Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Watch-Out Situation by Colleen Morton Busch

On June 21, 2008, lightning strikes from one end of drought-dry California to the other ignited more than two thousand wildfires that stretched from the Trinity Alps in the north to Santa Barbara in the south. One of the blazes turned toward Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur. For weeks the resident monks prepared for the fire’s arrival, committed to staying to defend the monastery despite repeated orders to leave.

If you lived on the West Coast, you knew about the fires. If you lived in California, you smelled the smoke. The situation at Tassaraja was featured in the national news. Connections to the monastery, famous for its hot springs, food, and peaceful environs, extended around the world. Even those who’d never been to Tassajara or heard of it before were intrigued by the seemingly paradoxical image of a fire monk. Suddenly, people who ordinarily spent a good deal of time sitting cross-legged in front of a wall faced a situation that required decisive action. What did that look like? How could sitting still and doping nothing prepare you top act, and to act fast?

As a Zen student and regular visitor to Tassajara over the past ten years, I followed the fire closely. As soon as I read Tassajara director David Zimmerman’s account of the fire’s arrival, I wanted to tell this story – from as close as possible but also with a wide lens. What was it like to meet a wildfire with minimal training in firefighting but years of Zen practice to guide you? I believed others might benefit from knowing, the fire being a perfect metaphor for anything that comes uninvited and threatens to hurt us or the people and places we love.

Thursday, July 10, 2008, one p.m.

Nothing Mako had read when she was fire marshal at Tassajara prepared her for the actual experience of witnessing an advancing fire front. “It had this feeling of being ferocious and unrelenting and aggressive and just, you know, consuming,” she told me later, making explosive gestures with her hands. The entire sky boiled above her head, a canopy of fire. Thirty-foot flames tore down the mountains into Tassajara. Holy crap, she thought, I’m going to die.

A wildfire has a head, a tail and flanks. The fire blasting over Flag Rock, Hawk Mountain, and the Overlook ridge seemed to have two or three heads, maybe more. But then this head met the moisture hanging in the air from Dharma Rain and transformed into fingers of flame before their eyes.

[Dharma Rain was a system of sprinklers fed by water from the brook and the pool through a system of pumps and standing pipes, mounted on the roofs the the main buildings]

Maybe they didn’t have to hunker down in the stone office after all. Maybe Tassaraja wasn’t going to burst into flame at once, so that only the Buddha would be left, buried in a moonscape of blackened tree trunks and soot-smudged rocks. Maybe they could do something.

The five monks remaining at Tassajara didn’t have much experience as trained firefighters and were in violation of some of the established guidelines for staying safe in the field – what are known as the Ten Standard Orders and Eighteen Watch-Out Situations, or more simply, “The Ten and Eighteen”. They didn’t post a lookout. They didn’t have a plan or clear assignments. No one was in charge. But they’d mastered one order: “Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.” And they had two essential safety tools in abundance – readiness and attention. “We didn’t set up a command structure,” Abbot Steve told me later. “We set up a communications structure.”

Each of the five carried a small two-way Motorola walkie-talkie. They used them through-out the day to check in with one another, to announce their whereabouts, and to ask for help when they needed it. But they were in a Watch-Out Situation- they couldn’t see the main fire and weren’t in contact with someone who could.

Some fire managers insist that the Ten Standard Orders are fundamentally non-negotiable, never to be broken. Ted Putnam, wildland fire investigator and longtime meditator, disagrees. “You only think you can follow them if you have never observed your own mind in meditation.” In On The Fireline: Living and Dying with Wildland Firefighters, one former seasonal firefighter wrote that the Ten and Eighteen “are too much to ask of ground-pounding crew members engaged in the controlled chaos that is firefighting. These rules are “ideally possible but practically unattainable.”

Ideally possible but practically unattainable sounds a lot like the vow to save all beings that residents at Tassajara (and Buddhists everywhere) make on a daily basis. That the vow cannot be upheld does not mean its not worth making. The five at Tassaraja may not have been trained in the Ten and Eighteen, but they knew intimately the importance of having signs on the path that point the way towards what is often called “right effort”. And they also knew you shouldn’t hold on to any rule too tightly. Reality doesn’t follow directions. The fire you want or expect will not be the fire you get!

Friday, July 11…

The day after the fire, felt to the five like the day after a marathon. “I was so dehydrated, I don’t think I peed for a couple of days,” Colin told me. The smoke gave them headaches. The by-products of exertion and adrenaline pooled in their muscles, sapping their energy. They were used to going without sleep and enduring pain during long stretches of meditation, but this was different. “It was something deeper in the bones than normal sleep deprivation”, Mako said but the road was still closed. The mountains around them smoldered. Despite their exhaustion they needed to stay active and alert.

Abbot Steve’s dawn patrol doubled as a post-fire inspection. A few buildings would need to be entirely replaced: the pool bathhouse, the woodshed at the flats, the birdhouse cabin and the compost shed. Many structures and some of Tassajara’s infrastructure would need repairs: sections of fence, the bathhouse, front gate and garden, some decking at the pool, wooden steps at the yurt and the trail to the solar array, the lumber truck windshield, the radio phone, and the spring box – the source of Tassajara’s drinking water.

But the center of Tassajara was untouched. The grass glistened a deep green on the stone office lawn. The wisteria-draped trellis shaded the gravel walkway, as it had for decades. A cluster of tall sycamores fanned the bocce ball court. The creek continued to flow down the length of Tassajara, continuous, selfless, ever-present. If you blocked out the periphery and the hoses strewn about, you could imagine there hadn’t been any fire. But lift your eyes a little and you saw the blackened hearth the fire had made of the mountains, the remains of the buildings the fire had consumed. Life and death, right next to each other, braided together, as they always were.

Colleen Morton Busch’s nonfiction, poetry and fiction have appeared in a wide range of publications from literary magazines to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal, where she was senior editor.

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