Diamond Mountain University
18 Images

A retreat into silence

The early morning sun illuminates the stupa and prayer flags at Diamond Mountain University, a nonprofit Buddhist campus near Bowie, Ariz. Students and teachers are preparing for a silent retreat lasting three years, three months and three days. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
The courtyard and bell at Diamond Mountain University. Footpaths connect an adobe temple, a tented student lounge and round Mongolian-style yurts. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
A view of “retreat valley,” where about four dozen Buddhists are preparing to undergo a mind-altering journey. There will be no word from the outside world in the Great Retreat, only the deafening quiet of rock and cactus, with seemingly endless time to ponder the emptiness of life. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Offering bowls on the windowsill of a cabin made of hay bales. Participants in the Great Retreat are jettisoning the trappings of their middle-class lives to carry on a Buddhist tradition that traces its lineage through the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
A statue of the Hindu god Shiva. Retreat participants will cook for themselves in cabins equipped with kitchens and bathrooms. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Prayer flags at Diamond Mountain University. To reach “retreat valley,” drive 107 miles east from Tucson on Interstate 10 through empty stretches of desert to the small town of Bowie, then head south on a narrow asphalt road. From there, a rutted dirt road leads to the university. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Ani Jigme Palmo, the retreat director, enters Ani Gompa. Adherents know that outsiders might dismiss them as eccentrics on a strange utopian trip, but their resumes suggest otherwise. Among them are an airline pilot, a dermatologist, a retired biochemist and a former TV editor. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
David Stumpf, 56, at the construction site of his retreat house near Diamond Mountain University. Stumpf, a retired plant biochemist from the University of Arizona, is in charge of installing a water system in the valley. “This place is stunning at sunrise,” he said. “The lighting on the hillside is just magical.” (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
In front of Lama House at the university, Buddhism students make adobe bricks by feeding paper into a drum mixer filled with water and dirt. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Jason Dunbar, 22, of Australia works on translating Tibetan texts in the meditation room at Diamond Mountain University. Prolonged silence, retreat participants explain, is the only way to reach the deep level of inner awareness required to bring true happiness to the world. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Will McMichael, 9, left, his sister Claire, 7, Lama Christie McNally and Bill McMichael, father of the two children, draw on adobe bricks being made in front of Lama House at the university. Despite the harsh conditions, McMichael , an airline pilot from Chicago, jumps at every opportunity to visit Diamond Mountain, (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Adobe bricks, some of them decorated with dharma images, are arrayed in front of Lama House. In the heart of “retreat valley” is a single yurt within eyesight of several cabins under construction. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Chuck Vedova, 48, walks past Lama Dome, an earthen enclosure being built on top of a hill near the university. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Bert Scott, 34, works on a window at Lama Dome, which will be a gathering place during the retreat. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Venerable Sumati Marut, an American Buddhist monk, is spiritual director of the Asian Classics Institute of Los Angeles. Marut and some of his students will be part of the three-year silent retreat at Diamond Mountain University. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Angie Thompson, 23, of Salt Lake City enters a relaxed state inside the meditation room at Diamond Mountain. Thompson is in her first semester at the university and won’t be doing the retreat. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Geshe Michael Roach, left, an American Tibetan Buddhist monk, and Lama Christie McNally are interviewed in a Mongolian yurt, where they live and practice. Roach, 56, was ordained a monk in his early 30s and later earned a “Geshe” degree, the equivalent of a doctorate of divinity, one of the first Westerners to do so. McNally, 36, who studied philosophy and literature at New York University and then traveled to Tibet and Nepal, met Roach at one of his teachings in New York in the late 1990s. They have been spiritual — though celibate — partners for a decade. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
Diamond Mountain University near Bowie, Ariz. A short stretch of road from the university to “retreat valley” is even more primitive, coursing through brush-covered hillsides once home to a cattle ranch. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)