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Book Review: Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch

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Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Colleen Morton Busch is the non-fiction account of the 2008 California fire which almost destroyed the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. The story is told from the perspective of those who stayed behind to protect Tassajara.

A massive wildfire had surrounded Tassajara Mountain Center. So massive that even the fire crews decided that it would be wiser not to fight it. Five monks stayed behind to try and save Tassajara. They risked life and limb to stand in the way of the immense wildfire which surrounded them and became an international sensation.

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara by Colleen Morton is not only a gripping narrative of the 2008 wildfire events, but also how Zen allows people to meet such colossal crisis with a focused mind.

The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, near Big Sur in California, is well known in the Zen community. The center is not only famous for meditation and training, but also for their bread baking and vegetarian cookbooks.

The 2008 fire, started by lightning, consumed more than 240,000 acres. While the small group of defenders in Tassajara watched for three nerve-wracking weeks while the fire consumed everything in its path towards them. Watching the weather carefully before the order to evacuate came, five senior members of Tassajara decided to stay behind.

The book is not only the story of the fire, but also the history of Tassajara, an introduction to Buddhism, and a tracking of the destruction the fire caused on its path.

I used to be a volunteer fire fighter for about four years. Some of the things I learned are mentioned in the book — the presence of mind to meet emergencies, not panicking and concentrating on one job at a time. However, more important than all of those is the knowledge of when to fight the fire and when to simply try and contain it.

While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, I certainly appreciate the benefits of meditation to the human mind. if you have a tough time falling asleep you might want to give meditation a try before opening up your medicine cabinet. It might be difficult: clearing your mind is an enormous task, but the benefits that come with it are more than worth the effort.

Busch’s book ties in nicely the disciplines of Zen and firefighting. While both seem to be extreme ends of the spectrum, they have much more in common then one would think.

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