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Monks Vow to Be Quiet Neighbors, Get City OK


LONG BEACH — The Buddhist monks who asked the city's permission to enlarge their monastery last week eat one meal a day, forsake all worldly possessions and hardly ever go outside. But the Long Beach Planning Commission, ever cautious, had a few questions just the same.

"Will there be use of trumpets?"

"Do you anticipate placing a very large Buddha that would extend two stories high?"

"I was just wondering, are they going out shopping in Belmont Shore?"

The commissioners have nothing against religious freedom. But it is their duty to protect the quality of life in Long Beach and this was, after all, their first encounter with the Dharma Realm Buddhist Assn., an order of robed Chinese monks who survive on donated vegetarian food and spend hours a day in a state of worship.

The monks recently purchased the Carmelite nunnery on East Ocean Boulevard, which they intend to use as a religious home, even keeping the Virgin Mary garden statue to which local residents often bring flowers and other tokens of adoration.

Although the secluded East Ocean Boulevard convent offered the perfect monastic setting, the chapel proved too small to accommodate a 12-foot image of Buddha and still allow some 40 monks to lie prone in the traditional worship that dates back to the 6th Century, said Helen Woo, a lay member.

"If we were not permitted to do the remodeling . . . thus we would be burdened with an extreme hardship in not being able to practice our monastic way of life in its normal sense," one monk implored in a letter to the city.

The project, which involved little more than knocking out part of a wall, may have been smiled upon by Buddha, but it also required the creation of 20 parking spaces called for by the city code. And in Long Beach, some would say, it is easier to move a mountain than to persuade the city to waive parking restrictions.

"Are there going to be many guests?" Planning Commissioner Elbert Segelhorst asked cautiously at a hearing last week where two Buddhist lay members appeared on behalf of the reclusive monks.

The commissioners soon discovered that the newcomers may be the most perfect neighbors Long Beach could hope to acquire. Not only do they require no parking, they forsake cars. Not only do they solicit no donations, many refuse to touch money. Not only do they never blow trumpets, they spend most of their hours translating the Sutra, the Buddhist equivalent of the Bible, from Chinese to English.

"Buddha spent 50 years teaching and Jesus spent three, so you can imagine the number of pages they have to translate," said Doug Powers, one of the lay members.

"The monks teach love of country, love of parents and the importance of being a good person. Once people get the spirit of what they're doing, they usually welcome them."

He was right about that. In the end, the Planning Commission approved the expansion unanimously.

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