Tibetan Buddhist Shrine Rises in California Hills

A golden stupa shimmers in the California sunlight, appearing like an Asian mirage in the hills above the magnificent coastline north of San Francisco.

The traditional Buddhist monument, found everywhere across Asia, is only one piece of a stunning complex of Buddhist temples opened to the public this month.

The Odiyan Buddhist Center, which was more than two decades in the making, is the creation of the adherents of a Tibetan lama. Designed as a monastery and retreat for the study of Tibetan Buddhism, it is purportedly the largest such structure in North America. A gleaming copper-domed main temple, an 11-story pagoda-like temple, and four libraries filled with thousands of sacred texts in Tibetan are set amid acres of flower gardens, reflecting pools, and fluttering prayer flags. The air is filled with the calming hum of more than 1,200 copper prayer wheels engraved with Buddhist mantras.

From the plantings to the 108,000 images of the founder of Tibetan Buddhism that fill the Vajra Temple overlooking the Pacific, Odiyan is the handiwork of a small Buddhist community based in Berkeley, Calif. For 21 years, a rotating group of people from diverse backgrounds, most of them teachers, psychologists, and other professionals, built this retreat from the ground up, learning construction techniques as they went along.

Equally monumental is the publishing work of this movement, which over the same period has collected and preserved a treasury of Tibetan Buddhist texts, many saved from the efforts of the Chinese government to wipe out the rich religious and cultural heritage of Tibet.

The driving force behind Odiyan is Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan scholar and teacher. Since fleeing the Chinese Communist takeover of the Himalayan nation, Tarthang Tulku has devoted his life to the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism.

The temple complex is testament not only to the commitment of the small band that built it but also to the growing popularity in the West of all schools of Buddhism.

"Odiyan is a small piece of the spread of Buddhism in the West," says Harvard University's Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies who chairs a committee studying Eastern religions in the United States.

The Asian religion initially came to this country in the 19th century through immigrants from Japan and China, followed in recent decades by immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.

This Asian diversity has grown to include Euro-American followers, initially associated with the beat generation of the late 1950s but long since spread widely across the country. "The Buddhist tradition in the US is becoming an American religious tradition," says Professor Eck. Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary from several hundred thousand to several million.

"Buddhism addresses the question of 'what else is there?' in a culture that is very fast-track and materialistic, and oriented toward ideals of progress," Eck says. The tradition of meditation in Buddhism merges religion with psychology.

"It stresses independent investigation," explains Sally Sorenson, a project coordinator at Odiyan. "You're trying to understand how your own mind works. You're not asked to believe. You're asked to discover something for yourself. It's an individual pursuit guided by tradition." This may account in part for its attraction to highly educated people.

Tarthang Tulku adheres to the Nyingma, or ancient, school of Buddhism which traces its roots back to Padmasambhava, a Mahayana Buddhist master credited with introducing the religion from India into Tibet beginning in the 7th century. The Nyingma school is the earliest phase of a literary tradition notable for its comprehensive and accurate translations of ancient Sanskrit texts and commentaries.

"Tibetan Buddhism is a repository of texts that were otherwise lost because Buddhism died out in India," says Professor Janet Gyatso, an associate professor of religion at Amherst College and a specialist on Tibetan Buddhism.

That heritage thrived in the relative isolation of remote mountainous Tibet until the Communists came to power in China, leading to growing persecution of Tibetans and their culture.

The Tibetan supreme leader, the Dalai Lama, fled in 1959, along with some 100,000 of his followers. According to human rights organizations, the Chinese repression that followed killed hundreds of thousands of Tibetans and destroyed all but 13 of the country's more than 6,000 monasteries, along with their libraries.

Along with many Tibetans, Tarthang Tulku initially went into exile in India, where he taught at Sanskrit University. There he began an effort to collect and publish texts and sacred art carried out by fleeing monks and others.

In 1968, the lama came to the United States, where he founded Dharma Publishing and later the Nyingma Institute, a center for the study of meditation and Buddhist thought. Odiyan, whose construction began in 1975, was intended as a retreat for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism as well as for those engaged in serious scholarship.

Aside from a wide variety of publications in English popularizing Buddhist thought, the core of Dharma Publishing's effort has been the painstaking reproduction of Tibetan language texts, originally printed by hand-carved woodblocks on thin strips of paper stored in wooden boxes.

In 1981, the group completed a 128-volume edition of the Tibetan Buddhist canon. This was followed in 1993 by publication an even more ambitious 627-volume collection of the works of the Nyingma tradition, as well as of masters of all four Tibetan schools, collected from refugees and libraries the world over.

These works cover a vast range of subjects from philosophy to history, medicine, and science. Large enough to fill the entire wall of a vaulted underground library at Odiyan, the volumes are now being distributed back to Tibet and to Tibetan exiles in India, Nepal, and elsewhere.

"Since the Chinese took over, there are two generations that don't know anything about Tibetan tradition," says Dharma Publishing's Jack Petranker.

Now Dharma is embarked on translating these texts into English. Amid the edifices and grounds of Odiyan, somehow this does not seem so daunting a task.

* If you are interested in visiting Odiyan, call (510) 549-9310. More information on Odiyan is available on the Internet at http://www.nyingma.org

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