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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fire Monks Author Colleen Morton Busch Talks About Zen Practice, Writing, and Mortal Danger

Posted By on Wed, Jul 13, 2011 at 2:00 PM

In June 2008, more than 2,000 wildfires swept across California. Isolated in the wilderness, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center near Big Sur found itself facing fires on three sides. A small group of residents and firefighters prepared for the flames. But as the fires came closer, the order was given to evacuate. Firefighters and monks piled into cars and took the only road leading out of the canyon. But halfway up the road, five monks turned back, putting their Zen practice to full use in staying to face the flames.

Colleen Morton Busch, herself a Zen student and a regular visitor to Tassajara, recounts the tale of these courageous monks and their community in her new book Fire Monks. Busch, who reads from her book Thursday at the San Francisco Zen Center, tells SF Weekly how Zen practice enabled these novice firefighters to deal with the crisis.

How has being a Zen student affected the process of writing this book?
It completely defined my process because I'm part of this community, so I approached the book half like a Zen student, half as a journalist. I was very aware of getting the whole story also from a Zen practice point of view, of the impact of the event on the whole community, and also of my relationships with people there. I tried to really be there and listen to people fully, not making judgments or assumptions.

What exactly is a Zen student?
I think most broadly it's someone who wants to wake up -- it's someone who doesn't want to reach the end of one's life and have slept-walked through life. It's someone who wants to be alive. Being a Zen student has just saturated my life. I was a yoga student for a long time but I reached a point where I wanted to go somewhere that my yoga practice couldn't take me. Zen has allowed me access to my inner experience that I couldn't reach before.

How did the monks react to your idea of writing about the Tassajara fire?
I believed that this book would have broad applicability, and that even a person with no Zen training could take the story into his or her own life. There were people who right away thought this was a good idea, but others felt kind of private about the event. Some people in fact never came around, but some came around simply by virtue of conversation -- by an initial conversation and feeling like, "Oh, she's actually listening to me and wants to include my point of view here." As I made about 10 visits over a couple of years, they could see I was serious.

"Fire monks" David Zimmerman, Graham Ross, and Mako Voelkel with author Colleen Busch
  • "Fire monks" David Zimmerman, Graham Ross, and Mako Voelkel with author Colleen Busch
You portray the monks as very human, which is unlike the image that Zen conjures for some people. Can you speak to this stereotype in our culture? It was absolutely my intention to show them as people. They're people maybe trying a little harder than your average person not to be stuck by egotism, but it doesn't mean that they're transcendent or perfect. Everything you find in the world, you also find it down in Tassajara; there might just be a more conscious awareness of it.

Zen monks are not above it all. It's not about not having emotions. All the things people are, monks are. A Buddha can be angry, a Buddha can be depressed, he can be nihilistic and cynical. Part of the practice is realizing what put you in that moment -- it's a matter of acknowledging it. Somehow, that active acknowledgment is very powerful, it's not that it makes the feeling go away, although sometimes it does.

Why write about the Tasssajara fire at all? The book talks a lot about being ready for the changing moment. Isn't the book a form of dwelling on the past?
I asked the abbot about this, because I was thinking about it myself. And I think the clearest answer is that we don't want to dwell on the past or project ourselves in the future, but the past is always with us in the present moment, and it informs the present moment. Zen isn't a complete rejection of the past or future. I try to illustrate this concept in the book through the people -- they come out of a particular path, and it informs them now.

There's also a practical level, because the fire's going to return. It's not a practical manual, but it does try to capture as completely as possible how they dealt with this fire. On one hand, you have to be holding how this happened in the past, which can be informative, but this doesn't mean it's how this will happen in the future. The past is only one piece of the equation.

How do you hope readers will approach this book?
I really hope that they can take it into their own lives. If somebody reads this because they're interested in wildfire, I hope they can resonate with how these people met this situation. It seems against all odds. What in the world would make these people think that they could do this? They didn't have any training, really, and it was a very dangerous situation. What could make them do it? Was it naivete? It was partly that, maybe, but in part it was really this attitude of "We will just do the next thing."

Stay present, and do the next thing, then the next thing, trusting you'll get through by just taking the next step instead of striving for certainty. And as simple as that sounds, I think it's really profound to bring to your life to whatever feels like a fire to you.

Tassajara sounds out of this world. How do you bring your Zen practice into real life?
It's a constant question, and you fall off it all the time. You get up that road and get on the highway and somebody cuts you off and right away you're back at "angry urban driver." But Tassajara gets in your bones, it really does. I can kind of conjure it, now that I've been there so many times. I can sort of smell it, feel what it's like to be there. And that's like a little seed inside yourself; it's a touchstone you can go back to.

How has being a Zen student affected you as a writer?
Zazen [meditation] is a pretty good starting place. You're doing the same thing as when you're sitting down to write. You don't know what's going to fill the blank computer screen, and you want to be completely open to what's coming into your field of vision. The difference with writing is you try to grab it and pull it down, whereas in Zazen you don't.

I told a teacher once, "I know I'm supposed to let my thoughts go, but I want to write them down." He said, "Well, write it down." And he paused. "Because then you can let it go."

Busch reads from Fire Monks on Thursday, July 14, at 7:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Zen Center, 300 Page (at Laguna).

For more events this week and beyond, check out our calendar section.

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Caroline Chen


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