The awareness of the firefighter, the mindfulness of the monk, the principles of fire and the spirit of Zen come together in...



A former Yoga Journal senior editor’s account of five Zen practitioners turned firefighters who saved a beloved California monastery.

Most readers, if they know it at all, will connect Tassajara to the bread-baking and vegetarian cookbooks inspired by its kitchen. For practitioners of American Zen, however, the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur is an almost sacred place for meditation and work, famous for its monastic training and host to thousands of guests since its founding in the mid-1960s. In June 2008, lightning set the California chaparral ablaze. At the end of an unpaved road, in a canyon surrounded by mountains, Tassajara lay in the middle of what would eventually become the third-largest conflagration in state history, destroying more than 240,000 acres. For almost three weeks, the community watched the fire approach, reduced their numbers to essential personnel and took various steps—including an ingenious sprinkler system rigged to rooftops, dubbed “Dharma Rain”—to protect the monastery. Finally, down to a band of 14 and under orders from state and federal authorities who deemed the place indefensible, they evacuated. On the way out, five monks turned back, determined to protect the abbey. Their histories, the stories of other Tassajara disciples, an introduction to the tenets of Buddhism and a meticulous tracking of the devastating fire’s progress are all part of Busch’s story. Her main purpose, though, is to explore how the discipline of Zen uniquely prepared otherwise untrained monks to face the crisis. Herself a Zen student, the author explains how Zen practice teaches followers to live in flux, to recognize impermanence and to deal with uncertainty. Novice firefighters, the monks were veterans at practicing calm and taking care, of honoring simultaneously interdependence and individual authority. They smoothly turned toward the fire, not to confront or fight it, but rather to meet it, to “make friends with it” as the blaze lapped at their perimeter.

The awareness of the firefighter, the mindfulness of the monk, the principles of fire and the spirit of Zen come together in a well-told story about the effort required and the lessons learned from paying close attention.

Pub Date: July 11, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-59420-291-9

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: May 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2011

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.


New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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The name of C.S. Lewis will no doubt attract many readers to this volume, for he has won a splendid reputation by his brilliant writing. These sermons, however, are so abstruse, so involved and so dull that few of those who pick up the volume will finish it. There is none of the satire of the Screw Tape Letters, none of the practicality of some of his later radio addresses, none of the directness of some of his earlier theological books.

Pub Date: June 15, 1949

ISBN: 0060653205

Page Count: 212

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1949

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