A Q&A with fire monk Mako Voelkel
It’s been nearly a dozen years since Mako Voelkel stood on the Overlook Trail above Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and saw the Basin Complex Fire pouring into the valley.
These days, Mako is head teacher at Austin Zen Center. When I caught up with her one recent afternoon on FaceTime, I reminded her that she once told me she just might leave the monastery to go to medical school. Clearly that didn’t happen. “Not yet!” she pointed out, laughing in dappled sunlight in her backyard.
The few moments of hilarity in a story about saving a monastery from a massive wildfire usually involve Mako—like when she responded to a radio request for Gatorade from one of her thirsty cohorts with a deadpan: “The Gatorade’s on fire.” (It really was.) Mako’s humor, openness, and straight-shooting are traits I remember well from interviewing her for Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire. It turns out that these traits are also well-suited to weathering a pandemic.
CMB: When did Austin Zen Center close?
MV: We closed on March 14th, less than a week after the Bay Area. A week later the whole city of Austin shut down. I don’t live at the center, so I’m not even allowed there now. Our five residents are their own little shelter-in-place community.
My number one experience throughout has been my concern for the Austin Zen Center sangha. When we decided to close, we put out a newsletter letting people know our intentions. I became like a public service announcement person—trying to find the best articulations of our reasons and posting them. It took us a week to put everything online. We made a recording of a brief metta [lovingkindness] chant. We recorded the han [a wooden board used to call monks to meditation]. Now, more people are showing up to the online zendo than in person!
CMB: And how’s that going?
MV: I’m noticing I have less energy for maintaining things, as opposed to getting them going!
Being body-to-body has a way of returning the energy you put in, but we can’t do that right now. Being the only full time person at AZC, I don’t feel I can hand things off so much, so I end up holding a lot. And I’ve been reading about “Zoom fatigue.” When we’re in person we don’t think about reading cues, we just do it naturally. There’s something that gets cut off when we relate through Zoom; energy isn’t returned in same way.
During the fire at Tassajara, there were no distractions. But I’m so much busier now, during this pandemic. It can be overwhelming.
CMB: What’s most challenging about this time?
MV: For me, it’s impatience. Wanting to know what’s going to happen, when can we shift. But I’ve been very public about what has to be in place before we can reopen. At the minimum, Texas (and Austin specifically) needs to demonstrate a decline in new cases over 2-2 ½ weeks, not an incline. This isn’t happening. It also means that testing has to be widely available—for everyone, not just those who are showing particular symptoms. Also not happening. We just crafted a petition to Texas Governor Abbott asking him to empower and enable local jurisdictions to create mandates for themselves.
I don’t see how a place like Tassajara will be able to open guest season without a vaccine or treatment, or more widely available testing combined with contact tracing.
CMB: Do you return to Tassajara often?
MV: About twice every summer. We had planned to do the April work period for our Sangha Week, but that’s of course been cancelled.
CMB: Is the pandemic evocative of the 2008 wildfire that you endured at Tassajara?
MV: I gave a Dharma talk a couple of weeks ago and talked about the fire, the similarities of something big that demands all of your attention yet with a lot of hurry up and wait. And actually, this is even worse!
CMB: Any surprise silver linings during this period of shelter-in-place?
MV: It’s been an opportunity to try and build community in ways that wouldn’t normally happen. I wanted to set things up so that if people started dying or knew people who were dying, sangha connections could be relied upon. We’d been trying to nurture an online forum for a while—well before coronavirus. It never really got off the ground. Then we started using Discord, a chat app for gamers, and it’s taken off. Forty to fifty people are on there—some daily. There’s a wide age range in the AZC sangha, and it’s great to see these connections being made across generations.
There’s been a lot of creative maneuvering to translate what we do into an online format. We’re a small community, but we try to offer everything. We were supposed to be in a practice period now, and we’re moving forward with doing that, or something similar online. We did an Earth Day ceremony on Zoom. I took a photo of my practice discussion room and use it as a virtual background when I’m doing practice discussion on Zoom. So there’s a bit of play too, and that’s important.
But I’m also aware of some tension. Even if things were to go back to normal—which may not ever happen—we may not be able to not video Dharma talks and publish them online. The cat’s out of bag. But Internet culture takes things out of context so easily. And I don’t know if the level of intimacy you can feel in person with your community can really extend online. When Wittgenstein lectured at Cambridge, if a student had to miss class, he dropped them from the class because he was concerned about being taken out of context. That anecdote reminds me how much of Zen is face-to-face, in the moment. I was more of a purist when I lived at Tassajara—no recorded Dharma talks online, at least not from Practice Period! But I still have the same kind of feeling, or question: How can we protect what is precious?
CMB: What’s the most important question this pandemic raises for humanity?
MV: Will this experience show us that we can make changes in the consumptive way we live to address climate change, or will it show us that it’s impossible because the economy is going to be terrible if we do? We talked about welcoming the fire at Tassajara. I wouldn’t say I’m welcoming coronavirus, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I wonder, Is this pandemic nature correcting itself? Viruses leap from wildlife to humans for a reason, out of situations that are not natural or good for environments. How can we as a species take this as a message? Our status quo doesn’t work. How do human beings get put back into our place in the natural world, enough to be good stewards of the Earth?
CMB: What are your hopes for humanity, should we reach the other side of this crisis?
MV: My hope is that we can marshal ourselves to find tools to stop the spread of misinformation. Having the rubber hit the road in this way makes the spread of “fake news” and the human impact on the planet much less abstract.
We talked about welcoming the fire at Tassajara. I wouldn’t say I’m welcoming coronavirus, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I wonder, Is this pandemic nature correcting itself?
CMB: It feels like we’re at a pivot point.
MV: Yes. And now the question is, how do we encourage each other to pivot together?
The fire at Tassajara was hardest for the people who couldn’t be there, who had this grief because they wanted to be inside Tassajara helping but weren’t able to be. That’s where so many of us are now—unless we’re doctors or nurses—and it’s such an uncomfortable position.
CMB: So, we’re back to talk of medical school?
MV: Maybe it’s just my escape fantasy! Perhaps in my mind, being a medical doctor gives you a sense of certainty. You’ve been trained, you have protocols. With Zen practice too. It gets in your bones. But when things get turned upside down, how can we translate that training into meeting new circumstances?
CMB: What medicine do you prescribe right now?
MV: I’ve been recommitting myself to self-care, which I’m not so good at normally.
Of all the teachers I’ve had, Steve [Myogen Steve Stucky, former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center and fellow fire monk, who died in 2013] was such a strong proponent of encouraging self-care. He shared his own experience of needing to be dragged into it by circumstances.
But I try not to make it another item on my to-do list. The last few weeks there’s been a lot of activity of doing. It’s such a different modality when you’re busy doing compared to being with. I’m more depleted. My recharger isn’t functioning completely.
So I’m trying to get out and walk every day, even if it’s only for 20 minutes, to the pond and back. The other day, I prepared for a Dharma talk I gave by getting up early and taking an Epsom salt bath. The talk happened, and it was just fine. I felt like I was on and engaged.