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Site of Tranquillity In Cash Controversy

By William Claiborne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 18 1996; Page A36

With its pagoda-style ocher roofs and red-pillared Hall of Buddha and robed monks wandering piously through Oriental gardens, the Hsi Lai Temple seems more like an island of spiritual tranquillity in this bustling Los Angeles suburb than the focal point of a growing controversy over questionable big-money contributions to a presidential reelection campaign.

But the $25 million, 14-acre temple compound – the largest Buddhist monastery in the Western Hemisphere – was the site of a $140,000 fund-raising luncheon with Vice President Gore on April 29 that the Democratic National Committee now says was a "mistake" because of the temple's tax-exempt status as a nonprofit religious institution.

With additional questions being raised over how ascetic monks and nuns living spartan lives at the temple could have contributed up to $5,000 each to the DNC, according to campaign finance reports, Hsi Lai officials have become, for the most part, uncommunicative. Telephone calls have not been returned, the temple's senior religious leaders are said to be out of the country or not available and visitors are politely told to direct their inquiries to the DNC.

Man Ho, assistant to temple abbess Su-Jen Wu, who is also known as Tzu Jung, said the committee handled fund-raising aspects of the luncheon and that temple officials were concerned only with how to welcome Gore. "When Vice President Gore came to our temple to visit our master, that is a very personal thing, to renew their friendship," Man Ho said. She said that the grand master and founder of the temple, Hsing Yun, who was listed as a contributor, had met Gore at least once before in Taiwan.

Man Ho said that temple funds were not contributed to the campaign and that all contributions were made personally by the 100 people she said attended the event. She said that before coming to the United States, Su-Jen Wu, who contributed $5,000 at the luncheon, earned stipends teaching at a Buddhist college in Taiwan and that both the abbess and Hsing Yun regularly received small red packets containing cash whenever they gave lectures.

Man Ho said that the only people from the temple who attended the April 29 luncheon were herself, Hsing Yun and Su-Jen Wu, both of whom are currently out of the country. She said the rest were lay people from the community, with monks and nuns greeting the guests outside the door.

The almost siege-like atmosphere at the gated complex amid intense media scrutiny recalls a time 15 years ago when the Hsi Lai Temple, then under construction, was fought bitterly by local residents who claimed that it would overwhelm a neighborhood of single-family homes and disturb the quiet suburb with predawn gongs and raucous Chinese New Year's celebrations. However, Jeffrey Yann, a civil engineer who is vice president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Association, recalled that once the temple was erected and the monks and nuns began to get involved in community affairs, they won growing acceptance by their neighbors. He said temple members joined with locals to oppose expansion of a huge landfill nearby and to fight the opening of adult book stores in the neighboring city of Industry.

"Hacienda Heights is fairly conservative and doesn't like change, but they managed to establish a relationship with the community. They showed a great interest in the environment and other issues, and we were able to work with the people at the temple," Yann said.

Spiritual leaders at Hsi Lai also took pride in serving, in effect, as ministers of culture to residents of the surrounding multiethnic community of 55,000. They established Spanish classes in Chinese for the benefit of immigrants from Taiwan, formed sister school relationships with nearby high schools and conducted retreats to teach lay people the basics of Buddhism.

The temple's activism in secular affairs – a departure from the reclusiveness of many Buddhist temples – appeared to reflect the beliefs and personality of Hsing Yun, the former abbot of the Foukwangsham Temple in southern Taiwan. He fled China with the Nationalist government in 1949, penniless, and became a millionaire monk, philanthropist and founder of more than 60 Buddhist temples around the world.

Critics contend that Hsing Yun is a practiced fund-raiser who has amassed a fortune from wealthy secular Chinese to establish his far-reaching International Buddhist Progress Society, which includes a temple in Las Vegas and a theological university here. The critics also acknowledge that Hsing Yun is a politically astute religious leader who has succeeded in convincing his wealthy disciples to give up their worldly accumulations and achieve inner peace and a better afterlife in the Buddhist priesthood.

Rick Fields, a Berkeley-based expert on American Buddhism, said today that while Buddhism is decentralized and each temple has its own rules, generally monks and nuns turn over their savings to the monastery when they enter the priesthood. "It seems to me it would be pretty hard to put away a lot of money and give it to a presidential contender, but each temple operates under its own guidelines," Fields said.

Staff writer Lena H. Sun in Washington and special correspondent Cassandra Stern in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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