Buddhist immersion

By SHIRLEY WEST, Observer, Feb 3, 2008

Berkeley, Calif. (USA) -- Waking up in the peaceful stillness of the California wilderness, he remembers that it is his turn to cook breakfast. After a few inventive attempts at waking his roommate, they work together to cook pancakes for the rest of the volunteers.

Odiyan Buddhist Retreat Center in Berkeley, California

After congregating around a huge stone fireplace to eat a breakfast of pancakes and fresh fruit, most of which they helped grow themselves, the volunteers meet at the construction site at 7 a.m. for Kum Nye — Tibetan yoga — to stretch and loosen up for work.

Those who chose to do so would join hands in a circle and say a Tibetan prayer for a safe and productive day, voices resonating off each other in a song-like chant of an old, foreign tongue.

This was a typical morning for Josh Ibach of Dunkirk during his three-month stay as a volunteer at Odiyan Buddhist Retreat Center in Berkeley, Calif.

What makes a 27-year-old man want to travel across the country to help construct a 10-story, dome-topped, octagonal temple?

“I wanted an experience where I was submerged in a different culture,” Ibach said. “Not just reading about it but living it and learning from people who were living it. I wanted to learn and experience something new and exciting, but at the same time help out a good cause and do something for others.”

Odiyan was created as a Tibetan Buddhist refuge in America after the Chinese took control of Tibet. Much of the art, literature and culture of Tibetan Buddhism was destroyed. Lama Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche fled Tibet and came to America.

In California, he started a non-profit printing shop to attempt to save some of the sacred writings from his homeland. It soon expanded and, with it, so did the ability to help preserve the 2,000-year-old Tibetan culture from being totally wiped from history.

Odiyan was started in the 1970s, all by volunteers, as a place to live and study Buddhism. Because of its freedom of religion, America is a safe haven for the Buddhist texts and art.

After finding Odiyan online, Ibach was dazzled by such a foreign place in the middle of California. Odiyan is constantly seeking volunteers and Ibach immediately contacted them for an application.

“I contacted them twice about going before I was able to work out when I could be there,’ Ibach said. “I had it as a goal in my mind for three years before I went.”

After saving up enough money for the trip, Ibach left for California right before summer in 2007.

“After arriving in Berkeley, you spend two weeks on a trial period at the Dharma Institute making books to be sent to the world peace ceremony in India, where they give them away for free to those in need,” he explained. “In Berkeley, you have a chance to take classes and study many aspects of Buddhism and meditation. Then, usually by bus, you take the long trip to the northern coastal wilderness, where Odiyan is located.”

Ibach worked with other volunteers building, painting and decorating the interior of the sub floor of the temple. He was also in charge of landscaping.

The other volunteers came from all over the world — Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Holland, India — and from all over the United States, ranging from 18-year-olds to the elderly. Some have been there since the 1970s.

The volunteers took turns cooking vegetarian meals for each other, so Ibach got to sample dishes from all across the globe. Dinners were eaten in a big hall with long wooden tables that were only a foot high, so volunteers sat cross-legged on cushions.

“On most days after work, you had the opportunity to take some sort of class taught by one of the older, permanent volunteers,” he said. “We would gather in the reading room on big comfy couches or chairs for an open discussion about meditation, or history of Buddhism, sometimes philosophy, or discussions about mind and emotions. On Thursdays we could learn Kum Nye yoga. If you chose to, you could learn the Tibetan alphabet, songs, chants and mantras.

“You weren’t made to do anything. Many people simply chose to do other things, like read or go for a hike around the thousand acres of land. Some people would hang out and play guitar or soccer.”

Ibach and his roommate, Nick, became very close during their volunteer time and undertook an adventure together — a hike to the ocean.

“The ocean looks deceivingly close,” Ibach laughed. “We told some others about our plan and we were immediately warned not to go. That it was much too far and dangerous. Where we were there are wild boars, mountain lions, bob cats, rattle snakes, black widows and scorpions. Not only that, but between us and the ocean was a thick redwood forest, hills, rock cliffs, and a river to cross.

“They said other people had tried and were lost in the woods for days. Despite all the warnings, Nick and I packed some bottles of Gatorade, some day-old pizza and a bag of trail mix and set out on foot.”

During their hike, they had to jump fences, cross a ravine and fight their way through thick brush.

“We also came across a strange, sculpted elephant painted and decorated with fake jewels miles from anything in the middle of nowhere,” Ibach said.

He and his roommate stopped to take pictures with the lost elephant.

“We finally made it to the ocean after six hours or so,” he said. “We came to the edge of the forest. We sat together on the edge of a rock cliff overlooking the vast ocean. We ate our cold pizza and celebrated our victory, watching the waves crash violently against the rocks below.

“No one ever underestimated the two of us or told us ‘no’ ever again during our stay. We accomplished what many others that came before us could not and in record time. We both had blood blisters on our feet for a week, but pain and hardship made our victory much more profound. Nick and I were inseparable after that.”

Ibach described the experience as being in a kind of bubble.

“Odiyan is very isolated and because of that, it feels like its own little world,” recalled Ibach. “There is no need for dressing to impress. It’s very far away from any towns, malls, bars, etc. So it’s like a little peaceful bubble free of stress and the normal worries of the outside world.”

He continued with the observation that most people in America feel isolated from one another, and suffer from a feeling of not belonging because of the country’s “dog eat dog” attitude about success.

“At Odiyan, it’s about caring for others before yourself,” he said. “It’s about coming together despite your background or religion to achieve something greater than yourself. It’s about working hard, not for money, but for the wisdom and accomplishment that grow from it. Everyone feels like a giant extended family eating, living and working together all toward the same goal.”

Although he had planned to stay longer, Ibach had to end his sojourn at Odiyan prematurely. He intends to find new adventures, however.

“After staying for three months, there was a family emergency back home that I had to attend to,” Ibach said. “Right now, I’m planning on a one-month stay in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. There is a volunteer organization there helping to preserve the rainforests’ plant and animal life.”

Volunteer work in another culture has become an important part of Ibach’s life. He believes everyone should try it.

“It really was a great learning experience. I learned so much so fast,” he said, mentioning not only all the aspects of Buddhism but new skills in construction, landscaping, cooking and how to live, work, learn and play together as a community.

“I learned tools to help control anger, jealousy, and hatred. I gained a new perspective about the mind and emotions. How to look at yourself and take little steps every day for improvement,” he continued. “I learned that many great things can be accomplished by very few with very little, with nothing more than the heart and willingness to come together to be part of something bigger than themselves.”

After a moment’s pause and an ironic smile, he added that he also learned the ocean was a lot colder than he thought.

On the web: http://www.odiyan.org