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Buddha Incarnate Feasts on Student Life, Hamburgers

May 12, 1988|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

In a way that may still not make perfect sense to all of them, the students of Carroll Irwin's English class at Hoover High School were singularly blessed on Tuesday.

Her students were among those chosen to meet the incarnation of a Buddha.

"You know about the living Buddha?" asked the eminence's American host, Herman How-Man Wong, who had entered the classroom with a throng of visitors. "This gentleman here is one."

He pointed to surely the least imposing figure there, a tiny figure with crew-cut hair, a stubble of beard, clear plastic glasses and a red print shirt whose cuffs extended to his knuckles.

Thupten Nyima hardly noticed his own introduction. He does not speak English. And besides, he was looking through the viewfinder of a camera, taking a picture of the students.

An Asian student asked Wong if he could explain about life in the monasteries and the living Buddha.

"That's fairly complicated," Wong said. He gave it a try.

The answer, paraphrased, seemed to be that various manifestations of the Buddha take human form to communicate with humanity. The purpose of the living Buddha, he said, was to popularize the beliefs of Buddhism and help others enlighten themselves by quieting down their hearts and not being evil.

About Monastic Life

Wong said a living Buddha is selected by the entire community of a monastery, often after an extensive search for the one person who best represents the quality of the Buddha.

The living Buddha and four traveling companions, all eminent Tibetologists from Szechwan province of China, were on a cultural mission arranged by the China Exploration and Research Society, an Altadena-based group that conducts expeditions to research the ethnic groups of the fringe areas and deep interior of China.

Their five-day itinerary--including Disneyland, lunch with UC Irvine scholars at the Newport Bay Club and a shopping spree in the Glendale Galleria--brought them to Hoover High School to observe secondary education in America and experience lunch in a school cafeteria.

Flamboyant Teacher

Hoover landed in their plans through the influence of a flamboyant teacher, Pierre Odier, who has written a book on Alcatraz and led students on treks into the outback of West Central Africa and the Yucatan. Odier is vice president of the China Exploration and Research Society.

It occurred to him that Hoover would present an excellent picture of the interaction of the many ethnic groups living in America.

This was true, especially when the entourage stopped off in Ann Coughlin's advanced Spanish class and saw students raise their hands to show who was Armenian, Iranian, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Norwegian. They also stopped at the machine and auto shops, the soccer field and Odier's photography class.

There are no Tibetan students at Hoover, but three Chinese natives and a Vietnamese immigrant escorted the delegation, translating the many questions that flew in both directions.

One student asked the living Buddha whether he had suffered under the Cultural Revolution. He had, he said, just like everyone else.

The toughest questions came from a journalist working for Hoover's student newspaper, the Purple Press.

In a hammering style, John Suh dictated long, complex questions to translator Sharon Hsieh, asking, for example, what the Buddha thought of the disunity of the world's religions.

She listened to the answer but stopped a few words into her translation.

"I can't explain," she said. "It's too hard."

Later, Odier asked the students to lead the guests into the student cafeteria for a lunch of double-decker hamburgers.

"I want them to mingle with the students," Odier said with a sweep of the hand.

That, too, was hard. With one of his traveling companions, the living Buddha shuffled to a corner away from the cacophony and ate with few words while his companion made conversation in Chinese with their translator.

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