Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Colleen Morton Busch

Opening lines of the book:

“On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires in what become known as the ‘lightening siege.’”

Why I read it:

I’ve long been interested in Zen Buddhism and I was curious to read this story about Zen in action.

What it’s about:

In June 2008, after lightening started over two thousand wildfires across the state of California, Tassajara, the oldest Buddhist monastery in the United States, found itself right in the fire’s path—at the end of a single unpaved road deep in the wilderness. Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Colleen Morton Busch is the story of the five monks who stayed to save the monastery after everyone else was evacuated (including the firefighters).

What worked:

Fire Monks is an extraordinary, multifaceted story and Busch does a good job of weaving together all the strands of her narrative: the story of the fire itself, the personal stories of the players involved, some of the history of Zen Buddhism in the U.S. and of Tassajara in particular, and the politics of firefighting in California at the time. While on one level the book reads like an adventure story, its main appeal (to me at least) is as a study of Zen Buddhism in action. Though most of us are unlikely to be in a position to meet fire as these monks did, as Busch points out, “fire [is] the perfect metaphor for anything that comes uninvited and threatens to hurt us or the people and places we love” (p. 2). I found the story both moving and enlightening.

What didn’t work:

The large cast of characters was confusing at times, but a list of the main ones is included at the beginning of the book, which helped enormously. The one thing that I didn’t always follow was the politics between the different levels of firefighters involved. Although it was necessary to include some of this in the book to provide context for why certain decisions were made—this was the third wildfire that Tassajara faced, but the only one where the monks were left to their own devices—I was also least interested in this aspect of the story.

Favourite quote:

“The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that you cannot step in the same river twice. A Zen master might add cheerfully: You cannot step in the same river because there is no river, there is no actual you. The river and you and your steeping are in a dynamic and interrelated state of constant change. Maybe it is the river that steps into you. Maybe there is only stepping, no one to step or thing to step into.

“In Zen, you can’t really make a ‘wrong’ decision. But you can’t make a ‘right’ decision, either. You can only respond moment to moment in a way that feels the least harmful and deluded, the most compassionate and true.

. . .

“As a ring of flame looped around Tassajara, David felt a palpable beat of hesitation, a flickering thought that maybe they’d gotten themselves in over their heads. But then, as individuals, and as a small sangha within the sangha, they acted. They made an effort. They moved toward a river of fire.

“They didn’t so much make a decision as manifest, collectively and without words, a mind already decided. They just got to work, doing something extraordinary with the mind they cultivated in their daily practices and activities. On another day, it might have been a bell that needed ringing, a soup that required stirring, a broom that needed picking up. At one o’clock on [that] afternoon, it happened to be a fire hose.” (pp. 180-181)

Final thoughts:

If you have any interest at all in Zen Buddhism (or wildfires), this book is essential reading. I have a feeling it will be one I will want to read again.

Thank you to Penguin USA for sending me this book to review.

Fire Monks is on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in July. Visit these other blogs for reviews:

Man of La BookBroken TeepeeEnglish Major’s Junk FoodThe Road to HereThe Lost EntwifeDebbie’s Book Bagthe little readerBook Journey

Recommended review: Book Club Classics (also part of the TLC Book Tour)

Other reviews: BrevityFirefighter BlogIllusory Flowers in an Empty SkyMonkey Mind

Interview with the author: SF Weekly Blog

One Zen Buddhist priest’s take on why he hasn’t read the book: No Zen in the West


  1. Hm, I'm not sure this one's for me.

  2. I thought this sounded like a book I would read but now I am not so sure. Maybe it would be worth looking for in the library.

  3. Being from California I remember this story well. I'd love to read this one.

  4. I'm glad you enjoyed it enough to want to read it again!

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  5. Yeah, I'm not sure this one would be your thing, Kathy!

    Oh no, Beth, was it something I said? Seriously, I'm curious to know what's swaying you away from this book.

    Kathleen, I think you'd enjoy it!

    Heather, although I think this book is flawed, it's also a great look at Zen Buddhism in action, which is something I've never read before. I feel like this story has some important lessons in it that I may need to revisit at some point!

  6. I like how the author made the story practical to everyone, really. I'll probably never face a fire, but who doesn't face things that threaten to hurt us or the people/places we love? I think any book lover can relate to that with the closing of so many bookstores lately!