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As fire nears, Zen enclave prepares

Times Staff Writers

In this remote Zen enclave on Big Sur’s forested backside, wildfires lurk on three sides. As flames edge closer and ash falls from a crimson sky, the Buddhist monks are readying for a final stand.

Priests and students alike at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center have been doffing their traditional black robes, hefting picks and shovels, and forging 10-foot-wide firebreaks. Atop the roofs of the monastery’s old retreat cabins and meditation hall, they’ve jury-rigged plastic pipe sprinkler systems.

Perhaps more serene than some, they were among a multitude of Northern Californians coping Friday with more than 1,200 blazes from the Nevada border to the Pacific.

The fires, triggered by fierce lightning storms last weekend, have charred more than 193,000 acres and destroyed at least 20 homes -- 16 of them just over the mountains along Big Sur’s legendary 70-mile coastline.

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The blazes prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday to ask that President Bush declare a state of emergency in the region. In a news conference, the governor suggested that fire-stricken counties consider banning Fourth of July fireworks.

In the Los Padres National Forest surrounding Tassajara, America’s oldest monastery devoted to Buddhism, fires have devoured more than 80,000 acres in the last three weeks. Steph Wenderski, a 30-year-old native of Minnesota who has lived at the monastery for two years, admitted to occasional bouts of fear. But those periods, she said, invariably gave way to calm.

“You don’t have much time to think about what could be coming,” she said.

Local authorities asked that those staying behind in this spiritual center -- a series of rustic wood and stone buildings in a remote canyon 14 miles up a roller-coaster dirt road from the nearest pavement -- provide the names of their dentists for identification purposes.

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So far, there have been no fatalities in the Northern California fires. And by midday Friday, the fire licking the edges of Big Sur’s famous cliffs and new-age resorts had backed off a little.

Kirk Gafill, general manager of the cliffside restaurant Nepenthe, decided to reopen his eatery Friday evening. “We’ve been blessed with very little wind activity for the last week,” said Gafill, fresh from a tour of redwoods burning across Highway 1 just 1,000 feet to the east. “If that were to turn around, all bets are off.”

Fires in the area have been burning for seven days, spiking stress levels in an area renowned for its tranquillity.

“We’ve had other threatening fires over the years,” said Gafill, a grandson of the couple who started Nepenthe nearly 60 years ago. “But the whole world showed up to deal with it, and for 24 hours you’d be scrambling to secure your property and pack your belongings. When it’s over, you felt it was over. This is psychologically unique.”

At Tassajara, a crew of monastic protectors showed the same fortitude as suburban homeowners hosing down their homes in the orange glow of approaching flames.

“We don’t intend to let the oldest Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere burn,” declared Greg Fain, who rushed down from the Bay Area, where he serves as treasurer of the San Francisco Zen Center.

“This place is my heart,” said Fain, eyes narrowing behind black horn-rim glasses, his shaved head covered by a yellow baseball cap. “Every time I come over the ridge, my heart starts to soar.”

The 160-acre complex sprawls along the edge of Tassajara Creek in a narrow canyon filled with maple and sycamore, alder, oak and pine.

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Built more than a century ago as a hunting lodge, the original buildings fell into disrepair before the San Francisco Zen Center bought the property in 1967.

For half the year it operates strictly as a monastery, with monks following the traditional Zen practices imported from Japan by Suzuki Roshi, devoting at least 10 hours each day to meditation and chants.

In the summer months, Tassajara opens to the public -- Zen followers or simply seekers of solitude. With gourmet vegetarian meals, a hot-springs bath house and cozy cottages, rates run up to $325 a night.

When word came Monday that fire might be closing in, 75 guests and some students left in a caravan of cars. Those remaining began to prepare for the worst.

By Wednesday, flames were just three miles to the west. The sheriff ordered an evacuation, but a skeleton crew was allowed to stay.

They cut branches, raked leaves and laid out fire hose. They triple-checked the two big pumps that can be used to draw water from the 50,000-gallon swimming pool and the riffles of Tassajara Creek.

As ash fell from the sky, Mako Voelkel, the monastery’s tenzo, or cook, was cutting fire breaks as well as vegetables.

“I’m feeling pretty good about it,” she said. “We’re prepared.”

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She and the others were working from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., with time off only for meals.

Fires hit the monastery twice in the last three decades. In 1977 and 1999, flames burned all around the complex. Each time, the losses were kept relatively minor, thanks to the firefighting monks and professional crews from the U.S. Forest Service.

That’s auspicious: With its remote locale, the monastery can’t get fire insurance.

David Zimmerman, Tassajara director, expects a rerun. The monks will don yellow, flame-resistant fire jackets and yellow helmets with protective shrouds and will work to stamp out spot fires. Everyone, he said, feels “happy and honored to be here right now.”

Late Friday, help arrived. A Forest Service strike team pulled in, along with a 30-man crew of firefighting inmates. They’ll be fed out of the monastery kitchen.

Hours before sunrise, the 20 remaining monks still meditate and chant.

“Buddhist tenets say that all things are impermanent, and fire can be a great teacher in that,” said Alec Henderson, a former defense attorney from Los Angeles who forswore material wealth to take up the Zen creed of “one robe, one bowl.”

Henderson left Wednesday with the task of safekeeping Ginger, the monastery dog. Now he’s holding his breath, along with thousands of Zen followers and former Tassajara guests, hoping the monastery emerges intact.

But if the flames prove too tough to defeat, the monks plan to retreat along with the Forest Service firefighters.

“We won’t risk anybody to save the buildings,” said Devin Patel, a bearded 28-year-old who serves as the monastery’s fire marshal.

“The buildings can burn, but you can’t actually burn down Tassajara. Fire can never touch Tassajara’s heart.”

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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