General Research Division, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Cover of the October 19, 1898 issue of Puck, a satirical weekly that was first published in English in 1877, with a stereotypical illustration that captures the growing anti-Chinese sentiment of the era.
General Research Division, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations. Cover of the October 19, 1898 issue of Puck, a satirical weekly that was first published in English in 1877, with a stereotypical illustration that captures the growing anti-Chinese sentiment of the era.

As you drive through the smoggy San Gabriel Valley on Highway 60, you crane your neck as you reach Hacienda Heights, the locale of the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple. Though a concrete wall buffers the temple from the freeway, you see a glint of sweeping yellow roofs and you know that soon you’ll arrive there. The Saturday vegetarian brunch that’s served will fill your stomach, but what you’re seeking is enlightenment on some of the issues surrounding the 1996 Democratic fundraising debacle in which the temple and its Buddhist clergy and nuns were prominently fingered.

You’d already talked to a few Asian friends about the situation. One Beijing writer, Huang, here in the States for the last seven years, remarked: “I think they were picked on more because they were Asian rather than Buddhists. On the other hand, the combination of Asian plus Buddhism equals exotic. What about the Christians who donated to the right wing or the Republicans?”

I asked him what he thought of the Hsi Lai Temple. “Too big. Too secular. It seems mainly for Taiwan immigrants.” Sabina, another friend, a Taiwanese urban planner living in Los Angeles, felt that U.S. ethnic politics—not religious politics—determined both community and media response. She considered herself an “unofficial Buddhist” though she didn’t attend temples regularly.

You climb up the first set of stairs to the courtyard of the main pavilion, where Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Asian devotees and tourists gawk at the large statues of assorted Bodhisattvas, Kwan-yins, and traditional animals such as deer, dragons, and turtles. While you can see that the temple obviously had enough funds to build its elaborate temple, schools, and housing for clergy and nuns, you don’t get a sense of lingering corruption or undue entrepreneurship. At this point, you’re not prepared to pass judgment. You’re prepared to be compassionate or at least empathetic with what you find.

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