A wildfire that ignited in a remote area of Big Sur, California on 17 June, named the Willow Fire, has been burning alarmingly close to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. While the Buddhist monastery and retreat center have been largely evacuated, a handful of monks who are also trained firefighters have stayed behind to protect the property.
Emergency crews were deployed to the are, with helicopters and airplanes being used to monitor the fire and drop water on the blaze. Efforts to contain the Willow Fire reportedly made progress last week after temperatures started to cool. According to the website of the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services, the Willow Fire was at 73 per cent containment as of 27 June, and had burned approximately 2,877 acres (1,164 hectares).
Located in the Ventana Wilderness area of the Los Padres National Forest, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center has been threatened by fires before. Last summer, as reported by Buddhistdoor Global, the center came dangerously close to being impacted by the Dolan Fire.*
In 2008, the Basin Fire Complex reached the monastery and the Tassajara monks were left alone to combat the fire without professional help. Since then, it has been common practice for some of the monks to train with professional firefighters, in addition to carrying out their monastic duties.
In order to prepare for the Willow Fire, the monks cleared brush from the perimeter of the center and have been running a sprinkler system that provides the grounds with a layer of moisture. They were also joined by firefighting monks from two affiliated monasteries, the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) and Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.
When Tassajara was evacuated last week, the SFZC website issued the following statement by President Sozan Miglioli:
The ZMC Fire Crew will remain in order to run “Dharma Rain” (Tassajara’s sprinkler system) and to prepare the monastery in case the fire reaches the valley. Tassajara has been working on special fire prep projects during the pandemic shutdown and the fire crew has been in place and training for several months. Our water supplies are good and we are well prepared for this situation. Right now there are four engines at Tassajara (two from CalFire and two from the Forest Service). They are helping our Fire Team to prep. (San Francisco Zen Center)
Colleen Morten Busch, who practiced at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 2008, wrote a book about the firefighting monks, titled Fire Monks (Penguin Press 2011).
“Awareness of living in fire country has always been a part of the culture at Tassajara. I was put on the resident fire crew when I did a practice period there,” Busch said after her book was published. After 2008, she noted that the moks had stepped up training and infrastructure “to become more perennially and deeply fire-resilient, knowing fire will come again, and again, and again to that landscape.” (KQED)
The Willow Fire is just one of many wildfires blazing in the western United States, including in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Utah. According to federal data, the number of new wildfires in the country this year is already at a 10-year high. (National Interagency Fire Center).
Referring to the drastic increase in wildfires in the region over recent years, Miglioli suggested taking time to reflect on the impact of climate change. He also drew parallels between this phenomena and Buddhist practice:
“One of the basic tenets of Zen is meeting reality as it is right now,” Miglioli said. “It doesn’t get more real than this. Being there in the moment, working on equanimity and meeting reality as it is right now . . . that’s a crucial part of our training. Even though it’s not aiming a hose at a burning tree, it’s still very, very important.” (KQED)
The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is the oldest Japanese Sōtō Zen monastery in the US. The monastery has been closed to the public since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
* Tassajara Zen Mountain Center Threatened by California Wildfires (Buddhistdoor Global)
2021 Willow Fire (Monterey County Office of Emergency Services)
Fire Updates (San Francisco Zen Center)
Firefighting monks ready to defend Buddhist monastery from Big Sur blaze (KTLA)
‘Fire Monks’ Prepared to Defend Tassajara Zen Center as Willow Fire Threatens (KQED)
‘Fire monks’ preparing to defend California monastery from blaze (The Guardian)
National Fire News (National Interagency Fire Center)
Related news reports from Buddhistdoor Global
Monks Perform Healing Ritual at California Town Affected by Devastating Wildfire
Buddhist Humanitarian Organization Tzu Chi USA Offers a Helping Hand to California Wildfire Victims
California Wildfire Update: Abhiyagiri Monastics Return Home After Sheltering at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
California Wildfires Drive Buddhists from their Monasteries