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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Buddhist immersion

February 5, 2008

By SHIRLEY WEST
The Observer
Sunday, February 03, 2008

Waking up in the peaceful stillness of the California wilderness, he
remembers that it is his turn to cook breakfast. After a few inventive
attempts at waking his roommate, they work together to cook pancakes for
the rest of the volunteers.

After congregating around a huge stone fireplace to eat a breakfast of
pancakes and fresh fruit, most of which they helped grow themselves, the
volunteers meet at the construction site at 7 a.m. for Kum Nye — Tibetan
yoga — to stretch and loosen up for work.

Those who chose to do so would join hands in a circle and say a Tibetan
prayer for a safe and productive day, voices resonating off each other
in a song-like chant of an old, foreign tongue.

This was a typical morning for Josh Ibach of Dunkirk during his
three-month stay as a volunteer at Odiyan Buddhist Retreat Center in
Berkeley, Calif.

What makes a 27-year-old man want to travel across the country to help
construct a 10-story, dome-topped, octagonal temple?

“I wanted an experience where I was submerged in a different culture,”
Ibach said. “Not just reading about it but living it and learning from
people who were living it. I wanted to learn and experience something
new and exciting, but at the same time help out a good cause and do
something for others.”

Odiyan was created as a Tibetan Buddhist refuge in America after the
Chinese took control of Tibet. Much of the art, literature and culture
of Tibetan Buddhism was destroyed. Lama Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche fled
Tibet and came to America.

In California, he started a non-profit printing shop to attempt to save
some of the sacred writings from his homeland. It soon expanded and,
with it, so did the ability to help preserve the 2,000-year-old Tibetan
culture from being totally wiped from history.

Odiyan was started in the 1970s, all by volunteers, as a place to live
and study Buddhism. Because of its freedom of religion, America is a
safe haven for the Buddhist texts and art.

After finding Odiyan online, Ibach was dazzled by such a foreign place
in the middle of California. Odiyan is constantly seeking volunteers and
Ibach immediately contacted them for an application.

“I contacted them twice about going before I was able to work out when I
could be there,’ Ibach said. “I had it as a goal in my mind for three
years before I went.”

After saving up enough money for the trip, Ibach left for California
right before summer in 2007.

“After arriving in Berkeley, you spend two weeks on a trial period at
the Dharma Institute making books to be sent to the world peace ceremony
in India, where they give them away for free to those in need,” he
explained. “In Berkeley, you have a chance to take classes and study
many aspects of Buddhism and meditation. Then, usually by bus, you take
the long trip to the northern coastal wilderness, where Odiyan is located.”

Ibach worked with other volunteers building, painting and decorating the
interior of the sub floor of the temple. He was also in charge of
landscaping.

The other volunteers came from all over the world — Brazil, Argentina,
Germany, Holland, India — and from all over the United States, ranging
from 18-year-olds to the elderly. Some have been there since the 1970s.

The volunteers took turns cooking vegetarian meals for each other, so
Ibach got to sample dishes from all across the globe. Dinners were eaten
in a big hall with long wooden tables that were only a foot high, so
volunteers sat cross-legged on cushions.

“On most days after work, you had the opportunity to take some sort of
class taught by one of the older, permanent volunteers,” he said. “We
would gather in the reading room on big comfy couches or chairs for an
open discussion about meditation, or history of Buddhism, sometimes
philosophy, or discussions about mind and emotions. On Thursdays we
could learn Kum Nye yoga. If you chose to, you could learn the Tibetan
alphabet, songs, chants and mantras.

“You weren’t made to do anything. Many people simply chose to do other
things, like read or go for a hike around the thousand acres of land.
Some people would hang out and play guitar or soccer.”

Ibach and his roommate, Nick, became very close during their volunteer
time and undertook an adventure together — a hike to the ocean.

“The ocean looks deceivingly close,” Ibach laughed. “We told some others
about our plan and we were immediately warned not to go. That it was
much too far and dangerous. Where we were there are wild boars, mountain
lions, bob cats, rattle snakes, black widows and scorpions. Not only
that, but between us and the ocean was a thick redwood forest, hills,
rock cliffs, and a river to cross.

“They said other people had tried and were lost in the woods for days.
Despite all the warnings, Nick and I packed some bottles of Gatorade,
some day-old pizza and a bag of trail mix and set out on foot.”

During their hike, they had to jump fences, cross a ravine and fight
their way through thick brush.

“We also came across a strange, sculpted elephant painted and decorated
with fake jewels miles from anything in the middle of nowhere,” Ibach said.

He and his roommate stopped to take pictures with the lost elephant.

“We finally made it to the ocean after six hours or so,” he said. “We
came to the edge of the forest. We sat together on the edge of a rock
cliff overlooking the vast ocean. We ate our cold pizza and celebrated
our victory, watching the waves crash violently against the rocks below.

“No one ever underestimated the two of us or told us ‘no’ ever again
during our stay. We accomplished what many others that came before us
could not and in record time. We both had blood blisters on our feet for
a week, but pain and hardship made our victory much more profound. Nick
and I were inseparable after that.”

Ibach described the experience as being in a kind of bubble.

“Odiyan is very isolated and because of that, it feels like its own
little world,” recalled Ibach. “There is no need for dressing to
impress. It’s very far away from any towns, malls, bars, etc. So it’s
like a little peaceful bubble free of stress and the normal worries of
the outside world.”

He continued with the observation that most people in America feel
isolated from one another, and suffer from a feeling of not belonging
because of the country’s “dog eat dog” attitude about success.

“At Odiyan, it’s about caring for others before yourself,” he said.
“It’s about coming together despite your background or religion to
achieve something greater than yourself. It’s about working hard, not
for money, but for the wisdom and accomplishment that grow from it.
Everyone feels like a giant extended family eating, living and working
together all toward the same goal.”

Although he had planned to stay longer, Ibach had to end his sojourn at
Odiyan prematurely. He intends to find new adventures, however.

“After staying for three months, there was a family emergency back home
that I had to attend to,” Ibach said. “Right now, I’m planning on a
one-month stay in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador. There is a volunteer
organization there helping to preserve the rainforests’ plant and animal
life.”

Volunteer work in another culture has become an important part of
Ibach’s life. He believes everyone should try it.

“It really was a great learning experience. I learned so much so fast,”
he said, mentioning not only all the aspects of Buddhism but new skills
in construction, landscaping, cooking and how to live, work, learn and
play together as a community.

“I learned tools to help control anger, jealousy, and hatred. I gained a
new perspective about the mind and emotions. How to look at yourself and
take little steps every day for improvement,” he continued. “I learned
that many great things can be accomplished by very few with very little,
with nothing more than the heart and willingness to come together to be
part of something bigger than themselves.”

After a moment’s pause and an ironic smile, he added that he also
learned the ocean was a lot colder than he thought.

Comments on this story may be sent to swest@observertoday.com
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