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Nirvana in the Palisades

Basketball, pizza, Mr. Bean -- in between prayers and performances, 10 touring Tibetan monks kick back.

March 14, 2004|Deborah Netburn | Special to The Times

For the past four years a group of 10 crimson-robed Tibetan monks from the Drepung Gomang Monastery in southern India has traveled on a nine-month tour of the United States. When the latest tour finishes in early July, the monks will have visited 44 cities in 22 states, performing traditional chants and dances at museums, colleges, elementary schools and libraries. Drepung Gomang organizes the tour to spread a message of inner peace and to raise money for the monastery, which already houses 1,750 monks and accepts 150 new monks who've fled Chinese-occupied Tibet each year.

When the Drepung monks stop in Los Angeles they stay in the sprawling homes of Liberty Godshall, an energetic blond activist who lives in Santa Monica, and Kathy Rodman, a sexy mother of six with dyed auburn bangs who lives in the Pacific Palisades. Three years ago, during the monks' first trip, Rodman offered to house two monks to help out a friend of a friend. Two months later she got a call: All 10 monks were going to show up at her house the following day. Rodman freaked, called her close friend Godshall for help, and Godshall agreed to take half the monks at her place. Over the years a number of other women in the Pacific Palisades have eagerly offered to host the monks in their own sprawling homes, but Godshall and Rodman won't hear of it.

"They don't like to share," said their close friend Karen Fairbank.


In mid-February, one week before the monks arrived in Los Angeles, Rodman, Godshall and Fairbank gathered in Rodman's sunny kitchen looking out onto the Pacific to make a grocery list.

"Red peppers, green peppers, onions, that special basmati rice," said Rodman, who was taking notes.

"I already have that," said Godshall. "But we need a big bag of flour, remember that?"

"We need to find out if they're Coke drinkers this time or juice drinkers," said Rodman.

"Ice cream," said Godshall.

"Tons of ice cream," said Rodman, writing it down.

"Remember that first year when they wanted yak butter," said Fairbank, "and we couldn't find it, oddly enough?"

"You know, the butter is what makes their skin so good," said Godshall. "Last year I asked them what moisturizer they use in Tibet, because it's so dry up there, and they said butter."

"Maybe we should try it," said Rodman.

"I did," said Godshall, making a face. "It gets rancid."


The following week the monks arrived in the middle of a torrential downpour. Traveling in a gray 11-seat van nicknamed the Monkmobile, they got stuck in traffic on the 405 and, because they couldn't see through the rain, took the wrong exit and drove around Santa Monica for an hour. They finally made it to Rodman's house at 3 in the afternoon. By 6 o'clock that evening, when Godshall and Fairbank arrived with armloads of Gelson's pasta salad and roast chicken, seven of the monks had settled in the luxuriously cozy living room. Geshe Tenpa Sonam, the leader and, at 41, the second-oldest monk on the tour, was tucked in a corner reading a book in Tibetan. On a daybed Tsewang Dorje posed for Rodman's 17-year-old son Nick, who took his picture with a camera phone. Rodman's stepdaughter Simone, in black stiletto boots and tight jeans, picked her way around the room taking medium-format Polaroids of the house guests.

In a small TV room off the front hall the other three monks and their translator had piled on a couch to watch the Duke-Wake Forest basketball game. Television is forbidden in the monastery, so the first year the monks came Godshall prepared her house by covering all the televisions with heavy blankets. After the monks had been there two days one approached her and demurely asked, "Can we watch that?" and pointed at an obscured television.

"Of course," she said. "It doesn't offend you?"

"We just watch CNN for news of His Holiness Dalai Lama," the monk replied.

"But then they were just watching everything," Godshall said. "One year they stayed up all night watching a magic marathon until 6 in the morning. Not one monk went to sleep."


The following morning it was too cold to swim in the pool, so the five monks who stayed at Rodman's drove the Monkmobile to Godshall's house, a large 1920s rustic "log cabin" she shares with her husband, the director Ed Zwick, and their two children. The monks hung out in the basement, which has been converted into a game room. Two of them were already immersed in a game of pool, which they played skillfully, and the rest were about halfway through "Bend It Like Beckham," which played on a large-screen TV.

The only task scheduled that day was an hourlong performance for TreePeople, an environmental organization headquartered in Coldwater Canyon Park, off of Mulholland Drive. Just before it was time to leave, the monks walked out of the house and stood by the pool. A few touched the water, which was letting off steam in the cool morning. "It's hot!" said one. "No," said another. "Cold."

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