Just a few feet from Southern California's newest Buddhist temple, a six-lane boulevard carries harried business commuters in Irvine past a blur of low-rise industrial buildings. The temple's Far East architecture is intriguing enough to motorists that they stop in and ask: When does this Japanese restaurant open?
The confusion is understandable. No one in these parts has ever seen anything like the $5-million Pao Fa Buddhist Temple, Orange County's first mega-temple. It's 41,000 square feet of prayer halls, 8-ton jade Buddhas, classrooms, a library, dining hall and 42-room monastery.
And this morning, after nearly five years of construction, an expected crowd of 3,000 will get the first public peek inside during an open ceremony that mixes elements of the East and West with the consecration of the Buddhas, recitation of sacred readings, and the singing of "The Star Spangled Banner."
"We don't have a big temple like this from Orange County down to San Diego," said May Wen, chair of the South Coast Chinese Cultural Assn., an Irvine-based group devoted to educating immigrants and their children. "This temple will touch a lot of people."
Even in the days leading up to its opening, the mood within the temple has been established. In the main prayer hall, wisps of smoke from incense ascend to the 4,000 golden Buddhas lining three upper walls of the enormous sanctuary. On the 71-foot-long wooden altar near the far wall sit three 8-ton statues, carved from solid white jade.
Thirty monks, nuns and volunteers kneel for their evening prayers -- chanting in ancient cadences punctuated by a drum, bell and gong for more than an hour. Though work crews still hammer, saw and drill here and there, life inside the largest Buddhist temple in Orange County already reflects the serene countenance of its abbot and founder, Venerable Master Jen-Yi.
"The secret is to not have too many expectations," said Jen-Yi, a 66-year-old Buddhist monk who was born in Taiwan and speaks through a translator. "We knew we were going to have obstacles going in."
Delays in construction were caused by Jen-Yi's extensive travel to two sister temples in Taiwan that slowed decisions and also by problems generated when temple designs didn't match with city building codes. Jen-Yi said the $5 million raised for the construction and $1 million spent acquiring the 3.2-acre lot in 1995 came from members of the two temples in Taiwan he helped to start.
The Pao Fa temple is a significant addition to Orange County's religious landscape, another acknowledgment of the maturing of a diversity of faiths that in recent years has spawned plans for a new Roman Catholic cathedral, a large mosque and Muslim community center, a Mormon temple and a $65-million Jewish community center.
"I get a sense of a new Buddhism emerging in America" that is becoming more integrated into the general community, said Benjamin J. Hubbard, chairman of the comparative religion department at Cal State Fullerton. "There's a desire of Buddhists to put a [public] face on their faith, and now's a good time with religious pluralism no longer the exception and religious tolerance quite high."
For many Orange County Buddhists, especially those reared on the Chinese-influenced version of the faith, it means the end to long commutes to large temples in Los Angeles County.
Dr. Frank Yow, a retired chemist who lives in Laguna Niguel, often drove to temples in Monrovia or Hacienda Heights for a day of meditation. But he has found the Pao Fa temple to be a perfect place to calm his mind.
"No matter what, you get a cool feeling by stepping inside," Yow said. "You cool down your body and your mind."
The Orange County mega-temple is not related to another large temple in Hacienda Heights that's also run by Taiwanese monks and nuns. The Hsi Lai Temple is called the largest Buddhist temple in the Western hemisphere. The $10-million, 60,000-square-foot building sits on 14 acres of hillside property.
"In my opinion the size of the place is not that important," Yow said. "It's the people in charge. And [Jen-Yi], I saw him several times, and he's very friendly and approachable."
Orange County, with its large Asian immigrant communities, is home to many smaller temples, most reflecting how the Buddhist faith is practiced in the homelands of their members. Among the largest and oldest is the 900-member Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, a temple founded in 1965 by Japanese immigrants.
The Pao Fa temple reflects a form of Mahayana Buddhism, one of the main branches of the faith. The goal of Buddhism is to end personal suffering and the suffering of others through discipline, meditation and wisdom.
At the temple, both the monks and the nuns are celibate, shave their heads, wear brown robes and eat vegetarian meals. They live simply: no television, radio, or Internet. Their tiny spartan rooms hold a straw sleeping mat and a small chest of drawers. Currently, two monks and a dozen nuns live at the Irvine temple.
Also staying at the temple are visiting monks who have traveled from throughout California and Taiwan to help prepare for the grand opening. In a small room at the temple, 82-year-old Ru Hsin Liu, a Buddhist monk and calligrapher flown in from Taiwan, writes prayer requests in Chinese on slips of paper that will hang in one of the three prayer halls.
Jen-Yi, eager to show how the temple will integrate into the American community, holds up one of the prayer slips completed by the monk.
Said his translator, Chao L. Liang: "He wants you to see this is special prayer for all those who died on Sept. 11. These souls will be prayed for."