Lost Horizon

In Red Soil and WTV I contemplated the sources of Ojai's mystical reputation. I spent some time delineating the impact of Theosophists on the valley and that of Alice Bailey, firmly in the same tradition, but cast out of the Theosophy camp by her great rival Annie Besant. On Saturday, I attended a talk by UCSB Professor of Geology Edward Keller, sponsored by the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and held at Matilija auditorium, on the geology of our area. Almost the first thing he said was that Ojai was undergoing a rate of geologic uplift that was only rivaled by the Himalyayas. Ohmmmmm, I thought.

While I was in New Suffolk on Long Island's North Fork attending Kate and Rob's wedding (Waterland) we met some of her cousins and cousins-in-law who hailed from Halifax. There may be other reasons for Americans to relocate to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, but the primary one is the maritime community of Buddhists who travelled there as a sort of diaspora after the world of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, his Regents and successors blew apart in Boulder and Ojai as an HIV sex scandal besmirched the authority of the guru. And so, I learnt as I talked to them, it was.

Enlightenment dawned. Almost all of the spiritual traditions upon which Ojai's reputation as a mystical hot spot are based can be traced back to the Himalayas, and to the esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. Might Ojai's unique appeal to Tibet's mahatmas and their envoys possibly be this connection between the geologic morphology of our valley and the Himalayas?

There have been several waves of Buddhist influence to wash over Ojai's shores. The first can be dated to The Secret Doctrine, Blavatsky's 1892 seminal text in which she recounted her travels in Tibet and her initiation into the most arcane practices of the Lamas. This book formed the basis for the Theosophist Society which eventually made its way to Ojai in the shape of the Krotona Institute in 1924, closely followed by Besant and the boy-god, Krishnamurti, in 1927. In the sixties and seventies came exiled Rinpoche direct from the Lamasaries of Tibet. In between there was Frank Capra's 1937 movie, Lost Horizon.

This somewhat creaky flic has now been supplanted as the most famous Ojai movie, for the moment, at least, by Easy A, but for a long time, the idea of this fictional Shangri-la was inextricably conjoined with the valley, certainly well into the time that I first became aware of Ojai in the 1980's. Having watched a restored version recently, I can affirm that very little of the movie as it survives today appears to have been shot in Ojai, and the film's sweeping shots of an edenic high valley in no way resemble Ojai's majestic mountain panoramas. Nonetheless, the mere association of the film and the valley had, for a long time, turned the latter into my personal pictorial backdrop to memories of James Hilton's 1933 book, which I had read as a schoolboy.

Sue-Ellen Case, an Ojai friend who briefly covers this material both more expertly and elegantly in her book, Performing Science and the Virtual, Routledge, NY, 2006, notes that,

"In the nineteenth century Mme. Blavatsky created a paradigm of imaging Tibet, or the region of the Himalayas, as the seat of avatars and esoteric learning.....Recalling the nineteenth century investment in the Himalayas as a spiritual region, the twentieth century moved Tibet into virtual versions of it, from Hollywood films to the diasporic settlement of its spiritual practices."

Once thus transformed into a virtual spiritual place, Tibet was free to land - anywhere. But having relinquished the real it appears as though the masters and mistresses of its virtual reality were drawn ineluctably to a simulacrum of its actual geologic home (but with a more hospitable climate).

Crazy Wisdom, premiered at Santa Barbara Film Festival earlier in the year, and which opens soon to wide release, follows the story of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. Much of his Dharmic stream now resides in Ojai having flowed through his Vjara regent (the troublesome Ösel Tendzin, born Thomas Rich in Passaic, NJ) to Patrick Sweeney, now resident in Ojai and president of Satdharma—dedicated to the transmission of Trungpa's teachings. Hagiography, from all reports, it ain't. Tendzin's wife, The Lady Lila Rich and Sweeney have attempted to heal the rifts caused by her husband's irresponsible behaviour and Trungpa's tacit acceptance of it: nevertheless, former students of Trungpa, 'the bad boy of Buddhism', are spread to the four winds of Ojai, Boulder and Halifax, Novia Scotia and beyond and pursue their practice in the shadow of his troubled legacy. Can't wait!

I have identified the various institutional centers of Ojai's connection to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as The Krotona Institute, The Krishnamurti Center on Mc Andrew Road, Meditation Mount and the Happy Valley property in Upper Ojai and it is here that The Ojai Foundation was established in 1975 by Liam Gallagher and dedicated to exploring the interface between science and spirituality. In 1979 in fulfillment of a prophecy she had been vouchsafed while working with Joseph Campbell, Joan Halifax assumed the position of director. As an anthropologist and a practicing Buddhist she took the foundation in a new direction and in 1986 held the infamous symposium, Awaken The Dream: The Way of the Warrior, Ancient Tradition and New Thought from Six Continents. This controversial program included not only a native American syncretist medicine man, martial artist and Zen Buddhist, Harley SwiftDeer Reagan, an Australian aboriginal leader, Guboo Ted Thomas but, inevitably, a Tibetan Buddhist Lama named Chukua Tulku Rinpoche.

The ambitious Halifax has since moved on and was replaced by Jack Zimmerman who introduced the practice of council and took The Ojai Foundation in a gentler, ecological direction. A couple of years ago William Perkins Tift took over, but the current economic downturn has led to deep cuts in funding and staff and now the organization is led by an interim executive director, Barrie Segall whose primary strength is in financial rather than spiritual leadership.

In 1979, Joan Halifax swept into the valley with the belief that both she and Ojai had been chosen, as fate made manifest, to receive the message of prophecy, initiation and millenium. This eerily reflects the megalomania of another very short-lived resident, Annie Besant, who conferred upon Ojai the responsibility of nurturing a future world civilization.

Trungpa and his Vjara regent Ösel Tendzin taught that an absence of ego and a glimpse of the abhidharma could reveal an eternal wisdom: but while seeking these timeless truths their personal failings were very much a reflection of the immediate, temporal environment in which they lived and in which ignorance flourished.

Trungpa felt the call of Ojai's geologic uplift, the wild energy of its geomorphological creation with its echoes of the lost horizons of Tibet, and his crazy story played out, in part, in the shadows of the Santa Ynez mountain range. Perhaps Besant and Halifax were similarly tempted to overplay their hands in the great geomythic theater that is Ojai. (Legend)