Zen Center to Reopen Saturday After Surviving Soberanes Fire

The entry gate at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in Monterey County. (Courtesy of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center)

Tassajara Zen Mountain Center -- the oldest Buddhist monastery outside Asia -- is reopening Saturday after weathering the massive Soberanes Fire that burned more than 132,000 acres, or about 206 square miles, in Monterey County near Big Sur.

The center evacuated its summer guests and closed its doors on July 31, nine days after the wildfire broke out from an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park. The Los Padres National Forest and Central Coast Incident Management Team announced Wednesday that the fire was 100 percent contained.

"Everything was about the fire," said Tassajara's director, Linda Galijan. "We were waiting and watching to see how would the fire go. Would they be able to hold it when it ran? And they did."

Galijan said after the center evacuated about 75 guests it had at the time, the remaining staff and Zen students "went into full-on fire prep mode."

She said several retired Los Padres National Forest firefighters helped the staff with their training and preparations. They were also in close contact with Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service and various fire crews throughout the summer.


Galijan said working closely with the crews -- especially those based at Tassajara -- was one of the bright spots of the experience.

"We really learned so much from each other," she said. "We invited them to join us for meals, and we had so many wonderful conversations."

Those crews kept the flames from ever actually reaching Tassajara. The closest the fire came was 2 miles away, Galijan said.

"Every time it would make a run in the direction of Tassajara, they would hold it off with air attacks using retardant and water drops until the weather changed," she said.

There will be around 45 people practicing at Tassajara this fall. During this time, the center is closed to the public. "There will be no coming and going from the valley," Galijan said. "Everyone will stay put. We will be very focused on traditional Zen monastic practice."

The monastery is open to the public from April through September. During the fall and winter seasons, the center is available only for private monastic practice and work programs.

Galijan said the summer of fire will have two lasting impacts. On the positive side, the center will be able to use the experience to create a manual for how to handle future fires that threaten the center.

"We have a way of knowing, this is what we're going for. This is what this should look like. This is how we should train," she said.

On the other hand, the center lost months of its summer guest season to the blaze, and Galijan said it's still unclear what the financial impact of that loss of tourist revenue will be.

This was the fourth major fire that has threatened Tassajara in the last five decades, including the 1977 Marble Cone, 1999 Kirk Complex and 2008 Basin Complex fires.