Heroes, Sangha, and Why I Haven’t Read “Fire Monks”

Why haven’t I read the new San Francisco Zen Center book Fire Monks?

A couple of weeks ago I got an email inviting me to review the book, and I got the heavy, sad feeling I get every time I hear mention of the book, the Tassajara fire, or, especially, the “Tassajara Five.”  I deleted the email without reading it, just as I’ve so far avoided even skimming the Fire Monks dust jacket. (Instead, oddly enough, I’ve been absorbed in the book Burning for Buddha, about the practice of self-immolation in Chinese Buddhist history: a different kind of Buddhist “fire monk”.) Reading James Ford’s positive review this afternoon, though, I realized that I wanted to get closer in to this profound aversion I have to the book and its hype, and share it with the wider community. I want to make sure that alongside our celebration of the “saving of Tassajara” we also acknowledge the fire’s long shadows.

At one layer at least of my sick feeling about the book’s marketing is the overwhelming narrative of the “hero”. That narrative may not be untrue, and it may not be unhelpful, particularly for inspiring people distant from the events, but within the Sangha a “hero” narrative creates a deep sense of exclusion and division. Or maybe I should phrase that as a question: “How can a hero narrative not create such exclusion, and as a Sangha are we studying that?”

The blurb from the Fire Monks website certainly doesn’t have this question, concern, or sensitivity in mind. On the contrary, it pounds on the hero narrative by playing the “five” against the retreating hordes, i.e. the non-heroes.

As the firefighters and remaining residents caravanned out the long road from Tassajara, five monks turned back, risking their lives to save the monastery. Fire Monks is their story.

I know each of these five monks well – indeed I sincerely count them among my favorite people on the planet – and I am profoundly grateful that they did risk their lives. They did have a choice and they did choose courageously, and by doing so saved the buildings of Tassajara.

Perhaps someday when and if I read the book I will find that Colleen Busch tells a much more nuanced story than her publicists do, and makes clear that the conditions behind who retreated and who remained were as much to do with happenstance and hierarchy as with courage. I hope so. But whether it’s at the core of her book or just at the core of the promotional strategy, hammering on this narrative of heroism is I think difficult for a community to hold.

Though I lived about five of the last fifteen years at Tassajara, I wasn’t there for the 1999 or 2008 fires. I was at Green Gulch Farm during both fires, attentively listening for each new detail of the reports from the sister temple. During the 2008 fire, we at Green Gulch received a number of “refugees” from Tassajara – new and older students alike who had been required to evacuate and had no idea when or if they might return. They were suddenly adrift and wrenched from the temple they called home. Their anxious, disoriented presence at Green Gulch intensified our already overwhelming feeling of connection with the events unfolding at Tassajara.

As I heard the stories of some of those who had just “retreated,” it was clear that many of them, if given the opportunity, would have made the same choice as the “Tassajara Five”. I felt too that I certainly would have, and I confess to the subtle feeling of loss at not having had the opportunity. Who wouldn’t want to be a hero? How better to demonstrate, enact, and begin to repay my deep love and deep debt to that ancient and sacred refuge, Tassajara? Petty as that feeling may be, it is a real feeling, and one I felt palpably shared in the “refugee” group. Perhaps it is a feeling that all heroes leave in their wakes. Certainly that petty self-interest should not drive the narrative any more than heroics should, but it needs to be acknowledged that the higher the heroes are raised the more diminished the might-have-beens can feel. We certainly shouldn’t indulge this, but in not attending to it our celebration of the few fuels division and alienation.

But shouldn’t we be able to celebrate the exceptional among the Sangha? Shouldn’t we be able to together elevate and celebrate our shining lights? Isn’t our failure to do that at San Francisco Zen center precisely our problem, precisely how our collective leadership trauma undermines the vital empowerment of real, needed leaders? More widely, isn’t celebrating each others greatness the fulfillment of the practice of “sympathetic joy”?

It would be nice to think that we could all celebrate together, and that we could do so cleanly, but the reality seems that it isn’t so easy. If we reject the creation of heroes and luminaries, perhaps we are left with a lowest-common-denominator Sangha, but perhaps we maintain Sangha harmony. Maybe there is a way to ensure the latter without succumbing the former, but I don’t think we’ve found it, and I don’t feel the renewed hero hype helps matters much at all.

An older monk I very much admire who I worked alongside in the temple kitchen for some time once made the very pointed comment (in my general direction) that “the kitchen doesn’t need heroes.” I, of course, as a young “fiery” monk, was happy to rescue my fellow workers – save their soups, sweep their messes, and otherwise go to great lengths to defend the kitchen against disaster. He saw what I didn’t: that each time I did so I was setting myself apart. The kitchen needed good works done quietly, but it didn’t need heroes.

A Sangha, too, needs good works done quietly, but I’m not sure it needs heroes. If we’re stuck with some accidental heroes, can we work with that in a useful and harmonious way? I hope so, but if we can, it’s despite, not due to, the kind of sound-byte that’s accompanying the release of Fire Monks.


18 thoughts on “Heroes, Sangha, and Why I Haven’t Read “Fire Monks”

  1. I don’t know.. I think that we need heroes. Am I jealous that I am not one? Of course I am. but that’s MY karma to deal with, why do I need to project it onto someone else?

    It is the same to me as what we do when someone is in a relationship. We order them to not show affection together, to not be too demonstrative to protect others from their own issues.. I say make them deal with their issues. Face their own desires and jealousies.

    We keep trying to protect each other from life. As if we somehow can do such a silly thing.

    I understand your feelings.. but they are YOURS. Why disparage others? Why not celebrate them? And yes you can do so in sangha without making them seperate.. By dealing with your feelings without projection and leaking.

    Just my own judgements..

  2. Maybe it might have been better to let Tassajara burn.

    Maybe the so-called heroes were being selfless by risking themselves for it and by risking appearing as heroes as others.

    Maybe the real heroes left the scene with the crowd, not attached to the place.

    I can read about actions but I do not know the state of someone else’s mind. I do not know what motivated them or what they thought the consequences may be.

    I’ll let them worry about all of that, it’s not my concern. My own concern is my mind and what goes on there and I don’t treat that very seriously very often.

    “Your opinion counts” is the modern phrase that lays a trap. It’s rarely true even if we like to think it is.

  3. Very interesting, I contemplated purchasing the book upon its release, and I’m glad you have expressed your opinion.
    On a personal note, I had just begun my short lived career as a Fire Fighter right as I heard about Tassajara burning, and sent an Email to City Center offering my aide, but I didn’t really expect a reply, with all that was going on, I’m sure reading emails was not priority on the to do list. On another note, I see what you mean (if I am correct) what you are implying is that it divides the Tassajara sangha into the Heroes who stayed, and the cowards who left, which is a very dangerous division to draw or imply. I’m not sure about the author, or how many displaced practitioners they spoke with, but I’m willing to bet on a gut feeling alone, that more than half would have stayed to fight along side the “heroes” had they known they had the choice. So to imply that they are heroes, set ab0ve the rest, when they are the heroic actions most of the fleeing bodhisattvas would have picked. It could be seen as no more heroic than refusing to evacuate your home to defend it against fire, not many people get books written about that.

  4. Jiryu, thanks for this. I have a deep aversion to this book, partly because of my own unresolved wounds about the fire, and the aftermath of the fire, and the whole notion of who stayed and who left, and the ways that it divided the sangha. I also have an aversion based on friends’ experiences being misquoted and misrepresented in this journalist’s interviews. There are a million other things I could write, but I won’t. But any time I see this book mentioned, I feel intense and complicated pain. I appreciate you talking about it.

  5. I can’t limit myself to a paragraph. Sorry.

    I also want to say that on one level, the hero story bothers me, if only because it simplifies. Sometimes archetypes are useful, but sometimes they rub the messier truth into a palatable shape, force a vast and complex event into an easy narrative that consoles, but confronts nothing. Turning the 2008 fire into a heroic drama is certainly a good story, and if it inspires people who had no real personal experience with it, maybe it will do some good. i can’t also feel, cynically, that it is good PR for Tassajara and Zen Center, and another income stream. But the book was written by an “outsider” (and here I make another division–impossible not to), with her own hypothesis from the outset, by a writer who was interested in a good story, primarily. And making stories, as we know in our practice, is what the mind does. It is also something we are taught to examine and, I think in some measure, to resist (through examination–or to unravel). However, when something is published in a book, a book we label non-fiction, it becomes harder to recognize as a construction, and it takes on the mantle of permanence and history. False as this may be, it is compelling for most people. And this is what bothers me about the Fire Monks book. It is one version, and because it has been published, it will soon be the official version. What was messy and real and I believe still ongoing in terms of karma and trauma for Zen Center, has been elided, and now we have a story of heroes to take its place.

    What happens when we make stories? Zen teachings are transmitted through stories. But the stories, the Zen stories, don’t tell us what they mean, they don’t tell us what to think. The hero story has all its parts built in. It isn’t open ended.

    Every single person at Tassajara that summer was practicing fully,under severe and difficult circumstances. Every single person had to make hard choices, and sacrifices, and confront the darker aspects of themselves and the entire Zen Center operation. The community around Tassajara was also affected–residents of Tassajara road. I could go on and on.

    This book will be reductive, to say the least. When I think of it, I feel diminished. Am I glad tassajara didn’t burn? Yes. But it did burn, for me. For me, something important was lost when those five turned back, and I have not been able to recover it. Not saying good or bad, but just saying.

    Will I forget the kindness the sangha at Green Gulch showed me, or the overarching kindnesses of Zen Center toward me, as one person, or the teachings? No. I will not. Those things last. The training lasts. The compassion and generosity extended toward me in 2008-10 humble me to this day, and I feel immense gratitude.

    But the fire took something. Something did not survive.

    No words can touch it. It’s too painful,too deep. Heroism can’t rescue it. Stories only paper it over. I encourage myself,and others, to tell their own story of the fire, if they can.

    Just to portray it in literary form is to stain it with defilement.

    That line comes to me over and over. I do feel hurt by this book. That’s all I can say. I can’t explain. Stories are so powerful. The right story makes all the difference. And this book–how can it possibly be honest?

  6. Jiryu,

    As someone who was involved in the story, both at Tassajara and having talked to the author, I would say, with respect, read the book and then post your opinions.
    I don’t think there is a reduction to heroes and cowards (and I am one of those by that reckoning) and I think the pain in the wider community gets looked at and addressed. I acknowledge this as a personal and partial view.

  7. As someone outside the story, I have no personal emotions tied up in it as most of you do. I think a lot of what Amy said is very true about it just being a story. I’ve got a few points of my own that might help some of you feel better about the whole thing though.

    If you take it as a story and remove what you know about what happened and your relationships to those touted as heroes and those who weren’t, it could be inspiring. Despite the publicist’s lack of sensitivity towards those who didn’t stay, it’s supposed to be uplifting and inspiring. Seen as an account of what happened, it’s not the absolute truth, no one story ever will be. In some way this whole thing could be seen as an example of why you’re not supposed to meet your childhood heroes. Most of you just knew the heroes before they were pictured that way.

    It’s also kind of like everyone is apprehensive about raising these five at the expense of others when focus could be placed on the fact that these five individuals aren’t independent of the sangha but a product of it. Everyone’s practice together helped produce five who made an obvious difference, but it could have easily been four or three or none with less communal effort.

    I think it’s alright to be conflicted and a little hurt as this was a painful event in the lives of many, but I would read the book because it depicts more than what I know of Tassajara whereas many of you may feel it depicts less of what Tassajara really is. There may never be a day when some of you will be able to read it and see it as inspirational in the way it’s intended and that’s fine, but why not see it as inspiration to explore what it brings up in how memories of the events have shaped who you are now just as they are?

  8. Many comments arriving on a couple of facebook pages on this as well – part of what I’m hearing is that this not-so-good feeling about the promotion and celebration of this book is not just my own. That affirmation emphasizes for me the point I really am trying to make, which isn’t particularly to trash a book that I haven’t read (as many have usefully pointed out is irresponsible), as much as to note that there is some healing, some community work, that is yet to happen around this whole event. It feels as though we are being asked to celebrate something in a way that doesn’t include the voices that don’t feel acknowledged and that certainly don’t feel celebratory in the least about the events that summer. As has also been noted in comments elsewhere, what’s important is that we take the opportunity of this book to widen the Sangha conversation in a way that includes difference and “dissent” and “unresolved pain,” rather than narrowing around a party line on this, a celebration of sameness. Hopefully we are all clear that to have any harmony is to enter difference, not to write off difference.

  9. One of many facebook comments, the below from Catherine Gammon. I join her in hoping the book captures her vision, and again wish that the marketing could also be emphasizing that vision. Book blurbs can be written 1,000 ways (as can book covers), and in a concise way could tell any number of stories about “five” or “a whole sangha”. Catherine writes:

    the fires are raging over on Amy Parker’s re-posting of your post on the fire monks… I wanted to pass along a few words from that moment:
    “I remember the pain of many of the people who came from Tassajara and wanted to have stayed or wanted no one to have stayed… the pain was great… I just imagine and hope it’s possible that the book that tells the story of heroes tells it in such a way as to ground the possibility of those who where there with the fire on the support and interconnection and work and heroism and love and fear and practice of all the others who were not … it’s possible the book shows us that… shows us that heroes are not five individuals but whole communities of beings… how do we know if we don’t read it?”

  10. It’s just a book! What about the Buddhist teaching of no-self or “not self?” I see a really weird ego trip here. What bullshit!

  11. So would you consider writing a “No Heroes in the West” post about hero narratives and Zen? 🙂

    This post and the ensuing discussion help me think of a few things which may be a little off-topic but I think are still related.

    In the history of psychotherapy and in my own experiences in psychotherapy circles it’s not uncommon for therapists who bring up dissenting opinions or beliefs to be pathologized. In Freud’s time analysts who expressed a different view of theory were sometimes met with statements that they hadn’t been fully analyzed and hadn’t “worked through” their issues. When I’ve expressed to other therapists a desire to study and engage with some of the environmental crises of our times I’ve been painfully told that my motive stems from unresolved family dynamics. I’ve heard that Foucault writes about how psychology is used as a form of social control and I think that’s a great example that I’ve seen and been confused by personally.

    To me it seems like a similar thing happens in Buddhist circles I’ve been a part of and in this discussion in particular. People who express different opinions are sometimes “ego-ologized” (is there a better word?) — meaning their dissent is analyzed and reduced to an ego trip or “projecting” ego needs onto others. Does the operation I’m calling “ego-ologizing” have deep historical roots or is it mostly a modern Buddhist meets Western psychology thing? Anyhow, is it possible we in the Buddhist community can do this kind of thing less and find other language when we think something is “too negative” or disagree with someone? I would bet that it would support more people to speak when they have a different perspective if they didn’t have to deal with others reducing their perspective to ego issues.

    I for one do not want people who feel pain by this fire situation or the book or basically any situation to endure being pathologized or ego-ologized. To reduce the situation and say something akin to “that’s your ego problem to practice with” is something I want to speak out against. Saying instead, “we all have an ability to respond to this community situation so let’s practice using our abilities without pathologizing or ego-ologizing”, is something I want to stand for.

  12. Courageous post, Jiryu, in your honesty, and some very thought-provoking comments.

    I haven’t read the book either, but I’m not against reading it.

    I am a little surprised by the strong aversion to it. If anything, my own bias is that the community could do a better job of acknowledging people. If that brings up “petty feelings” in the rest of us, OK: we are here to study the ego as it arises, in all of its particularity, not to pretend we don’t have one.

    The whole “nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is very Japanese, and, I think, can be taken to the extreme in unhealthy ways. Maybe better to balance that side with the other: taking turns lifting each other up.

    Regarding the so-called Tassajara Five, maybe the commercialization of it is slightly off-putting, but I feel really grateful to them for taking on that personal risk to save something we all treasure. Not because it ever occurred to me that they cared more or have more guts than others, (though I think they have more guts than I do!) but because, as events unfolded, they were in a place/time/position to step up boldly and they did.

    Their heroism doesn’t diminish me as a sangha member. In fact, I feel rather enhanced by it and somehow a part of it, like “yeah! this is our practice. these are our people.”

    Bravo to them, and the training/community that produced them. And bravo to the wider sangha for being able to honor them wholeheartedly for what they did, and/or look clearly at why, for some important reasons, that is hard to do.

    Jiryu, thanks for putting this all out there.

  13. Added a link to this interesting discussion on cuke.com today – on the home page’s What’s Newest and on the page for Tassajara Fire History [cuke.com/tassfire] where I also added comments on the Fire Monks book. Thanks.

  14. Why are they considered heroes? What did they do? They chose to turn back when the group decision was to leave. They abandoned the rest who were leaving not giving them a chance to change their minds. Being called Special in any way is not The Way. I completely disagree with Gaither we do not need heroes–looking outside of ourselves. We need to turn the lamp inward and dissolve the ‘ego’ and learn the truth of the self. It’s OK to fight fires and win or lose and it’s OK to not fight fires. Just that.

  15. To be American is to want to be a hero, to hone yourself, and then set yourself up above the others. You can’t sell a book in America unless it has a hero in it and it ends in happily ever after.

    This is not as bad as it sounds. This American cultural trait has given many people the world over the opportunity to come and discover and distinguish themselves in whatever way they can, an opportunity that they might not have had elsewhere.

    I suspect many come to Zen, feel drawn to sit on the cushion when they realize that they are not going to be heroes. This usually happens in their thirties or so, when they realize that being a hero is a lot more difficult and tiresome than they imagined, it doesn’t really fit their nature and besides they weren’t that good at anything that they could be heroes in it.

    Why not enjoy both? Do you best, take up the challeges you need to take, be a hero if life requires you to but enjoy your ordinary life anyways? Watch the seasons come and go in the company of good friends and a few beers too. Come back home to your family and love them for what they are.

    Then we more free to be heroes, be ordinary and enjoy other people’s heroism too.

  16. 1. Interesting discussion, but WAYYYYY to much thinking. 2. An excellent opportunity to practice non-aversion. We cannot control what the marketplace will make of anything. The story is what it is, and what we will learn from the book is the perspective of an earnest storyteller. Approach it with an empty eye.

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