Mendocino Talking: Ron Epstein
by Dave Smith, February 4, 2015
(Ron is a retired professor of Buddhist Studies, one of the founders of Dharma Realm Buddhist University at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Talmage, and a community advocate in Ukiah and Mendocino County.)
I was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. My father was a doctor, who had volunteered for army service because of the Nazi threat, and was stationed at Fort Knox. He was trained as a specialist in medical evacuations from beach invasions, so when I was 6 weeks old we moved to Virginia Beach and later to San Diego; they practiced troop landings at Pismo beach. Still later they sent him out on a destroyer to help with the wounded in the Pacific campaign. Ironically the other two doctors on the ship wouldn’t talk to him during off duty hours because he was Jewish. He then was reassigned to be in charge of planning medical evacuations for the invasion of Japan. When my dad went to sea, my mother and I moved to Cleveland where we lived with my father’s parents and waited for him to come back from the war.
I grew up there in a rather unfriendly and materialistic upper middle class suburb of Cleveland and never felt comfortable there. Both my dad and grandfather were pediatricians. They both were disappointed that I did not follow them into a medical career.
When I was in high school, I got interested in international affairs and was the chair of the Cleveland Junior Council on World Affairs. In 1959 we put on a big regional model U.N. Assembly, and I was Secretary General. When my friends and I got the assembly to pass a resolution to admit Red China to the United Nations, the conservative local papers replaced their usual generous coverage to a total news blackout.
In the spring of 1960, we invited the head of the Palestine Arab Refugee Information Office in New York to come and talk with the Junior Council on World Affairs about the condition of refugees in Gaza, which led to more adult consternation based on the erroneous assumption that we students were incapable of thinking for ourselves in a mature and balanced manner. We asked our guest a lot of tough questions while a bevy of nervous adults hovered in the back of the room.
As was expected of me, I went to Harvard. There I joined the International Affairs Club and was very disillusioned to find out that it was a front for right wing Republicans on campus. That cold dose of political realities put a temporary hold on my interest in international affairs.
After two years at Harvard, I took a year’s leave of absence, went to Paris, and then wandered around Europe and North Africa. When I came back to Harvard, my studies focused on early childhood influences on mental illness; I planned to expand my focus to include cross-cultural considerations after graduation.
In 1965 I moved to San Francisco to study Chinese. At my first glimpse of San Francisco Bay, I intuitively knew that I had finally found my home. The following year I went to Taiwan to continue my studies and met my wife, Ocean, there. My initial academic plans changed when I got progressively more interested in studying and practicing Buddhism.
I then got a Master’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Washington and in 1975 a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies at UC Berkeley. While writing my dissertation, I began teaching at UC Davis and San Francisco State University (SFSU). Over the years I taught primarily at SFSU and at Dharma Realm Buddhist University.
My interest in Buddhism began when I was a confused young freshman in college. I started auditing courses by a famous existentialist Christian theologian named Paul Tillich, who was very charismatic and was a very big influence on me. He was the first person to teach me about Buddhism. Because of some profound spiritual experiences with Buddhist art, I decided that I should explore Buddhist meditation. At that time there were very few places where you could learn Buddhist meditation anywhere in the country.
In January 1966, I rented a room in a slum apartment building at Sutter and Webster near Japantown. A Chinese monk who lived in the flat on the first floor of the building had open meditation every evening from 7 to 8. In the living room he had a bunch of cushions from Goodwill sofas that we would sit on and meditate. My meditation experience while sitting with him was progressively transcendent, and after about 6 months I came to realize what a truly great teacher he was. During the many years I studied Buddhism with him, I never saw him perform a selfish act, either great or small, or put his own welfare before that of others. His name was Chan Master Hsuan Hua (wikipedia.org/wiki/Hsuan_Hua).
In 1976 the Master founded the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) here in Ukiah. It is the administrative center of the international Dharma Realm Buddhist Association, The association has over 20 branches world-wide. CTTB includes a monastery, a convent, elementary and secondary schools, and Dharma Realm Buddhist University. Our family moved to CTTB in 1977 so I could help with the founding of the Buddhist university. We lived there for ten years and then bought a small house adjoining CTTB where we have lived ever since.
There was initially a lot of misunderstanding about the name ‘Ten Thousand Buddhas.’ The local newspaper headlined ‘Ten Thousand Buddhists to Move to Ukiah,’ when there were only a couple hundred of us. ‘Ten Thousand Buddhas’ is a metaphor for the fully awakened nature within the hearts of all sentient beings. When Buddhists bow to Buddha images, they remind themselves to pay ultimate respect to the potential for full awakening within themselves. That awakening is characterized by clear wisdom and unselfish loving compassion. They are definitely not bowing to idols. Master Hsuan Hua emphasized that to stay on the right path that leads to awakening your inner Buddha, you need to lead a moral life and be primarily concerned with ending the suffering of all sentient beings. And if you use these techniques and are not guided by fundamental moral considerations, then nothing ultimately works out. For example, now there is a world-wide mindfulness fad that considers mindfulness to be a magic pill that can do almost anything. Buddhist mindfulness is not meant to be a tool for greater corporate profit or fulfilling selfish desires.
Buddhism is a Path to understanding and realizing the true nature of the human heart. Many of our notions about the meaning of the word ‘religion’ are based on 19th century English and German scholars’ ideas of European Protestantism, and cannot be readily applied to Buddhism. For instance, faith, and dogma are very important in Christianity, but they’re not very central to Buddhism. Buddhism has no catechism. Rather it emphasizes understanding which is based on your own experience.
I have spent most of my professional life teaching, writing about Buddhism and related subjects, and translating Buddhist texts (online.sfsu.edu/repstein/RE%20Online.htm). Since so much of my time was devoted to teaching and administration in Dharma Realm Buddhist University, I am very excited about its new accreditation-track degree programs based on study of the spiritual and cultural classics of the West, India, and China.
I have also had an abiding interest in animal rights and the environment, and in interfaith dialogue. In 2009 I had the wonderful opportunity of being part of the first interfaith delegation of religious leaders from the United States to be invited by the Chinese government to meet with religious leaders in China. This coming fall I will be actively participating in the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City.
Since my retirement from SFSU in 2004, I’ve paid special attention to making a contribution to the greater Ukiah community. Since I am not a politically talented or experienced person, I have tried to focus on issues that I both feel are important and that other more capable people are not already working on.
Starting in the early 1990s, I became concerned about the potential dangers of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In 1996 I posted a website entitled Genetic Engineering and Its Dangers (online.sfsu.edu/rone/GEessays/gedanger.htm). I tried to interest people locally in the issue, particularly as it concerns GMO food. I even went to the local Co-op to hand out a fact sheet about it, but there didn’t seem to be any interest. So I put my local efforts on the back burner, but in 2003 Els Cooperrider and Janie Sheppard, with whom I had previously discussed the issues, came to me and said they wanted to put a ban on growing or raising GMOs in the county on the ballot and asked me to join them. I believe we were the first county to successfully ban them.
Encouraged by the success of Measure H, I then turned my attention to my experience with our then thriving local democracy and realized that we could not take its continuing health for granted. I worked together with Mari Rodin, Janie Sheppard, Phil Baldwin, Scott Cratty, Steve Scalmanini and others to craft proposals both to make campaign contributions transparent by posting them on the Internet and to limit individual contributions. We finally got the Ukiah City Council to enact contribution limits and to tighten up the reporting beyond what was required by the state, and both the city and the county to put contribution information online in a timely manner.
I am encouraged that after many years we now have young people who are interested running for public office. My hope is that our high school and community college curricula will be expanded to include significant education materials about how local government works, with opportunities for hands on experiences. We also need to strengthen local media’s reporting on local issues.
As a community we are astonishingly conservative about being creative and trying new things. We have an opportunity here to be leaders in promoting the health of our local environment and to do something about the effects of environmental pollution on the human population here in the county. Although there have been some significant accomplishments, we are in need of effective leadership and innovation so that more can be done. For example, the impressive Healthy Mendocino website (healthymendocino.org) has dashboards that are indicators of various aspects of our community health. I would like to suggest that the county supervisors proclaim a healthy, caring community day once a year. A board of supervisors’ meeting could be the focus for a wide range of activities. On that day we might all look at the five dashboard indicators of areas where we are doing the best, honor the people who are responsible for those successes, and look at the five worst ones, and work together toward innovative solutions in those areas.
My wife and I are grateful that we have had the opportunity to raise our children Shari and Andre in such an open-minded and caring community. My hope for it is that we can help each other to remember that our on-the-ground, every day love and concern for one another transcends doctrinaire polarities. If we do so, I don’t think there are any local problems that we cannot solve in a harmonious manner, through a mutually respectful pooling of our many talents.
(Coming up: Janie Sheppard, Lawyer, Community Advocate; Tom Brower, Farmer, Mendocino Lavender.)