One of the most remarkable and unforgettable places in the Tehachapi area is a Buddhist retreat nestled up against two rocky canyons in Sand Canyon. The Mountain Spirit Center is an exotic and gorgeous place that welcomes anyone who will respect its peaceful atmosphere. This calm and serene place is the site of a remarkable transformation that has taken place over the past 18 years.
Visitors today see three ornate structures built using Asian architectural styles, with curved, swooping roof lines, detailed carvings and amazing painted ornamentation that was created by temple artisans who were imported from Korea expressly for these projects. There is a large assembly hall, a smaller but more ornate temple building that sits on a hill like an intricate jewelry box, and an open-sided, roofed pavilion housing an enormous bronze Peace Bell. When I first visited this site many years ago, however, it was the picture of neglect and degradation.
Then in 1994, along came a Zen Buddhist monk who was looking for a place to meditate. The monk, an American named Mu Ryang Sunim, was born Erik Berall and grew up in Connecticut. After graduating from Yale in 1981, he pursued his interest in Buddhism and became an ordained monk, spending five years wandering Asia and visiting monasteries, and was inspired to build a Korean-style monastery in the mountains of California.
He fell in love with the Sand Canyon property despite its neglected state, and in 1994 he raised about $100,000 through donations and personal loans from family and friends and purchased 318 acres. He then pitched a tent on the property, which became his new home, and he began years of hard work restoring the land and creating a sanctuary. He and I became good friends and I often visited him over the years.
"The purpose was to create a place where people can come to leave behind their problems,” Mu Ryang Sunim explained. “I want to create a place where people could come to forget about whatever miserable situation is troubling in their life. It is a space where people can see more clearly what's going on in their life. Zen poses questions. It deals with: What are you? Why am I alive? What is the truth? I see this project as a straight course to finding myself while helping others, too.”
With the help of volunteers and Tehachapi stone mason Carl Carlson, who worked there for nine years, an unparalleled center arose, an inviting place that embodied Mu Ryang’s goal of promoting peace and harmony among all people from all cultures. The handcrafted structures are off the grid, with electricity generated on site by wind and solar power. Water is reused for the irrigation of native trees and shrubs, so gray water is captured and the center does not use toxic chemicals, soaps or detergents. The center has a stated goal to “Develop the temple in a sustainable and environmentally beneficial manner.” The unprecedented transformation of a degraded property into one of the most intriguingly beautiful places in the Tehachapi Mountains must be seen to be believed.
To reach the Mountain Spirit Center, take Highway 58 east and exit at Sand Canyon Road. Go up Sand Canyon Road about 2 and 1/2 miles and turn right onto the unpaved Pine Canyon Road and follow the signs to Mountain Spirit Center (Tae Go Sa temple). Visitors are welcome any day, and Sunday services are held weekly at 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. The center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Questions about various retreats, events or volunteer opportunities may be addressed to the Abbot at 661-822-7776.