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Visit to Vietnamese Buddhist Community Is Woman’s Dream Come True

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Many Buddhists only dream of seeing the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, in person.

Having had this opportunity three times, Catherine Phuong Dung Lam of Huntington Beach nurtured a much grander ambition: to bring the 1989 Nobel laureate to Southern California’s Vietnamese Buddhist community.

Today, Lam’s wish comes true. As part of his 1997 visit to the United States, the Dalai Lama will speak to Vietnamese Buddhists at Cal State Long Beach, a historic moment for the expatriate community.

The Dalai Lama is known and loved in the Buddhist community the world over. But the Vietnamese see in him a reflection of themselves: political exiles whose country was taken over by a Communist regime.

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Today’s event is sponsored by the Vietnamese Federation of Buddhist Churches in America and the Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Congress in the United States of America. But it would not have been possible, group leaders say, without Lam, who approached them with the idea.

Further, Lam and her husband, Ngoc Hoai Phuong Nguyen, are doing most of the preparation for the Dalai Lama’s sermon.

“When she first came to us with the idea of having his holiness speak to the community, I thought it was too difficult and almost impossible an undertaking,” said the Venerable Thich Chon Thanh, vice president of the church federation. “But she was so excited and so focused and so positive that it could be done.

“In truth, without her, this would not have happened,”

Lam and Nguyen first heard the Dalai Lama speak at a 1991 conference on Tibetan Buddhism in New York City.

“He’s such a humble person, modest and kind, and I just felt so at peace, so loved, in his presence,” Lam, 45, said this week from her beauty supply boutique in Westminster’s Little Saigon. “I was so moved, so thankful, and felt so blessed, I just thought, if only others could feel what I was feeling. If only other Vietnamese Buddhists could have the same opportunity.

“It would mean so much to them, I knew, especially because of the affinity we have for him and the fact that he advocates for human rights and democracy for the politically oppressed.”

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Tibet was an independent nation until 1950, when Chinese Communist troops marched through the country’s unprotected borders and put it under Chinese rule. In 1959, the Tibetans revolted and the Dalai Lama and 80,000 of his followers fled to India and elsewhere.

In exile, the Dalai Lama has advocated Tibet’s independence through nonviolence. Vietnamese Buddhists see in his efforts their own dreams for democracy in Vietnam, which fell to Communism in 1975.

Lam, who was among the wave of Vietnamese refugees that escaped by boat in 1980, knew his presence would have special meaning to the Buddhist emigres.

“Realistically, though, I knew I was just an ordinary person and there was no way I could bring his holiness here on my own,” she said.

So she approached the area’s two largest coalitions of Vietnamese Buddhist monks, assuring them that she and her husband would handle organizational work if they would lend their names and reputation to the effort. They wrote the Dalai Lama in 1994, asking that he grant their community a spiritual meeting.

“His secretary wrote back, saying his holiness was very interested in the Vietnamese community but unfortunately his itinerary to America was booked that year,” Lam said. “But it gave me a small hope because it said we could do something like that one day in the future.”

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Lam and the Buddhist groups continued to correspond with the Dalai Lama’s exile government in India. “I wrote and wrote and wrote, and when I wasn’t writing, I prayed,” she said.

In 1995, the Dalai Lama’s secretary notified Lam and the Buddhist monks that he would speak to the Vietnamese community on his 1997 U.S. tour.

“Can you imagine my happiness that day?” Lam asked, grinning at the memory. “Words are too inadequate to describe.”

Lam and Nguyen, editor of a Vietnamese monthly magazine, Hon Viet, have been working nonstop to prepare for the visit, placing ads in local Vietnamese publications, printing thousands of fliers and brochures and raising $30,000 to host the event. For several months, Lam has hit the Vietnamese airwaves plugging the visit.

Monk Thich Chon Thanh marveled at Lam’s tireless efforts.

“Only someone who was fated to do this could achieve what she has achieved,” he said. “How many individuals can say they brought the Dalai Lama to a community?”

The Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak to the Vietnamese Buddhist community at 1:30 p.m. today at the Pyramid arena at Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd. The free event is open to the public and people are asked to arrive before 1 p.m. Children under 10 will not be admitted.

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