Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple, Ozena Valley

One of the most lovely things about living in Southern California is enjoying the mild, sunny days of autumn.  The heat of summer has subsided and is no longer unbearable during mid-day.  The grass that covers the hills dies and turns golden and brittle to match the leaves of the maple trees.  If lightning strikes, the brush is consumed and the ashes enable wildflowers to bloom and the seed pods of some species to germinate which wouldn’t otherwise.

This beauty was well displayed on the drive up to Pine Mountain Buddhist Temple.  From Ojai, Matthew and I drove up highway 33 along the Jacinto Reyes Scenic Byway.   (See: Shadows of Sage Brush in Jacinto Reyes.)

About a mile after turning on to Lockwood Valley Road, we encountered the entrance to the temple.  I had e-mailed the two monks in residence to ask if our visit would work well for their schedule, as requested on their website, so they were anticipating our arrival.

Two friendly, mellow dogs greeted us at the car before we were welcomed by one of the monks.  We were the only visitors for the moment and received a full tour of the temple grounds.  His colleague came out of the kitchen to welcome us, saying that she was making soup for the guests who would be coming later that afternoon for a weekend retreat.

We were shown a garden with a koi pond which he said had trouble keeping koi because the herons would occasionally visit and take a snack for themselves.  I laughed and mused that the herons must have thought it kind that they had provided such a convenient spot to hunt.  The urge to anthropomorphize never ceases to provide opportunities for humor.  To dissuade the herons, they had erected a life-size decoy bird near the pond since herons are territorial.

We were also shown a green house in construction and told that it was hard to grow food in the area, including fruit trees, without an animal beating them to the harvest.  Rabbits weren’t the only culprits; coyotes love grapes, apparently, and a bear had feasted upon their apple tree, bending and breaking the branches like a broken umbrella.  Besides the trouble of growing food, the temple is quite self-sufficient through the use of well water and a solar panel system that covers all their electrical needs.

Hsi Lai Temple, Hacienda Heights

Hsi Lai Temple feels like an oasis in the middle of white-hot urban sprawl of Southern California.  The dry “Santa Ana” winds were blowing at the time of our visit, adding an invigorating charge to the air.  On our way there, Matthew and I paused at Sycamore Canyon to go for a leisurely hike and listen to the dry brush speak with its rustling.  The air is usually so still in Southern California that the plants never otherwise have a voice.  It is wonderful to feel everything come alive when these winds visit every autumn.

Upon arrival, we meandered through the gardens and gazed upon the faces of statues with expressions ranging from serene to crazed and comical.  Since I lean more toward Zen Buddhism than Mahayana Buddhism (the former being more minimalistic and the latter being more ceremonial), it was peculiar for me to see a “forest of faces” in those gardens.  I was further awe-struck by the extravagance of the meditation temple, featuring three giant gold statues of the Buddha and so many tiny golden lights to entrance and humble the observer that it was easy to let go of extraneous thoughts and be still, if only for a few moments in the day.

Lake Casitas and Meditation Mount, Ojai

For years, I yearned to go kayaking on a lake.  Nothing looked more peaceful than a kayaker gliding across still waters with his rhythmic paddle grazing the water.  My wish was fulfilled yesterday at Lake Casitas when Matthew and I rented kayaks from a nice older man who jokingly told us that the paddles he had given us were the fastest he had and not to exceed 5 MPH.  I took to the water in mine and waited while Matthew hopped into his.  Within moments, he was off and I was trailing behind, eyeing my paddle accusingly.

The considerate man that he is, Matthew paused often while I caught up.  It seemed effortless for him; he would barely swish his paddle in the water and be off in a hurry, then rest it on his lap and gaze at his beautiful surroundings as he waited for me.  Swish, swish, swish… pause and reflect.  Swish, swish, swish… pause and reflect.  I even asked if I could trade paddles with him and he obliged.

We headed for an island in the middle of the lake.  Since Lake Casitas is a drinking reservoir for the city of Ojai and the land is sensitive habitat, we were not allowed to land on the shores or have bodily contact with the water but there were many beautiful birds for us to see.

“The Audubon Society recognizes Lake Casitas as part of a global network of places recognized for their outstanding value to bird conservation. Bird counts in the past have identified over 160 different species. The Recreation Area and surrounding watershed is also habitat for a vast array of wildlife including deer, foxes, squirrels and the like.” (1)

The pirate in his element

On the way back I abandoned all grace, leaning forward and digging the paddle into the water, trying to make each stroke count to its fullest potential.  The main focus of the excursion became improving my upper body strength; if that happens, then grace will come later.  I figured I could enjoy the serenity of the lake another day from the shore.

We brought our life jackets and paddles back to the man in the rental shop and he laughingly told us that we had gone 6 mph, breaking the rules.  Matthew insisted it must have been me.

Since we still had plenty of time in the afternoon, we ventured to another beautiful spot in Ojai: Meditation Mount, a non-profit organization open to the public for rest and relaxation. (2)  At the mount, we slipped off our shoes and relaxed in the small quiet room, lighting a candle to gaze upon and focus our minds.

Matthew’s “spirit hands”

Kneeling on a cushion is nice, but I find my greatest sense of peace while lying on the floor.

Many people have said to me that there is an “energy vortex” located at meditation mount, specifically in this small meditation room.

“I consider Ojai to be California’s very own “Spiritual Mecca”. Nestled amongst breathtaking scenery, it lies on a female energy vortex, making this little country town a truly magical place. When I want to connect with nature and find peace, tranquility & Spirituality, I go to Ojai.” (3)

–Connie Costa, life coach and motivational speaker

I grew up with many strange, esoteric things said to me as if they were perfectly normal.  If you’re having a bad day, of course you should know how to “ground and center” your energy.  If people are fighting at home, have you cleansed it with sage recently, preferably on the new moon?  The full moon would work, too, but the new moon is better, especially if it’s in a water sign like Cancer or Pisces.  The movie “Easy A” which heavily commercializes the beauty of Ojai pokes a little fun at this in one of the intro scenes.  My mother used to entertain superstitious beliefs such as these but later rejected them, saying she needed to “simplify her beliefs.”  I simplified too by becoming atheistic.  Meditation and relaxation techniques will always have their place, though, in helping to effectively manage stress.

We ventured on, exploring the new “tea room” which sells a variety of beautiful gifts such as crystals and silk shawls.  I thought it was strange at first to see items for sale there.  It had been over a year since my last visit and I had never seen that before.  However, I knew that they have been doing a tremendous amount of work cultivating the garden and all the money raised would go into the facility.

One of the recent developments of Meditation Mount’s garden is the lily pond which is operated by a solar powered pump.

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Matthew enjoyed the peaceful view from one of the stone benches.  I found some shade on lush green grass (something rare in Southern California!) and lay on my back again, gazing at the fern-like branches swaying above me in the breeze.  Much of the garden is composed of native plants that do not need much irrigation; the grassy area is a special indulgence.

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

Photo Credit: Matthew Phelps

A few feet away, someone was sitting on a stone bench with her eyes closed and a cockatiel in a cage beside her.  I thought it was terribly sweet that she wanted to bring her bird out to get some fresh air, but the poor little thing was making distressed sounds while its owner seemed to be nodding off.  I wondered if it was concerned about the many raptors circling overhead.  Its little squeaks sounded like, “Shit!  Oh shit, mom!  Why’d you bring me here?!”  Maybe she thought it could use the “energy”.

Have you ever had people close to you try to sell you on ideas that you found a bit odd?