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Studying Buddhism's Many 'Denominations'

Hsi Lai University offers its diverse student body in-depth exposure to the religion's varied practices and traditions.

March 15, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The golden Buddha in the foyer of Hsi Lai University is a quick indication of what makes this school in Rosemead different from others in the state. And if the statue doesn't show it, the students' faces will. They come from Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Myanmar and China, as well as the U.S.

Just when Westerners are catching on to Buddhism's complex history--the Tibetan practice of the Dalai Lama isn't the same as the Zen of '60s songwriter Leonard Cohen--Hsi Lai expands the horizon.

"What you see here you don't see elsewhere," said Ananda Guruge, 71, a retired Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States who is the school's dean of academic affairs. "All the traditions are taught on this campus" he said. "If you lived in Korea, you would learn only Korean Buddhism. It is that way in almost every country, but not here."

Guruge has been part of the school since 1995, four years after it opened as a center for college and graduate-level degrees in Buddhist studies. Even then the diverse student body made prognosticators look smart. For the last 10 years sociologists and demographers of religion have been saying that Southern California is unique for the number of Buddhist "denominations" practiced here. The monk's robes that some students wear to class make the same point. Red, yellow, dark and light brown, each color represents a different tradition.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 16, 2000 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 4 View Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Buddhism date--A story about Hsi Lai University in Wednesday's Southern California Living should have stated that Buddhism was founded in the 6th century BC.

This month the school's name (Hsi Lai is Chinese for "coming to the West,") has been linked to news headlines because a fund-raising luncheon held at Hsi Lai temple in nearby Hacienda Heights led to five felony convictions for Maria Hsia, a backer of Vice President Al Gore who presented him with illegal Democratic campaign contributions after the event.

While the temple and school were founded by the same Taiwanese Buddhist master, Grand Master Hsing Yun, the school is now a separate entity. The temple is supported by pilgrims and its congregation, while the school's funding comes primarily from Buddhist Light International Assn., a Taiwan-based group that promotes Buddhism around the world. The university is now in the process of seeking accreditation.

About half the 70 students in the Buddhist studies program are native Chinese, but Western students, who make up about 15% of the student body, say no single culture dominates. Buddhism was founded in 6th century India, but as it spread through most of Asia, its basic teachings remained the same: Right thinking and self-restraint will lead a soul to Nirvana, a divine state free of unhealthy desires.

"We follow the same doctrines, but the rituals are different," said one student, Koppakanande Sumanajothi, from Sri Lanka. Chanting, meditating and ancestor veneration can receive more emphasis from one tradition to another, he explained. Sumanajothi, 33, came to the U.S. five years ago and attends Hsi Lai because classes are taught in English and he wants to be a teacher in the U.S. when he graduates.

Westerners seem to have different priorities than native Asians, he said of his classmates. Americans, most of them born Christian or Jewish, want to learn philosophy, Asians want to learn the rituals that their parents gave up.

Cheryl Malone, 52, is a California-raised Roman Catholic who was ordained a Taoist priest when she lived in China in the mid-'90s. She drives 45 miles from Costa Mesa to attend classes.

"I wanted in-depth learning," said Malone, who took introductory courses at local temples before she decided to earn a bachelor's degree.

Mike Murry, 50, took every course in Buddhism he could find at Cal State Long Beach before he went to Hsi Lai. He expects to finish the master's program this spring. (Courses cost about $300 each.)

"The state system classes are academic and high quality, but at Hsi Lai you are with students who are part of the Buddhist tradition," he said. "You can meet a real live person who knows all about the practices and doctrines."

Murry speaks several Asian languages and belongs to a Japanese temple in East Los Angeles. He said Hsi Lai students fall into three general categories.

"A certain percent are flower children attracted to the exotic," he said. "They shave their heads and wear robes and keep all the paraphernalia. Others are curious and go in for something different. The Asian students come because they can speak their own language, eat their own food, do what they do back home."

Most of the faculty members are Westerners from California state universities. James Santucci is also a full-time professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. Over the last 30 years he has seen interest in Buddhist studies grow with the shift in local demographics.

"The influx of Southeast Asians made a difference," he said. The second-generation Asian Americans he teaches want to know about their roots. "Most don't know the Buddhism their parents practice," Santucci said. Introductory courses are his most popular and attract up to 50% Asian and Asian American students.

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