In forest monastery, Buddhist abbot faces bushfire with a smile

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BUNDANOON, Australia (Reuters) - Buddhist monk Phra Mana helped build his bush monastery with his bare hands three decades ago, but when Australia’s worst wildfires in generations threatened to destroy it he stood up to fate with a smile.

An inferno ripped through the forest surrounding the Sunnataram Monastery in New South Wales two weeks ago and, after being evacuated, he and his fellow monks could do nothing but pray.

“I have never seen branches behave like this in the past 30 years,” the Bangkok-born abbot said, describing how dry the land was. “So when the heat came, it just burned so quick.”

This season’s bushfires have razed an area equivalent to half of the UK, killed millions of animals, devastated rural communities and cost farmers and vintners their livelihoods.

At the monastery, which around 50 to 60 volunteer firefighters were dispatched to defend, only a few buildings and water tanks were lost.

True to his religion, Phra Mana has been able to accept the damage with equanimity.

“Wildfires are normal in Australia’s bushland,” the 56-year-old said as he strolled around the scorched compound in orange robes. “As long as our faith and morale remain strong, we are prepared to face it.”

The Buddha statues gracing the compound still stand, and now the monks have added a message spelling out “Thank you Firey”, addressed to the firefighters.

But the monastery remains under threat as a nearby forest continues to smolder. “We are prepared. At the same time, we accept,” Phra Mana said.

Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Angie Teo. Writing by Karishma Singh; editing by John Stonestreet