Sara Butler | Editor
A large, white building on the corner of Tyler and Campus avenues isn’t quite what meets the eye.
To the average Uptown passerby, it may resemble a traditional Christian church, complete with a large cross atop the roof, painted glass windows along the perimeter, and historic plaques and signage around the exterior. Some might be surprised to learn it is actually home to a Buddhist temple.
Dharma Bum Temple, originally founded in 2006, moved into the University Heights neighborhood back in April 2017. After the temple outgrew its original Downtown location, they stumbled upon a 91-year-old building that used to house a Swedenborg congregation. (Swedenborgianism is “an open-minded, forward looking Christian church” originally founded in 1789, according to the church’s website.)
When temple co-founders and Hillcrest residents Jeff Zlotnik and Maggie Lee stumbled upon the space, they knew it was the right fit.
“It had been a spiritual place for 90 years — why not keep it a spiritual place for another 100 years,” Zlotnik said, noting the calming presence and energy of the building. “We’ve tried to keep everything original that was safe or functional.”
The journey to acquiring the building wasn’t an easy feat — the temple had to raise half a million dollars in three and a half months for the down payment. Zlotnik said few people thought they would pull it off, and even he was skeptical himself.
If they couldn’t raise the funds, the historic property was set to be sold to developers to turn into condominiums. Despite not knowing much about Dharma Bum Temple, the neighborhood rallied behind them, including the church’s old reverend, the University Heights Community Association, and individual Uptown residents. With the community support, the temple was able reach the fundraising goals and move into the building.
And just like the building, a first impression of Zlotnik may not be what you expect of someone running a Buddhist temple. He is a westerner who grew up Jewish in Del Cerro as “a spoiled, middle-upper class kid” who was angry, depressed and got into lots of fights.
When Zlotnik went to college at University of Arizona, he read a book about Buddhism that sparked his interest in the philosophy. However, it wasn’t until he was 28 years old that he visited a Buddhist temple in San Diego, where he “looked at a Buddhist statue and [his] whole life changed.” He said he went from a “young, big shot consultant making a lot of money and buying a lot of stuff” to a traditional Buddhist lifestyle, involving himself with various local temples and eventually moving to a Taiwan monastery for a year.
When he moved back home, Zlotnik saw a revolving door with westerners who wanted to learn about Buddhism, but did not feeling comfortable exploring its philosophies. Many San Diego temples operate as cultural centers, with barriers for westerners who may lack knowledge of tradition and language. After floating around different temples for about 10 months, he wound up founding Dharma Bum Temple.
“[I’m just] a Jewish kid running a Buddhist temple in a Christian Church,” Zlotnik said, laughing. Though the mixture may seem odd, this juxtaposition is a direct reflection of the temple’s mission. Ultimately, the temple’s focus is to integrate Buddhism with Westerners in an approachable way.
Those white “church” doors are always open, welcoming anyone in to the building to use the meditation rooms or library. The temple’s schedule offers a wide range of classes for all ages and walks of life. Drawing about 70 people each time, its most popular class is “Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation,” held every Saturday morning and Tuesday evening, serving as a first step for those interested in the practice.
“I always say we’re a Buddhist temple filled with everybody who is not Buddhist,” he continued. “We’re just unenlightened folks trying to get through our day – I think that’s what makes this place work so well, because people can come in and see a person who really looks no different than they are going through the same crap and figuring it out together.”
Buddha For You
An interesting element of the Dharma Bum Temple is Buddha For You, the temple’s gift shop located in the same building. Though it has only been in the Uptown neighborhood for a year, its roots began back in 1998.
Its original owner, Alfred Baron, was in his 70s when he opened up the “strange little Buddhist shop sitting at the end of El Cajon Boulevard,” Zlotnik said. Baron was also a westerner whose wife was from Thailand; she ran an Asian restaurant called Best Thai Food in the same plaza as the store.
When Baron decided to retire and move back to Thailand with his wife in 2009, he (gently) harassed Zlotnik and Lee to take it over. At the time, the pair was in their third year running the Dharma Bum Temple at its Downtown location — and had no interest or experience in running a retail store, let alone the manpower or resources. Yet after a few weeks of going back and forth, Zlotnik and Lee decided to take the leap.
“We were the only ones crazy enough to say yes [to the offer],” Zlotnik said. “Because to us it wasn’t a business — it was a way of life. Nobody in their right mind would take over a Buddha business.”
Zlotnik said he and Lee initially struggled with the idea of having the shop, since consumerism often goes against Buddhist teachings. But he said they now see it as a way to share the teachings and bring people into the temple.
But taking over the shop — while also running the temple — wasn’t a simple path. Zlotnik said that in the beginning, selling $30 worth of inventory “was a good day.” Hidden in the Campus Plaza Shopping Center, the location didn’t bring in as much business as they hoped for.
To keep it alive, they decided to move into the old Starbucks in the College Area. Turning commercial into traditional, they used the coffee shop’s iconic dark brown shelving to display Buddhas and turned the Starbucks bathroom into a meditation hall. This meditation hall began drawing many college students, and soon the following was large enough to host weekly classes — eventually starting up the nation’s first-ever Buddhist fraternity, Delta Beta Tau.
Despite the success, the distance between the temple and the gift shop was still difficult for Zlotnik and Lee, who often put in 60-hour weeks. When the temple moved into the University Heights location, they finally had the opportunity to house the gift shop next door. Lee, who was the legal owner of the gift shop, donated all of the inventory to the temple, establishing it as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with all proceeds going back into the temple. Approximately seven volunteers run the shop, including Zlotnik and Lee.
“We don’t use the temple or meditation to drive people to the store — we use the store to drive people to that [passively],” Zlotnik said, adding that the space also serves as a gateway for some people to find the temple.
“This culture likes stuff — and if that’s what it takes for them to find a sense of peace in their life … they use the objects as moments to slow down and breathe, and that’s beautiful,” he continued.
Originally from Taiwan, Lee uses her cultural knowledge to fill the shop with intentional and meaningful goods directly from Asia. The inventory includes various Buddha statues, singing bowls, jewelry, books and more. Lee also provides oversight with her knowledge of traditional Buddhism, helping to guide and influence the temple’s direction.
Buddha For You’s 20th anniversary celebration will be held on Dec. 15 from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. There will be a meditation and discussion inside the temple, followed by a small pilgrimage around the street to walk everyone down to the store to participate in a chant and enjoy food donated from the owner of Hillcrest restaurant Lotus Thai. It will be casual, open-house style event featuring art projects for kids, an all-ages movie viewing, and a presentation with an oral history of the building.
“Without Buddha For You, this whole community that we built would not be here – it truly would not,” Zlotnik said.
To learn more about Dharma Bum Temple or Buddha For You, visit thedharmabums.org — or just swing by University Heights to experience it for yourself.
—Reach Sara Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.