California Wildfires Drive Buddhists from their Monasteries

By Justin Whitaker
Buddhistdoor Global | 2017-10-16 |
A firefighter sprays down an approaching wildfire in Northern California on 10 October. Photo by Trevor Hughes. From usatoday.comA firefighter sprays down an approaching wildfire in Northern California on 10 October. Photo by Trevor Hughes. From

SEATTLE—Two prominent Buddhist monasteries in Northern California have been forced to evacuate by the recent spread of deadly of wildfires, driven by strong winds and dry conditions. Sonoma Mountain Zen Center, a Soto Zen center in Sonoma County and Abhayagiri, a Theravada monastery in Redwood Valley, were both evacuated last week.

Wildfires are common in California around the end of the typically hot, dry summers, but this year’s fires in Northern California have been more extreme than usual and have been the most fatal in the state’s history, with at least 40 people dead and thousands of homes razed.

In the early morning of 9 October, 14 monks and a dozen guests were forced to evacuate Abhayagiri Monastery. In their journey out, monastics and guests were helped by, and in turn helped, neighbors in the area, honking their car horns to alert one another to the danger, with many stopping to assist others in the journey down the narrow road.

Ajahn Jotipalo Bhikkhu talks outside the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Photo by Jenny Espino. From usatoday.comAjahn Jotipalo Bhikkhu talks outside the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Photo by Jenny Espino. From

Ajahn Jotipalo Bhikkhu, one of the monastics at Abhayagiri Monastery, recalled hearing a loud boom in the distance as the residents made their retreat—perhaps a propane tank exploding. Likewise, around him, “The trees were exploding,” he recalled. (USA Today)

At one point a car pulled over and helped exchange guests from one of their vehicles to the other so that they could make it through. All involved reached safety, and the following day they accepted an invitation from Dharma Master Heng Lyu to stay at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB), a Buddhist community in the city of Ukiah, 26 kilometers south of Abhayagiri Monastery. The community were warmly welcomed by Venerable Jin Chuan on their arrival and provided with rooms and amenities.

Currently the monastery, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, is safe, with fire crews using the parking lot as a staging area for their work. This is both good and bad news for the property: good news in that that the area is being protected and is safe enough to keep equipment at the site, but bad news in that the fires are moving very close.

The wildfire also served to underscore the Buddhist teachings for Ajahn Jotipalo. Buddhism is not about the self, or attachment to material things, he explained, acknowledging with a laugh, “I’m totally attached to that land.” (USA Today)

He spoke of his favorite tree on the property, an oak overlooking the monastery. “I had never known that was my favorite,” Ajahn Jotipalo said, noting that the tragedy had helped him realize the beauty of the site—a favorite trail, the mountain lions and deer he encountered. “I may never see that again,“ he added. (USA Today)

But the fire also brought with it some deep realizations. “I wonder if I’m that attached to the land, I wonder how attached I am to my body,” Ajahn Jotipalo said. (USA Today)

Lying 145 kilometers south of Abhayagiri and 80 kilometers north of San Francisco, Sonoma Mountain Zen Monastery, was also threatened last week. In a Facebook posted dated 13 October, the center related:

Last night, the fire was approaching Zen Center from the forest behind Stupas. Bennett Valley Fire Department sent scouts and a bulldozer, which dug 10 foot wide trench all the way from the Steiners, behind the Stupas, towards Warm Springs Road.

The fire stopped right at the trench which saved the Zen Center. We were lucky that the wind was low and the fire was moving not too fast. Residents took shifts over the night to patrol the area and clean fallen trees and remove bushes. There is no electricity and the water pumps must be powered by electric generators.

We are very positive that everything will be fine now. We thank everybody for the concern. There are enough people helping on site. . . . We should be good and there is no need for more people to come and help right now. (Sanoma Mountain Zen Center Facebook)

Monastics from Abhayagiri Monastery are welcomed at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. From abhayagiri.orgMonastics from Abhayagiri Monastery are welcomed at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. From

The situation around both monasteries remains active. The latest update of events from Abhayagiri Monastery, dated 12 October, states: “While the news of the monastery property continued to be volatile and uncertain, the community was in good spirits and people have been deeply touched by the generosity and kindness from both friends and strangers.” (Abhayagiri)

See more

California fires force forest-dwelling monks to flee flames: ‘That could be my death’ (USA Today)
Abhayagiri Monastery Timeline of wildfire events (Abhayagiri)
Sonoma Mountain Zen Center (Facebook)
Sonoma Mountain Zen Center
City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
Abhayagiri: A Buddhist Monastery in the Thai Forest Tradition of Ajahn Chah

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