The Zen monk expected a knock on his door before dawn, but the news on the other side wasn’t what he expected.
At first, Finnian Kelley, a member of the Tassajara Fire Department, thought he had missed his early morning duty to carry incense sticks through the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
Then he heard the word “fire”.
“I had prepared myself mentally for a while and it was like, ‘Oh, this is it,'” said Kelley, 23. “It was earlier than we all expected. I thought I’d make it through at least another one a few weeks.”
The fire training was motivated by the fire in the Basin Complex in 2008. According to Sozan Miglioli, president of the San Francisco Zen Center, the monks are now being examined by firefighters to ensure they stay safe and protect the monastery in the event of a fire.
Seven Zen monks of the Tassajara Fire Crew have been defending the buildings of the Tassajara Zen Center since the willow fire started on June 17th.
Over 400 firefighters were called to the incident.
Preparation for the unknown
The water level near the monastery is usually higher in the early summer months. Such low values are currently only expected in the fall, said Kelley.
The Buddhist monks train with professional firefighters. You investigate the fire behavior and make sure that your sprinkler system is operational.
Zen firefighter Kevin Peng described the team of firefighter monks as “small but mighty”. In addition to removing bushes and debris from the monastery, the monks use a sprinkler system known as “dharma rain”.
The dozen of sprinkler heads distribute the water around the monastery and lower the temperature in the small areas around the buildings. Even when the environment is hot and dry, the cool, humid microclimate for the monastery created by the Dharma rain sprinkler system helps with overnight moisture recovery, Miglioli said.
The Dharma rain sprinkler system runs between two and 12 hours, depending on the temperature of the valley.
“A big part of our practice here is not knowing, not being in control,” said Zen firefighter Katy Garrahan. “I remembered our training and just a feeling of trust in this crew, in this ‘Dharma rain’ system. I feel really well taken care of here by our crew leaders. I had a feeling of fear and doubt, but I couldn’t imagine leaving. “
All things end
Located in the Ventana Wilderness of inland Big Sur, the Tassajara Zen Center is the first Soto Zen training monastery on the west coast, according to the San Francisco Zen Center website. It is one of three practice centers that offer daily meditation, retreats, courses, lectures and workshops.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 8,000 vacationers and 150 students passed the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center every summer.
Due to the pandemic, there are fewer residents in the monastery. The monastery will remain closed, but officials hope to reopen from next summer.
The fire fighting monks use the principles of their Zen practice in their efforts to contain the willow fire.
“I think wildfire is a great example of one of the tenets of Buddhism, which is impermanence,” said Kelley. “This is the reality we are confronted with all the time … We sit and meditate for hours during the day in order to be able to maintain our composure for something like this, because we meet these inner fires every morning while meditating. In the face of something like that, we have already practiced avoiding ourselves. “
According to the US Forest Service, the fire was 87% contained as of Wednesday evening and scorched approximately 2,877 acres. Firefighters firmly believe the fire will be 100% contained on July 11th.
“I just want to say how grateful I am to the firefighters,” said Miglioli. “I really hope that people stay connected with themselves, with what is happening and with the reality of what is going on in the world.”
All road closures around the Willow Fire were lifted on Friday. These locations include Arroyo Seco and Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley Road at Tassajara, and Tassajara at Cachagua Road. All evacuation warnings and orders for the willow fire were lifted at 6 p.m. on Monday, with the exception of forest areas.
To identify these restricted areas, you can go to the Los Padres National Forest.
David Rodriguez is an education reporter and staff photographer for The Salinas Californian. For tips or story ideas, you can contact him at (831) 269-9363 or [email protected] Sign up to support local journalism.