A Literal Dream Come True
Visited – February 2021
Elvis Presley became enamored of this little piece of paradise on his visits to Southern California. Memorial services for both George Harrison and Tom Petty were held here. There are even some of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes interred here. Yet, until recently, I had never heard of the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, situated in the hills of Pacific Palisades located just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.
Although I’ve lived in Southern California for my entire life, it still offers up surprises for me. So, when I found out the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine was open for visitors, Tracy and I made online reservations, and on a gorgeous, sunny Friday morning, we traveled to this serene spot.
The story how this area eventually became an “open-air shrine of all religions” is “literally a dream-come-true.” In the early 1920s this area in Santa Ynez Canyon was used as a locale for silent movies. In 1927, the land was hydraulically graded to make room for a future development project that never came to fruition because the earthmoving activities had to be stopped due to the “large basin quickly filling up with water from the many springs in the area, forming Lake Santa Ynez.”
The land remained undeveloped until 1940 when H. Everett McElroy, the assistant superintendent of construction for 20th Century Fox, purchased the property. His vision included “terraced gardens surrounding the lake with rustic bridges and waterfalls creating a private coastal paradise.” He and his wife transported a double-deck, “Mississippi-styled houseboat” from Lake Meade and constructed a “quaint mill house with water-wheel (now a gift shop and museum), and erected an authentic model of a Dutch windmill.”
The houseboat eventually was rented out to movie stars and film industry people, while the McElroys lived in the mill house. In 1948 they sold the property to oil executive Joseph Gross. Gross envisioned a resort that included a 150-room hotel surrounding Lake Santa Ynez. That vision was drastically altered one night when Gross had a recurring dream that the property should be made into a “Church Of All Religions.” He had never heard of such a thing, but that dream kept coming to him. In the wee hours of the morning, he looked up “Church Of All Religions” in the telephone book, and, as the website states, “composed a letter to be mailed the next morning, offering to sell his property, before going back to bed.”
The website goes on to say, “Later the next day, Gross telephoned the Self-Realization Fellowship Church of All Religions in Hollywood, and the call was given to Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian monk, yogi and guru who helped introduce Americans, along with thousands of others worldwide, to the teachings of meditation and yoga. Yogananda began speaking even before Gross could introduce himself. “You have some property for sale, don’t you? When can I see it?”
“But you haven’t received my letter,” Gross replied. “The letter will come tomorrow morning,” Yogananda told him. “Can we meet tomorrow afternoon?” (photo from internet)After Yogananda paid a visit to the lake the following day, thanks to donations by numerous benefactors, he purchased the property from Gross. The Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine opened to the public in August 1950 with 1,500 people in attendance, including the California Lt. Governor Edwin Knight. A few years later Knight would become California’s 31st governor.
A limited amount of people are allowed daily into the Lake Shrine, which opens at noon. We arrived shortly thereafter, and after receiving Covid guidelines from one of the docents and being advised that a gong would sound on the hour for prayers, which we could participate in if so were so inclined, he shared a prayer card: “Peace unto my Family, Peace unto my City, Peace unto my Country, Peace unto my World.” It was now time to take the 1/4 mile stroll around the lake. The 10-acre natural amphitheater serves as a “meditation garden.”
The first thing you notices as you enter the Court of Religion are the colorful and fragrant flowers surrounding this lakeside paradise. Throughout the perfectly manicured grounds at this time of the year, azaleas, camellias, primroses, orange clivia, cyclamens and brilliant blue Senetti are in full bloom, as are the tulip magnolia trees.
The five principal religions of the world are represented here … the Cross of Christianity, the Star of David for Judaism …
.. a Wheel of Law for Buddhism, the Sanskrit character Aura for Hinduism, and a Star and Crescent for Islam.
Yogananda preached that “we must recognize the unity of mankind.” From this vantage point, you can also get a full view of the lake and the different places we would visit on our walk. A docent told us that in April and May the Court of Religion is awash with colorful roses. Hopefully, we’ll return when they’re in bloom. (photo below from Lake Shrine website)
Also from this spot we spied the Lake Shrine Temple (currently closed) high atop the nearby hill that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. A Golden Lotus sits on top of the building, which incorporates both Eastern and Western architectural styles. Below it, on the hillside, is a statue of Jesus.Tracy and I took the path down to the Sunken Gardens and its tropical plants and colorful flowers.
There is also a Meditation Grotto, where one can sit and meditate under a canopy amidst those tropical plants.
Statues can be found interspersed among the flowers and flora throughout our walk.
As we started our clockwise stroll around the lake in the distance stood the Windmill Chapel.
The chapel sits inside the exact duplicate of a 16th-century Dutch windmill. As stated before, the windmill had been here before the guru purchased the Lake Shrine property, but has been renovated a few times.
Although we saw no ganders, you will notice plenty of swans drifting on the lake …
… although there was no sign of Tchaikovsky.
It was a short distance from the chapel to the Houseboat and Landing, where the Yogi would sit in prayer and meditation for hours at a time.
Yogananda would even use the houseboat to help in the development of the property.
The path along the lake was even more beautiful as we walked toward the Golden Lotus Archway.
Yogananda designed the archway, which is located across from the Windmill Chapel.
The website states: “In India, the stately lotus flower is a symbol of divine unfoldment … the awakening of the soul to its infinite potential.”
We really enjoyed the beauty and tranquility of walking the trail.
Since so few people are allowed in daily due to Covid, it almost seemed like we had the lake to ourselves.
Different flowers and bushes were seemingly blooming everywhere.
The memorial was dedicated by the Yogi and Lt. Governor Knight, and it holds some of the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi.
We even ran into St. Francis of Assisi, who I presume was protecting the swans.At the end of our journey around the lake, we popped into the gift store and museum chronicling Paramahansa Yogananda’s life.
A sign stated that he really liked opal.
Besides knowing he would purchase this property, in 1952 Yogananda also foresaw his own death. He mentioned to friends and disciples that it was “time for him to leave this world.” On March 7 of that year he attended a banquet for the Indian Ambassador to the U.S. at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. As he ended his speech, the Yogi lifted his eyes upward and fell to the floor. This was Yogananda’s Mahāsamādhi (“the act of consciously and intentionally leaving one’s body. A realized and enlightened (Jivanmukta), yogi (male) or yogini (female) who has attained the state of nirvikalpa samādhi, will, at an appropriate time, consciously exit from their body and attains Paramukti”). He was 59 years old.
But his story does not end with his death. Yogananda was interred in a casket with a glass lid at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. For three weeks his body did not show any sign of decay.A notarized statement from Harry T. Rowe, Forest Lawn’s mortuary director, stated, it is “the most extraordinary case in our experience … this state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one … a phenomenal state of immutability … no odor of decay emanated from his body at any time …for these reasons we state again that the case of Paramahansa Yogananda is unique in our experience.”
As far as visiting the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine, we highly recommend that if you’re going to be in the vicinity, it is well worth your effort to go online and make an advance reservation to step into this oasis of serenity.
In these times of stressful events and Covid, perhaps a little reflection, relaxation and meditation amidst these lush gardens could be just what the Yogi ordered.
Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
17190 Sunset Blvd.
Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Wednesday – Sunday 12 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Online reservations required