For one month during the summer of 2008, what became known as the Basin Complex Fire threatened to engulf the wilderness-surrounded monastery, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center (“Tassajara”), a central California coast component of, and at that time the generator of almost half of the operating expenses of, the San Francisco Zen Center (the “Center”). 

     Colleen Morton Busch’s engrossing Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara (2011) asks, “Suddenly, people who ordinarily spent a good deal of time sitting cross-legged in front of a wall faced a situation that required decisive action.  What did that look like?  And how could sitting still and doing nothing prepare you to act, and to act fast?”

     Of crucial concern were Tassajara’s isolation—it could be reached by only one road, which might well be cut off by the fire—and the readiness of fire authorities to prohibit anyone who left from returning until the emergency had ended.  There would thus be a temporal and physical “point of no return”—or, what Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has famously characterized as a “one-way door” decision.

     Busch’s detailed account of the community’s dynamics in confronting as “a field test for Zen practice” such a (figuratively and literally) elemental threat to its physical facilities—and to its spiritual, organizational, and financial stability— holds many lessons for directors and officers of companies coping with crises.

     Among them (without spoilers, as far as possible):

     First, assess realistically the capacities of potential members of the crisis team and of its leadership group, especially if only a limited number can participate.

     Summer guests were immediately evacuated; and law enforcement and firefighting authorities, who had originally declared that everyone should leave, ultimately told Tassajara’s leaders that at most eight longer-term residents could remain.  In an early sign of the community’s independent approach, fourteen members stayed on (several other supporters would arrive later), and agreed that six would “function as a decision-making team.” Nonetheless, by a relatively early point, “half of the senior staff had been evacuated.”

     Second, establish quickly each team member’s role, and relative authority, in the decision-making process.  Two residents left after becoming concerned that there was no clearly-defined “trigger point” for the evacuation of the entire group.  At a critical juncture, this very issue would divide: Tassajara’s director, David Zimmerman; one of the Center’s Abbots (“a position of both spiritual and organizational leadership”), who had arrived four days after the state had ordered all “nonessential” people to leave; the other Abbot, who telephoned Zimmerman a week later; and a resident who also captained a station of California’s firefighting agency.  

     One of the four later “insisted that he made the right decision. . . with the information he had at the time.”  A second recalled, “We respected [that person’s] decision. But we weren’t fully persuaded by it.”  A third would tell Busch, “I could have done something there to better communicate.”  And the fourth—who had opposed creating the “trigger point,” on the grounds that “We wanted to respond to events as they arose rather than draw a line in the sand.”— would conclude in a post-crisis message to the community, “The decisions we make may not be the ‘right’ ones, but they are simply the best decisions we can make in the moment before us.”       

     In such a fast-moving situation, who can make suggestions, recommendations, or requests to—or command, order, or overrule—whom?  As matters progressed, and over the on-scene Abbot’s objection, the Center’s president, who had not had fire training, attempted to join the group at Tassajara.  However, he and the treasurer were intercepted and turned away by a police officer who informed them that, “We’re not having a conversation about this.”  (A curious aspect of the book is the almost-complete absence of any reference to the Center’s board of directors or other governance structures.)

     Third, apply the community’s values, perspective, and training to the situation. As evacuations began, Jane Hirshfield, a former resident who had helped defend the monastery from the “Marble Cone Fire” of 1977 and who continued to teach poetry workshops there, organized efforts to reduce fire hazards around the buildings.  When asked by a resident whether the normal sesshin [intensive meditation session] schedule would be abandoned, she replied, “This is a work sesshin.  It’s not not [Zen] practice.”  Or, as Busch notes, Zen practice “teaches. . . not simply how to be quiet and still. . . but how to let that measure of equilibrium accompany you when you leave the [practice hall].”

     Fourth, determine and refine as best you can not just goals but their respective priorities; the parameters of “success”; and (since fire often reemerges after apparently having been extinguished) how to know when the crisis has ended. 

     Fifth, know what the law is, and how it—and the prospect of personal liability– might affect participants’ decision-making.  Just as some firefighters see their Ten Standard Orders (including “Be alert.  Keep calm.  Think clearly.  Act decisively.”)  as “’ideally possible but practically unattainable,’” some of the residents were aware that, despite its name, California’s “mandatory evacuation” order does not enable authorities to force residents to leave; and they had learned that one can in some circumstances legally ignite “backfires” on one’s own property, to protect it from more serious damage. 

     But the Tassajara group did not fully appreciate that a new awareness of potential liability had made incident commanders more cautious about putting their firefighters’ lives at risk, and about discussing decisions with outsiders.

     And, although residents who chose to stay were asked by firefighters to provide not only emergency contact information but also the names of their dentists (for the possible identification of bodily remains), the leaders of Tassajara and the Center apparently did not require, or even ask, them to sign waivers absolving the institutions from liability for their deaths, or for any injuries that they might sustain. 

     Sixth, consider carefully the commitments and commands of, and conflicts among, external authorities.  Several times, Tassajara leaders’ expectations of assistance were disappointed, and it was not always clear which of the official firefighting forces had jurisdiction and control. Tassajara director Zimmerman “never really knew how the different agencies managing the blaze were related or whom he could trust.”

     Seventh, maintain both internal and external lines of communication.  Firefighters as well as residents—who were “repeatedly [warned] by firefighters not to get too spread out or let themselves get isolated”—continuously monitored weather reports (and did their own firespotting from various vantage points) as the fire grew larger and nearer.  The core members of the Tassajara group stayed connected through walkie-talkies, into one of which the leader of the firefighters had programmed the frequencies that some of the firefighters would be using to speak with each other.  From afar, some members operated a blog providing frequent updates on Tassajara (which had “a radio phone and two satellite [phone] lines” and “a temporary Internet connection”), and kept in touch with reporters, even as the Center’s president tried to get help through its political connections.

     Eighth, review the organization’s experience in previous situations, and keep records of the current circumstances and decisions. At the first indication of danger, Zimmerman consulted Tassajara’s “fire log” from the Marble Cone Fire thirty-one years before; and he carefully typed up his own handwritten notes “to leave behind a thorough written record. . . like the ones he’d been reading.” (The firefighters maintained their own official Key Decision Log.)

     Ninth, prepare for recurring situations by stocking up on equipment and ensuring that members have appropriate training.  Tassajara had amassed a supply of high-quality fire protection gear (which visiting firefighters “fingered . . . , nodding approvingly, saying, ‘Oh, yeah.  You’ve got the good stuff.’”), and had constructed a special standpipe system to deliver strong flows of water for firefighting.  However, only one of the key group of residents had “any current wilderness first-aid training.”

    Tenth, conduct practice drills, which might include a “’ready-for-anything crew’ [to stand] by, [as] an extra set of hands, ears, and eyes.”

     Eleventh, maintain, to the degree possible, the organization’s ordinary routines.  One resident observed that initially, “the regular evening service. . . , often not fully attended, was packed.  ‘Everyone was in there,’ she recalled. ‘Suddenly we all needed to show up to the one thing that was still known amid all that was so uncertain.’”

     Finally, be prepared for criticism, both from outsiders (that members had not helped neighbors cope with the fire) and from insiders (over the core group’s ultimate decisions about complete evacuation).

     Busch’s engaging profiles of key participants (including a couple going through a “full-blown conflict”), and her chronicle of their often-intense interactions, are not without what some readers might call “woo-woo” moments. For instance, one of the Abbots told a reporter, as the deadly fire neared, “We’re not really fighting the fire.  We’re meeting the fire, letting the fire come to us, [to] make friends with it, tame it as it reaches our boundaries.” 

     He also professed “confidence in [spontaneously and intuitively perceptive] beginner’s mind [and in] the willingness to remain completely present and not turn away from the unknown.”   However, one of the firefighting authorities advised a resident, “The difference between a professional firefighter and you is[,] I know what to be afraid of”; and another firefighter had come increasingly to appreciate a senior colleague’s professional motto, “When in doubt, chicken out.”

    The same Abbot characterized Zen practice as “very straightforward and direct. . . You take care of what is in front of you.  You do what you can, and when you can’t, well, ok, then you can’t.” Busch reports that, consistent with their training, residents protecting the monastery “just did the next thing and the next thing, continuously.  They did what they could do and didn’t dwell on what they couldn’t.” 

     But that was after they had each made a commitment to this effort, and thereby to assume very serious personal risks—decisions that, for individuals and for the community, were not necessarily “straightforward and direct” at all. 

     In fact, though each member of the Tassajara community– and of the firefighting and law enforcement authorities involved– appears to have been acting entirely in good faith, people ended up disagreeing on critical issues. And more than one person at Tassajara would ultimately change his or her decision about evacuating.

   Whether or not they practice Zen meditation, corporate directors might regularly reflect on the relevance to their own responsibilities of poet Jane Hirshfield’s (almost-haiku) summary of Zen wisdom: “Everything changes.  Everything is connected. Pay attention.”

    They might also consider Busch’s observation that for the “Fire Monks” of Tassajara, “[a]s with Zen practice, the point wasn’t to create some static state of permanent protection.  The point was to be perfectly ready for whatever comes.”

    Or, in the words of a contemporary group not often publicly associated with meditative practices, “You got to roll with the punches, and get to what’s real.”

   [I have found of interest the collection of brief but thought-provoking essays—many of which refer to useful sources on, or related to, Zen teachings and practice—available on the blog of Professor Emeritus Ben Howard.]