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Clashing Symbols : Swastikas on Gates of Valley Buddhist Temple Are Signs of Peace, but to Many They Are a Painful Reminder of the Holocaust

April 27, 1994|TERESA ANN WILLIS and SAM ENRIQUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two simple lines, bent into one of the Western world's most hated symbols, have also come to represent the complex weave, and increasing tangle, of cultures in the San Fernando Valley.

A Chinese monk and his students two months ago installed six one-foot-wide swastikas--symbols of peace to Buddhists but symbols of Nazism to Westerners--in the wrought-iron gates at the entrance to a Chatsworth home they are converting to a Buddhist temple.

The saffron-colored, two-story home is in the middle of a block that in some ways typifies the Valley. There are white, Asian American, Middle-Eastern and Latino neighbors, as well as a Jewish family who lost relatives during the Holocaust.

So it is not surprising that the emblems have prompted complaints to police and the local office of the Anti-Defamation League.

"Our concern in looking into it was that some of the calls were rather threatening in nature," said Mary Krasn, director of the league's Valley office. "People who called implied that there might be harm to the residents."

No harm has come to anyone affiliated with the American Hwa Yen Buddhist Studies group that is building the De Soto Avenue temple. But recently two of the swastikas were sawed off--the spent hacksaw blades left behind on the temple driveway, the fresh metal scars on the fence already turning to rust.

This sudden controversy has caught Mona Truong, a temple member, by surprise. She said what others call a swastika is a common symbol used to mark Buddhist temples throughout Asia. It is called van in Vietnamese. The Nazis called it Hakenkreuz.

"It means peace and it is in all the Buddhist temples," said Truong, of Canoga Park, who came to the United States from Vietnam 14 years ago. "It is like the cross in Christianity."

So common is its use that Chinese maps use the symbol to designate the locations of Buddhist temples.

Besides, Truong said, the emblem at the temple has perpendicular arms that point in the opposite direction of those on the swastika used in Nazi Germany.

But for Evelyn Silverman, a neighbor whose relatives were among the 6 million Jews to die in the Holocaust, the emblem is a hated reminder of war, not peace. Her grandmother died en route to a concentration camp, she said. Her daughter saw the gates this past weekend and, like others who have seen the emblems, the two women reacted with shock and anger.

After learning that the gates were made for a Buddhist temple, Silverman said her anger has subsided.

But, still, "I think when you live in the U.S. you have to conform a little bit to our culture. . . . I think they should realize why people would question it in this country and be more sensitive," she said. However, she does not want them removed.

Her daughter, Debbie Silverman, said she has mixed feelings about whether the temple should keep them on display. "I wouldn't want to inhibit their rights, but I think a lot of people are going to take it the way I took it."

The conflict is a typical growing pain for the Valley, which over the past decade has seen its white majority nearly overtaken by minority residents from around the globe. Whites made up more than 90% of the Valley population through the 1960s. By 1990, they made up a little more than half.

"This is a good example of the cross-cultural conflict that ignorance brings on," said Kenyon Chan, chairman of the Asian American studies department at Cal State Northridge.

"The temple has a large responsibility in educating neighbors and helping them understand who they are and what they are. . . . And I think that someone's attempt to eradicate the symbol showed their ignorance."

Neither the temple monk nor his representatives were available to talk about the controversy. Truong said they are abroad.

Local Jewish leaders have come to the defense of the Buddhist temple. The San Fernando Valley is home to an estimated 250,000 Jews and an estimated 10,000 residents who practice Buddhism or have been raised as Buddhists.

"There are people who overreacted and who, before they got the information, were hysterical," said Rabbi Ronald Stern, 32, of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.

Stern received so many calls about the gate that he sent faxes to local rabbis and temple directors this week explaining that the swastikas on De Soto Avenue were put up by Buddhists, and have no relation to neo-Nazism.

"We felt, as Jews, we have to do everything we can to assure their security and freedom of expression of religion to the extent that it doesn't infringe upon others' rights to express their religion," Stern said. "And in this case, it does not."

In Asia, the swastika is a common symbol for blessings and when posted outside is meant to bestow good wishes on passersby.

"The swastika is a very old symbol and there is nothing bad about (a) swastika," said Havanpola Ratanasara, president of the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles and executive president of the American Buddhist Congress. "Swastika in Asia is considered a good thing."

Even so, one Los Angeles-area Buddhist leader said this week that he stopped using the swastika--the word means blessings in Sanskrit--once he learned of its negative connotation here.

The Rev. Chao Chu, abbott of the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery, said he used to bring back swastika pendants for children when he returned from trips to Asia until an American-born temple member explained why their use might be misunderstood.

Chu, whose temple includes about 370 members from China and Southeast Asia, said he often works with Jewish groups in his role as a religious leader and did not want to offend anyone.

"We have to avoid misunderstanding if we want to stay here and work in harmony," Chu said. "Misunderstanding is the biggest problem."

Times staff writer Leslie Berger contributed to this story.

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