Buddha’s Lunch

Drive down Hacienda Boulevard, turn into what looks like a comfy neighborhood of split-levels, and you will find that you have arrived, instead, at Terra Incognita.

That’s what Robert L. Suettinger called it. Suettinger is a China specialist with the National Security Council. On a fateful day last spring, Suettinger received a query from Vice President Al Gore’s office asking about a visit the vice president was planning to this very spot.

The query said that one “Hsing Yun” had invited Gore to attend a luncheon at the “Hsi Lai Temple in LA.” Never mind that the temple is not located in L.A. but 30 miles to the east. The writer wanted to know if such a visit would pose problems for the veep “from the perspective of U.S.-China relations.”

Suettinger replied, “This is terra incognita to me. Certainly from the perspective of Taiwan/China balancing, this would clearly be a Taiwan event. . . . I guess my reaction would be one of great, great caution.


“They may have a hidden agenda.”

As you probably have guessed, they were talking about that luncheon. The one arranged by the now-defrocked John Huang of the Democratic National Committee, which Gore attended in spite of Suettinger’s warnings. The one where $140,000 somehow passed hands from a group of Buddhists to the DNC and eventually set off the latest downward spiral in presidential campaign ethics.

The memos come courtesy of the White House, which released them last week to shore up the sagging nomination of Anthony Lake as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Whether they will succeed in that purpose remains to be seen, but the exchange between Suettinger and the veep’s office reveal something else most intriguing: namely, how mystifying the new, immigrant worlds of America--and particularly of Southern California--remain to those in and out of political power.


Because, truly, Suettinger was right. For most of us, the Hsi Lai Temple remains deepest Terra Incognita. For example, if you picture the Gore luncheon taking place at a modest temple built for a few humble monks, think again.

The Hsi Lai Temple bursts from its surroundings in residential Hacienda Heights like an Asian theme park. It is huge and bustling. Paper lanterns of the brightest reds and yellows hang from every gateway. The tile roofs curl upward at the ends in old-time Chinese fashion, looking for all the world like they were borrowed from a Charlie Chan movie set.

Brochures say the temple is the largest Buddhist monastery in the western world. And when you see it, you believe it. Big money was spent here.

If the lavish Presbyterian and Baptist churches of the 1950s were statements of the white hegemony of the time, the Hsi Lai Temple amounts to a similar kind of statement for the ‘90s. It says to the old, white hierarchy, “Check your back. Somebody is gaining on you.”

In this case, that somebody is the Venerable Master Hsing Yun mentioned in the Gore query. A smiling, rotund, Buddha-like figure himself, Hsing Yun operates his Fo Kwang Shan church out of Taiwan. Its worldwide holdings have been valued at half a billion dollars.

Hsing Yun apparently grew up poor in mainland China and then migrated to Taiwan where he discovered that Buddhism could be transformed into a growth industry.

In the United States, Hsing Yun was shrewd enough to build the Hsi Lai Temple in the San Gabriel Valley, the new capital of the Chinese American upper class. And, sure enough, the temple has become the showy centerpiece for well-to-do Asians in the valley. And Hsing Yun has become a kind of Buddhist Oral Roberts.

But what does Hsing Yun want? That question hangs over not only Hsing Yun but the new immigrant worlds themselves, particularly those from Asia. As Suettinger wrote in advance of the Gore luncheon, “They may have a hidden agenda.” But what agenda? Suettinger didn’t know. Nor did anyone else in the administration.


The cultural gap is that big. The immigrant world remains that mysterious.


In another, hilarious exchange revealed in the White House memos, a staff member frets about the possible release of photos showing the president with some Chinese American entrepreneurs who had donated major money to his campaign.

She was fretting because she had learned that some of the people in the photos might be “Chinese gurus.” But she wasn’t sure. She writes to Suettinger and asks him whether “we want these photos floating around.”

In other words, she was saying, “Who are these people?” She didn’t have a clue. They had dumped a truckload of money at DNC headquarters, but otherwise they were aliens from another world. Unknowable.

For what it’s worth, Venerable Master Hsing Yun appears to have only the standard venal motives for slipping $140K to the vice president. Despite his billion-dollar church empire, he has shown no proclivities toward cultism and does not appear to thirst after an army of Moonies.

And the Hsi Lai Temple has shown itself to be a good neighbor in Hacienda Heights. No loud parties. No drum beating or chanting after hours.

Beyond that, I cannot say. After all, it’s Terra Incognita.