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In Search of Peace of Mind

Religion: In Northern California, a band of mostly Americans is tracking down the art and teachings of Tibet that were lost or hidden by the Chinese. And as the works are preserved and translated, a home for Buddhism will thrive in the United States.

August 29, 1996|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wanted: bookbinders. Free room, board and a small stipend. One- to three-month commitment. No experience necessary. Subject: endangered Tibetan Buddhist teachings.

If the job doesn't sound like a smart career move, at least the perks are good. Consider that you may get to visit the recently completed Odiyan Tibetan retreat.

Odiyan (pronounced Odie-ON) stands on a coastal cliff north of Petaluma, somewhere between the big blue sky, the vast green ocean and herds of brown and white cows. The road to the 1,100-acre retreat looks more conducive to cattle than the heavy equipment it took to build the six ornate temples, a 113-foot gold-leafed shrine (with a 10-ton prayer wheel inside), a moat-like lake and orchards and gardens that pepper the surrounding hills.

"Bookbinder" might be an enticing job title after all.

Odiyan was founded in 1975 as a refuge for Tibetan culture displaced after China invaded Tibet in 1959. Head lama Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche is leading a band of mostly Americans in securing the art and teachings of Tibet through his Nyingma Center, which includes the retreat plus the Nyingma Institute and Dharma Publishing, both in Berkeley.

The members of Odiyan opened the gates to the private retreat for six days this summer, partly to quell the rumors that spread as shiny gold roofs and unusual structures began to spring from the forests over the last 21 years. Neighbors whispered about secret tunnels and of elevators rising up out of nowhere.

But there was nothing out of the ordinary apparent at the open house--if one considers the free-standing Vajra temple and 108,000 buddhas ordinary.

"I'm still surprised when I walk over the hill and see it," says member and tour-guide-for-a-day Jim McNulty, as he leads visitors from the dirt parking area up to the Vajra temple. (About 300 were expected each day; five times that many showed up.)

Almost as startling are the hundreds of colorful prayer flags flapping in the breeze, dotting the hills with the Pacific Ocean as a backdrop. The flags are silk-screened with prayers, each believed to have healing powers that are released with the force of the wind.

Inside the circular Vajra temple are the 108,000 buddhas, most about 8 inches tall, stacked row upon row pyramid-like in the middle of the room. Prayer wheels--cylinders that hold handmade mile-long mantras--spin continuously indoors and out, dispersing their prayers.

The temple is made of glass block, granite and copper, topped with a double-curved roof. Member Bruce Smith calls it a "construction nightmare" for the two dozen unskilled volunteers who built it.

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Smith was a geophysicist before coming to Odiyan 16 years ago. He was initiated in the ways of hand-pounding copper, creating stained-glass windows and other crafts with practice. Lots of hands-on practice. Work, Rinpoche stresses, is a practical way to meditate. And Americans, especially, he believes, have a lot of unproductive habits that can be unlearned through meditation.

Smith says he gave up his day job once he decided the work he was doing here was more important than his work with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"I really loved the sciences," says Smith, who lives on the grounds with his wife, Ann Bergfors. "But that age-old question, 'Why are we here?' led to a deep interest in meditation."

That seems to be a common thread among the 60 or so members. Most are in their late 40s to mid-50s, well-educated and in search of peace of mind. They believe the Buddhist teachings can not only help them in their own lives, but can also influence a world bent on materialism and self-destruction.

"Buddhism is very compatible with our deepest principles, like freedom of thought and independence," says Leslie Bradburn, an ex-biologist who teaches history at Nyingma Institute. "Everybody wants to be kind and virtuous. It's how do you actually become these things [that are learned] through Buddhist teachings."

At the center of the property is the largest temple, the Odiyan mandala, surrounded by four smaller temples. The staff quarters connect them in a kind of ranch-house architecture. The 50 or so rooms are sparsely furnished, with twin beds, a sink and closet. Some are larger to accommodate families. Cooking and clean-up chores are shared in the dining hall. It feels a bit like summer camp.

A couple dozen members lived at Odiyan as they built it, under the tutorage of Rinpoche. Others commuted, focusing on translating the Tibetan teachings and making the books. Since long work hours are part of the meditation process, the neighbors could have mistaken this silence over the years as secrecy.

So what is this place doing in California? And who is the driven man who brought it here?

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