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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 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. But all is not serene at the Ratna Ling retreat center, despite its yoga and meditation classes.
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.
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. One of the community’s most high profile endeavors takes place each year in Bodhgaya, India, where Buddha gained enlightenment 2,500 years ago. 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. The Tibetan Buddhist Nyingma community owns three building in Harold Way in downtown Berkeley. 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. One of the most high profile is Barr Rosenberg, an economist who taught at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business. Rosenberg became involved with Tarthang Tulku in the 1970s and has evolved into one of the organizations top leaders and donors.
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. 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.
The 12 nonprofits that make up the Nyingma community have assets of more than $25 million, according to documents filed with the SEC. 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. About three weeks later, Ratna Ling asked to amend its application and build a new 18,750 square foot structure for the printing press.
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. One of Tarthang Tulku’s central tenets is that full time church members must devote their energies to work that promotes Buddhist teachings.
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.
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. In 2010, neighbors filed a formal complaint against Ratna Ling with Sonoma County code enforcement.
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. Caton also acknowledged to Berkeleyside that for two or three years, Dharma Press was producing more than 100,000 texts a year. 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.

Dharma Press is also applying to eliminate all restrictions on the number of books and art objects produced every year. 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. 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. Want to get a digest of all the day’s Berkeley news in your email inbox at the end of your working day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing. On the other hand, over the many years that the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Centers have been in that area, they have worked to reforest a heavily logged landscape and create a place of unimaginable beauty, while supporting a culture that is being oppressed abroad in ways that people who complain about noisy trucks can hardly imagine. No matter how much good is done for other communities abroad, the law of the land is still the one we must abide by.
The texts are then shipped off to India and Nepal for distribution to monasteries and refugees from China’s brutal crackdown on Tibet.
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. Despite the neighbors’ concerns, the board is expected to approve the application, which has gone through more than a year of review. 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. He started a church, the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center, which quickly attracted followers intrigued by his application of Buddhist principles to western ideas. 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.
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.
Many have given up their high-paying jobs to volunteer full-time for the Nyingma community.
Rosenberg made his fortune by applying quantitative analysis, a theory that applies mathematical formulas to price stocks and bonds, to money management.
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. 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. It also stated its intention to start building some already-permitted cabins for staff and guests. 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. 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. 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 organization also erected yomes – a combination yurt and dome – without filing for the proper permits, said Singer. They spent six months documenting what they considered zoning violations and presented a two-inch thick binder to the county. 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.
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. Ratna Ling wants to add eight additional guest cabins, more storage areas, and a retreat house on a separate parcel.

Instead, the size of the operation would be controlled by the limiting the number of trucks allowed on the property. The report also points out that places of religious worship are allowed in the Resource and Rural Development Zone. Over the years I have driven the back roads from Highway 1 to Cazadero several times and have watched as the wilderness has slowly changed. I lived and worked at Odiyan for 4.5 years, and therefore know the organization and the landscape well. This organization does good, important work, selflessly, and creates tangible change for the volunteers who go through there and are willing to work. Moreover, making the books is an essential part of the Nyingma Buddhist religion and therefore legal on the property. 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 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. The community also owns a spiritual center on Highland Place known as the Nyingma Institute. 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. Participating chefs have included Elizabeth Faulkner, Gerald Hirigoyen, Mark Richardson, Gavin Kaysen, and many others. 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.
The permit application was approved in 2004, with the caveat that the press remain an ancillary operation of the retreat center. 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.
The definition of book in Tibetan culture is different than a western definition since Tibetan books are not bound and are more like pamphlets.
It also wants the county to make permanent the 39,000 square feet of temporary book storage. 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. Ratna Ling’s application goes into detail about how working at the printing press is part of the spiritual practice of the community. Suttra, BuddhaNet Audio, Suttas, Sutta, Tipitaka, Tripitaka, Sangha, Monks, Monk, Nun, Nuns, Bhikkhu, Bhikkhus, Theravada, Mahayana, Vajranana, Tibetan, Dalia Lama, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Burma, Manamar, Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Lao, Cambodia, Mahasi Sayadaw, Ajahan, Venerable, Directory, Directories, Computer Art, Zen, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmaia, Sydney, Perth, Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Darwin, Brisbane. 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. 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. The $350-person a head gala at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco raised about $150,000 in 2011. Each month, a 40-foot truck would bring the paper needed to make the books, according to the application. Until the neighbors brought it up, Dharma Press never realized there was a firm numerical cap, he said. 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.

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