Tassajara monks practice Zen of firefighting

by Matthai Kuruvila, San Francisco Chronicle, July 10, 2008

Tassajara, CA (USA) -- Fires snaked through ravines Wednesday in the Ventana Wilderness to within 3 miles of the oldest Soto Zen monastery outside of Asia, forcing the evacuation of firefighters and threatening the only access road.

<< Firefighters from an interagency crew from Indiana drape a Firezat fire shield made from aluminized material on one of the many buildings at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Photo by Lance Iversen / The Chronicle

The historic Tassajara Zen Mountain Center was left in the care of a handful of monks and practitioners who have refused to leave and have been rigorously preparing for nearly three weeks for the oncoming fire.

Some Tassajara staff also decided they could do no more and left, said Capt. Chuck Dickson, an information officer for the Basin Complex Fire.

"They decided that they'd done all they could," Dickson said. "It was time to go."

The flight came as remaining Tassajara staff prepared themselves physically and mentally for fighting the fire directly. They were calm in the face of the latest evacuation order.

"We'll be moving more vigorously than usual," said the abbot, Myôgen Steve Stücky, as he watched staff practice rolling out new hose lines moments after firefighters fled. "And we'll be watching those tendencies to get overexcited. We'll stay calm and alert. We'll be ready."

Even as they stood at the fulcrum of two of California's largest wildfires - the Basin Complex and Indians fires - the staff at Tassajara saw the approaching blaze enriching their practice of Zen.

"We don't want to jump into the fire; we don't want to run from it either," said Joseph Schommer, 25. "We're peacefully aware of the fire and prepared for it."

Firefighters praised the monastery's fire prevention efforts. Rooftop sprinklers, jury-rigged with white plastic piping from a nearby hardware store, crisscrossed the tops of essential buildings. Arrays of hoses had been laid out across the property, ready at an instant for a flareup anywhere.

The holdouts had an assortment of fire response drills daily. Should the fire overrun their abilities, there is an emergency shelter, a stone building that was once the monastery's meditation hall. Inside sat supplies, including oxygen tanks.

The monastery was built on a site that had been a place of healing for indigenous peoples before it was rediscovered by settlers in the late 1800s. They made it into a resort, with natural hot springs as an attraction.

In 1967, it was made into a monastery for practitioners of Soto Zen, the larger of the two traditions of Zen Buddhism practiced in Japan that both originated in ninth century China.

Tassajara is now one branch of the San Francisco Zen Center, which includes a city headquarters, Green Gulch Farm near Muir Beach and Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.

The nearly three-week closure is having dire consequences on the Zen Center. Summer retreats at Tassajara fund roughly one third of the entire Zen Center's annual budget, said David Zimmerman, Tassajara's director.

Tassajara staffers have fought off various wildfires, including the 1977 Marble Cone Fire, the largest fire to date in the Big Sur region. And fire response drills have been part of staff culture for decades. They have constructed an elaborate pump and hose system, which, at a moment's notice, pumps water out of storage tanks as well as from Tassajara Creek.

"We have an infinite amount of water for firefighting," said Devin Patel, 28, the latest in a long line of staff fire marshals.

Zen practitioners here have long understood that fire is not only a part of the region's landscape, but also an integral part of their spiritual experience. The reason they're out there - to be in closer contact with the harmonious balance of nature - includes the fire.

"Fire is not a stranger," said Stücky. "It's telling us to be here in accord with the reality of fire ... we're not really fighting the fire. We're meeting the fire, letting the fire come to us - make friends with it and tame it as it reaches our boundaries."

Schommer said the fire had strengthened his spiritual practice. Clearing the brush meant creating places where fire could not burn. He called it a parable to the mental practice of Zen meditation, where you clear the mind from external thoughts burning through.

"Before this, I was floundering," he said. "This has been an awakening for me."

The Basin Complex Fire, which extends to the Big Sur coast, is the biggest of the state's 323 active blazes. It is now 27 percent contained. It has burned more than 85,000 acres in the Los Padres National Forest since it was touched off by lightning on June 21.

The Indians Fire is expected to be 100 percent contained today.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the last stretch of coastal Highway 1 south of Big Sur that had been closed was reopened to residents and service workers. Also lifted was a mandatory evacuation order for residences along a 12-mile stretch of Highway 1 from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, about 37 miles south of Carmel, south to the town of Lucia.

Residents of the main resort area of Big Sur were allowed to return Tuesday.

Highway 1 is still closed to tourists and other nonlocals from Palo Colorado Road north of Big Sur to Lucia. There is no estimate for when it will be fully reopened.

Exclusive to the Buddhist Channel

The blaze reached the monastery, at 5:30 PM July 10, the remaining students packed up the last cars and left.  Subsequently, it was learned that by leaving they might not be able to get back if the road was closed. 

Evacuation is voluntary but fire fighters can prevent return to property.  So five people in the last car turned around and went back to Tassajara, including Abbot Steve Stucky.

The initial hit from the fire passed by. Tassajara Zen Monastery lost a few buildings — including the birdhouse, and a bathroom by the pool — and the part of the lower garden. The monks and students have joined in putting out occasional spot fires. All concerned are very relieved that the fire has passed and their friends are safe.  For more info: http://sfzc.org.

Colin Gipson, Danny Parker and David Zimmerman contributed to this update.

We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv. Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/norbuchatbot. Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: editor@buddhistchannel.tv