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.