Hillside Strangers

Trabuco Canyon monks brace for major changes to their quiet lives

Sri Ramakrishna's best-known disciple and the guy depicted in the sculpture in Trabuco Canyon, Swami Vivekananda, brought the philosophy of Vedanta to the West, establishing Vedanta Societies across the U.S. The local Ramakrishna monastery is part of the nonprofit Vedanta Society of Southern California. Two of the five men living in Trabuco are monks of the Ramakrishna Order of India.

Followers of Sri Ramakrishna believe that all religions are true because they all lead to the same truth: the transcendence of God. The monks are here essentially because they want to cut to the chase, to strip away everything worldly so they may concentrate solely on the ultimate truth.

That's what brought 46-year-old Divine here a year ago.

"I'm a lay brother," he says. "To be honest, there are not a lot of younger monks, so they take in dregs like myself to rake the leaves and tend to the garden."

Before coming here, Divine says, he lived as a hermit for nine years in northern California. "This is like a five-star hotel compared to living in a tent," he says.

"Like anybody, I was feeling dissatisfied with life, a hopeless loser. I felt that nothing works. It was like a bad country and western song: my girlfriend left me, I lost my job." That led to "a lot of praying and trying to find some people who could provide me solace and love. I guess it's what we're all looking for."

He read a story about Sri Ramakrishna's life, and something clicked.

"You find someone who really got it," Divine says. "I know the guy is for real. If he is telling you everything you don't want to do, you know he must be right on. Like Christ, he was an extremist. He said if you give your heart and soul to God, perhaps you will live a better life for that. I just didn't see a better life when I was living the way I was before. Like I say, it helps to be a total loser. Maybe if I'd succeeded at something else, I would have locked into that. But even if you succeed, there is no end to desire. . . . Basically, I'm going cold turkey."

At the Catholic abbey over the hill from the monastery, someone would point this lost soul to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. But Divine believes organized religion only scratches the surface, that it does not go deep enough to find God.

"Basically, what Ramakrishna is saying is do not go after worldly desires; go to where it all comes from: God. . . . God can be any form you want. You can look at God as flawless, absolute. God can be any deity or a mother or a father. You use that as your stepping stone to go from one level to another until you have reached a place that is transcendent."

The brothers at Ramakrishna Monastery reach for that place through daily prayer, meditation and chanting. "You can live in the world and ascribe to what the world says is great, like lust and greed," Divine says. "The world is a marketplace, and how well you do depends on what you have to sell. . . . Part of being a monk is saying, 'God, there's got to be something better.' We just don't want to play out there, and we've got to believe what our hearts tell us—that there is something better."

* * *

The first thing you realize upon entering the monastery's library is that this place was obviously built by scholars. Shelves are filled with books from three centuries, from The Annual Cylopedia(1890) to a first edition of Aldous Huxley's Ends and Means (1937) to Rich Cohen's The Avengers: A Jewish War Story (2000). Comfortable chairs are arranged in a circle in the middle of the spacious room. A large window provides a panoramic view of South County.

English writer and philosopher Gerald Heard conceived this place. He and Brave New World author Huxley had come to the U.S. in 1937, drawn by a movement dedicated to the study of mysticism in this country. Heard had been offered the chair of historical anthropology at Duke University, but while in North Carolina, he visited a college in the Blue Ridge Mountains dedicated to mystic teachings. After delivering lectures at Duke, Heard gave up the post, deciding he wanted to found a religious institution of his own devoted to the contemplative life.

After originally studying Christian mysticism and moving on to eastern philosophies, Heard was drawn to the Vedanta philosophy. He was ultimately initiated by Swami Prabhavananda, the founder of the Vedanta Society of Southern California. With World War II looming, Heard sought a remote, peaceful place for his college.

By today's standards, Trabuco Canyon is pretty remote and peaceful, but just imagine it back in the early 1940s. There was nothing but forest, fruit orchards and cattle-grazing land for miles. Building began here in 1941 for Heard's Trabuco College. The revolutionary lifestyle drew other intellectuals, including Huxley, John van Druten, Christopher Isherwood and Eugene Exman, the religious editor of Harper & Brothers Publishers. They meditated, experimented in prayer and began building the collection of mystical literature that remains in the library to this day. Huxley wrote The Perennial Philosophy in this room—and a copy of it is here.

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