Lessons from a Wildfire

When his community’s beloved retreat center burned to the ground, Anam Thubten took it as a teaching on impermanence.

Anam Thubten
3 May 2023
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. This was the third day of the fire. Photo by Peter Nichols.

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.

Dana, the caretaker’s house at Sweetwater Sanctuary, before the fire. Photo courtesy Sweetwater Sanctuary.

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.

The fire destroyed fifty-seven homes and killed a bulldozer operator. This is some of the damage that Sweetwater Sanctuary sustained. Photo courtesy Sweetwater Sanctuary archive.

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 in our heads but in our hearts, in every cell of our bodies—that everything is transient, that everything is conditioned and impermanent, that there’s not one single condition we can hold onto, no matter how much we love or cherish it. That realization can help us to come out from underneath the burden of our fear, our ambition, our greed, our hatred.

When we feel insecure, we are actually touching an important truth. The Buddha said, “There are many footprints, yet the footprints of the great elephant are the most supreme. There are many teachings, yet the teaching on impermanence is the best.” Of all Buddhist teachings, the teaching on impermanence is the truest. It is so true it’s not even a doctrine. It’s not a set of concepts developed by somebody a long time ago. The truth of impermanence does not belong to any one religion or tradition. It’s just how things are. There is not one thing in the universe that can be shown to last.

A moment of insecurity is an opportunity, an invitation to let go and take refuge in the truth of impermanence. When we feel insecure, though, we tend to cling even tighter to our desire for permanence. When we do that, we squander the opportunity. By allowing ourselves to withdraw or contract in the face of insecurity, we miss the fullness of life. In our fear, we forget that a lack of security is not always a bad thing. Insecurity has two sides. One side is the truth of inevitable loss. This is the side we resist. But the other side is the truth of freedom and growth. We often overlook or forget this side of impermanence, but if we really think about it, we may see we don’t want to be stuck with any condition. We need change.

A famous Sufi myth tells of a powerful but unhappy king who summoned a group of wise men and commanded them to create a ring that would relieve his misery and make him happy. After conferring together, the wise men presented the king with a ring inscribed with the phrase “This too shall pass.” When things are difficult, it can be helpful to remember the phrase “This too shall pass.” It serves as a reminder that impermanence is the one thing we can truly rely on. In that sense, our insecurity is sacred, even wise. If we can remember that impermanence doesn’t only impact the good circumstances we’re attached to but also the unfavorable circumstances we struggle with, whatever we’re going through becomes much more bearable. We can see the seeds of sorrow’s demise, even as it unfolds. After many years on the Buddhist path, I find myself continually returning to this most liberating, most authentic reflection, which cuts through all illusions. It’s so egalitarian. Every human being, regardless of background or beliefs, can engage with this reflection and experience amazing freedom and unconditional joy.

The message that “this too shall pass” also has the power to sober us up when we get caught up in egoistic tendencies, such as escapism, denial, false transcendence, or grasping onto beautiful illusions that do not take us anywhere. Even happiness itself can become a burden. When we experience false bliss, it can be easy to hide out in our own happiness and become self-centered and narcissistic. In Buddhist texts, this is called the demon of elation. This feeling can be delicious, just like sugar. But like sugar, it is unhealthy. To reflect on impermanence at such times is akin to eating a balanced meal. It undermines the tendency toward escapism, false transcendence, and denial. Impermanence is universal and timeless.

After the fire, only the chimney remained of the caretaker’s house. Photo courtesy Sweetwater Sanctuary archive.

Live Like a Dead Man

The mahasiddhas, eighty-four great enlightened masters of India, described transcendence as the feeling of being dead. That may sound strange, but imagine you could live your life as a dead person. Because you would have nothing to lose, you’d probably be quite happy. You wouldn’t care what people said about you. You wouldn’t care how you look. You would never look in the mirror in the morning and think, “I have too many wrinkles on my forehead.” Once, while reading an English dictionary, I came across the word “mortify,” a derivative of mors, the Latin word for death. It suggests someone is embarrassed to the point of dying. The example sentence said, “She was mortified to discover wrinkles on her forehead.” I found the example sentence very funny. None of us will be mortified by anything when we’re dead, least of all a few wrinkles.

Although they were very much alive, the mahasiddhas lived their lives as though they were dead. Like dead men and women, they lost their fear and self-vanity, and lived in joy in each and every moment. They didn’t need anything. They didn’t need praise. They didn’t need recognition. They didn’t care about criticism and blame. Nothing perturbed them.

This metaphor is not only extraordinarily useful, offering us a visual and original way to understand transcendence, it also 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.

The fire began as an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park. These are before and after shots of a Buddha in the sanctuary garden. Photo courtesy Sweetwater Sanctuary archive.

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

Anam Thubten

Anam Thubten grew up in Tibet and at an early age began to practice in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the founder and spiritual advisor of Dharmata Foundation, and the author of The Magic of Awareness and No Self, No Problem.