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Refuge Under Smoke: August at Abhayagiri


Monks’ chanting rose into the warm July evening of Āsāḷha Pūjā to mix with the smoke that was just beginning to fill the Abhayagiri valley. Several miles away, fires that were to become the largest in California history roared through the parched madrone. In the year since the Redwood Valley Complex fire nearly consumed Abhayagiri, the scarred hills surrounding the monastery have served as a daily reminder of life’s unpredictability. The nearby Ranch and River fires this season have once again forced the community to recall the instability of their situation, and to appreciate and blessing of a monastery still safe. Tan Suhajjo, who was evacuated during the previous year’s fires considered:

It’s another great reminder. Many in the community were present here last October, so smelling the smoke and contemplating the nearby evacuations is very real and very visceral. Even though the monastery’s not at high risk from the Ranch or River Fires, still having that reminder encourages me to question how much I depend emotionally on the stability of the monastery. It is devastating that a firefighter just lost his life, and I’m sure that structures are being burned and people are being displaced. I try to use that as a reflection in terms of compassion, wishing them well and hoping they’re cultivating mental states that let them be okay. Like Ajahn Chah said, “When the flood comes and washes your house away, don’t let it wash your heart away too.” Don’t let the fire burn your heart as well as your house. Then you’ve lost everything, but we can still keep the most important part if we can keep the practice going.

The blackened hills of Redwood Valley now offer Abhayagiri a measure of security, serving as a break protecting the monastery from the 300,000-acre Mendocino Complex Fire. Although a silver haze of smoke hovers over the valley some days, it seems more than anything to help cool the dry August air. Despite the nearby fires, the monastery continues to follow its usual routine, deepening into the coolness of the annual Vassa retreat. Tan Suhajjo describes the purpose of the three-month period during which the Buddha advised the monastic community to remain in one residence and focus on formal practice:

Traditionally in South and Southeast Asian cultures, this was the monsoon season, so it was very difficult to travel or do regular work tasks, and it became a time to turn inward. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the peak of the summertime, so it’s not exactly the same feeling. However, we do still use it as period of time for instruction around the traditional Vinaya, or monastic code, and to allow individuals to step out of the usual routine. Every resident at the monastery gets two weeks of solitude in the forest. The individual has the benefit of being able to step back from duties and reflect on how those duties are affecting them. When there’s a lot of work, there’s more noise in the system and it’s harder to listen to the mind. We can be getting into habits and cultivating mental states that we don’t have a lot of awareness around, so by taking these two weeks in the midst of a busy time to put down duties, the energies have a chance to echo through the heart and we can pay attention to those. Also, just having the presence of people on retreat while the rest of the community is engaged sets a wholesome tone and can be a gentle but powerful reminder that we cannot abandon that cultivation of the higher mind even in the midst of work.

The cool refuge of Abhayagiri, deepened during the period of retreat, provides not just an escape from August’s external fires, but from the blaze of consumerist culture. The Buddha’s third cardinal sermon, the Ādittapariyāya Sutta, given on a hill overlooking a burning forest, likened the mind’s craving to flame. “The Fire Sermon” describes not only the pain of such endless fever but also the path to Nibbana, literally “cooling.” The shade of Abhayagiri’s cool oaks draws those who sense clearly the heat of the city’s smoldering neon. Over the past months, several new members have joined the community with the hope of stepping into that shade for good. One of these new members speaks about the experiences that brought him to the monastery in hopes of ordaining:

I’ve lived a varied life trying to find peace and happiness out in the world and just seeing how trying to fulfill myself through the senses - through things and experiences - wasn’t doing it. I worked at a grocery co-op, in horticulture, and a nursery, and I can’t think of one thing that panned out exactly as I’d planned. Then, I came into contact with the Pali Canon through Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology, In The Buddha’s Words. At that time I was considering a Zen monastic life, but it totally changed my thinking. I started looking into the Therevāda tradition, and quickly found Ajahn Chah. It was love at first sight, first sound, first word, and then I discovered the disciples, the monastery, and Luang Por Pasanno. I was at a point in my life where I still had good health, wasn’t in a relationship or caught up in other commitments - so it seemed it was a good opportunity. Everything made sense and I felt right about it, so I went for it wholeheartedly. It’s hard. It’s not easy. Like Luang Por Pasanno says, “It’s not a fun lifestyle,” but I think maybe that was part of my problem out in lay life - everything had to be fun.

Simple and slow, life at the monastery provides a counterpoint to the world around it and the histories of those who come to it seeking refuge. It is not separated from culture it grows within, just as it is not isolated from the tragedy of the year’s fires. Smoke still wraps the mountain’s madrone and scattered pine. Still, the the community provides a center those with faith can return to, again finding balance in the midst of activity, coolness in the midst of heat, and peace in the midst of their lives.

Posted August 25, 2018
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