How Tibbetan Buddists Helped Me Seek Enlightenment at Howard Jarvis's House
Want to stop worrying so much about the future of California? Go and say a prayer at Howard Jarvis’s house.
No historic plaques mark the five-bedroom home at 515 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., which sits between West Hollywood and L.A.’s Miracle Mile. But this is where the famed anti-tax activist Jarvis lived, held meetings with Gov. Jerry Brown and other California players, and organized Proposition 13, 1978’s tax-limiting ballot initiative that still dominates California politics.
Another fall fight over Prop 13 is underway. The November ballot’s Proposition 15 proposes to lift Prop 13 caps on taxing commercial properties, thus creating—depending on whom you ask—either billions of dollars for education or new burdens for businesses. So, recently, I went over to check on the historic house—and got an unexpected lesson about how California and its homes keep changing, even if its initiative politics never do.
The recognition that I have more questions than answers is OK. Because uncertainty about what comes next, for me or for a proposition or for a house, might be the most powerful answer we ever get.
Jarvis’s undistinguished gray house is now Nechung Dharmapala, L.A.’s Tibetan Buddhist Center. The home has been painted a distinguished shade of orange associated with Buddhism. Above the front windows, two deer surround a wheel representing the Dharma, and a small stupa—a hemispheric structure representing the enlightened mind—rests outside the front door.
Inside, bedrooms are occupied by two monks, one an administrator, and the other the center’s spiritual director. The large, high-ceilinged living room where Jarvis once conducted the angriest California politics of the 20th century has been turned into a 21st-century sanctuary for lessons on the renunciation of ego, the development of compassion, and the possibility of enlightenment for all beings.
At first, the home’s political past and religious present seemed discordant, but the more I contemplated the place, the more I began to see the continuities and connections. Indeed, 515 N. Crescent Heights Blvd. has become a double-monument to both the perils of revolutions and the paradoxes of protection. The house’s history asks: Why do humans suffer so much in their search for the safety and stability that this world only fleetingly provides?
Prop 13 was a great victory of a conservative California revolution that promised protection—against rising taxes, especially the property taxes that raise the cost of homes and thus displace people. The paradox is that the protector Prop 13 hasn’t protected us from California’s high taxes or extortionate housing prices.
Protection is also Nechung Dharmapala’s reason for being. This Buddhist center is associated with Tibet’s centuries-old Nechung Monastery, which is the headquarters of the State Oracle of Tibet, who embodies the deity Pehar, also known as “The Protector of Religion.”
Of course, the protector Pehar couldn’t stop Chinese communists from destroying Nechung Monastery and Tibet’s other religious sites after the 1949 revolution. But therein lies the paradox. The communists’ attacks on religion actually protected the faith. Tibetan Buddhists fled, spreading their teachings and establishing centers around the globe, eventually reaching Howard Jarvis’s front door.
Jarvis’s Tudor-style house was built in 1925, according to county records. Jarvis, a Utah native and “jack” Mormon (he drank cheap vodka he carried in his briefcase), bought it in 1941 for $8,000. He stayed there for the rest of his life, through at least one renovation and three marriages, the last to Estelle Garcia.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Jarvis held court in a big comfortable chair, smoking a cigar and eating Estelle’s corn soup, while distinguished visitors sat on simple sofas. The house was filled with energy and the conviction that a handful of people, without holding office, could upend the world.
“There were some curses, but no prayers,” recalls the Jarvis aide Joel Fox, who also served for a time as president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which remains a force, leading this fall’s campaign to fight Prop 15, and thus protect Prop 13.
Prop 13 governs modern California because it controls the money: Specifically, it requires a two-thirds popular vote to raise local taxes, and a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise state taxes. But most Californians associate it with its property tax provisions, which cap overall taxes and allow for the reassessment of properties at market value only when they are sold.
When Prop 13 passed, Jarvis’s 3,000-square-foot home, on a 5,900-square-foot lot in a desirable part of L.A.’s westside—which he’d bought nearly 40 years earlier—was assessed at less than $60,000. Its annual tax bills, based on that low base, would stay below $1,000, even as neighboring homeowners paid 10 times that. In 2005, the home assessed value for tax purposes was $75,854; in 2006, after Estelle died (Jarvis himself died in 1986), it was reassessed at $1.25 million.
The house was sold in 2008 according to county records, and put up for sale again in 2013—as Tibetan Buddhists were growing desperate in their search for an L.A. headquarters.
The Nechung Kuten, who is also the Chief State Oracle of Tibet, had visited L.A. in 2007 and 2009 and called for the establishment of a center where Tibetans, Mongolians, and Westerners could study and practice Buddhism in a non-sectarian way. A donor stepped forward to fund a center, but finding the right place—with both a big gathering room and small bedrooms quiet enough for monks—was hard. Until a real estate agent took them to 515 N. Crescent Heights Blvd.
They bought the house in 2013 for $1.38 million. It took more than a year to redecorate the home in a Tibetan style, construct the shrine, and install the Buddha statues. In 2014, the center opened, and the space is often full.
In Jarvis’s old living room, resident teacher Geshe Wangchuk now presides. He became a monk at age 12 (with ordination at the Nechung Monastery in Dharamsala, India) and arrived at Nechung L.A. in 2016. He’s skilled not only in explaining Buddhist philosophy but in the creation of sand mandalas and butter sculptures.
During the pandemic, Geshe Wangchuk shifted his daily practices and weekly teachings online. On Saturday mornings this summer, I watched him instruct, via nechungla.org, Zoom, and Facebook, a highly diverse group of Californians. The lessons leaned on a text, “The Three Principal Aspects of the Path,” by Je Tsongkhapa, a 14th-century teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. One passage presented a particular puzzle:
Furthermore when appearance dispels the extreme of existence,
And when emptiness dispels the extreme of non-existence,
And if you understand how emptiness arises as cause and effect,
You will never be captivated by views grasping at extremes.
I wondered if a mind could really be that open. Does avoiding extremes require feeling empty and uncertain about whether you actually exist? And how, I asked, might I apply such enlightenment to 515 N. Crescent Heights Blvd. or any of the extremes of today’s California?
The team at Nechung L.A. had no idea of the house’s history and knew nothing of Jarvis. In a conversation with Nechung L.A.’s board secretary, Tenzin Thokme, I found myself starting to explain Prop 13, and then why Prop 15 is in the news. But my explanations were mostly just questions. Might Prop 15 pull a few billion more dollars out of commercial property and into the schools? Or might the initiative’s many exemptions be exploited by wealthy property owners? Might this measure at the very least make a symbolic strike against Prop 13—or will the whole exercise just reinforce Prop 13’s power?
But if I understood Geshe Wangchuk, the recognition that I have more questions than answers is OK. Because uncertainty about what comes next, for me or for a proposition or for a house, might be the most powerful answer we ever get. Je Tsongkhapa taught it best 600 years ago: “If the entire object of grasping at certitude is dismantled, at that point your analysis of the view has culminated.”