Pluralism Project Research Archive: “Religious Liberty in Law and Practice: Vietnamese Home Temples in California and the First Amendment”
Researcher: Chloe Breyer
Back in 1991, the house on Bixby Street looked just like all the other ranch-style homes in this residential neighborhood of Garden Grove in Orange County, California. It was a one-story house, set slightly back from the street, with a two-car garage and a driveway. The cars sometimes spilled into the front yard. The only thing which set it apart was the Buddhist flag of yellow, red, blue, white and orange hanging in the living room window.
But at the door, the similarity of this house to its suburban neighbors ended. Just inside, there was always a pile of shoes, left by worshippers and guests as they entered the temple. To the right what was once a large living-room had become the Buddha hall, with an altar bearing the seated image of the Buddha along with offering of flowers, fruit, candles, and incense. Next to this was the family memorial altar, bearing photographs of the beloved dead. In this community, many are remembered. There are the family members lost in the long war in Vietnam, the friends and family who died as boat people fleeing from Vietnam, and the many who have died here in America since arriving as refugees since 1975.
In the adjoining kitchen, preparations were always being made for a community supper or for the newcomers to Garden Grove who needed hospitality and a place to stay. The tea pot was constantly emptied and filled again. On the back patio, there were eight picnic tables and a blackboard set up for weekly classes. A “meditation walk” wound through the bushes of the backyard.
This was Chua Lien Hoa in 1991. Chua means, simply, temple. Lien Hoa is the lotus flower, which blossoms beautifully on top of the pond, but which has its roots in the mud below the waters. This “Lotus Flower Temple” on Bixby Street was one of dozens of Vietnamese “home temples” in the Orange County area. Though considerably transformed today, it was and still is typical of the temples serving the religious needs of a Vietnamese population which numbers over 80,000 in the Westminister and Garden Grove areas of Orange County. Its story reveals both rifts and bridges in the Vietnamese religious encounter with America. In its early life in the1980s there were tensions with the neighbors over parking and noise, and tensions with city hall over zoning regulations. The issues were resolved only by appeal to the courts. Finally, from the mud of controversy, a new Lotus Flower Temple was born, right in the spacious backyard of this suburban home.
In Vietnam, as in many Buddhist countries, the monastery and the temple are a single unit. The temple is also the residence of a monk or monks. There might be a full monastery in cities, while in small towns, only one or two monks would live in the temple. The worship life of the community is not separate from the parsonage as is the common American pattern. As Nguyen Trong Nho, lawyer for the Buddhist temple, put it, “The nature of Buddhism is to be close to the people. This means that in Vietnam there was a small temple in every village. When you talk about Buddhism, it means a small temple in the middle of a community where a monk is available as a kind of spiritual counselor all the time, so that people can come over and talk to someone in the middle of the night if they have some kind of an emergency and a relative dies. The temple has to be small and close to the village—not big and glorious like many Christian churches here.”
When a monk named Venerable Thich Chon Thanh moved to Bixby Street, he was supported by a small group of Buddhists. During the week, a few people would come to his temple on a daily basis; on the weekends, the community was considerably larger. There were services in the temple room. The chanting of scriptures was amplified on the speaker system, classes were held on the patio, and community meals were held in the backyard. On the three big festival days of the year—the Vietnamese New Year, the Buddha’s Birthday, and the Vietnamese “Mother’s Day” called Vu Lan—there would suddenly be as many as two or three hundred people at the temple. Funerals and memorials for the dead would also be attended by large crowds.
Soon, complaints from the neighborhood began to pour into the police department and the code enforcement office. There was too much traffic for such a residential area, and since there was inadequate parking, cars lined the neighboring streets. There were loudspeakers in the backyard during the festivals and just too much noise for some neighbors. The temple did not have a conditional use permit.
Tensions rose in the neighborhood. On the Buddha’s birthday in June 1991, the code enforcement officers arrived during the day-long ceremonies, closed down the temple, and sent everyone home. During subsequent hearings for obtaining a conditional use permit, the court set a cap of twenty people permitted to be present in the temple at any one time. But Thich Chon Thanh said he could not tell people they may not enter the temple because there were already twenty people inside. When two temporarily homeless Vietnamese refugees came to the temple, he let them live for a time in the garage and for this was placed on probation. As he said, “As a Buddhist priest I see my duty to everyone to open my door to shelter them when they ask for a shelter, to give them a meal when I have things to eat and they do not.”
Some of the neighbors’ complaints were matters of nuisance, but there were legal questions as well. According to city code, a church or religious organization in Garden Grove must be located on a minimum of one acre of land and have a parking space for every five seats. In December of 1991, the code enforcement office filed a civil suit in Garden Grove on behalf of several of the neighbors asking for an injunction against activities at the temple. The hearings on the injunction began a process of dialogue between the temple, the city, the neighbors, and the code enforcement office.
The issues were many, not just for Lien Hoa Temple, but for as many as thirty small temples in Orange County. At the time the civil suit was filed only one legal temple was under construction in Garden Grove, but more than a dozen home temples were in violation of the zoning requirements. None had a full acre of land. Neighborhood residents were concerned with noise, with parking, and with the incompatibility of the temple and the neighborhood. The Vietnamese Buddhists were concerned about the freedom to practice their religious ways in a new environment where the laws seemed to be constructed with Christian churches in mind.
The monk and his new community simply could not afford an acre of land in Garden Grove. A church like the United Church of Christ might be built on a whole acre of land a block down Bixby Street. But the Vietnamese temple was smaller, and its pattern of use was such that only a few times a year would the crowd be unsuitably large.
A code enforcement officer suggested that using an old warehouse or commercial property would avoid problems, but this would have altered the structure of Vietnamese Buddhist religious life. The question was, should Thich Chon Thanh and other monks live in a warehouse, rather than in a neighborhood? The very term “home temple” was coined by city officials, and clearly stemmed from the difficulty of deciding whether these were residences or temples. This “either-or” developed out of a more common Judeo-Christian pattern of religious life in which home and temple were separated. In Vietnamese Buddhist culture, they were not separated. How would the city cope with assuring religious liberty for people with a new pattern of religious life?
The dialogue was fruitful, though long. The plans drawn up for the temple’s expansion were carefully reviewed by both the city and the temple committee. Though it covered not quite one acre, the city agreed that a small temple could be built behind the current ranch-style residence. There was not enough parking, but the front yard would be transformed into a parking lot. On festival occasions, the temple could use the parking lot of the U.C.C. church down the street. Step by step, both the city and the temple made their compromises.
On May 14, 1995, the day of the Buddha’s 2539th Birthday, the new Lien Hoa Temple was dedicated—a small but beautiful structure built in the backyard of the house on Bixby Street. Though it was a Sunday, and Mother’s Day at that, the church offered its parking lot to the overflowing crowd. The mayor, the chairman of the code enforcement office, the lawyers for both sides, and neighbors were all present, along with hundreds of members of the Buddhist community. Mayor Paul Brockwater cut the red ribbon and said, “The Buddha taught harmony to his people, to work with their fellow man. Today, the Buddha would be very happy with the Vietnamese community in Southern California. Congratulations to all of you for putting your temple together and making it a beautiful asset for our community.”
Reverend Holland, minister in the U.C.C. Church said, “As your neighbors, we are delighted to share this community with you. As both Buddhists and Christians we want to work together for peace and harmony in our neighborhoods. We celebrate birth of Christ at Christmas and you celebrate the birth of Buddha today. Both Buddha and Jesus represent for us truth, light, beauty, harmony, and tranquillity. In a world in which there is so much violence and disharmony, I pledge to you that we will work together as spiritual people so that our community can become a place where we can live together in harmony and raise our children.”
The Vietnamese lawyer, Mr. Nho, spoke for the whole Buddhist community when he said, “This is a small Buddhist temple, but the dedication of this temple is a giant step forward for the harmony of our neighborhood. It symbolizes one thing that is important for all of us—that people of different backgrounds, of different ethnicity, and of different religious beliefs can live together and resolve our differences in the spirit of understanding.”
The neighbors had their turn at the microphone as well. One woman put it simply: “Thank you for welcoming me to the temple. I also welcome you to the neighborhood. I am very happy to share neighborhood with you folks.”