Young Vietnamese Americans study Buddhist holy texts and their parents’ native language on a Sunday morning at temple. They kneel, bow their heads and chant.
“The first generation is like that,” says Edward Nguyen, a board member at Bo De Temple and owner of Little Saigon restaurant in Upper Darby. “They stick together. Many generations later? We don’t know.”
Nguyen leads me on a tour of the temple at the corner of Washington Avenue and 13th Street, voice booming. A 1.4-ton bronze bell stands against the wall, imported from Vietnam. Around the corner, baseball-card-sized photos of the community’s deceased, including the white faces of men who fought for the U.S. Army in Vietnam, line the wall above an offering of sticky rice, tofu, broccoli and tea. Food for the living is served downstairs.
But the tranquil atmosphere belies more than a decade of turmoil at the temple, where merging Vietnamese Buddhist practices with the very different realities of life in the United States has been a messy process — one mired in disputes and litigation. Over the years, the temple community seems to have discovered that the type of institution they knew back in Vietnam — a top-down temple hierarchy helmed by a head monk, or abbot — might be something that just isn’t possible to replicate in this traffic-clogged corner of South Philadelphia.
Things at Bo De Temple came to a head last year. On July 30, 2011, police arrived to evict visiting monks and temple co-founder Thoa Thi Tran from the building.
Temple leaders alleged that Tran had conspired with monks affiliated with the Vietnamese American Unified Buddhist Congress (VAUBC), a national organization, to steal Bo De. Tran had transferred the temple’s deed from Philadelphia’s Asian American Buddhist Association (AABA), which had long controlled the temple, to the VAUBC on April 27, 2011. In court, they claimed the temple had agreed to cede the property in exchange for the VAUBC sending a new abbot to preside over the temple.
The aftermath of the dispute, which cut a deep rift into this 700-strong temple community, still weighs heavily.
Keeping the faith among Vietnamese immigrants — and it’s a large group: greater Philly is home to around 25,422 Vietnamese-born people, the region’s fifth-largest immigrant population according to 2010 census data — remains the foremost challenge.
Tran, for one, has washed her hands of the whole thing. “I do not want to be reminded about the dispute,” she told me. “Our religion teaches us to accept all situations that are given to us. ‘Nhuòng nhin’ and ‘nhân’ are the two words Buddhism teaches me. It means to compromise and be patient.”
On Jan. 5, 1995, the AABA bought the building that houses Bo De Temple from the Philadelphia Clef Club of the Performing Arts, which was founded in 1966 by members of the black musicians union Local 274, which included John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Nina Simone among its members.
The trouble started almost immediately.
On March 3, 1995, a mentally ill homeless man named Lan Ngoc Nguyen (no relation to Edward Nguyen) walked into the Philadelphia Police Department’s 3rd District headquarters covered in blood. “I want to report a homicide,” he told police. Nguyen had walked eight blocks from the Bo De Temple, where he had stabbed a monk named Thich Hanh Man 36 times.
Man, who had helped found Bo De, allowed Nguyen to live in the temple, where he fed him and provided him with religious instruction.
It was a bizarre news story: Lan Ngoc Nguyen told police that members of a Chinese street gang called the Flying Dragons had informed him that Man had raped his sister. (The woman in question turned out not to be his sister and denied having been raped.) Nguyen said he was also inspired by an Inquirer story about a sexual-harassment suit filed by DJ Lady Love against radio legend Jerry Blavat.
After the crime-scene tape was cleared away, the temple faced a straightforward but vexing task: naming a new head monk. So in 1997, the temple joined the VAUBC.
But temple president Tam Tran (no relation to Thoa Thi Tran) says the temple’s relationship with the VAUBC began to sour in 2007, when the organization failed to assist them in a legal dispute. And eventually someone — maybe Thoa Thi Tran, maybe VAUBC brass — got the idea to transfer the property ownership.
The AABA filed a lawsuit to recover the property last year. But that July, VAUBC monks allegedly locked out temple members and hired guards to block access. The VAUBC, citing the 1995 murder, contended that when the temple was closed at night, “the monks locked the doors from the inside so no one could rob or harm them.”
While the two parties wrangled in court, the fight continued inside the temple. The VAUBC alleged that AABA members “interrupted Defendants’ peaceful religious ceremonies, shouted at Defendants’ Monks, called them names, threatened them, and stopped the services.” Police were called to the scene four times. On Aug. 25, 2011, Judge Paul Panepinto set out a schedule, allotting each group specific times at the temple. “It’s not a religious matter,” says Tam Tran. “It’s a matter of ownership.” In the end, the AABA prevailed in court. But to this day, no one can quite explain what started it all.
Tam Tran speculates that Thoa Thi Tran may have had reason to be angry. After serving as temple president for 16 years, he says, she was asked to step aside. Tam Tran was elected president in March 2010. So maybe Thoa Thi Tran simply didn’t want to cede control: “They call her iron lady,” he says. “She likes to be in charge of everything.”
VAUBC president Tich Vien Ly says it was all just an internal schism within the Bo De community. Members divided into “two groups, [and] one group want[ed] to donate the temple to Congress. And one group didn’t want to offer that temple to the Congress. We don’t need any temple because we have a lot of temples. We don’t have enough Buddhist monks to help them.”
The echoes of this conflict reach far beyond South Philadelphia. Tam Tran sees a pattern in the behavior of the VAUBC, which is still fighting for control of the Pho Quang Temple in Salt Lake City. As with Bo De, the deed was transferred to VAUBC’s name; and, as happened here, some congregants were locked out last October.
“This may be [about] money,” says Hoa Vo, a leader of Pho Quang. But it’s also about “religious abuse. … A lot of Buddhists often look at the monk, and trust."
Tam Tran points out that Thich Chanh Lac, a highly placed monk in the VAUBC who was involved in the Philly legal dispute, has seen his reputation tarnished. In 1999, Lac was charged with sexually assaulting two teenage sisters at his Denver temple, though charges were dropped because of insufficient evidence. His supporters, though, countered the accusations with a smear campaign, accusing the girls of being agents in a communist plot to discredit and kill Lac. The girls’ family later won a $4.8 million defamation settlement against the temple.
“He’s a special one,” Tam Tran jokes. But accusations of communist sympathies in the Vietnamese-American community are no laughing matter. “If someone in our free community becomes labeled a communist, it’s very dangerous,” he says. Such accusations have led to protests and even assassinations. And it’s hard to separate religion and politics: The VAUBC is the U.S. branch of an outspoken religious group that’s been outlawed by the communist government in Vietnam.
At Bo De, though, peace seems to have finally arrived.
Monks from a nearby temple visit occasionally for ceremonial purposes. But the door is closed to a new abbot.
“We’re still scared of the monks that come here,” Tam Tran says. “Now the congregation runs the temple.”
VAUBC president Thich Vien Ly agrees: “We learn from experience about the problem. We don’t accept any offer [of] property to the Congress no more.”