Lessons from a Wildfire

Update: 16/12/2018
When his community’s beloved retreat center burned to the ground, Anam Thubten took it as a teaching on impermanence. Instead of futilely fighting loss, he says, let it be our invitation to freedom and spaciousness. The Soberanes Fire in California burned for eighty-two days and was, at the time, the most expensive wildfire to fight in U.S. history.

Lessons from a Wildfire


In 2016, after more than two years of searching, my sangha found and purchased a beautiful retreat center in Big Sur, where we could practice together. There were several beautiful buildings on the land, and many ancient oak trees to provide shade and beauty. We spent the first half of 2016 preparing it for retreatants. A lovely couple moved in to one of the houses to act as caretakers. We shared dreams about the retreats we would enjoy there and how we would practice on the land.

That summer, I received a call from a dharma friend while I was in France. A wildfire was raging through Big Sur. The caretakers were evacuating. There was nothing we could do. We couldn’t stop the raging flames of the forest fire. We couldn’t turn back the elements of wind and heat. Our retreat center burned to the ground.

The Grand Illusion

The Daoists have a saying: “There are ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Though this is a profound and inescapable truth, most of us only truly accept half of it. We welcome the joys, but we’re not so accommodating of the sorrows. Sorrow is normal and natural, but we see it as a problem we must solve. The problem isn’t sorrow, though; the problem is we don’t accept sorrow as a natural part of our lives. We try to escape it, to seek its opposite. And our attempts to escape inevitably create suffering. This suffering has nothing to do with our external circumstances. It doesn’t matter whether we’re healthy or sick, rich or poor, loved or alone. Suffering comes from our chronic psychological restlessness, which resists life as it is.

There’s no way to make things perfectly predictable, no real security. Security is a grand illusion.

When we get down to it, what we’re resisting isn’t just sorrow but change. If we’re not resisting the fact that our joy has turned to sorrow, we’re resisting the possibility that our joy may someday turn to sorrow. We want our joy to last forever, but we don’t have to look far to see that nothing lasts forever. Everything is falling apart; everything is changing. We can’t rely on wealth, friends, or comfort. We can’t even rely on our own bodies or minds. Deep down we know this, which is why we have so many insecure feelings throughout our life.

The Buddha addressed this human conundrum in the four noble truths. He taught that craving is the root of suffering. We crave happiness, comfort, and ease, and we want to avoid their opposites. We crave security, for things to stay the same, to remain stable. This craving is what turns inevitable human sorrow into suffering, even when we’re blessed with favorable physical conditions and circumstances. This collective pathology runs deep. Our craving for security is actually a craving for permanence, which is unattainable. At its root is the instinctual desire to survive, which has been physiologically and psychologically hardwired into us over millions of years of human evolution.

We don’t like surprises either. We like to have everything under control, to force our lives to be predictable. But there’s no way to make things perfectly predictable, no real security. Security is a grand illusion. Paradoxically, our desire for security actually makes us insecure. It robs us of inner fulfillment, joy, and peace. It constricts us, closing our hearts so we can’t experience unconditional love. We’re so afraid of losing our lives that we never truly live. We allow our desire for security to become a prison.

Embodied Attention

To address this deep grasping, we can engage in a practice the Buddha taught called embodied attention. This is the practice of looking deeply into everything—without bias, without preconceived notions, without fear, without resistance. It is a way of simply paying attention to pure experience. When we inquire into the nature of our own embodied experience, into the nature of our bodies, minds, and emotions, the truth of impermanence is revealed. It becomes clear that there is no certainty, no permanence, only flow and change. This timeless truth pervades everything. We can wake up and realize—not just  points to the strong connection between the truth of our mortality and enlightenment. We can find true transcendence in reflecting on the ephemeral nature of things. Such reflection is not about escaping from your life, but rather a deep immersion into everything: life, existence, birth, death.

Insecurity as Transcendence

The loss of our retreat center in Big Sur was a profound teaching for me, even more profound than the Buddha’s own words. When we find ourselves completely powerless in the face of nature’s wrath, there is nothing left to do but surrender to the truth of things, to give in to a state of not knowing. This is the profound side of insecurity. If we let go into the truth that nothing can ultimately be relied upon, that no one thing in this universe lasts forever, even our own bodies, there is something left. It is a kind of groundless ground, the emptiness that pervades the fullness of things. The Buddha called it dharmata, the spacious expanse.

In the Prajnaparamita Sutra, this idea is expressed in the phrase “Emptiness is form.” That means we can find spaciousness, transcendence, right within the realm of form. We can find liberation, dharma, awakening right within the impermanent manifestation of our lives, in our fleeting existence. The forms that are so impermanent and transient invite us—by virtue of their inevitable demise—into a relationship with freedom and spaciousness.

We don’t have to wait for enlightenment to come to us. We don’t have to create it. We can enter into enlightenment simply by allowing everything to fall apart, until all that’s left is spaciousness. If we have enough confidence that “this too shall pass,” we can begin to live as though it already has. We can surrender everything before it’s gone, until no hope and no fear remain.

Anam Thubten – Lion’s Roar

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