Entertaining The Guest of Fire: Saving the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Deborah Donohue   

Sitting Down With Tassajara Director David Zimmerman

Entertaining The Guest of Fire: Saving the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
Entertaining The Guest of Fire: Saving the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center
In September I traveled to Tasajara and spoke with David Zimmerman, one of the “Tassajara Five,” the four men and one woman who were instrumental in defending the monastery against the Basin Complex Fire. We sat and talked beneath a leafy tree in two yellow chairs in the monastery’s upper garden, just a foot from the charred ground of the fire’s path.

DD: How did you come to the decision to head back to Tassajara, realizing there was a possibility you might perish?

DZ: Abbot Steve Stücky and I were in the last vehicle out. Both of us were hesitant about leaving. Steve and I were talking, “What can we do? Is there any way we can turn around?” We didn’t have time to get the whole community together. Those of us who chose were core team members who decided this very quickly, that it was viable to defend Tassajara. If worse comes to worst, we just could hunker down in the Stone Office or jump in the creek if there was a fire storm coming through. I don’t think we ever felt we would perish.

DD: Tassajara is not a stranger to fire. Tell me about your relationship to the elements.

DZ: I think it’s a matter of respect. You acknowledge conditions, respect them first, and if there’s a change that you want to happen,
work from that place of respect in such a way that you honor both yourself and your needs as well as the elements. So we try to refrain from fighting the fire. We don’t want to make the fire an enemy. It’s been here a lot longer than we have. It’s cyclical, it returns frequently. Same thing with the water. What’s going to happen in the winter – the floods, the erosion, rocks falling, the landslides. So this is another event, other elements to welcome. How do we work with this? First we get to know them, just as we get to know our own selves very intimately. Who are we to these causes and conditions? By knowing that we can say, how do I work with these causes and conditions? The preparation for the fire was such that we really got ready. We got as much information as possible about what fire is and how it behaves. It was interesting that the talking became about managing fire. I had never heard of managing fire. You stomp fire, right?

DD: Yes.

DZ: But no; you manage it. What’s going to happen is that the fire is going to pass through, and that’s our practice. Letting all things pass through. We aren’t solid. We can allow things when possible to pass through, not grasp at them. So we’re not going to grasp the fire. We’re not going to try to stop it. We going to reroute it maybe, encourage it to go elsewhere if it’s not beneficial to us, and then let it continue its nature which is to burn. The wilderness needs to burn. It thrives on it. We’ve heard how the relationship between fire and water over the years is a very strong interplay. For instance the fish spawning is dependent on fire. The fire burns, there’s erosion into the creeks, the creeks fill up with silt that over time gets washed away. What’s left is this gravel that’s big enough for the Steelhead to spawn in, to lay their eggs. They’re dependent on the fire to do that. So we don’t want to stop the cycle. We want to honor it, but first we have to know how, what does honoring mean? Become intimate with it. Know its behavior, its nature and then much like aikido, work with it, turning the energy in a way that won’t be harmful to us as much as possible. It’s this working with the elements rather than blocking the harmony that we cultivate in our practice.

DD: How did you hold the space when fear or anxiety arrived?

DZ: You know, I can’t say how much of it was a conscious process. I do remember often saying to myself, “I don’t know.” I’ve never
been in a fire. I’ve never led a community through a crisis. So for me I needed to rely on, to practice “don’t know mind.” That means first to me what’s arising. What are the thoughts and how do the thoughts impact the feeling in the body? When anxiety would come up I would say, okay, how am I connected to the earth here? I would feel my feet, allowing myself to reside in the breath, the sense of connectedness to the earth, realizing that the fear is up here in the mind.

DD: How do you feel about our capacity to face the elements?

DZ: What served me through the fire was really just to see how much we are not separate from these elements, that we are them. Our breath is wind, the heat in our body is fire, our skin is earth. We are constantly this flow of elements. It’s just a kaleidoscope of different relationships and expressions, a dance. I understand it at a deeper level by having engaged with the fire. For me, the larger learning from this is not so much the elements, but what is essential. The fire’s gift is how it burned to the core of what is most important. What lingers is this taste, a thirst for what is essential in each moment. In engaging the fire there wasn’t time to just be chattering in the mind. I was just engaged in the very moment and that’s what seared with me, that is the gift, the scar if you will.

David Zimmerman
David Zimmerman
DD: How can we find this immediacy in the moment without something huge to trigger it?

DZ: Our challenge is, if you can use a kind of a Zen teaching metaphor, to practice as if our heads are on fire. This flame is always here, this state of emergency, of “wake up now because time is fleeting.”

DD: Tell me about “giving everything up to the flames.”

DZ: I think to understand this intimate relationship that we have with all things – goes to the teaching of emptiness – that there is no abiding self, there is no abiding anything and that the idea that we could save Tassajara, what are we saving? What is Tassajara? Is Tassajara just this valley, is Tassajara just buildings? Which building? Is Tassajara the people who live here? Is Tassajara the mountains that surround it? And so the idea that something would be lost already goes into questioning the teaching.

DD: So enlightenment …

DZ: Is not grasping, it’s just responding to the request at the moment. There’s a faith. Sometimes we say our question is, “What is your innermost request? What do you want most?” And I would imagine many of us, at various levels are saying, “to be able to just be open and receive as things arise.”

DD: Do we all have these moments of at least temporary enlightenment where we are completely at one with everything?

DZ: Buddha didn’t necessarily know that he was Buddha.

DD: We strive so endlessly…

DZ: You don’t have to make any effort. The effort is just release, release, release and in that releasing the whole universe comes forward of its own accord.

DD: Tell me about about sesshin, “a gathering of the mind.” Was this whole experience a constant sesshin?

DZ: Yes. It focused our attention. The fire just said, “Tend to this. If you don’t attend to this, you’re gong to die,” you know, “or something terrible is going to happen.” So sesshin is as much as possible, to drop thoughts and just be present, be present, be present, attend, attend, attend. You could say to “gather the mind,” basically is to pull away from all distraction and gather your attentiveness. The fire really evoked that, demanded it. When we realize that our life and death is on the line, it really does make that happen more.

DD: It seems certain that if the “Tassajara Five” had not entered sesshin, calmly deciding to return and meet the fire, we would not be sitting here.

DZ: We’d be sitting, but with a slightly different arrangement of elements. We are sitting – next to the ashes of the fire. The fire was a foot away from where we are sitting. The resilience of the human spirit and of the whole, all of the elements and all of this together is just enormous. Do you know there are seeds that only germinate in fire?

DD: That is what I’ve heard. That there are seeds that have to be heated to 300 degrees or more to even germinate …

DZ: Some need intense fire to germinate and it happens only every several hundred years in some cases. And they sit there not doing anything until they get to the right conditions, which is like our purpose. You know, we may wait and wait and wait until the right conditions, when we wake up. It could be a very intense fire that triggers our awakening. If you look on the hills, you see, maybe not so much up here, but further on the mountains, so much green coming up and all these dead twigs and bushes. They’re dead, but the plants still want to thrive from their very base. So they find other ways to come up and thrive. I think it’s fascinating.

DD: You were talking about how sensual and beautiful you thought the surrounding hills were, despite what seems lost. We’re so used to “this is beautiful, this is not” and making those judgments. So it goes back to really no separation.

DZ: No separation. There’s no separation and because there’s no separation, there’s nothing to lose. You know, everything’s just constant flow, impermanence. The fire is teaching impermanence. Not only do all things change but there was nothing there in the first place to change, and so we can just tap into that large spacious vastness. You may think Tassajara burns down or gets flooded or whatever, but that’s only one expression of the moment. The next expression will be something different and again, for me it was the grace, if you will, that comes up, the sense of generosity that the Universe supports us as long as we don’t hold onto anything. We just continually receive everything completely. As we see the Universe, receive everything. It is so spacious, so gifting and that is gratitude. Gratitude is just being open and honoring the connective-ness, the intimacy from that openness…. Deborah, I again want to express my gratitude for the people who are Tassajara, which includes the guests and the many benefactors. Many times, when one lives here, one thinks, oh, we are Tassajara. But every one of the many wonderful beings who have thought about Tassajara, or considered it, or passed through here in any way, is Tassajara. If Tassajara burned down, we wouldn’t really lose Tassajara, you know. As long as someone here still cares about creating a space of awakenness, Tassajara will exist, in some form.

Find Tassajara through the San Francisco Zen Center: sfzc.org. To make donations to the Center that was closed for six weeks during the fire, send mail to: S.F. Zen Center, 300 Page Street, San Francisco, CA. 94102 or Tassajara, 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA. 93924.

Deborah Donohue is a writer and yoga therapist living in Santa Barbara, CA. She can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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