Hillside Strangers

Trabuco Canyon monks brace for major changes to their quiet lives

But by 1947, the college was in financial trouble. Interest waned. Heard donated the building and 300 acres of land to the Vedanta Society. His photo is on one of the library's walls, as is one of Swami Prabhavananda, who consecrated the Ramakrishna Monastery on Sept. 7, 1949.

Since then, many men have come here to live the monastic life.

"Most guys just can't hack it," says Divine, although the only real criteria are that they must be at least 35 and "have all their marbles."

"Your day-to-day life is living with all guys," he says. "If you have a desire to be with a woman, to have a family, to make money, it is going to come up. Men have been here 20 years and left because they said they wanted to get married."

Our conversation is interrupted by an older gentleman who resembles Norman Mailer without the perpetually pissed-off smirk. Asim, whom the others alternately call Frank, reminds Divine that he must prepare for the noon worship. After a brief stop in the small bookstore—a one-stop shop for all your mystic book needs—Asim leads me to the Shrine Trail.

* * *

In order to cut its property-tax bill, the Vedanta Society of Southern California in the early 1970s donated 240 acres of land to the county of Orange to extend O'Neill Regional Park. Within the 40 acres the society retains is the mile-long Shrine Trail.

"People come up here and don't even know this is here," Asim says.

Because the Ramakrishna followers accept all faiths, they decided in 1971 to erect symbols honoring the world's religions. In one clearing, there is the star and crescent of Islam. In another, the cross of Christianity. Other symbols honor Jews, Buddhists, Native Americans, and, of course, Hinduism and Sri Ramakrishna.

You can stick to the shrine that's dedicated to your particular religion, and many people do. The monks prefer to take them all together.

"It's like the spokes on a wheel," Asim says. "Around the rim you have a lot of arguments, but when they all come to the center, all is the same. We teach that all religions are true because all lead to the same goal: God can be realized."

Asim, who is in his 70s, was initiated as a young man when his aunt gave him a book on Vedanta. He was immediately drawn to the universality of the philosophy. He has lived at the Ramakrishna Monastery longer than any other current resident, having walked these hills since the early 1950s.

As we approach the Native American shrine—a large wooden post surrounded by four smaller ones encircled by large stones—the expanse of hills below is breathtaking.

"We gave 240 acres to the county in order to be isolated," Asim says. "They just completely ignored that."

The Vedanta Society's agreement holds that the donated land must remain open space; any other use automatically returns the land to the society. The county once tried to build a road over the open space. The Vedanta Society cited the return clause, and the county backed down.

As for the adjacent land the Vedanta Society doesn't own, different developers have tried to build on it since the early 1970s. At one time, the county green lighted a plan that would have put 705 mobile homes there. That project eventually went bust.

Through all the past and present threats to his unique lifestyle, Asim has come to one conclusion: "Developers are a different breed to deal with," he says. "We'd never say we don't want their project at all—even if we don't. We just say we want to modify it. They don't even want to talk to us. There's a lot of money behind it."

* * *

The monastery kitchen is spacious and simple. It doesn't appear as if the cabinetry or fixtures have changed since they were first installed. It's as utilitarian as a mechanic's garage: mostly clean and well-organized, but upon closer inspection, you see a thin sheen of grease. This is a kitchen shared by five guys.

Having showered in preparation of the noon worship, Divine starts to make me some coffee.

"The kitchen is the center of devotion," he says. "When you give up everything else, you tend to obsess on other things. Here, it's our food."

Once again, an older gentleman interrupts Divine to remind him that he must continue preparing for the worship. Swami Tadatmananda, the monastery's spiritual leader and second-longest resident, sends Divine off and pours me a stiff coffee.

He was born John Markovich 70 years ago in Detroit. While aboard a U.S. Navy ship after World War II, he began contemplating his place in life. He searched for answers in eastern philosophies, which eventually led him to the Vedanta and, later, the Vedanta Society center in Hollywood. From there he was sent to Trabuco Canyon as a student in 1956. "There was nothing here," he recalls.

He revels in the isolation. "When we have to go to the store, I can't wait to come back." He concedes his lifestyle is not very popular, and as a result, fresh recruits are few. Since his arrival, the full-time monk population has never exceeded 12.

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