Swami Dhyanayogananda visits the lookout on the shrine trail where the iconic Om symbol is held high on the hilltop at the Trabuco Canyon Monastery. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
Past the recalcitrant bikers of Cook’s Corner and up the slithering dirt roads of Trabuco Canyon sits a monastery where monks live in communion with the old ways.
By morning’s waking light, they settle in front of their ancient teacher’s shrine for meditation. They walk the grounds dressed in orange robes. They reject most of the ways of modernity, living as ascetics.
The monastery is somewhat isolated by a circuitous uphill dirt road. Signs warning drivers to signal their presence with a honk presage two bends in the narrow pass, which is wide enough for about one and a half cars. It’s important to make the ascent slowly.
The monastic grounds, near the north end of O’Neill Regional Park, are embedded in the natural terrain of the canyon. The air is empty — there are few sounds.
Though these are considered sacred grounds by swamis, the public has been allowed to walk them for decades. Hundreds of visitors make this pilgrimage each week, with many sitting in on lectures and scriptural readings.
Amid a landscape of consumerism and mega churches, swamis are hoping to contribute to the spiritual well-being of the county’s residents. Yet, a monastery atop a hill preaching patience, concentration and temperance can only have so much effect in such a manically-paced community.
The lecture hall, library and courtyard at the Trabuco Canyon Monastery. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
It didn’t start as a monastery at all, but was regarded as the Trabuco College of Prayer during its infancy.
The college was erected in 1942 by Gerald Heard, an English Renaissance man who was eventually called the "grandfather" of the New Age movement, which was a spiritual development in the 1970s influenced by the counterculture revolution of the previous decade.
Heard developed the college after becoming familiar with a school of Hinduism called Vedanta. Being entrenched in the literary culture of the time, Heard recruited help from his friends and famed authors Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.
The buildings have remained pretty much as they were over the decades, but what has changed is the particular monks assigned to live in and maintain the sacred place.
Swami Yogeshananda has lived as a "retired" monk at the monastery since 2009, though he regularly teaches classes and engages in the spiritual traditions he’s practiced throughout his 70 years as a monk.
The old swami’s spiritual path began while he was working as a warden at a Pennsylvania school for the mentally deficient, a part of his service as a conscientious objector during World War II. While embroiled in what he called "the worst year of his life," the swami met a monk who began to teach him the spiritual practices that he would come to use for seven decades.
Swami Dhyanayogananda walks to view the sunset at the Trabuco Canyon Monastery. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
Yet, with mega churches like Mariners and Saddleback peddling a kind of mass-produced spiritualism, the humble monks stand as Davids to their Goliath.
A stained-glass window displays a colorful Om symbol in the lecture hall at the Trabuco Canyon Monastery. (Don Leach / Staff Photographer)