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East Meets West : Monk Alters Indian Precepts to Fit Seaside Style

September 01, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — The chants could be heard from the sidewalk.

"Aum Namo Sidhanam," said the longhaired bearded man in the flowing white robe.

"Aum Namo Sidhanam," repeated the bevy of people lying prone on the carpet of the breezy house by the sea.

It was the regular Friday night meditation session at the Jain Meditation Center. And Yogeesh Muni was busy spreading the gospel of enlightenment. He is the West Coast's only monk in an order so staunchly nonviolent that some adherents wear masks to avoid inhaling microscopic organisms.

Limited to Foot Travel

"Your body is the temple of the living God," he told his followers in broken English. "Emptiness meeting only with emptiness. You can discover yourself if you are silent."

It is something of an anomaly that Yogeesh is in the United States at all. One of India's oldest religions with a worldwide following of 10 million, Jainism has traditionally forbidden its monks to travel by any means other than foot, which has limited their geographical range.

But 13 years ago, Acharya Sushil Kumarji, now head of the Siddhachalam Jain mission in New Jersey, defied the ban by walking 20 miles to the New Delhi airport and boarding an airplane for America. Since then a handful of others have followed. And last year Yogeesh, 32, arrived in California to take the reins of the Long Beach ashram, a four-bedroom house overlooking the ocean at Bluff Park, which since 1982 has offered group meditations, lectures, yoga lessons and private counseling.

Initially he ministered primarily to the area's estimated 400 Jain families of Indian descent. Then about four months ago, the holy man began attracting a non-Indian following that he says now numbers about 100.

"California people are very sweet," he said. "I think they like nonviolence. It is the solution to make peace and live in harmony with all living things."

Well-known throughout India for its uncompromising stance on nonviolence, Jainism counts Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi as its most famous adherent. Among orthodox Jain monks, the dedication to nonviolence includes not only wearing the surgeon-like masks but carrying brooms to sweep tiny insects out of one's path.

On Strict Vegetarian Diet

Although Yogeesh still maintains a strict vegetarian diet, which requires his food to be specially prepared by women in the Jain community, he said he has modified some of the other traditional Jain practices, including those involving brooms and masks.

"We change a little bit according to the country," he said. "Here there is no need (for brooms and masks.) It is a symbol only."

And although Yogeesh claims to own no possessions in keeping with his vows as a monk, his room does contain a television set, videocassette recorder, small stereo and home computer, all of which he says belong to the ashram. "I need the computer to write my book," he explained, referring to a soon-to-be-published volume entitled "You Must Die Before You Die."

Besides nonviolence and poverty, Jain monks also traditionally vow to tell the truth, maintain celibacy and refrain from stealing.

The celibacy vow, too, has undergone some liberalization in Yogeesh's interpretation.

Recently, for example, he said he engaged with one female devotee in Tantric yoga, an ancient form of yoga that Kumarji says is not a teaching of Jainism. Often involving sexual intercourse without male ejaculation, its focus is to concentrate energy and enhance consciousness. "I though it would help her spiritually," Yogeesh said. "Tantra is not sex. Tantra is beyond sex."

The devotee eventually dropped out, claiming she was pregnant.

But when several other women, including a neighbor who is not a devotee, complained of unwanted sexual advances by the monk, he responded that they had misinterpreted what in fact had simply been attempts at being friendly. "I wanted to be friendly with people to learn English and they misunderstood," he said. "I am like a baby here."

At the recent Friday night meditation session, Yogeesh's students and devotees were almost unanimous in their praise, crediting him with everything from changing their lives through new spiritual insight to exhibiting unusually pronounced psychic and healing abilities.

"I think he's not like an ordinary person," said Daniela Romero, 40, of Orange, adding that Yogeesh had changed her life "tremendously" by improving her confidence and creating situations in which she was forced to explore her inner self.

"Although he is still in his human form, he is at a level that is beyond us," she said.

Cheryl McKnight, also 40, said she recognized the monk as a holy man after seeing his aura, a field of energy perceived as color that some mystics believe surrounds living organisms and can reveal their character.

"It said he is very intelligent, wise, has healing abilities and definitely carries a light on his spiritual path," said McKnight, who sells crystals and metaphysical jewelry for a living.

Yogeesh, meanwhile, said he is enjoying his new life in California. "I like being near the ocean," he said. "When I go for a walk, everybody says good morning or good evening. Nature can help many things."

And despite the minor adjustment problems, Yogeesh said, he believes he is making progress in his quest to share the tenets of Jainism with fellow inhabitants of his adopted state.

"We think it is best if you don't hurt anything," the holy man said. "Even feelings. My purpose here is only to help people."

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