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'Fire Monks' Prepared to Defend Tassajara Zen Center as Willow Fire Threatens

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By Monday morning, the Willow Fire burning in the Ventana Wilderness had grown to 2,392 acres and was at 0% containment. The fire is threatening the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center. (Courtesy US Forest Service)

The Willow Fire, which ignited Thursday evening in the rugged Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest — in the mountains about 15 miles southeast of Big Sur — has been burning dangerously close to the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery and retreat center.

By Monday morning, the blaze had consumed nearly 2,400 acres and was 0% contained, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. Evacuation orders issued by the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office included the Arroyo Seco Campground to the east of the fire, as well as the long, winding Tassajara Road from China Camp Campground south to the zen center, where it terminates. Tassajara’s residents evacuated the center on Saturday.

“Everybody’s healthy and in good spirits,” Sozan Diego Miglioli, president of the San Francisco Zen Center, which manages Tassajara, told KQED on Monday.

The Willow Fire is burning north of the area burned by last year’s Dolan Fire, and nearby the area burned in the 2016 Soberanes Fire. More than 450 firefighters have been deployed in the steep, rugged terrain to fight the blaze, aided by planes and helicopters. Officials on Monday said crews were continuing to prepare to defend Tassajara.


Miglioli, who is based in San Francisco, has been in close contact with those on the ground at Tassajara. He said seven people — the center’s professionally trained ‘fire monks’ — have remained and are now working with the agencies managing the firefight, including the U.S. Forest Service and Monterey County Sheriff’s Office.

‘Fire monks’ stems from a book with the same name written by Colleen Morton Busch, about zen monks at Tassajara who stayed behind to fight the 2008 Basin Complex Fire which reached the monastery. Busch said that blaze arrived slowly, giving the community time to prepare. But monks at Tassajara ended up being left alone, without professional backup.

“What they did — refusing to evacuate and staying to defend their temple — was both extraordinary and just an extension of their everyday practice,” Busch said in an email to KQED.

“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,” she said, after her book was published. After 2008, Busch said they’ve 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.”

Firefighters with the US Forest Service work on steep terrain in the Ventana Wilderness as they battle the Willow Fire on June 21, 2021. Trained ‘fire monks’ at the nearby Tassajara Zen Center, which is threatened by the fire, are also prepared to defend the structure. (Los Padres National Forest/Twitter)

“We train people every year … for fire season,” Miglioli said. “We have a system called Dharma Rain in the monastery, which is basically a sprinkler system that’s on the roof of every building in and around the area. That’s been running since Thursday.”

“One of the basic tenants of Zen is meeting reality as it is right now,” Miglioli added. “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.”

Busch echoed this idea in explaining that there are many ways Zen practice is “excellent preparation” for dealing with a wildfire.

“Zen nurtures a tolerance for and even appreciation of uncertainty — a helpful quality in general, but especially during an event as dynamic as a wildfire approaching,” Busch said. “Zen trains you to cultivate an open, calm, all-senses-on-deck, moment-by-moment awareness of what is actually happening, rather than what you fear might happen or what happened in the past.”

Tassajara was the first residential training monastery in the United States and one of the biggest residential centers to study Zen in the west. “People have been going to Tassajara for years and years, it’s a place that’s very loved by many, many people,” Miglioli said.

There’s usually 90 day intensive practice periods, and during the summer season there are often retreats and courses. Around 8,000 people might visit Tassajara in a given summer.

Reflecting on how fires are becoming increasingly frequent and the connections of climate change and global warming, Miglioli said, “Stop and think, why? Why is this happening?” What used to happen every 10 to 15 years is now happening every two years or so, he said. “I think we all have an important lesson to learn out of this.”

The San Francisco Zen Center is providing updates on Tassajara here. Find ongoing updates on the Willow Fire from the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services here.

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