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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Me and the Abbot: Venerable Hui Chuan of Hsi Lai Temple

The YUGE Main Hall at Hsi Lai Temple, Hacienda Heights, CA

For a half a year (roughly November 2002 to April 2003) I had the privilege of working at Hsi Lai Temple (Wiki) in southeastern L.A. County, which used to bill itself as "the largest Buddhist temple in North America." I'm not sure how that's measured, as there are certainly temples with more land, and possibly more floor space. It may be the largest Main Hall, as I can't recall seeing any bigger. (Now it's advertised as "one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Western Hemisphere.")

Anyway, my job had three parts. Mornings were spent out front in the Bodhisattva Hall, greeting visitors and giving tours as requested. Afternoons were spent mainly in the "International Translation Center" near the back (top) of the property, where I polished texts (mainly of the works of founding Master Hsing Yun) that had been translated from Chinese to English by others.

The Bodhisattva Hall is about dead center; the ITC is in the building at top left, just below the pagoda.
(Image from Hsi Lai Temple's Facebook page)

My third task was only three hours a week, and it was my favorite part of the job. I taught English classes for the "monastics" (monks and nuns): one beginners' class, one intermediate, and one for more advanced speakers.

And my best student was the Abbot, Venerable Hui Chuan (慧傳法師), who--schedule permitting--attended all three levels! In all my years in ESL, I have never met a more avid student.

The former Abbot was at the temple from 2000 to 2005 (with a brief hiatus in 2003), and when he left, became a sort of "Abbot of Abbots," supervising some of the Fo Guang Shan order's 100+ temples and centers around the world (administering them under the official supervision of the Abbot of Fo Guang shan, the main monastery in Taiwan).

Announcement from Hsi Lai Temple's Facebook page

So I was surprised and pleased to see that he will be speaking at our "old stomping grounds" this week; a quick search indicated that he returns fairly often. I hope some day my schedule and his will sync (or I guess I could just go to Taiwan).

One incident from my teaching Ven. Hui Chuan stands out: before, during, and after working at the temple, I was a student at the university sponsored by the same organization (then, Hsi Lai University; now, University of the West). At a graduation ceremony after I left the temple, the Abbot was giving a speech, and said: "Education comes from the verb 'educe,' meaning 'to bring out." Then, gesturing broadly toward me in the audience, he said, "James taught me that." Those around me were dumbfounded!

Another great story: This is a very sophisticated monk, a very well-educated and astute fellow. One day we happened to be in Hsi Lai Temple Museum's "Pagoda Room," in which an (alleged) relic of the Buddha is kept. Feeling pretty comfortable with him, I gave the Abbot a metaphorical nudge and wink and said, "Come on, Venerable. If we added together all the Buddha relics in the world, it would be bigger than the Statue of Liberty!" Taking mock offense, hand over heart, he replied, "Don't you know? When you venerate relics, they multiply!" To this day I'm not sure if he was pulling my leg, or really believed it.

One more observation: If the Abbot was presenting a certificate or award of some kind, he would always take the recipient by the shoulder and turn him or her for the best advantage of the cameras in the room. He always knew where the camera was--and knew how to work it! A necessary skill, I guess, for anyone heading multi-million dollar operations that run on charity.

The Abbot takes a photo op with members of the "Young
Adult Department" at Pasadena City Hall, December, 2002

Last updated July 13, 2019

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