Hillside Strangers

Trabuco Canyon monks brace for major changes to their quiet lives

"We have had people come off the streets, but not too many," says Swami Tadatmananda, who goes by "Tadat" for short. "Most are down and out or at some other crossroads in their lives. We only allow them to stay a little while, then let them go off on their own and find out what it's all about through books and lectures."

Despite a dwindling base for new monks and a housing project on his doorstep, Tadat is confident the Vedanta Society will hold on to the monastery and that "we'll carry on." Tall and slender, he exudes grace and deep peacefulness, but he is obviously loath to be "confronted by this worldly aspect," to have to deal with developers, politicians, lawyers and reporters.

* * *

The Vedanta Society now has a two-pronged legal strategy. First, they hope to prove that the residential project violates the original Trabuco Canyon specific plan—the one the supervisors approved in the 1991 that only allows one home per every four acres. The supervisors had to amend the law to approve the project. Second, the monks are locking arms with environmentalists and federal and state agencies that contend development will spur mudslides, further pollute the creek, and disrupt endangered species and native plants, given that the land is part of the main wildlife corridor from Cleveland National Forest to the coast.

Unfortunately, such fights involve hiring lawyers.

"It's been expensive, yes," Tadat says. "Money is being drained from the Vedanta Center in Hollywood."

But in the same breath, he mentions that all churches are burdened with financial woes these days. Whatever happens, he says, they will eventually put all this behind them, turn inward, and continue their lifelong endeavor to "realize God and serve mankind."

* * *

At that courtyard fountain, the one with the sculpture of Swami Vivekanada staring into the middle distance, Divine pauses on his way to the sanctuary where he will conduct the noon worship.

"We're just some guys trying to live our way of life," he says. "It's really hard for us to get into the worldly, political life. A lot of this stuff is hard to prove."

Though he has been here such a short time, Divine is the main liaison between the monastery and the coalition of environmental groups fighting overdevelopment in what marketers call Saddleback Meadows.

"It may just be too late and too much money to fight," he says. "But if people realized what was up here, that there is a place like this where they can get away from it all, maybe they would support us against this project. People can come up here and just visit. Many do."

Members of different churches pray here. Along the Shrine Trail, Muslims conduct daily meditations. Native Americans burn sage. A South County Catholic school regularly brings a comparative religion class.

It makes a certain amount of sense that the monks are crusading with environmentalists. Like gnatcatchers, Riverside fairy shrimp and Pacific Coast sage, their religion is threatened.

"We are," says Divine, "the ultimate endangered species."

* * *

The noonday sun is bright today, but inside the sanctuary, it's dark. The dome ceiling immediately brings to mind the night sky. Folding chairs against the wall, cushions on the floor and the only artificial source of light point toward a portrait of Sri Ramakrishna, the same one that's inside the lecture hall.

Divine lived here for nine months before he was allowed to conduct the noon worship. Though he has witnessed the same ceremony every day for a year, he relies on a notebook filled with intricate instructions to get through it. "If you mess up, they let you know," he says. "Immediately."

First, he must cleanse himself with special soaps. Then follows a strict regimen to cleanse and feed Sri Ramakrishna, involving flowers, grasses, other plants, candles, incense, bells, purified water and an offering of food. Divine completes each step in order, using a certain hand for each task. It takes a couple of hours to complete.

Because I was not praying or meditating or chanting with the other monks, my thoughts soon turned outdoors, where strong winds battered the dome's exterior. Were it not for those gusts, there would be no evidence inside this dark, quiet place that a world exists outside this room. Too soon, it will become obvious.

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