Hillside Strangers

Trabuco Canyon monks brace for major changes to their quiet lives

Photo by James BunoanIf grape vineyards covered the rolling hills below, you might think you were standing in the shadow of an old California winery. Brick walls, large windows, Spanish-style archways, red-tile roofs, bell tower—it's the architectural style that inspired Taco Bell.

But this is no winery. The small black sign emblazoned with the words "Ramakrishna Monastery" next to the winding dirt road that leads up to this place tells you that, and so does the black sculpture in the middle of the courtyard. It depicts a man sitting in the lotus position. Before him is a koi pond where a small, mirrored pyramid bobs in the murky water.

Just beyond the sculpture is a bench, and beyond that a row of trees, and beyond that the rest of the world. A suburbanite's immediate inclination is to squint—to see if you can make out civilization in the distance. The sun's reflection bounces off a multistoried building miles away. Then something much closer catches your eye, maybe a mile distant: hundreds of identical-looking white stucco homes. From here, they seem stacked atop one another and, from the Ramakrishna Monastery, wildly out of place. But the incongruity doesn't stop there. Point your nose down—stop just before your chin hits your Adam's apple—and a smaller subdivision of the same identical white stucco homes is much closer still. With a strong gust blowing at your back, you might be able to heave a golf ball far enough to hit one. They appear to have sprouted up like devil grass, slowly spreading toward your begonias.

In some quarters, they call this progress. They call this filling a vital need for housing—although these huge homes on small lots would require at least upper-middle-class wages, and it's low-income housing that we're short on, or so say the papers. But you'd have to be a total hardass not to look at this monastery, look at the other rustic structures tucked into Trabuco Canyon, look at those encroaching single-family monstrosities and not feel a deep sadness.

Men who chose to get away from it all so they could get closer to God opened the monastery 50 years ago. "It all" is now poised to be their next-door neighbor.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 5 approved a project that would allow the construction of nearly 300 homes on 222 acres between Ramakrishna Monastery and St. Michael's Catholic Abbey. Plans call for leveling a God-created hill that buffers the monks from the outside world and putting homes on a ridge facing directly into their compound.

Tom Wilson was the lone county supervisor to oppose the proposal, citing environmental concerns, including increased urban runoff to the already polluted Aliso Creek nearby. Jim Silva abstained, having already been at the center of a campaign-contribution controversy that resulted in a heavy fine to the developer. Among the three who voted for the project was Todd Spitzer, who rose to prominence by denouncing the impact of a commercial airport on thousands of surrounding South County homes. In regards to the California Quartet Co.'s 222 homes, Spitzer says landowners should be able to build anything they want on their property.

The monks realize, albeit reluctantly, that something they might not want will be on the neighboring land. But they ask: Must it involve leveling a hill? The grading of 9.3 million cubic yards of dirt—more than was dug out to create the 241 tollway—a job that will take three years of constant heavy machinery-running to finish? Must some homes leave residents peering into the monastery—and vice versa?

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Inside the Ramakrishna Monastery's dark, wood-paneled lecture hall, William Divine points to a portrait of a thin, shirtless man who appears to be sitting in a trance.

"We call him a divine incarnation, an avatar," Divine says of Sri Ramakrishna, the founder of the Ramakrishna Order of India, a brotherhood of monks who run monasteries, hospices, hospitals and orphanages in India, as well as monasteries all over the world.

Born with the name Gadadhar in a Bengali farming village near Calcutta in 1836, Ramakrishna is said to have been spiritually advanced at an early age. He grew up to become a priest at a Hindu temple just outside Calcutta, where his mystical tendencies reached new heights. Some called him insane as he split his time between the material world and Divine Consciousness. He studied the paths of Tantra and Vedanta, as well as those of non-Hindu religions. When a Sufi taught him about Islam, Ramakrishna lived the life of a devout Muslim and soon had a vision of the Prophet Mohammed. Shortly after, he was drawn to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and soon he had a vision of Jesus merging into his own body and another of Mother Mary and the Holy Child. In the same manner, he saw Lord Buddha. Sri Ramakrishna had the unique distinction of being declared an incarnation of God during his lifetime. He left his physical body in 1886 after he developed throat cancer.

A philosophy that is based on ancient scriptures and is the foundation of the Hindu religion, Vedanta holds that all human beings have souls. While we're all separate physically, our souls are merged into one absolute soul. The visible and palpable universe around us is an illusion; the supreme reality or absolute soul cannot be perceived by our normal senses of sight, smell, hearing or touch. Vedanta followers are not associated with the Hare Krishnas, who are familiar to hardcore fans of the late George Harrison and anyone who has seen the movie Airplane!

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