Blessings of Buddha : 5,000 Participate in Final Consecration of $25-Million Hillside Temple Complex
As a barrel-sized drum thumped out a slow beat and a large brass bell chimed solemnly, two dozen international Buddhist leaders stood in front of the main temple and chanted to the “Triple Gem,” the three principles of Buddhism.
The spiritual leaders were gathered recently for the final consecration of the Hsi Lai Temple, a group of ocher-roofed and red-pillared buildings on Hacienda Boulevard in Hacienda Heights, which is at last open for business after 10 years of planning and construction.
About 5,000 awed spectators, spilling out of the inner courtyard of the 15-acre complex, sat through three hours of chanting, songs, drum beats, incense burning and speeches by politicians.
The most stirring moment was the chanting of the holy men, from as far away as Bangladesh, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Nepal, as incense smoke billowed around them. They were celebrating Buddha’s teachings, the ordained followers of Buddhism and Buddha himself, which are combined in the concept of the “Triple Gem.”
“It was an incredible moment,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Michael Woo. “Sitting there at times, you could totally lose track of what country you were in.”
The Buddhist spiritual leaders had gathered in Hacienda Heights recently for the 16th conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists. It was the first time that the biennial conference had been held outside Asia.
The $25-million hillside temple complex, the largest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, can now begin its primary tasks of educating Americans about Buddhism, promoting compassion in the world and providing a refuge for Buddhist monks and nuns.
Although most of those who attended were members of the San Gabriel Valley’s burgeoning Asian community, the event seemed at times an incongruous blend of Far Eastern religious observance, Chinatown street festival and American pep rally.
The cosmopolitan nature of the event, whose participants included a high school band and drill team, was in keeping with the spirit of internationalism that had been emphasized by the Taiwanese founding group.
“The temple will bring the spiritual culture of the East to the material culture of the West,” said the Venerable Hsing Yun, 66, the Mandarin-speaking leader of the Fo Kuan Shan, the founding group whose American name is the International Buddhist Progress Society.
Hsing, dressed in a festive red gown and accompanied to the base of the temple steps by an attendant carrying a red parasol, spoke also of Buddhist themes in American life. “America is a society that promotes happiness for all of mankind,” said the spiritual leader, speaking through an interpeter. “Buddhism is the religion of compassion. That is why we establish a temple here.”
On a broad wooden platform in the central courtyard of the 10-building complex, fast-stepping members of the Chinese American Dance Group emulated a pair of dragons, with two sinuous trains of dancers carrying dragon canopies. Then the Los Altos High School Drill Team, in sequined uniforms, launched into a precision dance routine.
Processions of women in silky gowns carried fruit and incense offerings, and the Wilson High School Band from Hacienda Heights played “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
After the formalities, members of the audience drifted into the smoky interior of the main temple, where three 7-foot gilded Buddhas, meditating in the lotus position on a raised platform, gaze down omnisciently. It is easy to understand why the temple is called the Hall of Buddha: The image of the deity is replicated in 10,000 miniature lighted wall niches and in a tower of even tinier niches near the front altar.
The sight affected both the American-born visitors and the Asians, whose brief sojourn in the San Gabriel Valley has often been troubled by misunderstandings. As some knelt on the marble floor in prayer, others clustered at the base of the altar, thrusting sticks of burning incense into an urn.
Andrew Youpa, a University of California, Santa Barbara, student from Whittier, stood transfixed. “It’s kind of overwhelming,” said the philosophy student, who has been studying Buddhism. “It’s not the serene atmosphere that I thought I’d find, but of course this is the grand opening.”
One of the most elated guests was Anthony Yang, the Taiwanese architect who designed the complex, adapting traditional Chinese forms to American building codes. “Mission accomplished,” he said euphorically. “The feeling is unbelievable. A lot of people said mission impossible, but I say mission accomplished.”
Some neighbors of the temple complex had fought the project since the plans were announced in 1981. Critics said it would be too large for the residential area. The Buddhists pushed ahead, even when rumors circulated that the temple’s devotees would sacrifice animals and awaken the community with pre-dawn gongs. It was Yang who represented the Buddhists through six often-rancorous public hearings on the project.
But residents of Hacienda Heights seemed as impressed as anyone else at the event. “People were intimidated by it,” said one member of the Los Altos Drill Team, gesturing with awe at the ornate courtyard.
The temple may have been consecrated as far as the Buddhists are concerned, but it is yet to be consecrated by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. Technical Management Services Inc., the contractor on the construction job, received a 45-day temporary-occupancy permit from the county agency three weeks ago, just as the international conference was about to begin. But they have yet to receive permanent certification for the temple.
“There are some details to take care of,” said Carlo Paciulli, a manager for the construction company.
County inspectors are concerned, for example, about the unusual construction of the temple walls. Although workers have sprayed the Buddha niches with a fire-retarding chemical, the Buddhists must take other precautions as well, said Paciulli.
But there were plenty of auspicious signs that day, devotees pointed out. As the holy men, imposing figures in orange and mustard-brown robes, led their chant, a blustery cloud overhead dissipated and a blinding sun shone on the glazed-tile roofs of the complex.
Then a pair of large hawks appeared above the temple courtyard, wheeling in a tight circle for a few minutes before sailing away.