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Good Neighbor : Hemisphere's Largest Buddhist Temple Wins Over Residents

August 08, 1993|PHILIP P. PAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHEAST AREA — Standing on the redwood deck in the back of his home in the hills, John Healy can see the sunlight striking the ocher, pagoda-style roofs of the largest Buddhist temple complex in the Western Hemisphere.

When plans to build the Hsi Lai Temple on 15 open acres in Hacienda Heights were announced in 1981, Healy was among a large group of residents who sought unsuccessfully to block the project. Today, Healy still grumbles about a retaining wall along the perimeter of his back yard, but says he has learned to live with the temple and its members.

"They're good neighbors. We see them on the street, and wave and say hello," said Healy, 60, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years.

His reaction is typical. More than a decade after they waged a bitter and emotional fight against the monastery, many Hacienda Heights residents have come to accept the temple as an integral part of their community.

Nestled in the hills overlooking Hacienda Heights, the Hsi Lai Temple--its name means "coming to the West"--has about 20,000 members, most of them from the San Gabriel Valley. It is one of more than 50 branches of Fo Kuang Shan, Taiwan's largest Buddhist organization.

On any given day, hundreds of worshipers and passersby clamber up the steps to the temple's main hall as nuns and monks in red robes stroll across a courtyard surrounded by ornate buildings. There is a hint of jasmine incense in the air, and the tranquillity of the scene seems to transport visitors far away from the traffic on nearby Hacienda Boulevard.

The temple has not always been this peaceful. Twelve years ago, while the complex was under construction, the battle against it was fierce. Residents charged that it was too big for a neighborhood of single-family homes, that nearby roads would be overwhelmed by traffic and parking, and that the traditional Chinese architectural style would not fit in.

Many of the fears were groundless. Some residents asked about animal sacrifices--Buddhists don't do them--and noise from pre-dawn gongs and chanting. Others feared a religious cult that would try to entrap their children.

But Jeffrey Yann, a 50-year-old civil engineer who is president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., said many residents who were against the temple--including him--have undergone a change of heart.

"At one time, a majority of the board opposed the temple. I think now it is regarded as a positive influence on the community," he said.

Yann said he had been concerned about traffic when the temple was proposed, but now, "I've definitely changed my mind.

"It's a major religious facility, a good influence, and I'm pleased it's here," he said.

Local residents say it is a story of how people of different cultures--Anglo, Asian and Latino--are learning to live together in a bedroom community that has seen substantial demographic changes in the last decade.

Although temple opponents denied racism, many acknowledged that an underlying concern was the growing number of Asian-Americans moving into their unincorporated town of 52,000.

"I think it was a racial issue, and it was unfortunate," said Bob Manuele, a 12-year resident of the town and a supporter of the temple from the beginning.

According to the U.S. Census, the number of Asian-American residents in Hacienda Heights more than doubled in the 1980s, to more than 13,000 by 1990. Meanwhile, the Anglo population fell from 60% to less than 40%, and the number of Latinos grew slowly to make up about a third of the community.

Donna Wedell, a part-time teacher and mother of three who was recently elected president of the local PTA council, said there was a lot of anxiety among residents about these changes, and that many people worried that Hacienda Heights would lose its close-knit feel.

"People really weren't sure where the community was going to go. We were worried that the whole community was going to change, and we wondered how people would get along," said Wedell, who has lived in Hacienda Heights for 15 years.

"I probably wasn't as accepting 10 years ago as I am now. (The changes) bothered me before, and I had to relearn some things," she said. "But spending time with (Asians-Americans), and spending time with the kids, you understand the differences better."

Bud Welch, president of the local Kiwanis Club, said he also originally opposed the temple project, but now considers it "an enhancement" of Hacienda Heights.

"I think it's a very attractive structure," said Welch, 61. "It was nice how, after it was all done, they invited everyone in the community to come and sit down and get to know them."

Indeed, much of the change has been fostered by the temple, which reached out beyond its base in the

Chinese community, making donations to local charities and inviting residents to its annual Chinese New Year celebration and other events.

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