Book review: ‘Fire Monks’ by Colleen Morton Busch


In the summer of 2008, a wildfire burning in California’s Los Padres National Forest swept down on Tassajara Hot Springs, a historic resort not far from Big Sur that was home to the first Zen Buddhist monastery in North America.

Little stood in the way of the wind-whipped flames except five monks with hoses pumping water from a creek. The odds were decidedly not in their favor, but after the inferno passed, nearly all of the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center’s historic stone buildings and wooden cabins remained unscathed.

A monk’s dramatic report on the firefighting effort inspired Colleen Morton Busch, a Zen student and sometime Tassajara visitor, to make a devoted study of what had transpired.


Busch interweaves Zen teachings with firefighting lore in the manner of Norman Maclean’s classic “Young Men and Fire.” If she lacks some of Maclean’s lyricism, Busch nonetheless offers an absorbing account of how two priesthoods — professional wildland firefighters and Zen monastics — confronted the fire’s threat.

The professionals charged with managing the conflagration worked for the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Mindful of previous tragedies in which fire crews had lost their lives, they felt their resources were stretched too thin to defend Tassajara and wanted it evacuated.

Tassajara’s residents, on the other hand, had regularly practiced firefighting drills, cleared fire lines and rigged a sprinkler system (dubbed “Dharma Rain”) that showered the main buildings to protect them from drifting embers. Based on assurances from area residents who had come through earlier fires, they believed that when the time came they could fend off the flames.

Tassajara holds a special place in the history of American Zen. Its founder, Shunryu Suzuki, was a Japanese Soto Zen priest who came to San Francisco in 1959 to run a temple for his expatriate countrymen. Before long, young Westerners were dropping by to sit zazen — seated Zen meditation — with the teacher.

By 1966, Suzuki and his American students had established the San Francisco Zen Center and were looking for a secluded spot for a monastery. Tassajara, ringed by rugged peaks and reachable via a long dirt road winding in from the coast, seemed just the place.

That splendid isolation is also its greatest vulnerability, given the frequency of wildfires. A historic lodge on the property burned in 1949. In 1977 and again in 1999, fires threatened the monastery, which by then was generating much of the Zen Center’s income from its summer guest season.


In Busch’s telling, the action commences with a fierce lightning storm on June 21, 2008, that sparked 2,000 fires statewide, two of which would burn together over the next 19 days before descending on Tassajara.

A standoff ensued between the monks and fire managers, who could not compel residents to evacuate (although they were asked to provide dentists’ contacts, the better to identify remains). Most eventually agreed to leave, but five senior practitioners, including Steve Stücky, the San Francisco Zen Center’s co-abbot, decided to turn back.

Busch traces the path each of her protagonists followed from a conventional Western upbringing to the demanding life of a Zen monk — Tassajara’s residents rise at 3:50 a.m. and spend at least six hours a day in zazen. This training tends to instill calmness and clarity, traits that would prove invaluable.

Busch describes how Zen students strive moment by moment to awaken to the immediacy of lived experience. Her renderings of core Buddhist concepts, such as “nonattachment” and “don’t-know mind,” are spot on, although some of the transitions from the narrative flow are a bit abrupt.

Busch also sounds a little star-struck while describing a firefighting organization that efficiently coordinates 7,000 firefighters and more than 50 aircraft (leading to jargon-filled passages along the lines of, “The Basin Complex was under what is called ‘unified command’ within the ICS …”).

And although she gives a fair account of the tough choices facing the fire managers, she uses their surnames on second reference, while always using the Zen students’ given names. These are her friends and fellow practitioners, so the intimacy is unsurprising, but it could be read as a lack of critical distance.


When the fire finally presented itself on July 10, the five kept their heads as the hillsides burst into flame around them. Here, Busch does a fine job of conveying what it is like to stand in the face of a fire’s fury without flinching — the place where the vocations of monk and firefighter finally merge.

Haederle, a Buddhist monk, is a freelance writer based in New Mexico and a frequent contributor to The Times’ national report.