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.