For the Monks of Tassajara

If you follow the other blog, you’ve seen my updates on the wildfires threatening Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Soto Zen monastery in the Carmel Valley/Big Sur area of California. This is a gripping story that, at any other time, might be getting more of the nation’s attention.

I believe that Tassajara is the oldest Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere, and it is certainly the oldest Zen monastery in North America. It was established in 1966 by the San Francisco Zen Center while the late Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was abbot.

In brief, wildfires that had been burning since mid-June began to threaten the forests around Tassajara, and the guests and most students were evacuated June 25. A crew of 22 students, mostly monks, defied orders and stayed behind to prepare to save the buildings. They’ve been cutting back brush and hooking up sprinkler systems. Although they promise they will leave if the fire becomes life threatening, local authorities insisted they provide names of their dentists for identification purposes.

Here’s a video from a local television station about the monks. Naturally, there’s also a blog about saving Tassajara, called Sitting With Fire.

Although the buildings can be rebuilt if lost, losing Tassajara even temporarily would be devastating to the San Francisco Zen Center; first, because the monastery can’t get fire insurance, and second, because programs for guests at Tassajara are a big source of income for SFZC. So, although all things are impermanent, if Tassajara burns it would be a huge setback that would ripple throughout much of American Soto Zen.

A post from yesterday evening on the San Francisco Zen Center site says the fires continue to creep toward Tassajara. Two fire trucks came to bring the monks hard hats, goggles and foam.

Most poignantly, on Tuesday the monks requested a copy of Gary Snyder’s Smokey the Bear Sutra. This “sutra” is a poem composed by Snyder in 1969 that has been beloved by American Zen students ever since. It’s probably been 20 years since I first read it, and it’s still a delight. So please read it if you never have, and re-read it if you have read it before, and then think some good thoughts for the monks of Tassajara.

3 thoughts on “For the Monks of Tassajara

  1. Goodness me, I had no idea old Smokey was so spiritual.

    I particularly loved:

    The twisting strata of the great mountains and the pulsings of volcanoes are my love burning deep in the earth….

    If only we humans had the sense not to build our civilization so close to the places where that love boils to the surface.

    Thanks for sharing the wonderful sutra. I’ll send all my best thoughts and hopes to the monks in the Carmel valley.

  2. Thank you, thank you for the link to the sutra. I hadn’t seen it in thirty-some years. Thirty-several: in the early 70s, at the height of Hippie Posters everywhere, there was a nicely produced one of this sutra — without attribution, as I recall, in the fine old hippie tradition, leaving us to discover later that the anonymous author was the famous Snyder.

    Anyway, it was valuable to be reminded of it now.

    Drown their butts.
    Crush their butts.

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