‘That could be my death’: Monks face flames at California monastery

Ajhan Jotipalo Bhikkhu was asleep in his cabin at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley when he first smelled smoke.

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Wildfires that raged across California wine country left little more than smoldering ashes and eye-stinging smoke in their wake. House after house is gone, with only brick chimneys and charred laundry machines to mark what were once homes. (Oct. 11)
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Ajhan Jotipalo Bhikkhu Photo by Jenny Espino/USA TODAY Network(Photo: Jenny Espino, USA TODAY Network)

UKIAH, Calif. — Ajhan Jotipalo Bhikkhu was asleep in his cabin at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley when he first smelled smoke. It was about 2 a.m. Monday and he’d left his cabin windows open, letting the cold breeze in. He didn’t even open his eyes.

And then he heard the air horn.

“As soon as I opened the door, I could see the whole sky red. I said to myself, ‘That could be my death,’ ” he said.

Everyone in the neighborhood was sounding off air horns. They had a code: Once every 30 seconds meant someone was injured, and a continuous blast meant an emergency.

They looked at the blaze trying to determine which direction it was coming from. They could see the flames on the ridge, but they did not know which direction the wind would take it.

“As soon as I opened the door, I could see the whole sky red. I said to myself, ‘That could be my death.’”

Jotipalo said a total of 14 monks plus 12 monastery guests piled into six or seven vehicles and headed north toward Willits.

They were told heading South would be dangerous because power lines were down in the area.

Motorists evacuating the area continued honking their car horns to alert neighbors of the danger, and some stopped to help assess whether the vehicles would make it down the narrow road, which meant going through seven creeks, some of which still had water.

Jotipalo remembers hearing something like a propane tank going off in the distance.

“The trees were exploding,” he said.

At one point a car pulled over and helped exchange guests from one of their vehicles so they could make it through.

“People were looking after each other,” he said after a long pause, tears in his eyes.

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Jotipalo doesn’t know what happened to the monastery. Fire maps show that a quarter of the monastery is on fire but he’s not sure if the maps can be trusted.

Fire conditions can change at any moment.

Jotipalo and the 13 other monks follow Shakyamuni Buddhism, a Thai forest tradition in which they meditate in nature.

The Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery just marked 20 years, and Jotipalo has been there since the beginning when the 250-acre lot was nothing but two trailers and a garage.

He has seen it grow to have a meditation room, kitchen, and trees on the property, and cabins for each of the monks. The place is funded primarily by community donations. He was expecting June 2018 would be their grand opening, but now Jotipalo feels it could be a “grand closing.”

Firefighter Paige Madrid sprays down an approaching wildfire near Kenwood, Calif. Oct. 10, 2017.  (Photo: Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY)

Buddhism is not about self, he said, or attachment to material.

“I’m totally attached to that land,” he said with a laugh.

He talks about his favorite tree on the property, an oak tree that overlooks the monastery.

“I had never known that was my favorite,” he said.

It made him realize the beauty of the property, a favorite trail, the mountain lions and deer he sees.

“I may never see that again,“ he said.

But the fire brought about some deep realizations.

“I wonder if I’m that attached to the land, I wonder how attached I am to my body,” he said.

Ajhan Jotipalo Bhikkhu talks outside the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California on Thursday. Photo by Jenny Espino/USA TODAY Network (Photo: Jenny Espino, USA TODAY Network)

The monks have been staying at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah since Tuesday. Thursday afternoon, they had a meeting about emergency planning with the Ukiah Valley Fire Authority.

And although they all had a plan in place when the fire broke out, and everyone made it out safely, Jotipalo said they can do better in an evacuation.

But for now, going back is going to be a trial.

“We have to prepare ourselves that the monastery won’t be there when we go back,” he said.

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