‘Fire Monks’ Defend Tassajara Zen Monastery From Wildfire

The center is closed to guests this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. But in a typical summer, it welcomes more than 8,000 guests who savor the fresh mountain air, bathe in the hot springs or join Zen students in work or meditation, Mr. Miglioli said.

The fire monks formed in 2008 after the Big Basin fire swept toward the center, and five monks defied evacuation orders to fight the blaze. Their story was chronicled in the book “Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara,” by Colleen Morton Busch.

In a 2019 talk, one of the original fire monks, the Rev. Tenzen David Zimmerman, recalled pulling on gear and grabbing hoses to defend the monastery. He said the monks worked alone or in pairs, “as each new manifestation of the inferno dictated.”

“During the hours that the blaze was finally upon us,” he said, “the tracking of time gave way to the pure immediacy of the moments.”

But it quickly became apparent that five monks with “nominal firefighting skills” could not fully protect the center, he said.

“Our monastic training had taught us to simply offer our best, wholehearted effort, unattached to the results, yet still aware of our preference to save our spiritual homestead,” he said. “The fire, like any dedicated teacher, challenged us to constantly be attentive.”

When the fire was finally extinguished, he said, several buildings had burned, including woodsheds, a compost shed and a yurt. But the center itself was spared. “Everything was a sea of black and ash, as far as you could see — just Tassajara — a green, an oasis of green,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

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