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Worlds Apart : Ramakrishna Monastery Is an Oasis of Serenity Surrounded by Suburbia

September 08, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF | Times Staff Writer

Below, Orange County stretches off into the hazy distance--land of real estate deals, crowded freeways, shopping malls and Little League.

In contrast, life at Ramakrishna Monastery, high on a ridge above Trabuco Canyon, is simple and unchanging, devoted to quiet contemplation.

Routines and schedules dominate the days: rising early for the 6:30 a.m. meditation--the first of three daily sessions--sharing meals in the kitchen, tending the garden and studying.

The eight men who live at the 60-acre retreat have forsaken possessions, family and career to pursue a spiritual life that can seem austere, even exotic to outsiders. But monk Asim Chaitanya says: "This is a natural way of life. We're living it--it's not an idea."

Asim Chaitanya, 65, was formerly Franklin Knight and still, as often as not, goes by Frank. He has lived here 33 years but is still outranked in seniority by Swami Anamananda, 74, who came to the monastery shortly after it opened in 1948. Other residents include Swami Tadatmananda, Swami Bhadrananda, Swami Viprananda, Stuart Elkman, who chooses to go by his original name, and the newest monk, Jim Madurus.

The men are followers of Vedanta, a blend of Eastern and Western beliefs, which teaches that all religions are separate paths leading to the same central truth.

Frank was a quality control engineer at Hughes Aircraft before joining the order. Others had worked at such jobs as artist, printer and juvenile counselor.

Their life at Ramakrishna Monastery seems surprisingly informal. The retreat is open to visitors four hours each day, and free public lectures are offered each Sunday except in summer. The monastery also serves as a retreat for other Vedanta members, who often stay overnight and longer.

The monks have two cars and two trucks at their disposal and often leave the grounds to shop for food and other necessities or visit other Vedanta centers in Hollywood, San Diego and Santa Barbara. As befits the physical life at the rural retreat, they usually dress in work clothes--no flowing robes, except during worship, and no long ponytails. There is a TV, with sports events the favorite programming.

While Orange County has been transformed in the years since World War II, the monastery has changed little. The original main building, an elegant Italianate brick structure, still stands, along with the dormitories and workshop. The only addition to the complex has been a small guest cottage, which took the monks four years to build.

The silence is broken only by the crunching of footsteps on the gravel pathways and the occasional roar of jets from the Marine Corps air station below. Bees buzz lazily above a reflection pool, and from there, on clear days, the view stretches to the ocean.

Life here is satisfying, Asim says, and while the draw of material and sensual pleasures always remain as distractions, in the long run he and his brothers "give up something good for something better."

That, they say, is the pursuit of self-knowledge and the meaning of existence.

"Find God. That is the only purpose in life," taught Ramakrishna, a Hindu religious leader of the 19th Century. A disciple, Swami Vivekananda, brought Vedanta to the United States. (Vedanta, in a somewhat different form, has 15 million followers in India).

Few followers take the monastic path. Of about 5,000 members of 13 American Vedanta societies, 50 are monks and 20 swamis.

Monks take their initial vows after five years and may take final vows after 12, at which point they take the title swami. They receive no specific training. "The training is actually living the life," Asim says. "You go your own way, because it's all going to come from within you anyway."

Viprananda, now 46, was 27 when he entered a Vedanta center in Chicago and began the monastic life. He had worked as a musician and in a print shop and had finished a three-year stint in the Army the year before. "I didn't know I was looking for a spiritual life," he says. He attended a few Vedanta lectures, practically on a whim, and "almost from the beginning, it began to work its effect."

He spent six years in India before taking his final vows and moving to the monastery in 1982.

Stuart Elkman, 39, long interested in Eastern thought, planned for several years to enter the order but first completed his studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a doctorate in Sanskrit. He came to the monastery in 1981.

Though his family had time to prepare for his choice, they found it difficult to understand it at first, Elkman says. "They actually, through the years, have come to appreciate this place. It wasn't easy for them." Now, they occasionally visit.

Asim had no such problem--his aunt was a Vedanta follower who introduced him to the philosophy. He says he began to feel a spiritual emptiness in his early 30s that eventually led him to the monastic life. "You start to see that maybe the world isn't the oyster you thought it was," he says. "It's nice, but is it enough?"

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