Hoa Thuong Thich Dao Quang holds a special reverence for Quan Am, the bodhisattva of compassion. She has guided him through his entire life. He is particularly grateful to her for helping him survive his seaborne exodus from Vietnam many years ago. For that reason, he named his temple after her. For the first few years after he arrived in California, Thich Dao Quang lived–as did many other newly-arrived refugee monks–at Chua Vietnam in Garden Grove. In the 1980s and 1990s, Chua Vietnam was a stopping-off point for monks transitioning into local society. But living there proved awkward for Thay Dao Quang. While at Chua Vietnam, he was in the position of being a resident monk at a temple governed by a lower-ranking abbot. He rapidly developed his own following and within a few years began to seek a place of his own. In 1999, with the support of lay disciples, he was able to found Chua Quan Am in a small house in Garden Grove on the edge of Little Saigon . He brought with him or gathered to him a number of newly ordained monks and nuns. Most of them are quite young and relatively well assimilated in terms of language, education, and professional life. A handful are older women, some widows, slowly beginning to detach themselves from the world. Together they have built a temple that, while small, is one of the most vigorous and highly regarded in Orange County.
The temple building is a small, one story ranch house typical of Garden Grove neighborhoods. The house is marked as a temple only by the small, bronze-colored Buddha under the front window and a Buddhist flag. In the backyard of the temple is an unused, but immaculate, swimming pool surrounded by a flowers and herbs and a fence. Near the pool, under an awning, is an outdoor altar to Quan Am, lit at night, decorated on holidays. Behind the garden wall at the rear of the house is a large public park that is sometimes used for large events. The garage fronting the street is a dining hall and used for meetings as well. The main sanctuary is the living room, running the breadth of the house from the front door (where stands an altar that dominates the room) back to a small sitting area where the monks and nuns study and speak with visitors.
Thay Dao Quang is accorded tremendous respect by his followers for his learning and experience and because, some say, he just acts as a monk should. That is, he gives attention and deference to Vietnamese Buddhist customs and ideals. Unlike some other monks in Orange County, he has little desire to rhetorically or practically “fit” Buddhism with “modern life” or “American values.” He is in his seventies, speaks no English, and has no immediate desire to reach out to the general American population (though he has a long-standing relationship with European American monks ordained under Vietnamese teachers). He is generally unconcerned with politics of any sort. While he counsels laity on a variety of personal issues, his focus is squarely on religious matters as he, and many who visit his temple, see them.
The temple’s sangha is unusually large relative to the small size of the building, but also in absolute numbers. Only a handful of temples in the area have as many monks and nuns. It is also diverse. Most temples are either monks’ temples or nuns’ temples. Chua Quan Am has a sangha for both, with several novices, and ages ranging from eighteen to over ninety. There are four or five monks associated with the temple, though that number can vary some as they move to other temples for study or to be near (or live with) family (not unusual in the U.S.). Two or three live in the house with Thay Dao Quang. Most of the nuns, numbering around six or seven, live in their own homes or in an apartment. Two novice nuns, however, because of their youth and promises made to their parents, live in the temple under the direct supervision of Thay Dao Quang. One has just finished high school and both are now enrolled at a local college. Life at the temple for the young nuns is rigorous and schedules are strict. Buddhist practice comes first, but school work is always given its due. Both nuns are very happy there. Both chose this life and they continue to do so. They had to convince their reluctant parents that they were ready for this step (not an easy thing to do) and then they had to find a temple and teacher. Now, despite the vicissitudes of youth and student life in America–or perhaps because of them–they are preparing themselves for full ordination.
Because the temple is not able to support all of its sangha through donations alone and because some members continue to have commitments outside the temple, several members of the sangha must work. One young monk, for example, took vows as a novice in his early twenties. Raised in the mid-west, he had to come to Orange County to work in business, but also to study Buddhism among the local temples. He found the right temple and, once Thay Dao Quang had agreed, was allowed to take ordination as a novice. Full ordination is still a year or two away. In the meantime, he has taken a less demanding job so that he can continue to support his family and pay off his student loans.
The master is particularly revered by older women in the community. A core group of a dozen or more support the temple with gifts of money, food, and time. They cook many of the meals (though the monks and nuns cook as well) and regularly attend the small evening and weekend services. Temple attendance in Orange County is heavily female and generally older. Chua Quan Am’s active supporters fit that pattern. But Thay Dao Quang clearly also appeals to Vietnamese Americans in search of a conservative, orthodox, devotional style of Buddhism. Even his younger supporters admit that Thay Dao Quang is different from other monks in the way that he relates to his followers and the American (and Vietnamese American) world around him. The worldly success and aspirations of his followers mean little to him–at least as compared to the Buddha’s dharma. He does things the right way, his followers say, the old way. And that is what they like about him. Despite a seemingly small group of supporters, the reputation of the temple and its master is robust and extensive. Attendance at major temple functions such as the Buddha’s birthday can number well into the hundreds, with many families and young people.
Activities and Schedule
Chua Quan Am is a Pure Land temple. Thay Dao Quang says that he has studied and taught Thien (Zen), but that it is simply too difficult a path for most people, especially in contemporary America. Thien requires time and intense effort, he believes. It takes more to get it right. Pure Land is not easy and takes longer to achieve the same goal, but its requirements–faith, prayer, study, good works, devotional chanting–fit with the lives most people lead. So Thay Dao Quang no longer teaches Thien. Still, Thay Dao Quang’s way seems hardly less exacting. His is an orthodox and formal Buddhism. Bowing, to him and to the Buddha, for example, along proper displays of respect to the texts and artifacts of Buddhist ritual and adherence to a strict ritual schedule are habitual parts of life at Chua Quan Am. Meals are ritualized but not solemn. Monks and nuns sit in a general order of rank, with lay people at the end of the table farthest from the master. There is little conversation. The Buddhist seasons and holidays are observed in what the temple’s sangha considers to be older and better ways, proper ways. The monks and nuns chant daily, several times a day, and even more during Ha, the summer, the season of monastic retreat. During Ha, the sangha cannot eat eat after noon. For dinner they “drink” a sweet, blended bean soup, which by all accounts rapidly grows tiresome. They also chant the names of the Buddha–all 10,000–at the rate of five hundred per day. In all of these practices, Thay Dao Quang is somewhat unusual (though not unique) in Vietnamese Orange County. Certainly there are other formal temples and many have regular, daily chanting. And monks and nuns in general are shown a great deal of respect. But amid the plethora of temples attempting to “reach out” to a population acclimated to life in America, Chua Quan Am stands out as a place of relative conservatism and rigor in practice, doctrine, and everyday temple manners .
Because of problems with complaints from the neighbors, the temple has had to curtail its busy schedule over the last two years. The city has threatened legal action if activity is not kept to an absolute minimum. The temple itself cannot accommodate large crowds, but neither can the street accommodate so many cars. While large events such as the Buddha’s birthday and Le Vu Lan, the ghost festival, have always been held at public (and, often, rented) venues around town, such as schools, parks, and auditoriums. But now the monks and nuns have had to cut back on daily and weekly services for lay people as well. At the moment (mid-2003) the temple is, by necessity, mostly a monastery. Rather than attempt to fight the city, Thay Dao Quang has currently chosen to look for another property. Real estate is expensive in Orange County and the search is expected to last some time.
While even funerals and memorial services have been cut back, the sangha of Chua Quan Am continue to chant sam hoi with lay people every other weekend. Sam hoi is the bi-monthly repentance ceremony, usually held on the new and full moons, but amended in Orange County to fit the American schedule. The monks and nuns also continue to host a small chanting service most Thursday evenings at 7:00 for a group of especially devoted followers. Chua Quan Am also sponsors a branch of Gia Dinh Phat Tu, literally translated as the Buddhist Family, but usually just referred to in English as “Buddhist youth group.” Gia Dinh Phat Tu is a world-wide Vietnamese Buddhist organization and many temples sponsor their activities. They meet every Sunday morning around 10:00, often in the park behind the temple. During their Sunday meetings, led by young adults, the young Buddhists learn about Buddhist doctrine and history as well as Vietnamese language and culture. They also put on regular cultural performances of singing, dancing, and skits, and organize and decorate for festivals and larger rituals. Such performances are the highlight of every temple celebration.
On a recent Tet eve (the night before the lunar year), despite some nervousness, Chua Quan Am opened its doors for a small number of people to gather and chant and receive a dharma lesson and a blessing. A few weeks later, the temple sponsored a pilgrimage, hanh huong, a Tet custom that appears to be mostly found in urban areas of Vietnam (at least in this form). It is considered to be auspicious to visit as many temples as possible over the Tet season (which lasts up to a month). One custom is to do so as a group, lead by a monk or nun. In the U.S., Vietnamese pilgrims buy tickets from the temple and go by motor coach. They generally travel out of there own area. In this case, the pilgrimage wound through part of Orange County to San Diego and back. They visited both Chinese and Vietnamese temples, both Thien and Pure Land. At each stop, the pilgrims were met by members of the local temple, usually offered food and drink, and given a dharma lesson or blessing. They also had the opportunity to pray, look around, take pictures, and chat with local Buddhists. One of the unspoken functions of hanh huong is that it is a way by which Buddhists claim a stake in the crazed California landscape. In this case, it allows a group of mostly female, mostly older worshipers to see the familiar across a stunningly diverse and strange region, and to see themselves throughout.
Chua Quan Am is typical of many temples in Orange County: it is situated in a small house, paid for by a core group of devoted followers, and centered on the teachings and leadership of a single person. Chua Quan Am also has one of the largest community of monks or nuns in the area, attracted by the master’s reputation for propriety and orthodoxy. Its struggles with the city have been especially hard on the temple, depriving it of much-needed energy and income and the temple’s fate in the short term seems to hang on their ability to raise sufficient funds to purchase a new venue for their work. But Thay Dao Quang’s reputation and his ability to reach members of the community are considerable. He continues to believe that life in America does not change the Buddha’s message or the way it should be communicated. Given the attractiveness of this message to many local Vietnamese–old and, sometimes, young–the prospects for Chua Quan Am seem strong.