Studying for Peace : World University Marks 15th Anniversary Amid Ojai's Spiritual Diversity

Times Staff Writer

The psychology of miracles is taught every Tuesday night at a Main Street storefront in Ventura.

For World Peace 101, students must trek up to the main campus in Ojai.

Both are offerings of World University, a degree-granting institute where students learn academic subjects alongside the three Rs of New Age spirituality.

"Peace is not a gift from heaven. It is a condition we have to generate by our thoughts, by our desires, by our aspirations," said President Benito F. Reyes, who founded World University in Ojai with his wife Dominga in 1974.

15th Anniversary

The school, which will celebrate its 15th anniversary this weekend with a two-day conference, aims to promote spiritual growth and harmonious relations among individuals. If enough people participate, this process will eventually lead to world peace, Reyes said.

What brought an urban academic from Manila to Ventura County?

Reyes said his spiritual leader in the Philippines chose Ojai because it was destined to become "the new Athens of the New Age," referring to the Greek city where philosophy and wisdom flourished more than 2,500 years ago.

And, clearly, Ojai is a magnet for spiritual groups of all stripes, from the Theosophical Society to Kratona to Meditation Mount.

Reyes had never heard of Ojai, but being a dutiful apostle, he moved there in 1974 armed with "100% faith and zero funds," he recalled.

A goodly number of philanthropists have jumped on his Peace Train since then--including early benefactors who raised $180,000 in 1976 to buy a jumble of downtown buildings that once housed the City Hall, jail and courts.

As a result, one class meets in a courtroom, another in the jail. Reyes occupies the former mayor's office.

Perhaps not for long though. When longtime Ojai resident Mima Porter died last year, she willed the school her 10-acre, emerald-green estate just outside downtown.

Expansion Under Way

Reyes plans to use the land for classrooms, a dormitory and possibly a museum. Expansion is also under way in Ventura, where World University began offering classes last month for those attracted to spiritual enlightenment but not a drive to Ojai.

The university is also launching a Center of Compassion that will feed 100 needy people each month, and it is considering a New Age psychological laboratory and an institute of advanced studies in consciousness.

In addition, Reyes plans a program geared to senior citizens--whom he calls "our noble citizens"--and one in journalism ethics that would teach aspiring reporters to write from a global, humanitarian viewpoint.

"Some of our students have gone down there and taken classes, and they've enjoyed it," said Joan Halifax, a cultural anthropologist and president of the Ojai Foundation, a non-traditional school in the Upper Ojai Valley. "Reyes is well-educated and an excellent orator and teacher."

There is also some cross-pollination between World University and local Matilija Junior High School. Assistant Principal Steve Olsen, who is mayor of Ojai, said World University professors teach astronomy classes for gifted students at the junior high.

The school also has exchange programs with other non-traditional institutes worldwide, including Zoroastrian College in Bombay, India; the Assn. of Religious Psychology in Tokyo, and Koh-E-Nor University in Santa Monica, which, according to its newsletter, is "dedicated to instruction in the practical application of the spiritual teachings of the mystical traveler."

Buyout Offer

Then there was the Japanese corporation that recently visited World University and asked Dominga Reyes if it could establish an affiliation with the school or buy it outright.

"We have our spiritual work to do here. World University is not for sale," Dominga Reyes said.

The Reyes--who are both 75 and live in Upper Ojai--have a long history of involvement in educational endeavors.

In 1967, Reyes was named founding president of the first free college in the Philippines--Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila--which means the University of the City of Manila in Tagalog, the main Filipino dialect.

He is also a two-time Fulbright scholar who has lectured throughout the United States on spiritual and philosophical issues.

But Reyes refuses to rest on his metaphysical laurels. He tirelessly promotes World University, still teaches there and has authored about two dozen books, including "1,000 Sonnets for God" and "Education for World Peace," in which he explains his role as educator.

"We are the mind-makers; we are the engineers of attitudes; we are the architects of beliefs; we are the builders of men . . . and that indeed is a serious task," he wrote.

So far, World University has handed out 65 bachelor of arts and master's degrees in philosophy, psychology and religious studies. That is in addition to 35 students who have earned vocational certificates in fields that range from astrology and meditation to spiritual ministry. Tuition is $40 per unit, and 100 students participate in small seminars that range from five students to about 18, said Dominga Reyes, the dean of students.

Not Accredited

World University is licensed by the state Department of Education to grant degrees, but has not received accreditation from the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an independent accrediting agency.

One avid convert is 54-year-old Susan Wilson of Azusa, a registered nurse studying for her bachelor's degree in psychology.

"I've been looking for years for a body of knowledge I'd be interested in putting my time and money into, and this is it for me. It has the right blend of spirituality and academics," said Wilson, who stays at the World University dorms during the week and commutes to Azusa on weekends.

And unlike some of Ojai's more experimental institutes, World University is not all crystals and channeling.

For every meditation class, there are such academic offerings as English composition, quantum mechanics and basic psychology.

There is also the College of World Peace, which in 1987 began offering courses on the psychology of peace, peace education, peace techniques, family peace, peace ethics and meditation for peace.

Every Friday, the student body prays 15 minutes for world peace.

The Reyes predict that their university will last 1,000 years. And they read fateful significance into the words of Theosophist Fritz Kuntz, who in a 1927 essay foretold a "world university" that would guide those who come to the Ojai Valley seeking spiritual enlightenment.

And so it has come to pass.

On Saturday, Olsen will issue a proclamation honoring World University for enriching the lives of the city's residents and visitors.

"We're a well-rounded community that accepts all sorts of educational, philosophical and religious groups," Olsen said. "And they fit in well with the Ojai spirit."

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