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Inner-peace movement

Many in L.A. turn to Eastern spiritualism to be 'interior designers' of their minds. It's a tonic for frenzied lives.

March 25, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

But a more touristic approach to Eastern spiritualism has also been a tradition here since the 1920s, long before Hollywood types began their 1960s pilgrimages to gurus in India. The city's rather notorious openness to maverick spirituality drew such swamis as Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship here. Yogananda compared his adopted city to the Indian capital of spiritual fusion, Banaras, dubbing Los Angeles "the Banaras of the West."

Perhaps the most opulent measure of his success is the Fellowship's Lake Shrine property spilling down the Pacific Palisades near the coast. On a recent Sunday morning, the fog lends the shrine the dreamlike quality of a Chinese watercolor as a swami delivers a sermon on reincarnation.

"You need a strong inner core to survive in Hollywood," says actress Jud Tylor, 24, who played Suzanne Somers in "Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of 'Three's Company' " and appears with John Goodman in the upcoming "Home of Phobia." It was Tylor's third visit to the shrine.

"The last two or three months, I've been auditioning nonstop, and I need an outlet," she says. "It's pilot season, and I'm not doing yoga as much as I like."

Newcomers like Tylor are common these days: Attendance here is up 40% since the mid-1990s, according to directors.

"It's like a massage. You go because it feels good," says film producer Stephen Grudenic, 32, a practicing Christian who is a sometime visitor.

"It's more accepted here," says Christine Lapinsky, 32, a surf wear seller who relocated from Manhattan three years ago. "East Coasters in general think that anyone who does these kinds of things are flakes."

After the death of George Harrison, one of the most high-profile members of the Self-Realization Fellowship, his family and friends gathered at the Lake Shrine's small Windmill Chapel for his funeral. The service was performed by Brother Mitrananda, who knew Harrison. Ravi Shankar was there with his wife. The service was designed "basically to give inspiration to people," recalls Brother Achalananda, who was also there. "To help the people who lost the loved one, to let them know it's OK, everything's cool, carry on. That we are not this body, we are souls, and the soul is immortal and goes on to different forms, and drops the overcoat and goes into the astral world of light and energy."

The recent Sunday service on reincarnation has a similar tone.

"This material world is not a safe place," the officiating swami says. "If we build our nests here, they will be washed away. We need to find our God within ourselves."

Jesus Christ gazes from the altar alongside sainted Indian spiritualists. Some retooled Hindu truths in the swami's talk seem as in tune with contemporary life in Los Angeles as with the wisdom of the ancients.

"Reincarnation is fun to think about," the swami says. "But this present life and this present moment is the most important thing. That's where we'll connect with God."

"This is so free and easy," says first-time visitor Melissa Marshall, 47, a Fairfax High special education teacher, who heard about the Lake Shrine from people at her yoga class. Marshall was raised a Jehovah's Witness.

"With Jehovah's Witness I felt so trapped and negative," she says. "This is such a free way to worship. So positive. And I love it." Just a few years ago, she says, "I would have viewed this as a cult."

But the image of Eastern spiritualism has changed since the days when Hare Krishnas panhandled in the airport.

When Brother Paramananda of the Self-Realization Fellowship stepped away from the Material World, he was a young actor named Bruce Mars. Among his roles: a "Star Trek" space cadet whose latent aggression is unleashed on a planet where all subconscious desires come to life, allowing him to terrorize Capt. Kirk.

Now he sees his spiritual journey manifesting itself in mainstream America.

"The words 'karma' and 'reincarnation' are being thrown around everywhere," said the swami, now 68. "Even in sports -- at some TV basketball game, a guy tried a shot and couldn't make it, and the radio announcer said it was his karma. I went the whole hog and became a monk and walked away. Nowadays people don't have to run away to meditate. There are doctors, lawyers, a mother with three children -- anyone can do it. There's more acceptance."

And for today's spiritual aficionados -- who gravitate toward Zen Buddhism or toward Hindu-based sects or both -- the options for casual engagement have never been greater.

Zen centers have sprung up in many California cities. In the last eight years, the Buddhist Khandakapala Center has expanded from a students' living room in Los Angeles to a temple with seven branches in the city. The website of the spiritual bookstore the Bodhi Tree -- named for the tree that legendarily shaded Buddha as he contemplated universal truths -- posts daily events that run the gamut from spirit channeling to chanting sessions with spiritual troubadour Krishna Das.

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