Fire Monks

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.

Here is the link explaining how it works.

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.

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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 Stcky

“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!

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36 Responses

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  1. Mysterion
    Mysterion July 30, 2012 at 6:07 pm | |

    I sure miss the old Hardcore Zen blog and the comments there. What I would give for a comment from the Anonymous who was obsessed with Brad’s weenie.

  2. Khru
    Khru July 30, 2012 at 6:27 pm | |

    That blog was total horse shit.

    This blog is total dog shit.

  3. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 30, 2012 at 7:34 pm | |

    Thought that was you, Mysterion; been expecting you, glad to hear your lucid tones.

    To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening. Eihei Dogen

    The monastery already burned down once, in the late seventies; the gifts Kobun brought from Eiheiji burned up at that time.

    Maybe when I finish the horse-stuff story, Seabiscuit, and the dog-stuff story, Pooka, I will read “Fire Monks”.

    Boubi, the pause you perceive between inhalation and exhalation- maybe that’s like when my significant other snores, and there’s a moment where I can’t tell if she’s breathing or not?

  4. Khru
    Khru July 30, 2012 at 10:25 pm | |

    I am total bullshit…

  5. Khru
    Khru July 30, 2012 at 10:26 pm | |

    …Mysterion is crazy as bat shit…

  6. Fred
    Fred July 31, 2012 at 7:09 am | |

    “That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening”

    The universe breathes out and in; some say that that which experiences
    emptiness is still duality.

  7. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer July 31, 2012 at 8:54 am | |

    I read the book “Fire Monks” from the library and it was enjoyable. Unlike Brad I don’t directly know any of the characters.

    The one question I kept asking myself was, why stay and risk your life for a bunch of stuff?

    I wasn’t there, though, and have no vested interest either way, so it’s probably not a fair question.

    I also felt sorry for the Fire Marshal (may not be his actual title) who was tasked with the responsibility for the monks.

    He was put under an enormous and possibly unfair amount of pressure by the monks efforts to stay and save Tassajara.

    It’s good that it all worked out.

    Cheers.

  8. boubi
    boubi July 31, 2012 at 8:58 am | |

    “Boubi, the pause you perceive between inhalation and exhalation- maybe thats like when my significant other snores, and theres a moment where I cant tell if shes breathing or not?”

    In this case i think it’s just sleep apnea, it can be harmful for the heart.

    “The universe breathes out and in”
    Did you ever experienced it?
    BTW when someone takes some very small pills that go by many names, the walls even start to breath and eave, exilarating LOL

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote July 31, 2012 at 9:31 am | |

    “The universe breathes out and in; some say that that which experiences
    emptiness is still duality.”

    Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, and Bullwinkle say that. Khru says I’m Bullwinkle, or maybe Grand Canyon Sucks.

    Alice in Wonderland took some very small pills, and her mind was moving, oh.

    I’ve been exploring the relationship between my mind being able to move and the my ability to know the length of the exhalation, or inhalation. Gautama’s instruction was to comprehend the length of the movement of breath, then be mindful of the whole body breathing in or breathing out, then relax the activity of the body breathing in or breathing out. Somehow I find that the awareness of the whole body in breathing in or out is necessary to the free occurrence of consciousness, and the free occurrence of consciousness is necessary to the comprehension of the length of the inhalation or exhalation (read: the relaxed transition from exhalation to inhalation or inhalation to exhalation).

    Quote from Cici Cassinerio in “remembering Kobun”(attributed to Kobun): “There are eyes all over your body, you know.” (Bradley, check your email).

  10. Fred
    Fred July 31, 2012 at 10:54 am | |

    “Did you ever experienced it?”

    The universe experiences itself every time it looks through your eyes, Boubi.

  11. boubi
    boubi July 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm | |

    Mark Foote

    “Ive been exploring the relationship between my mind being able to move and the my ability to know the length of the exhalation, or inhalation. Gautamas instruction was to comprehend the length of the movement of breath, then be mindful of the whole body breathing in or breathing out, then relax the activity of the body breathing in or breathing out. Somehow I find that the awareness of the whole body in breathing in or out is necessary to the free occurrence of consciousness, and the free occurrence of consciousness is necessary to the comprehension of the length of the inhalation or exhalation (read: the relaxed transition from exhalation to inhalation or inhalation to exhalation).”

    English not beeing my mothertongue, could you put it a bit plainer?

    “(read: the relaxed transition from exhalation to inhalation or inhalation to exhalation).”
    This part reminds me, if i understood something, of the bardo intermediary state described by tibetans, do you mean this?

    About stopping producing thoughts when stopping breathing.
    It could be an evolutionary mechanism where the body stops producing useless and dangerously distracting thoughts when in lack of the primary element of life, air, as in “stop fiddling we are out of air/dying”

  12. boubi
    boubi July 31, 2012 at 3:04 pm | |

    Unrelated, but interesting question.

    Anybody saw the walls breathing, and what was reaction?

  13. Fred
    Fred July 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm | |

    “English not beeing my mothertongue, could you put it a bit plainer?”

    A one… two– A one… two… three… four…
    Half a bee, philosophically,
    Must, ipso facto, half not be.
    But half the bee has got to be
    Vis a vis, its entity. D’you see?

    But can a bee be said to be
    Or not to be an entire bee
    When half the bee is not a bee
    Due to some ancient injury?

  14. boubi
    boubi July 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm | |

    Furedu, anatara bakayaro daro!

  15. boubi
    boubi July 31, 2012 at 4:50 pm | |

    Onri jokinugo!

  16. Khru
    Khru July 31, 2012 at 4:59 pm | |

    See?

    I rest my case.

  17. hoffmanc
    hoffmanc July 31, 2012 at 5:03 pm | |

    I’ve made a recording of the bee koan.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7fazlN7Bg4
    (still being “processed,” i.e., inspected for copyright violations)

    enjoy.

  18. Fred
    Fred August 1, 2012 at 2:21 am | |

    “Every dewdrop manifested in every realm is a dream. This dream is the glowing clarity of the hundred grasses. What requires questioning is this very point.”

  19. King Kong
    King Kong August 1, 2012 at 4:07 am | |

    What an interesting quote. Are you referring to the point after the t and before the ” ?

  20. fightclubbuddha
    fightclubbuddha August 1, 2012 at 10:56 am | |

    I read Fire Monks late last year and loved it. I particularly liked the quote from the Zen poet Jane Hirshfield when she said that Buddhism was very simple and could be explained in three sentences totaling seven words. “Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”

  21. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 1, 2012 at 11:08 am | |

    King Kong without Fay Wray, a shell of a beast.

    (read: the relaxed transition from exhalation to inhalation or inhalation to exhalation).

    Boubi, no, not a reference to the bardo states. I’ve been thinking about this too, and wondering how a pause in breathing would indicate apnea and possible heart complications for my sweetheart but otherwise for a meditator? Also, what is your mother tongue, just curious- it’s great to have you here!

    I only mean that right at the moment where my exhalation turns to inhalation (and to a lessor degree where inhalation turns to exhalation), observing the activity without altering the activity requires that I be waking up or falling asleep to it- that is to say, in a state where I am observing the action but the normal linkage to conscious motor response is not in effect. This is tricky, because the loss of conscious control in waking up or in falling asleep can result in a hypnic jerk.

    What I have found is that close attendance to my sense of location in space and allowing that location to shift sponteneously (“dropping body and mind”?) is conducive to waking up or falling asleep.

    That’s what I mean.

  22. boubi
    boubi August 1, 2012 at 5:30 pm | |

    1 – Apnea per se isn’t dangerous, it is while sleeping look in wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_apnea

    2 – frog speak

    3 – “that is to say, in a state where I am observing the action but the normal linkage to conscious motor response is not in effect. ” here could be bardo, maybe, but i don’t know enough of it and don’t understand what you mean here

    4 – “This is tricky, because the loss of conscious control in waking up or in falling asleep can result in a hypnic jerk. ” have a look here for sleeping/dreaming issues
    http://www.lucidipedia.com/

    5 – “What I have found is that close attendance to my sense of location in space and allowing that location to shift sponteneously (dropping body and mind?) is conducive to waking up or falling asleep.”
    Ask Brad or Michel if it’s correlated to dropping anything, but i think not, IMO dropping body and mind is what the Heart Sutra talks about, the core teaching of Buddhism

    BTW what does “allowing that location to shift sponteneously ” mean?
    Is it some castaneda’s bull?

    IMO
    You stop breathing, something in the brain stops all and every useless activity, all the chitchat for sure and maybe also our everyday “creation of time”

    I can’t catch what you want to say.

  23. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi August 1, 2012 at 9:17 pm | |

    Is there some equivalent in Buddhism to Advaita’s “I am not the body” notion? As in “my true nature is not the same as the body, with all its coming and going, ceaseless changing, and breathing in and breathing out”?

  24. Fred
    Fred August 2, 2012 at 1:17 am | |

    Dogen said:

    “wise ones and sages have made the mountains their own chambers, their own body and mind. And through these wise ones and sages the mountains have been actualized. However many great sages and wise ones we suppose have assembled in the mountains, ever since they entered the mountains no one has met a single one of them. There is only the actualization of the life of the mountains; not a single trace of their having entered remains”

    I have a body but I am not that body; I have an I, but I am not that I.
    I have an enlightenment, but I am not that enlightenment.
    Pft, the flame is extinguished; proceed with caution.

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 2, 2012 at 9:30 am | |

    “Be like a person who has ‘died the great death’; after your breath is cut off, then you come back to life.” (“Zen Letters- Teachings of Yuanwu, trans. Cleary brothers pg 84)

    Yes, exactly, when I stop breathing in the daytime, I relinquish activity and attend to- what?

    I have this experience when I sit, particularly in the transition from exhalation to inhalation, and the focus of attention on the movement of breath itself doesn’t necessarily help. The focus of attention on where I am, excluding nothing, seems to help.

    ‘Fundamentally, this great light is there with each and every person right where they stand– empty clear through, spiritually aware, all-pervasive, it is called “the scenery of the fundamental ground”.’ (Ibid, pg 85)

  26. The Grand Canyon
    The Grand Canyon August 2, 2012 at 2:06 pm | |

    “I have a body but I am not that body; I have an I, but I am not that I,” said Fred.

    *Kicks Fred in the body.*

    *Punches Fred in the I.*

    *Leaves the room.*

  27. Zenleo
    Zenleo August 2, 2012 at 10:19 pm | |

    Since the Blog moved here some of the posts have been the best, that is the most enjoyable to read and informative for me.
    I have a question on one of the quotes in this posting.

    Every time you act is the last time this happens. SFZC Abbot Steve Stcky

    Is this the same as saying “No regrets?” Does it mean not going back and second guessing your behavior and just moving forward even if you think something you did was idiotic? I like this quote but do not want to miss-read what it means.

    Have fun
    Cheers!

  28. Fred
    Fred August 3, 2012 at 7:09 am | |

    It means since all form is in flux and ” all is decay ” or impermanent, every
    time that ” you ” act is the last time that those conditions arise. The continuity
    of a fixed agent is an illusion, and a reality that flows like the current and eddies
    of a stream, is a fiction.

  29. King Kong
    King Kong August 3, 2012 at 9:32 am | |

    I never should have left the island… *sigh*. Oh well. Bygones.

  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 3, 2012 at 10:15 am | |

    Well, thanks for putting her down before you took on those planes, Kong. That was big of you.

    “The continuity of a fixed agent is an illusion, and a reality that flows like the current and eddies of a stream, is a fiction.” -Frederick the 1st and Only

    Classically (meaning, in the Pali Canon) it’s consciousness that is regarded as occurring only through contact between a sense organ and a sense object, it’s consciousness whose continuity is stated to be illusory.

    Form, sensation, perception, habitual tendency, and consciousness are seen as they really are by means of perfect wisdom to be “not mine, this am I not, this is not myself”, and “(for one) knowing thus, seeing thus, there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ with regard to this consciousness-informed body.” (MN III 18-19, Pali Text Society III pg 68)

    I experience the occurrence of consciousness with respect to sense as a location in my awareness, in my head or in the rest of my body. The witness of location is conducive to waking up or falling asleep, and in the moment of waking up or falling asleep there is no ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer’ with regard to the action of the body. Without a doer, without intention, each action in unique.

  31. King Kong
    King Kong August 3, 2012 at 10:32 am | |

    here’s my apelike take on it. i may be wrong so please fix my perspective where there is error.

    take your left hand, stretch all the fingers out and look at the palm. now fold over the middle three fingers to touch the palm. now touch the tips of your thumb and pinky over your three fingers.

    the thumb and pinky are consciousness and form. when they touch it makes a little spark that explodes as mental phenomena – feeling, perception and thought patterns.

    the thumb and pinky touch gabillions of times per second. every time they touch there is the explosion of mental phenomena. every time they touch it’s like another snapshot frame in a movie.

    bruce lee had to slow his moves down to be captured on camera because he could punch and kick in faster than 1/20 second. conversely, if the camera took more pictures per second, it could “see” his fast moves.

    over time, meditation focuses attention to be able to observe things that happen quickly. one can practice a lot and take a look at the spark that happens when the pinky meets the thumb – when consciousness and form touch. there is a lot to see there that is game changing information.

    that’s this ape’s take on it – based on reading – i’m still a foolish numbskull. got any thoughts?

  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote August 3, 2012 at 11:18 am | |

    for myself, I’m not that fast, I don’t perceive instants of consciousness with respect to each sense. What I do perceive is location, impact, and feeling with respect to the occurrence of consciousness. When I care to, and when I don’t, actually.

  33. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi August 3, 2012 at 6:20 pm | |

    Thanks for the responses, I’ve been away a bit.

    Its more correct to say I am this body than to say Im not this body. But neither one is really true.

    I get this, the conditional self is the body. But are we the conditional self? That’s where it’s not true to say “I am the body?”

    I suppose after reviewing and thinking through these responses, it comes down to emptiness. That the Buddhist answer to the Hindu “I am not the body” is something like “both the body and the self are empty”. In other words, phenomena realism rather than idealism.

    What I was really getting at is the notion of undoing identification with the body, based on the notion that such identification is false. I get that if you kick me in the nuts, that will hurt. But that doesn’t prove that my nuts are “me”. In fact, just the opposite. If you steal my car, I will also be upset, but that doesn’t prove that I am my car. The truth seems to be that you can’t actually kick me, you can only kick my body. You can’t steal me, you can only steal my car. So, who am I, if I am not these?

    I guess I’m asking about what kind of Buddhist practice addresses this in a real, direct way.

    Also “consciousness”, especially in the personal sense, isn’t what Advaitists call “Atman”, the true Self. Atman has no phenomenal existence in form, but always transcends all these. It is more accurate to say that the source of consciousness is the Atman, but even that can’t be reified as a phenomenal origin.

    But it’s not so much the philosophy I’m interested in, as the practice. In Ramana Maharshi’s teaching, for example, he considers it essential to come to the understanding very early on that we are not the body. Without that perspective, he considers most forms of practice to be useless. Does Buddhism disagree?

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