Good Neighbor : Hemisphere’s Largest Buddhist Temple Wins Over Residents
Standing on the redwood deck in the back of his home in the hills, John Healy can see the sunlight striking the ocher, pagoda-style roofs of the largest Buddhist temple complex in the Western Hemisphere.
When plans to build the Hsi Lai Temple on 15 open acres in Hacienda Heights were announced in 1981, Healy was among a large group of residents who sought unsuccessfully to block the project. Today, Healy still grumbles about a retaining wall along the perimeter of his back yard, but says he has learned to live with the temple and its members.
“They’re good neighbors. We see them on the street, and wave and say hello,” said Healy, 60, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.
His reaction is typical. More than a decade after they waged a bitter and emotional fight against the monastery, many Hacienda Heights residents have come to accept the temple as an integral part of their community.
Nestled in the hills overlooking Hacienda Heights, the Hsi Lai Temple--its name means “coming to the West”--has about 20,000 members, most of them from the San Gabriel Valley. It is one of more than 50 branches of Fo Kuang Shan, Taiwan’s largest Buddhist organization.
On any given day, hundreds of worshipers and passersby clamber up the steps to the temple’s main hall as nuns and monks in red robes stroll across a courtyard surrounded by ornate buildings. There is a hint of jasmine incense in the air, and the tranquillity of the scene seems to transport visitors far away from the traffic on nearby Hacienda Boulevard.
The temple has not always been this peaceful. Twelve years ago, while the complex was under construction, the battle against it was fierce. Residents charged that it was too big for a neighborhood of single-family homes, that nearby roads would be overwhelmed by traffic and parking, and that the traditional Chinese architectural style would not fit in.
Many of the fears were groundless. Some residents asked about animal sacrifices--Buddhists don’t do them--and noise from pre-dawn gongs and chanting. Others feared a religious cult that would try to entrap their children.
But Jeffrey Yann, a 50-year-old civil engineer who is president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., said many residents who were against the temple--including him--have undergone a change of heart.
“At one time, a majority of the board opposed the temple. I think now it is regarded as a positive influence on the community,” he said.
Yann said he had been concerned about traffic when the temple was proposed, but now, “I’ve definitely changed my mind.
“It’s a major religious facility, a good influence, and I’m pleased it’s here,” he said.
Local residents say it is a story of how people of different cultures--Anglo, Asian and Latino--are learning to live together in a bedroom community that has seen substantial demographic changes in the last decade.
Although temple opponents denied racism, many acknowledged that an underlying concern was the growing number of Asian-Americans moving into their unincorporated town of 52,000.
“I think it was a racial issue, and it was unfortunate,” said Bob Manuele, a 12-year resident of the town and a supporter of the temple from the beginning.
According to the U.S. Census, the number of Asian-American residents in Hacienda Heights more than doubled in the 1980s, to more than 13,000 by 1990. Meanwhile, the Anglo population fell from 60% to less than 40%, and the number of Latinos grew slowly to make up about a third of the community.
Donna Wedell, a part-time teacher and mother of three who was recently elected president of the local PTA council, said there was a lot of anxiety among residents about these changes, and that many people worried that Hacienda Heights would lose its close-knit feel.
“People really weren’t sure where the community was going to go. We were worried that the whole community was going to change, and we wondered how people would get along,” said Wedell, who has lived in Hacienda Heights for 15 years.
“I probably wasn’t as accepting 10 years ago as I am now. (The changes) bothered me before, and I had to relearn some things,” she said. “But spending time with (Asians-Americans), and spending time with the kids, you understand the differences better.”
Bud Welch, president of the local Kiwanis Club, said he also originally opposed the temple project, but now considers it “an enhancement” of Hacienda Heights.
“I think it’s a very attractive structure,” said Welch, 61. “It was nice how, after it was all done, they invited everyone in the community to come and sit down and get to know them.”
Indeed, much of the change has been fostered by the temple, which reached out beyond its base in the
Chinese community, making donations to local charities and inviting residents to its annual Chinese New Year celebration and other events.
The temple also offers the use of its conference rooms and auditoriums to community groups, hosting events ranging from the annual Teacher of the Year banquet to the American Heart Assn.’s local leadership conference.
“At first people didn’t understand us, so we had to show them what Buddhism is about,” said the Rev. Man Tao, one of the nuns at the temple. “It is our duty to make people comfortable and happy. We have a responsibility to serve the public.”
As residents have learned about Chinese culture and Buddhism, the 50 monks and nuns at the temple have in turn learned to appreciate Western traditions. “The nuns and monks here are really more tolerant to new ideas (than their counterparts overseas),” said the Rev. Hui Hsuen, a monk who runs the temple’s English program.
Hsuen said many of the monks and nuns had never been exposed to Western culture before, and that they have developed an understanding of concepts such as equality between men and women as well as the details of meeting county building codes.
Ken Manning, a real estate developer on the Board of Education, said the temple’s efforts to get involved in Hacienda Heights and open its doors to the public have impressed many residents.
“They have really bent over backward to be good neighbors, and I think most people have realized that they want to be a part of our community. People have realized that there’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
As more Asian-American residents, many of whom are not members of the temple, participate in local activities such as the annual Fourth of July parade and the PTA, resentment against the newcomers has subsided.
Residents said Asian-Americans, Anglos and Latinos in Hacienda Heights have worked together on campaigns to stop a local elementary school from being shut down, to close the nearby La Puente landfill, and to incorporate Hacienda Heights as a city.
“I don’t hear people speaking in a derogatory way toward Asians anymore. The things that you used to hear--about protecting our area and not getting taken over by Buddhists--you don’t hear that now,” said Manuele, who heads the No on the Dump Committee, the group fighting to close the La Puente landfill.
The Hsi Lai Temple is one of that committee’s biggest supporters, providing meeting space and raising money for the campaign. The temple has also sent representatives to testify against the landfill at public hearings.
“We’re forced to work together because we have common community problems,” Manning said. “And as a result, we begin to understand each other better.”
There are still signs of friction among the town’s ethnic groups. Many people complain about storefront signs written only in Chinese. Board of Education members regularly disagree on funding the English as a Second Language program. And PTA officers and leaders in the Chinese community acknowledge that because of cultural barriers many immigrant Asian-American parents do not volunteer for school-related activities.
In addition, some of the most outspoken critics of the Hsi Lai Temple have not tempered their opposition--and they say they never will.
“It’s way too large for where it’s been put. It’s a tourist attraction, and you’ve got buses going up there all day long,” said Sharon Pluth, a 33-year resident and longtime opponent of the temple.
Pluth, 60, said it has never been a racial or religious issue, and she is not moved by the temple’s activities. “I don’t care what they’re doing good. I can’t see it doing good for the community because it is still breaking zoning laws.”
Wil Briesemeister, a local attorney who once led the fight against the temple as president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., said some people will never be happy with the temple, but many others are working to bridge the gap between the races.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there,” he said. “If nothing else comes out of the temple, I would hope that it has served as a catalyst for interaction among the cultures.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.