The Self-Realization Fellowship known for serene presence

The San Diego Union-Tribune/March 12, 2009

Encinitas - The tall white walls and landmark golden lotus domes that guard the Self-Realization Fellowship's property make it seem it exotic, forbidding and exclusive. But behind them is a paradise that embraces all.

Anyone can go inside the expansive meditation garden, walk to the edge of the bluff and watch migrating whales spout and white-capped surf fold toward shore.

Close by, birds sing and colorful koi rest at the bottom of ponds surrounded by lush flowers, plants and trees.

Many people don't know about the garden. Even fewer understand the teachings of the fellowship's founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, who developed 17 acres into the main compound 70 years ago.

Yet the influence of the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple and Ashram Center looms large in coastal North County.

It is an integral part of Encinitas' identity, and has a world-famous surfing spot, Swami's, named after it, taken from Yogananda's membership in the Swami Order.

The fellowship is one of the biggest landowners in the city, with about 35 acres of prime coastal real estate that extend from the domes at South Coast Highway 101 and K Street north to West J Street and east to Summit Avenue.

In today's real estate market, the fellowship is wealthy on paper. But its administrators don't seem to care.

"I have no idea how much the property is worth, but it is not something that is for sale," said Sister Mridani, who manages the Encinitas fellowship. "It is priceless."

Jeff Woolson, a managing director for the North Coast division of real estate company CB Richard Ellis, said the land, most of which is zoned for public use, is worth about $1 million per acre. If it were rezoned for homes, it could fetch $2 million an acre.

Although a religious organization, the fellowship paid nearly $47,000 in property taxes last year, some of which went to the city's general fund. Only its real estate used for religious purposes is tax-exempt.

Members of the fellowship volunteer at hospitals and with youth and charity organizations, Mridani said. And she counts the tourists visiting the garden as a contribution to the city, because many spend money in surrounding stores.

Although the Encinitas temple is familiar to most county residents, its religious activities and monks and nuns are largely shielded from the public.

"We are aware we are monastics, being in the world but not of the world," Mridani said. "We are normal people. When we go to outings, we may go to movies or walk on the beach. Some monks go surfing. We blend in."

The 50 monks, nuns and postulants, aged 20 to 95, will go out for daily needs, but few people know they are monastics who wear robes.

"You see us, but we don't wear our garb in town," said Brother Ramananda, a minister. "We go to Trader Joe's, Ralphs, Sav-On, Longs. We go to VG for doughnuts - but don't mention that. We go to the Seaside Market. We go to the doctor's office."

The temple's administrators also take part in local business organizations. At Halloween, they donate pumpkins to the city to decorate Coast Highway 101. They also participate in discussions about the beautification of the road.

"They are great corporate citizens," said Peder Norby, executive director of the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association. "They have created a lot of diversity downtown. That diversity is what gives downtown Encinitas its charm."

Paramahansa Yogananda was born in 1893 to a prosperous Bengali family in Gorakhpur, India. After becoming a Hindu monk, he founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920 to spread ideas about yoga and meditation.

When he came to Encinitas in 1937, he fell in love with the point where the main compound is today and built on it, Mridani said. While living there, Yogananda wrote "Autobiography of a Yogi," published in 1946.

Over the years, the fellowship acquired property nearby. Today, it has a temple and a bookstore on Second Street. The bookstore will move to a larger space the fellowship bought at South Coast Highway 101 and K Street, the former home of an auto parts store.

East of the train tracks, the fellowship owns a pumpkin patch and a produce garden roughly bordered by Vulcan Avenue, Santa Fe Drive, Summit and San Elijo avenues. The monks and nuns are vegetarians.

The fellowship also owns 12 apartments on Second Street near the bookstore, renting out six and using the rest as retreat lodging. On Third Street near J Street are houses for monks and nuns, Mridani said.

Yogananda died in March 1952, or as his adherents describe it, "entered mahasamadhi, a God-illumined master's conscious exit from the body." His fellowship has grown to 500 temples, retreats and meditation centers in more than 50 countries.

The Encinitas fellowship is also planning to grow. Mridani said they are working on a master plan for expansion and intend to build a larger retreat and a new temple.

Mridani said she cannot estimate how many people belong to the Encinitas fellowship because some take meditation classes by mail.

One of the mail-order students, Doug Glener, an Encinitas writer, said members can be seen everywhere in the city.

"They are very much part of the cultural and religious fabric of the city. They color the attitude of the city," he said.

Some of those who know the fellowship mostly through its garden describe it as otherworldly.

"This is a very spiritual place. It puts you in a reflective mood," said Bob Coletti, a photographer from Boston, who was visiting a friend, Maurice Sheehan.

"This is a great gift to the city," Sheehan said. He was taking photographs to enlarge into 6-by-4-foot images to decorate his home.

Mina Raja of Toronto said after meditating in the garden she experienced Yogananda's spirit.

"It is so easy to feel the presence of God here," she said. "It is so serene, so blissful, so beautiful."

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