Good Omens : Celebrants Gather to Consecrate Largest Buddhist Temple in Western Hemisphere

Times Staff Writer

It was a day full of good omens at the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights.

There was the weather, of course: one of those sparkling Southern California mornings, with sunlight dancing across the glazed tile roofs of the brand-new hillside Buddhist complex and a propitious stretch of blue sky overhead.

Someone asked the Venerable Hsing Yun to describe his feelings last Sunday, the day that several hundred devotees and friends gathered to consecrate the largest Buddhist monastery and temple complex in the Western Hemisphere, with six hours of chanting, prayer and milling around.

"Los Angeles is full of sunshine," said the smiling Buddhist master with an expansive gesture. Hsing is the spiritual leader of Fo Kuang Shan, Taiwan's preeminent Buddhist organization and sponsor of the Hacienda Heights complex.

There was an auspicious celestial event, too, devotees contended. As they marched out of the high-vaulted main temple after a period of coordinated chanting and bowing before three 7-foot-high golden statues of Buddha, some of them looked up and exclaimed in delight.

A cluster of high, wispy cirrus clouds had blown in, gathering in what many contended was the shape of a dragon.

"You can see the four legs and, over there, the dragon's head," said Yung In, a tiny Buddhist nun dressed like her master in a flowing mustard-brown robe, her hair shaved down to a fuzz. "For the Chinese, it's very lucky. It means everything will go smoothly."

Until recently, the going has been far from smooth for the 10-building complex, with its distinctive ocher-colored, pagoda-like roofs. First proposed seven years ago, the temple was the target of some bitter community opposition. Critics contended that its imposing size would overburden the community's streets.

But much of the local opposition has disappeared as the $15-million complex, under construction for two years, has taken shape on the Hacienda Boulevard site. Some of those attending Sunday's ceremonies were wide-eyed neighbors, who strolled around the central courtyard, admiring the exotic scene, with its bright daubs of colors on the eaves of the buildings and decorative panels with lotus flower designs hanging from the cornices.

For members of the San Gabriel Valley's growing Asian community, the temple complex is obviously a source of great pride. "It's gorgeous," said Grace Tsao, a senior at Diamond Bar High School, who was serving as a volunteer usher for the event. "I'm literally in love with this temple."

She said that she had positioned herself near the entrance to the main temple during a ribbon-cutting ceremony that morning. "I was standing right there, and my whole body was literally shaking," she said.

"There is so much in this country for material needs," said Huey-Min Yu, an accountant who is also the vice president of the American Buddhist Youth Organization. "Now there is something for the spiritual side. We need to provide space to think and see."

Leaders of the Buddhist community stressed community service and the "American spirit."

Hsing, speaking in Mandarin to a group of elderly Taiwanese, spoke admiringly of the American ability to work cooperatively toward constructive goals, said a translator. Hing-Kuang Shih, the abbess of the Buddhist monastery, talked about the temple's plans to be of service to the surrounding community.

"We are very happy that the people (in Hacienda Heights) can use our place," she said through a translator.

The temple complex will not be completed until November, when it will be host for the 16th conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, whose members are leaders of most of the world's national Buddhist churches. The November conference in Hacienda Heights will be the first of its kind ever to be held outside of Asia.

Electrical wiring and gas lines have yet to be installed in some buildings, said Stephen Frank, the Buddhist organization's American spokesman. Concrete must also be laid in the driveway and landscaping completed, he added.

Sunday's ceremonies, attended by celebrants from as far away as Guam, the Philippines and Taiwan, were held with a one-day temporary-use permit, Frank said. "The event was planned two years ago, and many came here on charter package deals which were paid for far in advance," he said.

Completion ceremonies will be held in November, just before the beginning of the international conference.

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