My roommate Pirooz Kaleyah is making a documentary about me. He was making the doc before I moved in with him. Now he wants to get people’s comments about me to use in the movie. He has established a system by which you can send him your videos.
He says he’s received a few responses so far but they have all been from men. He would like to have some women send things in as well. I know there are a few of you out there. This could be fun. Postitive as well as critical comments are welcome.
And just FYI: I never want to see these videos. I suppose I’ll have to see them eventually. But that doesn’t mean I want to. And I certainly will not be screening them before they go to Pirooz. Still, I think they’ll be good for the movie.
I’ve been reading Colleen Morton Busch’s book Fire Monks for the past week or so. I haven’t finished it yet. I’m about 80% done, though. So I figure that’s far enough in to give it a review.
This is a terrific book. Written in a novelistic style, it definitely qualifies for the cliched term “page turner.” To use another hackneyed phrase, I really am honestly finding it difficult to put down.
For those who don’t know, the basic story of the book is this. In 2008 Tassajara Zen monastery deep in the Ventana Wilderness area of Northern California just east of Big Sur, was threatened by one of the biggest forest fires California has ever known. There were a several evacuations that whittled the number of people in the valley further and further down until finally the forestry service ordered the last twenty-one people protecting the monastery to leave. At the last minute five of the monks turned back and went into the valley to protect the monastery. Most of the details are here on San Francisco Zen Center’s page about the fire.
This story has particular relevance to me because I know all five of those monks. They are all people I consider to be my friends. It’s also relevant to me because I was there for the very beginning of the story. The first photo in the section of pictures in the middle of the book is of the last full scale work circle before the fire hit. If the photographer had been shooting the other side of the circle I’d have been in that shot.
I was there to start what was supposed to be two weeks as a work-practice student. My girlfriend at the time was living there and working at the Stone Office, the hub of Tassajara. Within minutes of my arrival she whispered to me, “We’re evacuating.” She had received a call just a few minutes earlier from the forestry service officially informing Tassajara that all guests and non-essential personnel were to leave the area immediately.
She and I talked about staying. But when they started telling us we’d have to leave the names of our dentists so that our charred bodies could be identified we both pretty much chickened out. In our defense, we were hardly the only ones that decided it was time to go. Of the fifty or so students there that day, only fourteen stayed behind. Another handful arrived later, but even they bugged out when it looked certain that the single unpaved road leading out of the valley was going to be closed by the fire. After all, a monastery can be rebuilt, people cannot.
In the end just five brave — or perhaps a little crazy — individuals stayed behind. They believed that Tassajara could be defended if just a few people stayed behind to man the sprinkler pumps and put out fires as they entered the compound. They believed they would survive. But none of them knew for certain. There was plenty of reason to think they could have been wrong. Suffice it to say, this is a pretty intense story.
What I like about the book is that it’s not just a true-life adventure tale about people fighting a fire. It’s actually a really good book about Zen, and about how the so-called “Zen mind” one develops in practice can be very practical in real situations when one must act quickly and decisively even without a lot of information about what might be best to do. None of the five monks was a professional firefighter. They’d had a little bit of training. But they mostly acted on pure intuition.
Colleen Morton Busch peppers her book with a great selection of pertinent Zen quotations, both ancient and contemporary. I’d just like to list a few here to give you an idea.
“Every time you act is the last time this happens.” – SFZC Abbot Steve Stücky
“To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.” – Eihei Dogen
“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire.” – Shunryu Suzuki Roshi
“When we know something and rest in that knowing we limit our vision. We will only see what our knowing will allow us to see. In this way experience can be our enemy.” – Zoketsu Norman Fischer
“Human life is messy. It’s out of our control. It’s like we’re walking around in total darkness with a little speck of light which is called ‘right now’.” – Leslie James
There are a lot more of these in the text and they are all used beautifully to illustrate the attitude held by the people who eventually kept Tassajara from burning to the ground. I suppose that’s a spoiler. But I doubt anyone would see the cover of this book and think it was going to end in tragedy. That all five of the fire monks got out alive is a given. But until I read this book I had no idea how close they’d come to not making it out alive or how they’d managed it.
Whenever I get around to rebuilding my Zen Books That Don’t Suck website, this book is definitely going on there. It’s always good even for someone like me who has been around Zen for decades to be reminded of the basic teachings. This book manages to embed them in an engrossing and well-told story. A remarkable accomplishment!
Remember we’ve got a store now if you want to buy my books or other neat stuff. We’ll be adding more stuff soon.
And, as always, donations to this site are absolutely not required. But they do help. So thanks for your support!