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?

* * *

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!

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.

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.

"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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