It’s Now, It’s Zen and It’s Life-Changing

Times Staff Writer

In a sun-splashed sanctuary of chaparral, lilac and oak groves, brown-robed Buddhists have gently transformed a land once used for weapons training by San Diego-area law enforcement.

Followers of Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh have replaced the rattle of machine guns with the ringing of sacred bells. They have repainted and repaired bullet-scarred buildings. Their 400-acre Deer Park Monastery now features a light-filled meditation hall, a waterfall, a fish pond and Zen sayings posted throughout the grounds: Breathe, you are alive.

In the four years since they purchased the land, however, the Buddhists have been tackling even more challenging transformations: helping Hollywood entertainers, teenage runaways, inner-city youth, gang members and others tame their personal demons and find peace with themselves.

At a recent retreat for the film and television industry, for instance, Nhat Hanh preached the importance of self-love to an assembly of artists including comedian Garry Shandling and producer Larry Kasanoff, who spearheaded the gathering.


“You don’t need to pretend to be someone else. You don’t need plastic surgery,” the soft-spoken Nhat Hanh said, setting off a ripple of laughter from the crowd.

With such teachings, the monastics of Nhat Hanh’s Unified Buddhist Church aim to equip people across different faiths and cultures to practice “mindfulness” -- the cultivation of inner calm in daily life through breathing deeply, slowing down and living fully in the present.

Many of the retreats took place earlier this year, when Nhat Hanh spent three months at Deer Park during a winter retreat from his normal residence in France.

The teacher, 67, has established 800 meditation groups in two dozen countries and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr. for his peacemaking efforts during the Vietnam War.


But a sangha, or community, of four dozen monastics from several countries live and work in Escondido year-round.

The monastics include both women and men who sport identically shaved heads and long brown robes. They include people like Abbott Phap Dung, a Vietnamese refugee who came of age as a San Fernando “Valley Boy” break dancing and skateboarding. He says he struggled in school, fending off racial taunts, before eventually graduating from USC and working as an architect in Santa Monica.

But after a few years, he says, he began to feel that his profession was “all about money and ego,” with scarce opportunities to design socially meaningful projects. He visited Deer Park several times for retreats, was captivated by the gentleness he found there and decided to become a monk.

“I’d found a way of living that was much more meaningful,” said the abbot, who frequently works with troubled youth. “The way it helps people is much more direct.”


Except for some complaints from neighbors about the increased traffic -- more than 800 people often trek to Deer Park on weekends -- San Diego County officials say the monastery has drawn no major opposition.

The land’s colorful history includes use as a nudist camp more than three decades ago. After San Diego County bought the property in the mid-1970s, it was used by such groups as the California Conservation Corps and the Sheriff’s Department, which trained SWAT teams and Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, according to former county surveyor Bill Ring.

The Buddhists purchased the land for $4 million in 2000 from the winning bidder in a public auction.

Phap Dung says the monastics labored several months to transform both the physical structures, which were riddled with bullets, and what they say was a lingering energy of violence. They held ceremonies to ask the spirits of the indigenous Indians for permission to use the land and took children on walks to collect bullet shells and construct a peace sign with the shells on the ground.


Today, visitors come from radically different stations in life. There is the well-heeled Kasanoff, whose films include “Terminator 2" and “Mortal Kombat.” He parties in Cannes on luxury yachts and owns three Santa Monica firms specializing in film, animation and martial arts cable TV.

There is also Estrellita Rojas, 18, a Boston high school student who struggles to survive in a crime-ridden neighborhood, living without parents and working for minimum wage as a salesclerk.

In a recent interview, Kasanoff repeatedly took pains to mention that he was Jewish, with no desire to become a Buddhist, a monk or an ascetic who swore off booze or “hot babes.” He also made clear that he wasn’t trying to push anything on anyone.

But he spearheaded the recent Hollywood retreat for hundreds of entertainers, invited Nhat Hahn to speak at a more intimate gathering of friends, and figures that he’s given out more than 100 of the monk’s books to acquaintances.


He said he was also including some of Nhat Hanh’s messages in two of his current film projects, the next “Mortal Kombat” movie and a remake of the Japanese anime blockbuster “Ninja Scroll.”

Kasanoff said he began soul-searching about five years ago, when he realized that many of his famous and wealthy Hollywood friends were miserable and driven by fear. Along the way, he stumbled onto Nhat Hanh’s books and was intrigued by the messages of mindfulness.

Since then, he says, he has begun practicing meditation, mindful walking and chi gong.

“The whole miracle of this stuff is that you can be more relaxed, calmer and yet get more done and have more energy,” Kasanoff said. “I’m less frantic. I don’t scream as much as I used to. It’s not how you take this stuff and retreat from the world; it’s how you incorporate it into your daily life.”


In a different corner of life, Rojas tells a similar story of awakening. The 18-year-old Latina of Nicaraguan descent visited Deer Park in March with other Boston youth involved in an HIV and substance abuse prevention program. It was her first plane ride, first encounter with monks and vegetarian food, first respite from an environment of gang warfare and random violence.

“It was totally different,” Rojas said. “It was out in the middle of nowhere, a beautiful place where there was no violence, no discrimination, no name-calling, no nothing. Everyone was so respectful and happy.”

The skills of compassionate listening that she learned have quelled the screaming matches she used to have with her sister. The acceptance she felt at Deer Park, she says, has reduced her materialistic tendencies to link her self-worth to brand-name jeans or shoes. She is less rowdy and more calm as she meditates weekly, and aims to start a Boston sangha for teenagers.

Such stories are common here. “People ask us to fix them or their children, but we don’t do that here,” says Phap Dung. “We just become friends. We climb the mountains. We count the falling stars. We enjoy being alive.”