A Crash Course in Buddhist Principles

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At Tassajara, fire burned around some things and straight through others, in a course that might seem haphazard but was determined mostly by wind, relative humidity, topography. Similarly, the fire burned uniquely in each person. There wasn’t one fire, but many. There was a shared fire — the event Tassajara’s residents and friends experienced as a community — and the fires individuals lived through in the valleys of their own hearts.” — Colleen Morton Busch

In June 2008 more than two thousand wildfires, all started by a single lightning storm, blazed across California. Tassajara, the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States, was right in the path of a particularly ferocious firestorm. The monastery’s students were evacuated, but five monks made the difficult and complex decision to stay and help save Tassajara.

Colleen Morton Busch tells their story in one of the most intriguing new books we have seen in a long while — Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara. The author describes what grabbed her about this story: “As soon as I read Tassajara director David Zimmerman’s account of the fire’s arrival, I wanted to tell this story — from as close in as possible, but also with a wide lens. What was it like to meet a wildfire with minimal training in firefighting but years of Zen practice to guide you? I believed others might benefit from knowing, the fire being a perfect metaphor for anything that comes uninvited and threatens to hurt us or the people and places we love….In Fire Monks, I wanted to portray Zen in all of its true complexity and relevance, as a continuous practice, a way of life that cultivates a particular kind of fearlessness whether or not there’s a wildfire at the gate.

In the last few weeks the Land Library posted a piece on our collection of books on wildfires (Transforming the Landscape in an Instant and Over Time). Little did we know that we were about to receive a copy of Fire Monks, easily the most unique wildfire book in our entire collection.

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July 2008, Fire retardant rains down near the Tassajara monastery.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in A Paradise Built in Hell — “Disaster could be called a crash course in Buddhist principles…” Colleen Morton Busch’s Fire Monks describes the challenges and opportunities such a crash course brings. Here’s more from the author herself:

Colleen Morton Busch on the fire’s aftermath: “During the book’s writing, I witnessed Tassajara’s recovery. Wildflowers bloomed on barren hillsides. Grasses sprouted, ferns unfurled, bright green shoots broke through the soil at the bases of charred tree trunks….New buildings gradually replaced burned ones. A community tested by a crisis continued to practice together and to examine their experience for whatever truths it might hold.

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A Kindred Book: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit, a thought-provoking book about people not only rising to the occasion, but actually thriving in the midst of disaster. Bill McKibben called this “the freshest, deepest, most optimistic accounts of human nature I’ve come across in years.”

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