Notes on the Prehistory of the Human Potential Movement

The Vedanta Society and Gerald Heard's Trabuco College

by Timothy Miller, Ph.D.

From its beginning in 1962 the Esalen Institute has been known as, among other things, a meeting ground between East and West — “something of a center-point for the translation of Asian religions into American culture,” as Jeffrey Kripal has put it.[1] Some of the foundations for that reputation are fairly well known to those with at least a cursory familiarity with Esalen’s history and programs. That Esalen co-founders Michael Murphy and Richard Price were influenced — one might say inspired — by Frederic Spiegelberg at Stanford University; that they became involved with the nascent American Academy of Asian Studies, where they came into contact with other Asianists, including Alan Watts; that Esalen early on presented workshops and seminars that promoted East-West encounter: those things are familiar parts of the record. But history is a complex tapestry of influences, and in the case of Esalen those influences go beyond Spiegelberg and Watts and the Academy of Asian Studies. This paper seeks to bring to light another part of the Asian-American encounter that helped make Esalen what it finally became.

Walter Truett Anderson, in his history of Esalen, provides a brief but intriguing glimpse of one group of persons who helped Murphy and Price as they worked to refine their vision of what would become Esalen: Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood, and others who were, in Anderson’s words, “members of the sizable circle of Southern California students of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy.”[2] Particularly important, in Anderson’s account, was Gerald Heard, a close friend of Huxley’s who had himself founded a center that in many ways portended Esalen. Heard’s proto-Esalen (about which more presently) had closed in 1947 after just five years of operation, but Heard maintained a passionate interest in human growth, human potential, for the rest of his life. Here is Anderson’s depiction of Heard’s passion as experienced by Murphy and Price in 1961, as they were trying to put their plan together:[3]

Huxley had so diffidently advocated a research project, had so hesitantly suggested its revolutionary possibilities. He thought something of that sort might happen. Heard thought it had to happen. Mankind, he believed, was at the turning point and could be saved from destruction only by a great leap, a new vision. There would have to be a psychological revolution, and, yes, there would have to be institutions to serve it. He had written of the need for "gymnasia for the mind" and in the 1940s had launched his own version in Southern California, a spiritual/educational center called Trabuco College. It had failed, but Heard remained irrepressibly optimistic about the prospects for new undertakings, new horizons, vast evolutionary transformations. He was a man of limitless energies, a brilliant and tireless talker. He welcomed the two young visitors, and they had a long conversation, a stunning four-hour exploration of evolutionary theory, biology, theology, philosophy. They spoke of many things, all connected to Heard’s vision of a huge transformation of the human species that was, he was sure, trying to take place.

Murphy and Price came away from the meeting feeling — as people who entered into conversation with Gerald Heard had often felt — a slight buzzing in the head, a certain overloading of the mental circuits. Yet it had been an invigorating and positive experience. Until then their project had been tinged with uncertainty, with a maybe-it-will-work-out-and-maybe-it-won’t sort of doubtfulness that naturally accompanies thoughts of risky new ventures into the unknown. But Heard’s enthusiasm, his sense of a cosmic mandate, changed all that. Murphy and Price were now both filled with a new sense of urgent conviction about their project: it would happen. It seemed to them, that day, that it had to happen.

In a more recent conversation with me, Murphy confirmed Heard’s influence on him, and said that forty-two years later he still had vivid memories of that pivotal four-hour conversation. Heard’s vision of the possibilities for the evolution of human nature, and his wedding of the evolutionary to the mystical parts of the human psyche, made a powerful impact on Murphy. Just as Huxley’s language about human potential helped shape the philosophy that would drive Esalen, Heard’s insights into the human mind and passion for centers where spiritual and moral evolution could be fostered helped round out the founding vision. So perhaps Heard could be called the catalyst of Esalen: Murphy and Price came away from that day with Heard “absolutely on fire,” as Murphy put it, and firmly determined to found the Esalen Institute. [4]

This paper will sketch the milieu in which Heard, Huxley, and others had been immersed some two or three decades before the founding of Esalen. My hope is to make it clear that alternative religiosity as it developed in Southern California in the first half of the twentieth century was one source, and an important one, of the Esalen work and indeed of the larger human potential movement, in whose development Esalen played such a pivotal role.

Some of the history I am relating here is that of the Vedanta Society, the first form of what is commonly known as “Hinduism” to take root in American soil. Although many are well familiar with the general outlines, at least, of the Vedanta story, for the sake of those who are not I will provide a few brief pieces of background.

The American part of the story begins with the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The Parliament, part of the Chicago World’s Fair of that year, attracted an unprecedentedly wide range of delegates and speakers, from James Cardinal Gibbons, the leading Catholic prelate in America, to an obscure young Indian swami called Vivekananda. From his first address Vivekananda was a sensation. Demonstrating considerable polemical gifts, he smashed stereotypes about Indian religion, declaring, for example, that polytheism did not exist there and that the Indian use of images did not constitute what westerners deemed the abomination of idolatry. Vivekananda’s Hinduism was that of the Ramakrishna Mission, which was peaceful, expansive, all-tolerant, and given to works of charity. The swami did not condemn any religion, but welcomed them all in the human race’s universal pursuit of truth. His good looks and striking attire further helped him carry the day in Chicago.

In the end Vivekananda’s most notable achievement may have been his establishment of the first Hindu organization in the United States that attracted western members. After the Parliament he stayed in the U.S. for several years, putting in place the foundations of the Vedanta Society. In his wake came several other swamis from the Ramakrishna Mission who expanded Vivekananda’s work and attracted yet more western followers. [5]

The strand of the Vedanta Society’s work that has the most direct implications for the eventual founding of Esalen was that of the development of monasteries and retreat centers. The seeds of Vedanta communities were scattered as early as 1895, when Vivekananda assembled a group of female disciples at the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River for intensive spiritual teaching, and the participants began to feel that they should live communally, sharing the work of daily living and immersing themselves in the life of the spirit. Vivekananda himself returned to India before any permanent monastery had been opened, but before he left a series of assistants and successors had begun to arrive, including Swami Turiyananda, who in 1900 opened a 160-acre retreat called Shanti Ashrama in California. Shanti, the land for which had been donated by a new Vedantist, was a remote and austere place, fifty miles from a railroad or market and a lengthy stagecoach ride from the rail terminal in San Jose. Residents lived in tents and had to dig a well to get water. The hardships of Shanti undoubtedly helped define its relatively short life span, which amounted to a decade or so. [6] By then, however, new developments in the larger Vedanta movement provided more convenient sanctuary.

In 1906 the first Vedanta temple in San Francisco was opened, and as had been the case with earlier Vedantists, some of the earnest seekers sought a more intense religious immersion than simple Temple membership would afford. In response to their requests another swami, Trigunatita, opened a monastery for male members on the top floor of the new temple, a wonderfully exotic structure that had survived the great earthquake and fire just after it was constructed and that remains in place today. Soon a separate convent was opened in a rented house nearby for female adherents.

Again the ideal of getting back to the land and opening a communal center removed from urban life beckoned, and soon Trigunatita purchased a tract of around 200 acres near Concord, across San Francisco Bay. The development plan involved what today would be called a land trust, with the Vedanta Society retaining twenty-five acres for common use and the balance sold to members as homestead lots. The plan was tremendously ambitious, calling for a temple, a library, a hospital, a retirement center, and an orphanage as well as the private homes. Adequate financial support, however, was not forthcoming, so the dream outstripped reality. In 1915 Trigunatita was assassinated by a deranged former student, and his death effectively meant the end of both the urban and the rural monastic communities (although a few monks continued to live, and still do, in the 1906 temple in San Francisco). [7]

In the years of Trigunatita’s work a similar project, Vedanta Ashrama, was opened at West Cornwall, Connecticut, in 1907; it survived until 1919. Back on the west coast the Vedantist communal vision would languish until 1923, when Paramananda, who had emerged as most influential swami after the departure of Vivekananda, purchased 135 acres at La Crescenta, outside Pasadena, where he established the Ananda Ashrama. Finally the Vedanta movement had a community with staying power; Ananda Ashrama is still very much there today, and has functioned over its eighty years as a major Vedanta center. It has facilities for meditation and personal spiritual work, and it hosts public lectures and other programs. True to the vision of the Ramakrishna Mission, the community built a “Temple of the Universal Spirit” that was available for worship by persons of any and all religious persuasions. Ananda Ashrama achieved a solid financial footing through the development of several cottage industries and attracted a wide range of visitors.

Meanwhile, additional centers were established—Abhedananda Acres, named for yet another of the swamis, in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles, also in 1923, and then others. [8] By the 1920s, in short, the Vedanta Society had established, on American soil, several spiritual institutions that functioned both as monasteries and as retreat centers. Eventually similar Asian-inspired religious communal centers founded under other auspices than those of the Vedanta Society were operating as well.

The exotic religious traditions of India did not appeal to the great majority of Americans, obviously. But they did find pockets of interest here and there, typically attracting welleducated, intellectually adverturesome people. One such pocket of interest was a group of Hollywood writers and intellectuals of whom the best known was Aldous Huxley. A new swami, Prabhavananda, moved to Los Angeles from Portland in 1929 and began to develop a Vedanta center in Hollywood. Although the move was regarded as unfriendly by the existing Vedantists of Los Angeles, who saw the new swami’s work as a kind of turf invasion that threatened the local dominance of their own Swami Paramananda, eventually Prabhavananda attracted Huxley as well as his colleagues Christopher Isherwood and Gerald Heard to his congregation. [Ed. — Heard made first contact with Swami Prabhavananda and later introduced Isherwood and Huxley to the Swami.] The three literati were prominent enough in their day that their presence led many others to the Hollywood center, and the Vedanta Society of Southern California, as it is now known, has been a leading arm of the Vedanta movement ever since.[9]

Of the literary lions of the Hollywood Vedanta center it was Gerald Heard who had the most to do with the road to Esalen. Heard was born in London of Irish ancestry in 1889 and educated at Cambridge. He studied theology, planning to follow his father into the Church of England priesthood, but he was never ordained. He did retain a profound and enduring interest in spiritual matters, however; one early manifestation of that fascination was his work as an official of the Society for Psychical Research in London. His spiritual interests continued to inform his career as writer, philosopher, and public speaker — but those interests were so wide-ranging that his essence is hard to delineate.

Heard was a well-known British intellectual by the 1920s, editor of a notable journal called The Realist, BBC science commentator, and prize-winning philosopher. Over his lifetime he wrote thirty-eight books, including several well-regarded philosophical and historical treatises such as The Social Substance of Religion,[12] The Source of Civilization,[13] and The Five Ages of Man.[14] Some of his works, including several books and a number of articles in the leading Protestant weekly The Christian Century, were outwardly Christian in orientation, with titles such as The Code of Christ: An Interpretation of the Beatitudes[15] and The Creed of Christ: An Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer.[16] But his spiritual passion was far too wide-ranging to be contained by a single historical tradition. A reader picking up a copy of The Eternal Gospel, for example, might have been expecting a Christian treatise, but quickly was told that “The Eternal Gospel has always been known to all mankind, though with varying explicitness” and that “it is that element owing to which [all] religions are great and enduring,” a perspective essentially identical to that of the Vedanta swamis.[17] Heard, incidentally, also wrote several mysteries and works of fantasy under his birth initials H. F. Heard (for Henry FitzGerald Heard), including such memorable titles as The Great Fog and Other Weird Tales[18] and Doppelgangers: An Episode of the Fourth, the Psychological, Revolution, 1997.[19] One of his novels, A Taste for Honey,[20] was later, with considerable artistic license, turned into a 1967 movie called The Deadly Bees, the first in the killer-bees genre, and a nonfiction work titled Is Another World Watching? The Riddle of the Flying Saucers[21] was one of the first UFO books.

Gerald Heard and his close friend Aldous Huxley came to the United States in 1937. Heard had been offered a chair in historical anthropology at Duke University, but he decided after a single term that university life was not for him, and he left for southern California, where in 1939 he encountered Prabhavananda and immersed himself in the study of Vedanta, finally becoming a formal disciple of the swami in 1941.[22] Among other things he devoted his literary talents to the movement, co-editing, with Prabhavananda, the Vedanta Society’s journal, Voice of India, from 1939 to 1941 and providing editorial advice and articles for it for years afterwards.

By then he was well on his way to founding what would become a pioneering incubator of the human potential movement, Trabuco College—not a college in the sense of a traditional educational institution, but a center for a collegium, community.[23] (Perhaps Heard’s choice of the name “college” reflected that of Black Mountain College, which Heard and Huxley visited in 1937. Black Mountain was a college in the traditional sense in that it undertook the education of post-high school students, but it was relatively unstructured, communal, democratic, and thoroughly experimental in its approach to just about everything.[24]) The looming specter of World War II had planted in Heard, a devout pacifist, an apocalyptic sense of the direction of human society. His prospectus for Trabuco—written, reportedly, with some input from Huxley[25] — eloquently conveys his despair over the direction of things: “Humanity is failing. We are starving—many of us physically, all of us spiritually—in the midst of plenty. Our shame and our failure are being blatantly advertised, every minute of every day, by the crash of explosives and the flare of burning towns. We admit this. We are not proud of our handiwork. We know that we have, somehow, taken the wrong road.”[26] And why was it all happening? The war, he argued, was the product of a civilization undermined by “diseased egotism and individualism—the fundamental appeal to greed and fear as the two sole compelling motives of man.”[27] Humanity, Heard believed, stood at a crossroads: it needed vital transformation, or it would die. The solutions to problems usually favored in our secular society were not true answers:[28]

To the majority of the men of good-will, ‘the way out’ means chiefly social reconstruction, the general acceptance of some new political or economic faith, or a further attempt to erect an international organisation with which to curb the rival ambitions of nations. Admittedly all this work is valuable, but does it go to the heart of the evil? Can the statesman, the economist, the engineers, the architects, the social workers guarantee us against another and more terrible international breakdown within the next twenty years? They cannot, for the will to destruction is within ourselves. Rebuilding the cities and bringing vitamins to the survivors is only a repair job. Readjustment of our economics, however drastic, the reframing of our code of international behavior, however enlightened, will not change our hearts.

And what was his formula for the necessary transformation of our consciousness? Heard believed that an entire “new race” of spiritual leaders could be created through disciplined religious immersion, and that the new race could lead humankind in a wonderfully constructive direction, in contrast to the destruction of war then so evident. But the path would be difficult to locate and even more difficult to follow:[29]

It is very old, and narrow, and difficult to find. It is the way of humility and of self-discipline and re-education. It is the way back to God. We have to educate ourselves to discard our old values, for they were false. We have to learn that God is the only Reality, and that the whole visible world is real only in so far as He constantly sustains it. Behind those words is more than just ‘another formula.’ Behind them lies the live, intense, unutterable vivid Truth — a truth which can only be apprehended through a slow hard lifetime of study, prayer and disciplined, ascetic living.

In response to that need, Heard wrote, Trabuco:[30]

…aspires to a type of community which will, we hope, become fairly common, both in this country and in Europe, in the years to come. It is un-denominational, and its doors are open to both men and women. It is not intended to be a place of withdrawal from the world—quite the reverse. But its founding trustees believe that only through change of individual character can there be any real apprehension of God’s nature and will, and a lasting change in civilisation or humanity. Self-education comes first. And such an education necessitates three things:

a. Research. The enormous mass of existing literature, from many countries and ages, on techniques of prayer, ways of self-integration and methods of psycho-physical development must be re-examined and re-interpreted in modern language to meet contemporary needs.

b. Experiment. We must test out these techniques and determine which are the most applicable and convenient.

c. Practice. Having chosen the particular techniques best adapted to our individual needs, we must proceed to make them part of our daily living. The founders do not regard themselves as possessed of any special message or esoteric "revelation."

Trabuco begins its work in a spirit of humble and openminded enquiry. There are no "prophets" among us. We all start from the beginning, bringing nothing but our need for God and our trust in His Grace, without which search for Him is vain. Trabuco hopes to grow, spiritually and organically, as the growth of its members progresses. Our ultimate structure may well be a modern version of the medieval university. There will be the students, whose whole concern must necessarily be self-education; the "masters," who are sufficiently advanced in their own self-education to be able to instruct and assist the students; and the "doctors," who are sufficiently qualified to be able to go out into the world and teach. Trabuco aims to become a new kind of missionary college, combining the world-wide concern and zeal of the old missionary work with the psychological and social knowledge of the present day.

The community was to be spiritual, but without a sectarian basis. Heard had recently been immersed in the Vedanta version of Hinduism, but his background was Western Christian, and he was steeped in the literature of the Christian mystics and monastics. As one visitor put it, Heard “made a specialty of comparative religions, and with that incomparable erudition which brought biology, anthropology, and a host of other academic disciplines into the picture as well, quoted the Sufis [and] Hasidim, as well as Buddhist and Taoist ideas.”[31] Moreover, Heard did not promulgate any rigid party line. Students were freely allowed their own points of view:[32]

Lunch was served in the large refectory. As we lined both sides of the long tables, Gerald sat in a large chair on the raised portion at the far end of the hall, reading to us from some elevating book. On those days when he happened to choose a Mahayana or Zen reading and Sister [Dhammadinna, a Theravada nun] disagreed with it, she could be heard whispering loudly to her neighbor, "What rot!" She had visited Japan and had a poor opinion of the purity and orthodoxy of the Zen monks.

Organizationally, Heard planned to establish a core group of resident members who would constitute a small, unpaid staff serving those who would come for limited terms, thus being “of service to maladjusted younger men and women prepared to submit to a regime whose strict discipline and fixed hours may help them regain full control of themselves and return to a more integrated life in the world.”[33]

The gathering storm of World War II did more than just give Heard a sense of urgency about the development of the human potential. Wartime restrictions on the purchase of building materials were already imminent, so Heard had to scurry to build his new campus. Raising funds from sources that included his own inheritance (he came from an upper-class family) and probably included gifts from the wealthy, largely female, patrons who had funded many other Vedanta-related projects,[34] he purchased several hundred acres—various accounts give differing exact figures, ranging from 300 to just under 400 acres—of isolated, rolling ranchland in Trabuco Canyon about 60 miles southwest of Los Angeles, some 20 miles inland from Laguna Beach. Although suburbia is sprawling into the area today, in the 1940s the setting of the Trabuco campus was serene, in the middle of miles of forest, orchards, and grazing land, twenty miles from the nearest store. Development occurred quickly, and the buildings of the College were finished by 1942. One resident provided the following description of the institution’s setting and facilities:[35]

On a clear day, as we told every cloudy day’s visitor, you could see the Pacific Ocean, lying 17 miles to the west, over the valleys and lower hills in superb display. Built like a monastery, true; yet it was not built as one, exactly. Gerald Heard and his friends had garnered the funds to create this handsome pile of brick and tile in the Italian fashion. It sprawled from the water reservoir at the top of a long slope to the dormitory at its bottom, the whole structure exposed to a magnificent overlook of sky, cloud, valley and farm, distant roads and a spot of sea. The old engraved bell, nearly two feet in diameter in a modest tower and the hexagonal chapel, original and controversial, as well as the oversize bricks, were features of true distinctiveness.

Just how many people participated in the austere life of Trabuco is unclear, and in any event the number varied, naturally. The buildings were reportedly designed to hold 30 (or perhaps as many as 50) residents, and one observer at the beginning of 1946 reported that about 25 were then there,[36] although a slightly smaller number — one to two dozen — seems to have been more typical.[37] Perhaps the numbers were small because casual and affluent southern Californians were not attracted to the discipline and austerity of daily life at Trabuco. Although Heard’s spirituality was eclectic, with a goodly Hindu component, his prescription for monastic life seems to have come straight from the asceticism of the Benedictine tradition. Laurence Veysey details the spirit of self-denial thus:[38]

Austerities included a near-total absence of heat and (for wartime reasons) of electricity. More than this, it was understood that no physical pleasures were supposed to be enjoyed by the residents, even eating. Meals were deliberately sparse and colorless, beyond mere vegetarianism. To prove her zeal, one woman ate mud. Even nature worship was discouraged as a distraction from pursuit of the Divine. In a remarkable round windowless building called the Oratory, whose interior was always kept completely dark, the members spent three hour-long periods of silent meditation daily.

On the other hand, there was also high tea every afternoon.

The monastic restrictions did impose a requirement of celibacy, even for married couples who visited Trabuco together. That may have had as much to do with Heard’s outlook as it did with monastic necessity; Heard was a homosexual who never came to grips with his sexual orientation and developed a strong disdain for any kind of sexual activity. [Ed. - Heard was celibate from the early 1930s on.] In any event the rule was considered excessive by some would-be Trabucans, and seems to have helped hold down membership in the community. In some cases it backfired, as when Felix Greene, who had overseen the construction of Trabuco, and Elena Lindeman, a stalwart member, developed a romantic relationship, soon married, and thus departed.

Detailed accounts of daily life at Trabuco are few. Despite Heard’s desire to emphasize independent spiritual work by each resident individual, he ended up being the de facto spiritual and temporal leader, and was a major factor in the creation of the powerful intellectual and spiritual energy that infused Trabuco. “The intellectual treats were tremendous, and the zeal for making spiritual progress was intense,” a former participant reminisced years later.[39] One visitor to the community recalled the scene at the daily informal breakfast:[40]

Gerald would sit on a high stool for his [breakfast], beaming down upon his little flock of students and coming out with those bursts of insight and arcane memorabilia which made up his style and his identity. A few of those gems have stayed with me all the years since, e.g., "Nicholas of Cusa said, ‘God is beyond the contradiction of contraries.' " I thought then and think now, how profound that was and how Vedantic. Another day he told the story of the Sufi saint Al-Hallaj, who ran through the street crying, "I am He" and subsequently was decapitated. "The moral," said Gerald, "is that even if you know it, don’t go about shouting it to others."

Twice daily Heard gave lengthy “seminars,” and individuals were expected to meditate three hours each day in the Oratory. Heard himself meditated six hours per day, a practice he observed for much of his life. A manual work requirement further added structure to the day’s activities; sex roles were fairly traditional, with women doing most of the cooking and men doing the outdoor work. Nevertheless, the participants in the community had a good deal of time for their own pursuits, which were diverse. In 1945, it was reported, the three avowed focal points of work at Trabuco were “the study and practice of mysticism, high-level experimentation with ESP, [and] rest and recuperation for tired religious workers.[41] Heard, among other things, wrote several books there.

For several years the community went about its spiritual work. One resident member later described it as “a miniature revival of the Transcendentalist spirit of Brook Farm” and even as having the been the crucible of what we now call postmodernism.[42] But Trabuco College never attracted the expected and needed core of long-term members and suffered from Heard’s leadership style. A natural leader he was not: his human relations and communications were often awkward; his emotional torments were too real to suppress. Maria Huxley, Aldous’s wife, was sharply critical in writing about him, after Trabuco’s breakup, to her son Matthew:[43]

There is no doubt that Gerald really made a mess of the whole thing, chiefly by having favourites and then dropping them to take up another and so often making the dropped favourite despair of everything and leave Trabuco and God; forgetting that God and Gerald were not the same thing… It transpired that Gerald was even more of an autocrat that we had thought; and more self-satisfied too… Poor Gerald, I suppose.

But even had Heard’s style been different, Trabuco might well not have survived. By and large its residents were intellectuals whose sincere desire for spiritual solitude did not erase their mental vitality and their involvement in the hectic culture of Southern California. The pieces of the puzzle, in short, did not fit perfectly together.

Heard clung to the vision for five years, but eventually became discouraged, especially at the failure of the community to attract permanent residents. At the close of World War II he hoped that Trabuco’s pacifist reputation would attract conscientious objectors and disillusioned soldiers, and a few of them did materialize, but as with the others they tended to stay for a little while and then move on. Heard also tired of the physical demands of maintaining an extensive piece of real estate. By 1947 he had had enough of his communitarian experiment, and he shuttered it, telling friends that it was the will of God that it close.

Heard moved back to Los Angeles and let the property be used for a school for children, which soon incurred debts and itself closed. He resumed his career as a writer and lecturer and finally died in Santa Monica in 1971.[44]

At this point I would like to interrupt my narrative to argue for just a moment with Walter Truett Anderson, from whose work this paper takes its beginning point. In his discussion of the important conversation that Michael Murphy and Richard Price had with Gerald Heard in 1961, of Trabuco College he simply says, “It had failed.”[45] That language is used over and over in regard to intentional communities that have closed. The Shakers, who are tenuously still alive after well over 200 years of communal life, are going to have that said about them just as soon as their last community in Maine closes. Some, in fact, would say that Shakerism failed long ago, when it began to suffer steep declines in membership. Someday Esalen will close, and it will probably then be said to have failed. I, however, find that language regrettable. A limited lifespan is not a failure. Am I a failure as a college teacher because my students eventually leave the university, or for that matter because I am going to die someday? As I was preparing this paper and doing a web search for any tidbits on Trabuco College that had earlier escaped my notice, I came across a short piece by one Swami Yogeshananda, who has spent much of his life as a Ramakrishna Order monk and writer; it turns out that what started him on his spiritual path was a two-week stay at Trabuco.[46] Communities and spiritual movements and human potential centers make important contributions to the progress of the human race, and the fact that they eventually close down, as all human institutions do, does not inherently mean that they have failed. The Trabuco campus has been a center for spiritual life and growth for over 60 years. It is the site of an ongoing monastery. Several books and other pieces of literature were written there. Many persons earnestly seeking meaning were exposed to the wisdom and erudition of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley at Trabuco. Is Trabuco College a failure because in its original organizational configuration it operated for only five years? I can’t see that Trabuco failed at all; its positive influence on those who benefited from their experience there continues to resonate through our society, and even the physical facility serves an important spiritual purpose.

But to return to the main story: two years after the community closed, when it was clearer than ever that the experiment was over and that no other fitting plans for the campus were forthcoming, Heard donated the property to the Vedanta Society. Under its new auspices the institution reopened as the Ramakrishna Monastery in September, 1949.

The physical facility was ideal for its new purpose. As one monk in the first group to move in wrote, “Terra cotta everywhere. Long corridors of brick, matching tiles overhead. What better complement could there be to the ochre of the sannyasin’s robes, dipped in the red earth? Fire–it was the color of fire, symbolic of the transience of earthly things: fire, in which the monk’s body would finally shred and crumble on the pyre.”[47] For more than half a century it has functioned as an all-male monastery (women have separate monastic facilities elsewhere within the Vedanta movement). Although the monastic life seems to be more structured than that envisioned by Heard, Vedanta has always been an open-minded and flexible movement, and variations in personal quests are still respected. The seeker today is advised that:[48]

To some extent, each person’s spiritual path will be different and is worked out in consultation with the Head of the Center. The Four Yogas — Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Raja Yoga — are blended in a combination suitable to each person’s temperament. In our lives we try to work with concentration yet detachment, worship, work, and pray with devotion to God; study and contemplate the scriptures and affirm our true nature; and spend time each day in meditation.

Just how long the monastery will endure remains a bit of an open question. It has never had more than a handful of members, and its land base has diminished. In the 1970s, needing to cut its property-tax bill, the Vedanta Society of Southern California donated all but 40 acres of the once-extensive property to Orange County for use as a park. Now development is at the monastery’s doorstep. Although plans to put 705 mobile homes on adjacent land fizzled some years ago, in November, 2002, the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved plans for the construction there of some 283 homes, some of which would look directly down into the monastery grounds, and then in January they approved two more nearby projects, with 162 more homes. The developers behind the first project, known as Saddleback Meadows, plan to level the hill that has largely protected the monastery from visual intrusion by earlier housing developments by keeping heavy machines at work for three years moving 9.3 million cubic yards of earth. Moreover, the other two projects, Saddle Creek and Saddle Crest, would destroy 492 mature oak trees, and all three of the projects pose a threat to already-polluted waterways in the area.[49]

Farewell, monastic tranquility. The monks at Ramakrishna Monastery have actively entered the legal and political battle against the developments. As one of them, Wil Devine, commented, “When you fight a battle, you can do it out of anger or out of love. These real estate developers, I have nothing personally against them. They are part and parcel of God in different forms. But I have to fight them just the same. It’s my dharmic responsibility.”[50]

At any rate, for the moment, at least, the Ramakrishna Monastery endures, and so do several other monastic centers under Vedanta auspices. That they have a kinship with the Esalen Institute many might find surprising, but the path of human evolution moves in unexpected directions.

I will close by noting that the connection between Esalen and the Hollywood spiritually inquisitive intellectuals, if that is a proper characterization of them, continued once the Institute was started. Heard was there lecturing soon after Esalen opened, in the fall of 1962. In November, 1963, he spent a month in residence, and he was there when Huxley died on November 22, participating in the vigil that Esalen held for Huxley. In the meantime Huxley and Isherwood had been to Esalen as well. But that is another, later, story.

If there is a final point here, it is the simple central point of the study of history: human events do not occur in vacuums. We live in a vast, interconnected web of ideas, people, places, and events. Esalen, like every other human undertaking, had a historical context from which it arose. As long as people seek to discern the meaning of life we will have Esalens — or wish we did.

Timothy Miller, Ph.D., is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas. His research interests focus on alternative religions in the United States, and especially groups practicing communal living. He has published several books on alternative religions, communal groups, and other topics.

The Barrie Family Trust is most grateful to Professor Timothy Miller for his kind permission to republish his article, “Notes on the Prehistory of the Human Potential Movement: The Vedanta Society and Gerald Heard’s Trabuco College” as originally published in On the Edge of the Future: Esalen and the Evolution of American Culture, ed. Jeffrey J. Kripal and Glenn W. Shuck (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005). Text is copyright © 2005 by Timothy Miller, All Rights Reserved. On the Edge of the Future may be purchased at Indiana University Press.


[1] “An Interview with Dr. Jeffrey Kripal,” Tolle Et Lege: Religious Studies at Rice [University] 1:1 (2002), [2].

[2] Walter Truett Anderson, The Upstart Spring: Esalen and the American Awakening (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1983), 57.

[3] Anderson, Upstart Spring, 12-13.

[4] Michael Murphy, telephone interview, January 8, 2003.

[5] On Vivekananda and the World’s Parliament of Religions, see, for example, the works of Carl T. Jackson: The Oriental Religions and American Thought: Nineteenth-Century Explorations (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1981), 243-61, and Vedanta for the West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), passim.

[6] For a description of life at Shanti Ashrama and the problems posed by its location see Swami Atulananda, With the Swamis in America and India (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1988), 61-79.

[7] See Swami Gambhirananda, History of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1957), 181.

[8] An overview of the development of Abhedananda Acres is provided by Laurence Veysey, The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), 266-70.

[9] Several works provide elements of the history of the Vedanta movement. See, for example, Vedanta in Southern California: An Illustrated Guide to the Vedanta Society (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1956); Jackson, Vedanta for the West; Sara Ann Levinsky, A Bridge of Dreams: The Story of Paramananda, a Modern Mystic–and His Ideal of Allconquering Love (West Stockbridge, Massachusetts: Inner Traditions/Lindisfarne Press, 1984).

[12] Gerald Heard, The Social Substance of Religion: An Essay on the Evolution of Religion (London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1931).

[13] Gerald Heard, The Source of Civilization (London: J. Cape, 1935).

[14] Gerald Heard, The Five Ages of Man: The Psychology of Human History (New York: Julian Press, 1963).

[15] Gerald Heard, The Code of Christ: An Interpretation of the Beatitudes (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1941).

[16] Gerald Heard, The Creed of Christ: An Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1940).

[17] Gerald Heard, The Eternal Gospel (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1946), 5, 6.

[18] Gerald Heard, The Great Fog and Other Weird Tales (London: Cassell and Company, 1947).

[19] Gerald Heard, Doppelgangers: An Episode of the Fourth, the Psychological, Revolution, 1997 (London: Cassell and Company, 1948).

[20] Gerald Heard, A Taste for Honey (New York: Vanguard, 1941).

[21] Gerald Heard, Is Another World Watching? The Riddle of the Flying Saucers (New York: Harper, 1951).

[22] Basic biographical information on Heard is located on The Gerald Heard Official Website

[23] The ensuing description of Trabuco College and Heard’s social and philosophical observations that propelled him to establish it is based on my earlier research on the subject; see Timothy Miller, The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America, volume I (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 185-88.

[24] The report of the Heard-Huxley visit to Black Mountain College comes from a University of Utah student project on the history of Black Mountain. Heard was not far from Black Mountain during his short sojourn at Duke University in 1937, and he was always interested in cultural alternatives. See Katherine Reynolds, “Black Mountain, Meteor among Mavericks.”

[25] See Veysey, Communal Experience, 271.

[26] [Gerald Heard], “Trabuco” (prospectus), manuscript, Huxley Collection, University of California at Los Angeles library system. I appreciate the assistance of Daryl Ann Dutton Cody, who located the manuscript and, faced by a nophotocopying stipulation placed on it at the time of its deposit at UCLA, copied it out for me in longhand.

[27] Gerald Heard, The Third Morality (London: Cassell and Co., 1937), 314.

[28] Heard, “Trabuco.”

[29] Heard, “Trabuco.”

[30] Heard, “Trabuco.”

[31] Swami Yogeshananda, "Trabuco College Tryout", Gerald Heard Official Website.

[32] Yogeshananda, “Trabuco College Tryout.”

[33] Heard, “Trabuco.”

[34] Veysey says that a large legacy was important to the basic funding of Trabuco (Communal Experience, 271). Jay Michael Barrie, Heard’s longtime personal secretary, also mentions Heard’s inheritance as financially vital. (See Jay Michael Barrie, "Who Is Gerald Heard?”, Gerald Heard Official Website) Other writers simply mention gifts by various supporters, which would conform to the pattern of generous giving that funded many Vedanta Society projects. Clearly a substantial amount of money was involved, given the large tract of land that was purchased and the fact that several good buildings were erected.

[35] Swami Yogeshananda, Six Lighted Windows: Memories of Swamis in the West (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1997), 51.

[36] Anne Fremantle, “Heard Melodies,” Commonweal 43:15 (January 25, 1946): 385.

[37] One to two dozen is the figure given by Barrie in “Who Is Gerald Heard?”

[38] Veysey, Communal Experience, 271.

[39] Joseph Franklin Griggs, M.D., “A Review of My Spiritual Search,” posted on an internet discussion forum at

[40] Yogeshananda, “Trabuco College Tryout.”

[41] Yogeshananda, Six Lighted Windows, 51.

[42] John E. Whiteford Boyle, Of the Same Root: Heaven, Earth, and I (Washington, D. C.: Academy of Independent Scholars/Foreign Services Research Institute, 1990), inside front cover.

[43] Quoted by Sybille Bedford, Aldous Huxley: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf and Harper and Row, 1975), 463.

[44] Some unattributed details pertaining to the life of Gerald Heard and the history of Trabuco College come from Veysey, Communal Experience, 270-78. Other information is from the authoritative Official Gerald Heard website

[45] Anderson, Upstart Spring, 12.

[46] See Yogeshananda, “Trabuco College Tryout.”

[47] Yogeshananda, Six Lighted Windows, 51. The second chapter of this book, titled “High Above Hollywood and Vine” (pp. 35-88), contains several passing vignettes of life at the facility in its Ramakrishna Monastery phase.

[48] From the Ramakrishna Monastery website, The homepage of the Monastery website is at

[49] “California Monks Wage Fight on Developers,” New York Times, February 4, 2003, p. A16; Matt Coker, “Hillside Strangers: Trabuco Canyon Monks Brace for Major Changes to Their Quiet Lives,” Orange County Weekly 8:15, December 13-19, 2002; online at

[50] Quoted in “California Monks Wage Fight on Developers.”

"Trabuco campus has been a center for spiritual life and growth for over 60 years. It is the site of an ongoing monastery. Several books and other pieces of literature were written there. Many persons earnestly seeking meaning were exposed to the wisdom and erudition of Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley at Trabuco."