why he so fearlessly charged the fire to put it out, the guy said that he'd rather die than start a forest fire. He said it was his fault, that he’d fallen asleep smoking a cigarette.

People from the Forest Service arrived two hours later and were grateful that the Tassajara folks and the illegal camper had put the fire out. They spied another spot on a nearby ridge which was still smoking and put that out. It was thought at the time that it came from a spark that had wafted up to a higher spot but later I heard that a Forest Service person said that there was evidence that the camper had been there too. I think he was arrested.

Dennis said the guy was a bit whacky and wondered what was the true story behind these fires. It’s not easy to start a fire with a cigarette. It happens, but a ranger once told me he’d tried and tried to throw a cigarette into dry leaves etc and get a fire going and had never been able to. He thought that sparks from vehicles and other machines was a more frequent cause of fires.

Clay and I were at Tassajara at the time, staying in the hill cabins, and heard about all this after breakfast. It was dry down there with so much dead wood and leaves on the ground that it seemed like a miracle an out of control forest fire didn’t happen. Later in the day some visitors from nearby Jamesburg came in and one of them who has experience fighting fires said that the reason that the fire didn't spread faster is that the humidity was too high at that time in the morning. He reiterated what I've often heard - that the Forest Service used to do controlled burns but that that's not happening now and so the woods keep building up to the point they're in now where you can't get through them so easy. They are full of ladder material, the brush and low and fallen branches that fire climbs to get to the top of trees, kindling that keeps growing and waiting for the next opportunity to burn.


The next opportunity came in July, 2008, the Big Basin Fire, started by lightning. The story of the five ZC priests who refused to be evacuated and who saved Tassajara from incineration has been well recorded in Colleen Busch's Fire Monks.

I remember that the overwhelming impression I had upon going to Tassajara after that fire was how much was not burned. I’d been posting reports and photos and videos on throughout the saga of the fire and of course all this focused on what was burned and not what wasn’t. I marveled at how much was green, how little was damaged, how wonderful it was to have all the excess brush and overgrowth burned off, how we could once again see from the vistas on the road that had been overgrown with chaparral. Of course much was burned, especially as one got up higher – but I thought the mountains needed it. I trusted it would come back strong. There was a good deal of impact on the terrain up top by fire fighting vehicles and equipment but I knew it would heal before long. I remember the ankle deep ash walking up and down creek, all the poison oak burned away but the first to sprout to come back, and the giant bright green leaves sprouting from the base of burned Sycamore trees. Two Forest Rangers I met who were surveying the area said the fire had left a healthy mosaic.


There have been other fires in Los Padres since then, one in 2013 and another in 2015, neither of which got near Tassajara. There will surely be more since the weather there is getting hotter and drier and there aren't any controlled burns. Can't predict though.

One thing I'm wondering is do we leave the incense by itself burning on the altars? When Suzuki made that comment to me about all the temples burning down, when we were the only people in the zendo and getting ready to leave, did we just leave it there burning? I guess so. Unlikely it will fall over.

When we do something we should do it with our whole body and mind. You should be concentrated on what you do and when you do something you should do it completely –like a good bonfire. It should not be smoky. You should burn yourself completely. You should not be smoky fire. That is one thing. If you do not burn yourself completely you will have trace of yourself in what you did. It means you do not change it into ashes completely. You have something remaining without completely burned down or burned out. That is so-called ‘Zen activity’. This is the goal of our practice. That is what it means by ‘ash does not come back to firewood’. Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. If this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything. This is the goal of our practice. - Shunryu Suzuki – June 23, 1966 [verbatim]


See July 2013 Fire Near Tassajara

A more thorough search of the history of fire in the Tassajara area of the Los Padres would not be hard to do. Please, I urge you to do it and send the results to and they will be posted here. Thanks. - dc


On Fire Monks

I read Fire Monks in India. A publicist wanted a blurb and had emailed me a few chapters which I said I enjoyed but wanted to read the rest of the book before I sent anything. Colleen sent me the latest corrected version. I sent a blurb which is on her website and at the top of this page. I also sent a short list of little errors, mainly historical, and a short list of suggested small changes. I read the book straight through, staying up all night. I liked it a lot.

I lived at Tassajara for seven years and have been work leader, fire marshal, head monk, director, ran the dining room for the first four years and always have dealt with guests and outsiders, a lot with Forest Service people and firefighters and have had many conversations with them about how dangerous it would be to stay at Tassajara when a forest fire was passing through. Invariably they gave the impression they wouldn't be very worried about staying there to protect the place. The trees are spread out and I think they wouldn't support a crown fire. It didn't seem likely it would get hot enough to cook one or suck up all the oxygen - and there's the creek and the pool. Reading the book one will see that Tassajara people with responsibility felt that way as this fire approached. I put myself in the action and as I read found myself telling them not to leave and saying I refused to leave when the others did and going to hide so they couldn't force me. But reading the book also made me realize that it wasn't that simple, that it might not be what was expected. For the first time I experienced doubt and wondered what the right thing to do was. I love the uncertainty that the book conveyed, the confusion.

Those who left were not at all portrayed as having done so by choice - except for a few - and their decisions seemed to make sense. I've heard that some were upset they didn't get the chance to go back. The ones who returned just barely did so and it seemed like five might have been the best number. I wished I'd been there, but it was not my turn. I'm glad they went back. I would have been very pissed if they hadn't.

The two things that bothered me a little about the book were calling Steve, Abbot Steve every time, and there was a bit too much Zen philosophizing for me. But I imagine many people will like that. Some people don't like the discrimination between the Tassajara heroes and the Tassajara others. I'd add that (not singling out the book here but the culture surrounding it) we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others - as if the Zen folks had some edge they'd gained that made them superior. I know it's said to be that way but I've never noticed it. It's understandable that we'd have these sorts of reservations about all the Zen hero hoopla, but it seems to have been unavoidable. I've been guilty of it myself - check out the posts above from when it was happening. Regardless, it will all fade into obscurity, the resentment slower than the cheering. Anyway, I like Colleen, her writing, and this book. Onward.

More Better

I wrote the above review of Fire Monks after reading Why I won't read Fire Monks in the No Zen in the West blog by Jiryu. Jiryu then wrote a blog entitled Are Zen People Better? which referred to the sentence above which ends with we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others - as if the Zen folks had some edge they'd gained that made them superior. I know it's said to be that way but I've never noticed it. - and in which he then others made various interesting observations. I'd just like to add further that I wasn't commenting on the efficacy of Zen practice or Zen or its affiliates and employees and I'm not sure what the parameters of that statement were at the time, but I think I was thinking mainly of who'd be better at fighting fires or making quick decisions and so forth (although it could extend to anything phenomenal such as who's a nicer person, who dances better, etc). Like dear departed Katagiri Dainin used to say, "Zen is useless." But maybe sometimes people with Zen or other monastic training do function better. I could believe that. Like the Shaolin monks who can single-handedly defeat entire armies - I've seen them do it. Someone said recently that of the Japanese WWII soldiers who'd gone into hiding in jungles, those who had Zen training had a higher survival rate. I don't know what their source was. I had a landlord in Okayama without Zen training who'd survived alone in the Philippine jungle for months eating dragon flies and anything he could get his hands on. He was also mean to his wife. She told me she'd be watching TV and he'd walk through the room and turn it off as he passed the set. In the California Conservation Corps, we found (back in the late seventies) that the females (18-21) were better than the males at everything including fighting fires. But they might not have had very deep samadhi. Suzuki Shunryu said that a farmer in his area who didn't practice Zen was the most enlightened person around. I brought a psychic I knew to Green Gulch, an old tough straightforward guy. After we'd been walking around for a while he said that the people there were on the whole on pretty good spiritual paths. I asked him what made him think so. He said because they're disturbed. He said that people who believe their delusions are more at peace with themselves. That was during the Iran-Iraq war and he said, for instance, a lot of people over there do not question their beliefs and have got the same prejudices they've had for lifetime after lifetime and they have no doubt in their minds and they can fight and hate and die like idiots without a second thought. These people, on the other hand, he said referring to the students at Green Gulch, are challenging their programming conscious and sub-conscious so they've upset their cart. Whether one thinks the psychic part is a bunch of hooey or not, to me he made an interesting point. Getting back to pyrotechnics and with an apology to Muslims everywhere whom I've always found to be good, decent people, when the Muslim armies swept through India over 800 years ago, they not only burned Naropa, they made mountains out of monks and set them on fire. Again, the monks' Buddhist practice did not appear to make them better at dealing with that situation, but I'd prefer their karma. - dc



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

Colleen Morton Busch - Author


Book: Hardcover | 5.98 x 9.01in | 272 pages | ISBN 9781594202919 | 07 Jul 2011 | The Penguin Press | 18 - AND UP

Available July 7, 2011

Fire Monks

The true story of how five monks saved the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States from wildfire.

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.

The above taken from the Penguin page for Fire Monks

July 2013 Fire near Tassajara


7-22-13 - Fire near Tassajara contained. Tassajara Facebook page


7-20-13 - Firefighting continues near Tassajara. Check up on it at the Tassajara Facebook page

7-19-13 - As for the Tassajara fire, MK reports: 15% contained after cold humid night, 350 people working it today, road closed except for fire vehicles. Nobody worried.  And he sent this link to the Tassajara Facebook page.

7-18-13 - Forrest fire near Tassajara


Where is Tassajara's Facebook page? Can someone send me a link to it? When I write Tassajara in FB I get this. - DC


David Zimmerman Tassajara's Facebook page:


Post #1: 6:00pm


A fire of approximately 200 acres is currently burning in the vicinity of Tassajara, several miles away. Four air tankers , five helicopters and over 150 fire personnel are working on the blaze that broke out about 1pm this afternoon. They are dumping lots of flame retardant and water, and beginning to engage the fire by hand, and it seems to be settling down. There are also plenty of fire personnel at Tassajara, although Tassajara is on voluntary evacuation alert. Guests and students who felt inclined have left. Greg Fain, Head of Practice, says that he feels “very safe” and not too concerned.


Interesting timing, as the July 10 was the 5th anniversary of the 2008 Basin Complex fire that passed through Tassajara five years ago.


Post #2: 8:30pm


Update on the Tassajara Fire -- Tassajara director, Linda Galijan, just met with Pete Harris, Fire Incident Commander. They dropped 8 firefighters near the fire by helicopter earlier this afternoon, they worked for awhile, and walked out. Pete says that the fire is generally laying down well, however, the terrain and access are making it difficult to fight the fire, which is located around the confluence of Church and Tassajara Creeks. The area burned in 2008, so there are lots of dead trees, and they are falling and making passage up the creek difficult. Helicopters just stopped flying for the night.


Early tomorrow morning, 8 fire crews (20 persons each) will be dropped in by helicopter (they made landing pads near the fire for the purpose today). Pete expects fire crews will be working through tomorrow, and maybe the next day. They are not currently expecting crews to encamp at Tassajara. We don’t yet know what any of this means for Tassajara Rd., and whether anyone would be able to come in tomorrow, or by what time. We should know more in the morning.


--- thanks Michael K


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There's a lot of old material that's as good as new if you haven't read it. -DC

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