Eight - Fires and Smoke

Ajahn Ñāniko

Eight - Fires and Smoke

In early August 2020, a generous layperson living at the monastery wanted to take Luang Por Pasanno on a tour of the Big Sur coastal wilderness, as he had never been there before. A few of us joined and went down for a three day trip. On the second day, there was an outdoor meal offering at Big Creek Canyon, and our group sat at a rough redwood-slab table and took the meal, encircled by the lush and beautiful coastal canyon wilderness.

A brutal fire season ensued, and by the last day of August the smoke was thick at Abhayagiri. The closest fire was near Hull Mountain to the east, about twenty miles away, but it was uncertain where this smoke was coming from exactly. There were also fires in the Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz areas. After several days engulfed in smoke, the throat gets scratchy, eyes are irritated and energy is generally low.

On September 7th, the Oak Fire hit just north of Willits, and was therefore much closer to home for Abhayagiri. By late afternoon, the sun had disappeared and everything was a reddish color. The atmosphere remained like that for a few days, then came the raining ash for about a week. We got a call from Luang Por Piak in Thailand, checking to see if we were okay - this show of support was greatly appreciated.

Then the Big Creek area, where we had the meal offering in early August, burned down.

In October 2017 the Abhayagiri community had to evacuate due to approaching fires. If there is only smoke, with no fire, at least it will clear up at some point. This year Cal Fire worked tirelessly to contain the huge fires, which were initially ignited by unseasonal lightning strikes. A lack of wind and slightly high humidity helped in their efforts at first, but then the weather conditions turned dryer and warmer and stayed that way.

There exists a protective Pāli chant known as the Quail’s Protection, which recounts a former life of the Buddha. One day the Buddha was on his daily alms round with several bhikkhus when nearby, a huge forest fire had broken out and was coming toward the village. The fire suddenly stopped, became calm, and went back. As the monks wonder at this, the story continues:

“It is no present power of mine,” Buddha told them, “that makes the fire go out as soon as it reaches this spot. It is the power of a former Act of Truth of mine. No fire will ever burn this spot during the whole of this world age. This is one of the miracles which will last until the end of this era.”

The Elder Ānanda then folded a robe and laid it down for Buddha to sit on. After he had taken his seat, the monks bowed to him and seated themselves respectfully around him. “Only the present is known to us, Bhante. The past is hidden. Please make it clear to us.” At their request, the Buddha told a Jataka, or story of the past.

Long, long ago in this very spot the Bodhisatta was reborn as a quail. Every day, his parents fed him with food which they brought in their beaks, since he was still confined to the nest and unable to forage on his own. The baby quail did not even have the strength yet to stand on his feet to walk about, much less to spread his wings and fly.

A great jungle fire broke out. As the flames swept through the grass and the forest, birds and animals fled for their lives. The air was filled with the shrieking of adult birds flying away from their nests. The parents of this young bird were as frightened as the others and abandoned their helpless offspring to his fate. Lying there in the nest, the little quail stretched his neck to see what was happening. When he saw the flames coming toward him, he thought to himself, “My parents, fearing death, have fled to save themselves, leaving me here completely alone. I am without protector or helper. Had I the power to take to my wings, I too would fly to safety. If I could use my legs, I would run away. What can I do?”

“In this world,” he thought further, “there exists the Power of Goodness and the Power of Truth. There are beings who, having realized all the Perfections in previous lives, have attained enlightenment beneath a Bodhi tree. They have become Buddhas, filled with truth, compassion and patience. There is power in the attributes they have won. Although I am very young and very weak, I can grasp one truth that is the single principle in Nature. As I call to mind the Buddhas of the past and the power of their attributes, let me perform an Act of Truth.”

The little quail concentrated his mind by recalling the power of the Buddhas long since passed away and declared, “With wings that cannot fly and legs that cannot yet walk, forsaken by my parents, here I lie. By this truth and by the faith that is in me, I call on you, O dreadful Fire, to turn back, harming neither me nor any of the other birds!”

At that instant, the fire retreated 16 acres, and went out like a torch plunged in water, leaving a circle 32 acres in diameter around the baby quail perfectly unscathed.

Although the Jataka Tales are past life legends of the Buddha, chants such as the Quail’s Protection can remind us about the power of truth and virtue. The photo above is Big Creek Canyon, just after it burned. The table is the redwood slab we ate at that day in early August. Who can declare the cause for such things? It could just be a coincidence that the table we ate at didn’t burn. What we can say is that the group who offered that meal experienced a strengthening of faith, an important Dhamma quality.

Seven - The Fluidity of Ideas

Ajahn Ñāniko

Seven - The Fluidity of Ideas

A boundary in traditional Buddhist monasteries is known as a sīma. Official sangha activities, such as the fortnightly recitation of the pāṭimokkha, are known as sanghakamma and tend to take place within a designated sīma. Within a sīma one might find a building where the sanghakamma take place, known as an Uposathā Hall. The sīma can be a forest sīma, which is defined just by the fact that the ar…

Six - Brooms and Sweeping

Ajahn Ñāniko

Six - Brooms and Sweeping

As you sweep, put your heart into the sweeping, for sweeping is part of our establishment of striving and effort. Reflect on Dhamma. Reflect on instability, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self while sweeping, and the heart will be open and cheerful. This way, keeping to the monastic standard is an enjoyable experience. - Luang Por Baen In the monastery, we do a lot of sweeping with two types of broom…

Five - Going Forth

Ajahn Ñāniko

Five - Going Forth

One of the services that a Buddhist training monastery provides for the world is the opportunity to renounce the world. In Pāli this is known as pabbajjā, or going forth. In a traditional Buddhist culture like Thailand, there are several reasons why one would leave the household life to spend time as a monastic, such as to make merit for one’s parents, to honor a deceased relative or friend, to st…

Four - Remembering Todd

Ajahn Ñāniko

Four - Remembering Todd

On April 27th, the trees were dancing in the wind. In the middle of the afternoon several Sangha members made their way to Cool Oaks to remember Todd Tansuhaj, who passed away 14 years ago on that day. Todd’s ashes are interned in a little granite house nestled in the roots of a huge oak tree. After cleaning the little shrine for Todd, we had 45 minutes of silent meditation followed by some paritt…

Three - Living Outside

Ajahn Ñāniko

Three - Living Outside

There is a 2.5 mile loop trail at Abhayagiri. Starting from the cloister area, you walk up some concrete steps and pass the gold Buddha image. A steep trail winds up through Jordan’s meadow, crosses a road, turns right, and then passes by the entrances to five kutis. It then crosses a bridge, where you enter into the truly wild part of the forest. Over the next 1.5 miles, you pass the entrance to…

Two - Making Robes

Ajahn Ñāniko

Two - Making Robes

The robes for monastics of all Buddhist traditions are sewn in a “rice paddy field” pattern. The different robe colors we see in different Buddhist traditions are somewhat arbitrary, in that they come from the natural dyes of their respective countries. For example, in ancient Tibet they used red earth, juniper berries and saffron. In Sri Lanka the robes were dyed with mahogany wood. In many fores…

One - Staying In

Ajahn Ñāniko

One - Staying In

“Mountain lions.” I heard Ajahn Karuṇadhammo say, as he stood just inside the door of the bhikkhu commons shrine room.” Tan Tissaro and Tan Cittapālo saw two of them. I saw them on the loop trail, too, and a little while later at my kuti I heard the sound of a deer running by quickly. I looked out the window and saw one of the mountain lions walking up the trail toward my deck. I went outside and…