Practicing Through the Yokoji Fire and Floods
July 30, 2014 by Yugen Lakey
Two weeks ago marked the anniversary of the Mountain Fire. We have made huge progress since the devastation that occurred last summer and fall. The damage has been repaired, preventative measures have been taken and the training continues. Shortly after the events of last summer, Tenshin Roshi wrote an article about his experience in the midst of the storms. One year on, here is Roshi's piece in its entirety:
First the fire.
Then some relief.
Then the flood.
Then the clean up.
A few weeks later I found myself back up at the Center during a suggested evacuation, so that I could see how the water and debris flowed during a storm. I had only been back about fifteen minutes when the heavens opened up. Within ten minutes, the debris flow was cascading over the drainage channel and rock wall that protect my house from the wilderness above it, and began piling up against the wall. I donned my Gore-Tex rain gear and rubber boots and went to see if I could divert the flow, armed with a shovel.
If not me, who? If not now, when?
Outside, about fifty yards above the house, there was something I could do. Through the placing of a rock, and ten minutes of digging, a diversion emerged. It's easier to deal with causes than effects. The sound of water and debris was indescribable, a constant thunder booming through the valley. I had to lower my hood, which restricts peripheral vision, in order to see any potential or threatening debris flow. Soon I was soaked. I called out on the cell phone to give news and warning to those who had earlier evacuated. I could hear, but they could not—the phone had gotten wet.
Checking on the rest of the valley, I found that the old two-foot wide creek bed was now a delta the size of a football field, yet the defenses still held. A couple of the outlying cabins were surrounded by debris flows. Hot wiring the old tractor (the ignition rarely works) which was already buried in a foot of mud, I reflected for a moment: I have had a good life. Do I gamble on using the tractor in a lightening storm? What the hell!
Impermanence is a fact—it is experienced. We may not choose the ingredients of our life, but we can choose how to use them to benefit those around us. Yokoji (Bright Sunlight Temple), is the collective achievement of many hands over many years working on a low budget, largely supported by Sangha donations. Thirty years of training have unfolded here, with people coming from all over the world. We've never had large numbers, just sincere practice, with people facing up and dealing honestly with what needs to be dealt with. An apprenticeship in the Buddha Way, bringing the best and worst out into the open, where it can be appreciated and transformed. Or not. There is also the collective achievement of the Lineage and it's relations. It's a good job that it's not individual: the project is too big, staring into the unknown, with infinite variables. Finally, there is the collective achievement of mountain practicing and the wisdom of 4.6 billion years. Enough said.
I look out from the porch of my house and little has changed; the same kind of sunset over an island of unburned trees. Unburned because of eighteen years of biological stewardship, of thinning the forest, of students asking, “why do this work?” The firefighters dramatically saved the buildings because it was safe to do so, because of the thinning. People took it as a miracle that Yokoji was saved. Again, it is easier dealing with cause than effect. A week after the fire came the storm that put out the fire. The storm that, combined with the efforts of the fire crews, saved the neighboring town of Idyllwild. The storm that caused the flood that filled our workshop with debris. Our insurance covered the fire damage, but not that caused by mudflow. Like earthquakes, mud flow is not something most insurers will cover. Is it good, or is it bad? One thing for sure is, it is what it is, and couldn't be another way. My son's friend on the neighboring road, Bonita Vista, lost her home from fire but the government office won't sign off saying it is burned, when there it is, burned. In the meantime, we clean out the shop, build a debris wall in stone over the course of a single day, and yes, it looks like we can deal with this. The Sangha response is amazing, with support coming from all over the world. The moral support leaves us in tears. Indeed, Sangha is a beautiful thing.
Last night, I sat on the porch with a Dharma friend who showed up to help out after the storms. We came over from England together thirty some years ago and practiced together for over ten years. Those bonds are deep. Another friend who trained together with us just happened to call on the phone, and I took the opportunity to connect them. They had not talked for twenty years, but resumed an intimate conversation—the twenty years irrelevant—full of mutual concern and support. Tears welled in my eyes, knowing they were OK.
Are you OK? I guess, thinking of the new reality.
The car in the parking lot is now buried up to the roof. The musician whose guitars were buried in the trunk drove over a thousand miles to dig them out. It's a pity he did not leave his keys to begin with. If he practices with the same intensity he used to dig out his instruments, there is nothing he could not do.
After the initial storm, four more storms came through. Every day the residents came in to stay ahead with the work, and every day we had to evacuate because of the afternoon thunderstorms. The whole five miles of Apple Canyon Road was littered with debris and, in some areas, the road was destroyed by the torrents that bombarded and undermined it. The mile-long dirt road leading to Yokoji was barely accessible on some days, with only 4wd trucks being able to pass. Each day we would find a way to get up the road and through the debris in jaw-dropping-awe of the power of this world, which, in this case, was undoing all our careful work.
My partner, the kids and I lived out of a suitcase for a while moving from one place to another, supporting one another and getting the support of others. The experience afforded us a glimpse into the very difficult life of refugees. At least we get to return home.
The geologists say up to a hundred times more debris may come down this year from the surrounding mountain slopes. There are so many variables, so many unknowns, yet practice underlies and permeates it all. If it survives; practice. If it does not survive; practice. We do our best and use the ingredients that we have. Sometimes it is like Sysiphus pushing the rock up the hill only for it to roll down again. Although, maybe the task at hand for Yokoji is a bit more personal. Can this work, this practice, be enjoyed? The guys and gals keep it real, sometimes laughing at the endeavor, doing what they can to get through this. Living through these events may build character for some, repaying the teaching by bringing it to life, making it function.
The other day I was replacing the water line to the kitchen, knowing full well it would probably be taken out again by a later storm. A student asked me if I was always adept at giving talks. I thought to myself as I often do, “Why is he talking about some abstract teaching? Why isn't he asking about the why's and how's of putting a water line in? A line that brings sanitation to the kitchen and bathhouse, and provides so much benefit to the Sangha and community?” That was the true teaching of the moment. However, I gave him the one-size-fits-all answer: “I did it over and over for twenty years and now I feel at home with it.” That applies as much to pipe laying as it does to Buddhism.
So can this enterprise result in failure? Possibly. But what glorious failure, practicing something we believe in. If you can spare a good word or wishes, money, time, or ideas, here is an organization that needs it.
Many thanks for all you do in the promotion of the Dharma,
One of many