An aerial view of the Ratna Ling Retreat Center. Photo: Coastal Hills Rural Preservation

High up in the hills of a remote stretch of the Sonoma County coast sits the world’s largest printing press for sacred Tibetan texts.

In a 21,234 square foot factory on the grounds of Ratna Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center near Cazadero, volunteers work six days a week to print and collate more than 100,000 books a year. The texts are then shipped off to India and Nepal for distribution to monasteries and refugees from China’s brutal crackdown on Tibet.

The operators of Dharma Publishing – which was located in Berkeley for 36 years until it moved north in 2007 – say producing sacred texts is a mandate of their religion. They are followers of Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who came to Berkeley in 1969 and over 40 years created a religious organization made up of 12 different foundations (known collectively as The Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center), large real estate holdings in Berkeley and Sonoma County, and assets of more than $25 million $60 million, according to SEC and property tax files

But all is not serene at the Ratna Ling retreat center, despite its yoga and meditation classes. Neighbors in the rural area say the press operation is too big and too industrial for the site and claim the followers of Tarthang Tulku are using the cover of their religion to operate a business that would not normally be allowed in the area.

Moreover, the operators of the printing press have violated their 2004 use permit numerous times and Sonoma County planning officials have been slow to make them comply with the permit’s restrictions, according to a neighborhood watchdog group.

Today at 1 pm, Sonoma County’s zoning board is scheduled to consider a new Master Plan permit for Ratna Ling, which includes an expansion of both the retreat center and printing operation. Despite the neighbors’ concerns, the board is expected to approve the application, which has gone through more than a year of review. The neighbors have vowed to appeal to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

“This is truly a David and Goliath fight as Ratna Ling and The Nyingma Meditation Center have very deep pockets and have hired lawyers and consultants and even persuaded an ex-supervisor to advocate for them,” said Carolyne Singer, who lives about a mile south of the retreat center and is one of the neighbors who has formed the Coastal Hills Rural Preservation group to fight the printing operation. (The group is not opposed to the church’s meditation and retreat center.) “They keep making a spiritual argument. We are trying to get the county’s focus back on what they should be focusing on, which is land use, which they can regulate.”

Ratna Ling officials disagree with that assessment. While Ratna Ling volunteers do print thousands of Tibetan books on modern presses a year, as well as art objects and prayer flags, the printing is not obtrusive or noisy, according to Curtis Caton, a Berkeley attorney who is helping Ratna Ling with its permit application. Moreover, making the books is an essential part of the Nyingma Buddhist religion and therefore legal on the property.

“The printing operation cannot be seen or heard from the road, much less than from any neighboring properties,” said Caton. “It is quiet. It is a very small part of a 120-acre operation, which is overwhelmingly dedicated to a retreat center. The neighbors have characterized it as an industrial operation because there is a machine in the building that they can’t see or hear and causes no disturbance to anybody. But you can’t run a retreat center with a noisy, disruptive industrial operation.”

Buddhist principles applied to western ideas

Tarthang Tulku, one of the last remaining lamas to have received a complete Buddhist education before China’s 1959 invasion of Tibet, came to Berkeley in 1969. He started a church, the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, which quickly attracted followers intrigued by his application of Buddhist principles to western ideas. Over the next 40 years, he and his growing group of supporters created a cluster of non-profit organizations that both explore Tibetan Buddhism and work to preserve Tibetan culture. The organizations publish books, make films, rebuild monasteries, produce sacred texts and art objects, promote Tarthang Tulku’s teachings to the world, and hold numerous classes and spiritual retreats.

Tarthang Tulku, the lama who founded the Nyingma community

One of the community’s most high profile endeavors takes place each year in Bodhgaya, India, where Buddha gained enlightenment 2,500 years ago. Known as the World Peace Ceremony, it was started by Tarthang Tulku in 1989 and now attracts 25,000 people from Tibet, exiles, monks, nuns, and lay people annually. The Tibetan Aid Project, which was established to support education and literacy in Tibetan communities in Asia, has distributed 3.5 million sacred texts and art objects produced by Dharma Press in the last two decades.

Tarthang Tulku now lives in permanent retreat at the 1,000-acre Odiyan Retreat Center near Gualala, about 12 miles from the Ratna Ling Retreat Center. He no longer communicates directly with the public.

The Nyingma community in Berkeley is thriving. It owns three buildings – almost a whole city block – on Harold Way in downtown, including the old Elks Club, which is now the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages, the Dharma Press bookstore, and the old Armstrong College building, which will officially open as Dharma College in the fall. The community also owns a spiritual center on Highland Place known as the Nyingma Institute.

The Tibetan Buddhist Nyingma community owns three building in Harold Way in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Although Tarthang Tulku’s church only counts a few hundred full-time members, the lama has attracted a number of successful businessmen and women who have been very generous to the organization and made its growth possible. Many have given up their high-paying jobs to volunteer full-time for the Nyingma community.

One of the most high profile is Barr Rosenberg, an economist who taught at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Rosenberg made his fortune by applying quantitative analysis, a theory that applies mathematical formulas to price stocks and bonds, to money management. BARRA, the consulting firm he ran until 1985, was immensely successful. Rosenberg left to co-found the institutional money management firm AXA Rosenberg and ran it until September 2011 when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of securities fraud for hiding a coding error in the program used by his investment firm. Rosenberg paid a $2.5 million fine and agreed never to work in the securities industry again.  AXA Rosenberg and its affiliated investment advisers paid $217 million to affected clients and a $25 million fine.

Rosenberg became involved with Tarthang Tulku in the 1970s and has evolved into one of the organizations top leaders and donors. He is co-dean of the Nyingma Institute and teaches numerous courses there. The Barr and June Rosenberg Foundation routinely donates around $7 million a year to the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, according to the documents filed with the SEC.

Another generous patron and leader is Jack Petranker, an attorney and the editor of Dharma Publishing and the director of the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages. He helped the organization purchase 2222 Harold Way for $6 million in 2009.

Laurent Manrique, who was the executive chef at Fifth Floor and at Aqua, a two-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco, was studying Tibetan Buddhism at the Nyingma Institute in 2001 when he came up with the idea of a gala to raise funds for the Tibetan Aid Project. Thanks to his involvement during the last decade, top chefs from around the country donate their time to two Taste and Tribute galas each year, one in San Francisco and one in New York. Participating chefs have included Elizabeth Faulkner, Gerald Hirigoyen, Mark Richardson, Gavin Kaysen, and many others. The $350-person a head gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco raised about $150,000 in 2011.

The 12 nonprofits that make up the Nyingma community have assets of more than $25 million, according to documents filed with the SEC.

Despite its prosperity, the community is not well-known.

“We keep a low profile,” said Petranker told Berkeleyside in 2010. “It is the Buddhist thing to not toot your own horn.”

Printing press as ancillary operation

When Tarthang Tulku bought the 107-acre Cazadero property in 2004, (the organization increased the acreage later) his representatives told county planners it would be used mostly as a retreat and meditation center, with the printing press as an ancillary operation.

The 2004 permit application said the printing press would occupy an existing 13,000 square foot building that had been previously built as a lodge. The press facility would include a press, a cutter, a folder, a collator and a binder, and ample space to assemble the books (which are not bound) by hand and wrap them. The operators of Dharma Press said the press would produce about 100,000 books a year and operate six days a week from 7 am to 10 pm. Each month, a 40-foot truck would bring the paper needed to make the books, according to the application.

About three weeks later, Ratna Ling asked to amend its application and build a new 18,750 square foot structure for the printing press. It also stated its intention to start building some already-permitted cabins for staff and guests.

Ratna Ling sits inside a “Resource and Rural Development Zone” which the Sonoma County General Plan designates as a place for the production, processing, and protection of local resources and uses such as timber production, ranching, agriculture, fishing, and recreation. Normally, the county would not allow a printing press in that zone, but Ratna Ling officials made the case that operating the printing press was an integral part of the Nyingma Buddhist  religion.

One of Tarthang Tulku’s central tenets is that full time church members must devote their energies to work that promotes Buddhist teachings. Volunteering at the printing press fulfills this obligation because publishing Tibetan books, art, and prayer wheels and making them more widely available spreads the word about Buddhism. The permit application was approved in 2004, with the caveat that the press remain an ancillary operation of the retreat center.

Over the next seven years, Ratna Ling applied for 145 different permits to expand its operations and became an almost non-stop construction site, according to Singer. In 2007, Dharma Press left its facility on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley and moved five presses up to Ratna Ling – without amending its use permit, she said. The press went into high gear and started operating 24 hours a day, said Singer. It produced more than the 100,000 volumes than its permit allowed. (She estimates the number may have tripled.)

Ratna Ling got Sonoma County to approve the construction of four temporary tent-like structures of about 39,000 square feet to store books that could not be shipped to Tibet because of political unrest, bringing the total size of the printing operations to 60,500 square feet – about three times larger than was allowed in the original permit, said Singer. The organization also erected yomes – a combination yurt and dome – without filing for the proper permits, said Singer.

In 2010, neighbors filed a formal complaint against Ratna Ling with Sonoma County code enforcement. They spent six months documenting what they considered zoning violations and presented a two-inch thick binder to the county. At the center of their complaint was the contention that the industrial printing press operation was not an appropriate use under the zoning laws and it had grown so large it could no longer be considered an ancillary operation.

Sonoma County officials sent out an inspector and photographer to investigate the grievances, but the report was lost when the inspector went out on extended medical leave, said Singer. However, county officials met in August 2010 with representatives of Ratna Ling, who acknowledged the printing operation was larger than allowed and out of compliance with its 2004 use permit, according to an internal staff memo from Pete Parkinson, the director of the permit and resource management department.

Caton also acknowledged to Berkeleyside that for two or three years, Dharma Press was producing more than 100,000 texts a year. Ratna Ling had mentioned that figure in a letter it had written to the county before the permit was granted, but only meant it as an estimate, not a firm figure. The definition of book in Tibetan culture is different than a western definition since Tibetan books are not bound and are more like pamphlets. Until the neighbors brought it up, Dharma Press never realized there was a firm numerical cap, he said.

Ratna Ling representatives agreed to remove three buildings from the property, reduce the number of books in storage to less than 500,000, and to bring the number of books published on site to under 100,000 a year, according to a memo.

But six months after agreeing to cut back on its book production, representatives from Ratna Ling filed an application in March 2011 for a new Master Use permit, one that would allow all the uses that it had been doing previously, as well as additional expansion. Ratna Ling wants to add eight additional guest cabins, more storage areas, and a retreat house on a separate parcel. It also wants the county to make permanent the 39,000 square feet of temporary book storage.

Dharma Press is also applying to eliminate all restrictions on the number of books and art objects produced every year. Instead, the size of the operation would be controlled by the limiting the number of trucks allowed on the property. The press wants the county to approve 730 truck trips a year, up from the 12 allowed in the 2004 use permit and the approximately 300 trips approved later.

“In terms of environmental issues, the more reasonable way to regulate land is is by measuring environmental impact,” Caton told KRCB, a north coast radio station. “The press operation is invisible to the community up there. It can’t be seen from the road. It can’t be heard from the road or from any neighboring property. The one environmental impact that does take place is that trucks need to bring in supplies and truck out finished texts for shipment to Asia. What we are proposing now, and what the county has endorsed in its staff report, is truck impact measure of the environment impact on the land as opposed to the ambiguity of the book count.”

The new application also requests that the press be permitted to increase the number of people working there from 27 to 94 and to increase the number of people living on the property from 67 to 122.

Singer’s group contends this application demonstrates that the printing press does not belong in a Resource and Rural Development Zone.

“Dharma Publishing has been expanding exponentially since 2004,” said Singer. “The local community has been working the last three years to persuade Sonoma County Planning that Dharma Publishing must be moved to an appropriate industrial zone.”

Ratna Ling officials said they have produced documents showing that the printing press is only a small part of the retreat center’s operations and thus fits the definition of ancillary use.

Sonoma County planning officials agreed with that assessment in a staff report on the Master Plan permit application. The report also points out that places of religious worship are allowed in the Resource and Rural Development Zone. Ratna Ling’s application goes into detail about how working at the printing press is part of the spiritual practice of the community. Volunteers start their work day by chanting a Tibetan prayer, listening to one of Buddha’s teachings, and performing a brief yoga exercise to relax the body and mind and focus on the work day ahead. Prayers and other reflections continue throughout the day.

“It is related to the spiritual and religious purpose of the retreat center,” said Caton. “It is. Retreatants go up there to do a spiritual practice of working as a volunteer in the press building. We would say in the Judea-Christian tradition, passing on the wisdom of the Torah or the New Testament or whatever. The transmission of the Dharma, which is the accumulated Buddhist teachings and practices, is considered a spiritual practice.”

“The printing facility would not be permitted as a stand-alone use, or with any other non-religious use,” reads the staff report to the zoning board. “However, as described above it is an integral part of the Tibetan Buddhist religious practice which includes the participation of volunteers and retreat guests. As such staff recommends that it be considered an accessory use to the religious retreat facility.”

Update, 06.08.12: The Ratna Ling Retreat Center won approval from the Sonoma county Board of Zoning Adjustments to expand its printing operations. Read more at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Tibetan Buddhism flourishes in downtown Berkeley [11.29.10]

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...