Sitting with fire again

The Soberanes Fire has now burned 40,618 acres. Evacuation orders were issued yesterday to allow for safe backfiring. Tassajara has not evacuated yet, but some retreats have been cancelled and according to 2008 fire monk David Zimmerman, the on site resident fire crews are “on alert” and preparing. Let’s hope the new permanent Dharma Rain system is not soon tested. The cause of this fire is still under investigation, but containment isn’t expected until the end of August. More info on the fire’s spread here.

In Remembrance: Myogen Steve Stücky, March 6, 1946 – December 31, 2013

In the early morning hours of the last day of 2013, fire monk Myogen Steve Stücky left this world for the great beyond.

Fire monk Myogen (photo by Mako Voelkel)

Read more about Myogen’s life here.
I was tremendously fortunate to spend time with Myogen during the research and writing of Fire Monks. He was warm and encouraging from the first time we spoke. He was patient and curious and engaged my questions thoughtfully and openly. I remember sitting in the abbot’s cabin at Tassajara going over the proposal before I had a contract with Penguin Press for the book. He wasn’t sure about the title “fire monks”–none of the five Zen priests featured in the book were particularly enthused with it. He suggested “Sitting with Fire” instead, after the blog started during the fire. The phrase “fire monks,” he told me, “characterizes us in a particular way that none of us feel. We’re monks, not fire monks.”
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Myogen, David Zimmerman, and me at Tassajara July 2011

Myogen didn’t insist on his view—I kept the title I believed best–but he always told me what he thought then let me make my own decisions. He also told me (and I quote in the book), “I realized a long time ago I can’t convince anyone of anything.” But Myogen convinced me every time I was in his presence, by being who he was and thoroughly investigating his own mind and experience, that this Zen practice I love is a life-affirming way to live.
In the fall of 2011, I spent three months practicing with Myogen at Tassajara, the Zen monastery I wrote about in Fire Monks that he played a crucial part in sparing from the Basin Complex fire. We had an exchange during that practice period, during a ceremony in the zendo in which each student asks a question of the teacher.
I said, “I’ve been carrying this sword around for a long time. Would you take it for me?”
Myogen paused, then replied, “I can hold it for you for a while.”
I held out my imaginary sword and placed it on the ground for him, then bowed and went back to my seat.
People asked me later what my question meant. What was this sword I was carrying? Most simply, it was the sharp edge of judgement, used to cut down everything in its path. Judgement of myself, but also of others.
Tassajara, as it was meant to do, had softened my edges. I didn’t want to carry a sword anymore, yet I didn’t want to leave it around for someone else to use either. Completely wholeheartedly, without even knowing what he was signing up for, Myogen agreed to hold the sword for me.
I was unable to visit Myogen after he got sick and announced his terminal diagnosis in October, though I wanted to. I wanted to tell him I was ready to take that sword back. He had taught me by example how to use it not for judgement but for discernment, which can look like judgement but is something different. Myogen didn’t blame the firefighters for leaving Tassajara during the fire–he didn’t judge or begrudge them. He clarified for himself what he needed to do and then did it. That’s discernment. That’s wisdom. That was Myogen’s teaching.
Myogen wasn’t just a fire monk. As he himself said, he was also an earth monk, a water monk, an air monk, and a plain old monk, sitting down every day and vowing to wake up. He bravely protected life when a wildfire threatened in 2008, and he bravely let it go when pancreatic cancer came to claim him. He will be missed like the last of a rare breed.
There can only ever be one Myogen, yet it doesn’t feel right to end there. The Myogen we knew and loved endures after the last breath, in our remembrance, in connection, in love.
I sat with Myogen’s body today at his home, grateful for the chance to see him again and say goodbye. Friends, students, colleagues and family members wandered in and out, scattering flowers and shedding tears over the body. The cancer had diminished Myogen severly in size–he was tall and strong and vigorous just a few months ago–but to me he looked radiant, uncontained. He died with a wonderful slight smile on his face. Myogen’s son James described it beautifully: “almost a secret smile as if he had confirmed something he had long suspected and it filled him with happiness and love and peace.”
As is traditional for Zen adepts, Myogen composed a death poem which was on display next to his body. The phrase I remember best is apropos and went something like this:
this breath of mine, is also your breath, my darling
Goodbye, dear Myogen. Thank you. Thank you for your songs and teaching and laughter. For the ferocity of your vow. For the sharp blade of your kindness.

What comes around comes back

Fire is in the neighborhood again at Tassajara. No surprise as there is plenty of kindling left over from the 2008 fire, and we had so little rain this winter. Updates are being posted on Tassajara Zen Mountain Center’s Facebook page. Please keep Tassajara and all beings in the burn area in your protective thoughts–especially the firefighters braving the steep, dry Ventana slopes.
And…more monastic fire news… Zen Mountain Center in Idyllwild was evacuated earlier this week. Sadly, homes in the area were lost, but it appears that ZMC was successfully saved by fire crews.
Be safe out there everyone. Be kind to one another. The teachings of fire can be fierce.

Five years ago today…

Fire surrounded Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Gratitude for all of the heart and effort that went into preserving that refuge in the wilderness!
Fundraising for a permanent Dharma Rain sprinkler system is well underway. I took this photo in May when I was down at Tassajara:

Fire on my Mind

Happy Interdependence Day, everyone! It’s July 4th, the pyromaniac’s favorite time of the year. Please be careful if you are lighting fireworks or playing with fire in any way. It’s hot and dry out there.
It’s been a quiet few months on this blog as I’ve turned my attention to other interests and writing projects, but fire season is in full, hot fervor. We need no more dark reminder than the recent deaths of 19 firefighters on the Yarnell Hill fire. I’ve been working on a written response to the disaster but have nothing that feels at all adequate to the loss. I am holding the fallen hotshot crew and their loved ones in my heart.
There’s a thoughtful New York Times opinion piece by Alan Dean Foster about why people, including the author and myself, choose to live in fire-prone landscapes.
Meanwhile, July 10 is the 5th anniversary of the Basin Complex fire’s entrance into Tassajara. David Zimmerman, one of the fire monks, wrote a stirring reflection for the occasion. You can read it here.

West Coast Live Saturday, Jan 19th!

UPDATE: Listen to the broadcast: West Coast Live 19 January 2013. The first few minutes are missing. Sedge started the interview by asking me about the human need to control wildfire and the notion that in Zen, you “let things be.” I said that the residents of Tassajara didn’t try to control the fire, they guided it, met it, befriended it.
Sedge: Those are not USFS firefighting terms.
Me: No, they’re not, these are Zen monks.
Sedge: They don’t get into suppression…
Me: Or opposition or enmity. Their idea was: Fire belongs here. The forest needs fire. We live here, with fire. Can we find a way to honor all of our needs?….
EARLIER POST: I am thrilled to be appearing on West Coast Live talking to Sedge Thomson this Saturday January 19th, at Yoshi’s in Oakland’s Jack London Square! The show is live from 10am to noon. To see the show live, reserve tickets at Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006. To listen, tune in to KALW 91.7, which streams the show live and for about a week after the first airing.