Buddhism Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire Tassajara Zen Mountain Center USA

Updated 15th February 2015

Submitted by Colleen Morton Bush author of Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire. Colleen Morton Busch. New York (USA): Penguin Books, 2011. (ISBN 978-0-14-312137-4 (paperback) ISBN 978-1-59420-291-9).

2008 Tassajara Zen Mountain Center Fire

Information is available at:


In June 2008 more than two thousand wildfires, all started by a single lightning storm, blazed across the state of California. Tassajara, the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States, was at particular risk. Set deep in the Ventana wilderness east of Big Sur, the center is connected to the outside world by a single unpaved road. If fire were to enter the canyon, there would be no way out.

Disaster struck during the summer months, when Tassajara opens its doors to visitors and the grounds fill with guests expecting a peaceful respite. Instead, the mountain air filled with smoke, and monks broke from regular meditation to conduct fire drills. All visitors were evacuated, and many Zen students followed. A small crew of residents and firefighters remained, planning to defend Tassajara. But nothing could have prepared them for what came next. When a shift in weather conditions brought danger nearer still, firefighters made the snap decision to completely evacuate the monastery. As the firefighters and remaining residents caravanned out the long road from Tassajara, five monks turned back, risking their lives to save it.

The four men and one woman who returned to Tassajara were novices in fire but experts in readiness, prepared to meet an emergency with presence of mind. Relying on their Zen training, they greeted the fire not as an enemy to defeat but as a friend to guide. Drawing on the strength of community, the practice of paying attention, and the power of an open, flexible mind, the Tassajara monks were able to act with both speed and clarity and defend Tassajara on their own.

Extracts from Fire Monks:

“Some help would have been nice, but when no help came, they didn’t dwell on it—during or after the fire….Abbot Steve blamed no one for how events unfolded during the fire at Tassajara. He understood that fire officials made decisions they needed to make, just as he made those he needed to make.

….Zen fosters self-reliance and trains you to be your own boss. But the practice also points to something beyond the ordinary notions of these terms. Taking responsibility includes letting go. You accept the consequences of your actions even as you realize that your actions completely depend on the totality of circumstances in any given moment.”

2013 Tassajara Zen Mountain Center Fire

A fire again burned close to Tassjara, five years after the original fire in July 2013.

Information is available from the San Francisco Zen Center website at: