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It’s easy to miss the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, despite its prime location on Sunset Boulevard, a few blocks inland from Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades just north of bustling Santa Monica. The only indication of its existence is a small unpretentious sign. Even people who live in or regularly visit this area may not be aware of the Lake Shrine. The enigmatic name might have something to do with it, invoking inaccurate images of New Age pop psychology or perhaps some vestige of the Summer of Love. But such modesty seems appropriate for a place specifically set aside for tranquility and meditation.
This is no theme park with thrill rides for kids. It’s quite the opposite— a peaceful little lake, complete with swans, ducks, and colorful koi. It’s encircled by a footpath, with benches, pavilions, and alcoves inviting you to stop and smell the abundant roses. It’s a place to spend as long as you need to escape the traffic congestion and stresses of modern life. If you’re so inclined, you can visit a meditation chapel inside an authentic reproduction of a 16th-century Dutch windmill. And it’s open to the public without an admission charge (but it’s closed on Mondays, holidays, and rainy days).
The site started out as a section of Santa Ynez Canyon that occasionally served as a set for silent movies in the 1920s. A real estate developer began grading the canyon in 1927 but ran out of money, leaving a depression that soon filled with water from an underground aquifer. “Lake Santa Ynez” quickly became a swamp clogged with weeds, until H. Everett McElroy bought four hectares of it in 1940.
McElroy, who built sets for the 20th Century Fox studio, set about turning the lake into a personal fantasyland. He and his wife first shipped their houseboat from Lake Mead, to serve as a temporary home. They then built a European-inspired mill house with a working water wheel as a permanent residence (it’s now a museum and gift shop), and finally added a reproduction of a 16th-century Dutch windmill and a landing for the houseboat.
In 1949 McElroy sold the lake to an oil company executive, who had planned to turn it into a luxury resort. But according to the account on the Lake Shrine’s Web site, he had a recurring dream in which the lake was a church of all religions, where people gathered for inspiration. Early one morning, after a re-run of the dream, he wondered whether such a church actually existed. Since Al Gore was then only a year old and had not yet invented the Internet, the executive looked in the Yellow Pages. The only relevant listing was the “Self-Realization Fellowship Church of All Religions” in Hollywood, led by one Paramahansa Yogananda. So he wrote a letter to Yogananda offering to sell him the property.
Later that morning, he decided to call the church. Yogananda answered the phone. Before the executive could introduce himself, Yogananda told him that the letter about selling some property would be arriving the next morning, and asked about visiting the lake the next afternoon. That’s how Yogananda and his church acquired the site. But I rather suspect that some of the details of this transaction have become a bit embellished over the years.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian-born yogi, a master
and teacher of Kriya Yoga. What most Americans think of as
“yoga” is Hatha Yoga, a system of poses and breathing
techniques. But that’s actually only one of many related but distinct
spiritual disciplines of Hindu and Buddhist origin, collectively called
yoga. While the familiar Hatha Yoga emphasizes stress reduction
and health, the goal of Kriya Yoga is self-realization, a
“direct personal experience of God” achieved through specific
meditative techniques and practices. Yogananda adapted and expanded
Kriya Yoga into a “complete philosophy and way of life,” and
established the Self-Realization Fellowship to disseminate it. The
Fellowship includes a monastic order, as well as temples, retreats, and
meditation centers like the Lake Shrine.
In transforming the lake into a shrine, Yogananda honored the vision and dreams of its two previous owners. He may have decided that the seemingly incongruous windmill, houseboat, landing, and mill house would contribute appropriately eclectic elements to a “church of all religions.”
The shrine’s purpose is made clear to visitors as they enter the grounds from the parking lot. A “Court of Religions” at the entrance includes monuments to five religions that Yogananda believed shared a common devotion to God: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Tellingly, the monuments are identical stone markers in identical flower beds, distinguished only by the name and symbol of each faith. Around the lake, Jesus and Krishna preside over their respective waterfalls. The Madonna and Child share a shady grotto with Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. Buddha meditates serenely in a Japanese garden, and Saint Francis surveys the lake. Along the way are plaques offering quotations from diverse scripture.
Paramahansa Yogananda and his teachings are a surprisingly low-key
presence at the Lake Shrine. There’s a museum and gift shop, a few
pamphlets, and an invitation to join in meditation sessions at the
chapel in the windmill. But otherwise there is no attempt to preach or
proselytize any particular faith, as Yogananda specifically dedicated
the shrine to all religions. So Wiccans, Pagans, and everyone
else whose beliefs are not specifically commemorated can surely feel
welcome, along with people who have no religious beliefs. Even
atheists, agnostics, and humanists might well appreciate the serenity
and the aesthetics. But I suspect Fundamentalist Believers in one the
major religions might not be happy with the depiction of their faith as
harmoniously coexisting on an equal basis with all the others, one of
the Self-Realization Fellowship’s basic tenets.
Yogananda’s most distinctive and personal addition to the lake is the “Wall-less Temple,” framed by the Golden Lotus Archway he designed himself. On top of the symmetrical concrete archway are five copper lotus flowers plated with gold, in various stages of bloom. In the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, the lotus symbolizes spiritual awakening and the unfolding awareness of the Divine.
Behind the archway is the Gandhi Lawn, which surrounds the Gandhi World Peace Memorial. The Memorial’s centerpiece is a Chinese stone sarcophagus that contains some of Mohandas Gandhi’s ashes, their only resting place outside India. Yogananda visited Gandhi’s ashram in 1935, and reportedly gave him instruction in Kriya Yoga.
On both sides of the sarcophagus are Chinese statues of Guanyin, the
Buddhist and Taoist embodiment of mercy. Guanyin is actually a
household name around the world, although you probably aren’t aware of
it. When the Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory in Tokyo
developed their first 35mm camera in 1933, they named it Kwanon,
a Japanese pronunciation of Guanyin. When they began to export Kwanon
cameras after World War II, they renamed the company after the camera,
but in a slightly modified form easier for their foreign customers to
Whether or not you believe in Yogananda’s psychic ability, he does seem to have been remarkably prescient. During the many hours he spent in meditation on the lake’s houseboat landing while designing the shrine, he could well have glimpsed a future that distressed him. In that future, people who live near the lake are shackled around the clock to an insatiable Global Economy. Their lives are entirely consumed with the Acquisition of Things and the worship of Productivity, and dedicated to reacting ever more rapidly to urgent matters that too often become forgotten and irrelevant five minutes later with the arrival of the next even more urgent crisis. And they are always running, but often in circles or backtracking because heading in any clear direction matters much less than racing as fast as possible.
Perhaps Yogananda foresaw the need for a special place in the noisy crowded city, where perpetually-busy people could silence their CrackBerries and unplug their Bluetooth implants, at least for a while. A place, perhaps, to spend a few quiet moments reflecting on what is truly important.