Visitors gaze at the Buddha relics at Lu Mountain Temple in Rosemead. (Christina House, For The…)
For hours, the meditation hall at Lu Mountain Temple in the south San Gabriel Valley hummed with muted chatter and camera shutter-clicks.
Around the room, glass display cases held translucent urns and miniature versions of dome-shaped Buddhist shrines, or stupas, delicately arranged on burgundy-colored cloth. The urns and stupas held thousands of bright pearl-like crystals believed to be relics of the Buddha, his relatives and his disciples.
A wide-eyed Julie Nguyen of Orange County stepped sideways in front of one of the display cases. She steadied her iPad over the glass, leaned close and snapped a photo.
"I've seen Buddha relics, but these — I feel energy," said Nguyen, 36.
She and hundreds of others made pilgrimages to this small Rosemead temple last week for the first public showing of what is being touted as the largest collection of Buddhist relics in the United States.
Relic worship, better known among Roman Catholics, is much less commonly associated with Buddhism. According to some branches of Buddhist belief, the relics, known in Sanskrit as shariras, offer a source of delight, blessings, enlightenment and concrete, physical evidence of Buddha.
The religious artifacts are displayed in temples in Vietnam, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, among other places. Since 2001, the Maitreya Project Heart Shrine Relic Tour has visited cities across the United States, sharing a collection of nearly 1,000 relics with the public.
At Lu Mountain Temple, however, the collection is far larger; it is said to number more than 10,000, including two rare tooth relics.
How such a vast collection came into the hands of the simple temple tucked away on a quiet residential street has confounded even the monks and sent small shock waves through a close-knit community that previously shied away from attention.
"No one knows about us. We're perfectly happy. And then the shariras suddenly push us into the limelight," said Dharma Master YongHua, the abbot of the temple and founder of Bodhi Light International, the nonprofit organization behind the temple's operations.
YongHua, who began practicing Mahayana Buddhism about 20 years ago, had never seen a relic before. Then Tam Huynh approached him during a meditation retreat in December.
At the time, Huynh, 68, was a landscaper with the East Bay Municipal Utility Department in Oakland. After the Vietnam War In the late 1970s, he was a prisoner in a labor camp, where he'd been sent after serving as a captain in the South Vietnamese army. He met a Buddhist monk at the camp who he said sneaked him religious texts.
In 2003, about 10 years after coming to the United States as a war refugee, Huynh visited a relics exhibition in Sacramento. When he sat to meditate, he said, he found that the pain he typically felt while putting his legs in the lotus position had disappeared.
His fascination with relics grew. Over seven years, Huynh visited temples in Vietnam where, he said, he was given artifacts.
Inspired by personal growth at the meditation retreat at Lu Mountain Temple, he decided he wanted to donate his collection to benefit the temple and the community, he said.
YongHua was skeptical at first. In his branch of Buddhism, relics never rose to the level of importance of meditation, sutras and mantras, he said. But he accepted Huynh's donation, as well as several others that followed. In early July, Huynh was ordained as a monk.
The abbot, other monks and members of the temple said they started to notice changes. The atmosphere in the temple grew calmer, YongHua said. People reported deeper, more concentrated meditation. One Alhambra man said the relics helped improve his relationship with his son.
Most mysteriously, YongHua said, the gem-like shariras appeared to grow and multiply, forming new crystals in containers and on the surface of one of the tooth relics.
His skepticism evaporated.
Last week, he showed off the relics like an exhibitor at a fair: "Now I'll show you the best we have," he said, beckoning the crowd to come closer.
He lifted out an urn with a fragrant bone relic, and passed it around. "Here, smell it."
One by one, women in periwinkle robes leaned in and inhaled deeply. Thu Nguyen, 70, put her palms together and bowed her head in prayer.
"Like a flower," Nguyen said of the scent. She and a group of 11 other Buddhists had left San Jose at 4 a.m. to see the relics.
For YongHua, the relics are a blessing as well as a headache. He constantly fields phone calls from people who want to visit the temple. He also boosted security and installed surveillance cameras.
It's part of a sacrifice to help others, he said.
Soon, the monks hope to build a permanent shrine at the temple to house the relics. And a second, even grander vision emerged: to build a stupa large enough to display the artifacts and become an international symbol.
It's not clear if it's possible. But when YongHua talks about it, his eyes light up.
"We chose to start this thing," YongHua said, standing in the courtyard in his orange robes, looking at the crowd gathering. He's nearly 60 and hopes to retire soon.
"And I don't know how far I'm going or whether I can see it to its entirety. But we try our best."
The next showing of the relics will be in the fall, YongHua said — bigger and grander, he hopes, than the one before.