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COVER STORY

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

Recreational spirituality is also available. The Tassajara Zen monastery in the Ventana wilderness above Big Sur, billed as the first such monastery in the West, is one of a number of California religious centers that host secular visitors part or all of the year. They are generally in spectacular natural settings and offer yoga, meditation, hot springs, massages, hikes or even 10 days of observing a silent monastic regime.

The accouterments of high-end Zen go way beyond yoga sportswear. Now there are Zen alarm clocks with subtle chimes, Zen telephones that strike a Tibetan brass bowl when someone calls. Eastern-themed stores sell laughing Buddha and Hindu deities like Kali and Shiva against a backdrop of dreamy sitar music and incense. In this Material World, the universal principles of feng shui have become the province of interior decorators.

The popularization of Eastern spiritualism in Los Angeles is endlessly lampooned by Hollywood. In "Hollywood Buddha," an unreleased independent film, a producer whose life is a shambles hires a guru who advises him to purchase a huge deity -- and his life magically improves. In "The Guru," an aspiring actor from India falls for a porn actress and becomes a self-styled guru with more exotic poses than the Kama Sutra. In "America's Sweethearts," a heartbroken John Cusack is counseled by an Indian mystic whose wisdom begins with lines like, "Life is like a cookie."

But some take Eastern mystics seriously.

Politicians have been making PR pilgrimages for decades -- since California Lt. Gov. Goodwin J. Knight sat at the Swami Yogananda's side at the 1951 dedication of the Self-Realization Fellowship's Hollywood branch. Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti took ethnic pandering to a whole new plane in November 2000 when he walked into the Swaminarayan Hindu Temple in Whittier in his stockinged feet to accept the divine endorsement of Pramukh "Swami" Maharaj for his unsuccessful reelection bid. During a memorial service last fall at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Buddhist monks led meditation chants and a swami joined Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in leading prayers.

USC has two swamis-in-residence.

If L.A.'s swamis seem to be veering close to mainstream status, a seminal chapter in their long and rich history begins alongside the Hollywood Freeway, at the end of a road that winds under the Hollywood sign. The Vedanta Temple, a small turreted white replica of the Taj Mahal, sits amid a jungle-like garden with orchids, ponds, secret passageways and hidden shrines to Mother Mary, Krishna and Rama.

The Vedanta Temple is where the distinguished writers Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood became devotees of the Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood, whose portrayals of a decadent Berlin teetering on the edge of fascism would eventually be the basis of the film "Cabaret," penned a whole book about this scene, "My Guru and His Disciples." Even Greta Garbo hung out here.

Vedanta's deputy swami, Sarvadevananda, is a pleasant, ageless gentleman from Calcutta swathed in the familiar apricot robes. During a recent visit, he smiles pleasantly in the tiny, well-lighted room used for private counseling.

The "ananda" ending of many swami names, he explains, means "Bliss." His own name means "All Knowledge Bliss." Yes, he counsels a lot of people who come, "maybe seeking something higher. Maybe tired of life. Want peace. Maybe frustrated with something. Maybe want meditation."

Most of the monks here, however, are decidedly American.

"Be careful Maharaj, you're going to get burned! It happens every time," growls an American monk in a gritty Brooklyn accent after overhearing repeated questions about who finances all this inner peace. The swami bursts out laughing, but later, he discreetly draws attention to pictures of a deceased, deep-pocketed Disney vice president photographed strolling with swamis of the order.

Another American monk named Atmatattwananda, who's called Shiva for short, says California has a way of attracting pilgrims of all kinds. In the library, Shiva introduces Steven King, 27, a former Marine in torn jeans, jungle mocs and a five o'clock shadow. He has just arrived from Kansas City on a Greyhound bus. Why?

"Ultimately, to build a relationship and commune with God," he says earnestly.

Kali's Malibu yoga has made her something of a swami of the moment. She won't name the Hollywood people she knows, though her publicist, Cindy Rakowitz, says Blythe Danner and Talia Shire are open about their association with her.

Swami Kali will say that she holds private meetings on a weekly basis with several prominent Hollywood actors, some of them Oscar winners.

"They call me their angel," she says -- and she does seem other-worldly today, with her robes and what appears to be a tiny red sequin on her forehead.

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