Emotions, drama at Biloxi temple's presidential election

By MEGHA SATYANARAYANA, Sun Herald, Dec 16, 2007

Vote stirred up emotions, tempers among congregants

BILOXI, Mississippi (USA) -- On Sunday afternoon at the Van Duc Buddhist Temple in Biloxi, several weeks of politics, arguing and infighting came to a head with an election that almost didn't happen. A meeting last week between the board and templegoers ended with police breaking up the opposing factions.

After several postponed elections, temple members arrived in the main hall at 11 a.m. to choose a new board of directors. But the current board and its supporters said the overdue election would not happen until they got answers from the treasurer and the head monk about financial questions arising from the temple's Asian Moon Festival.

Shouting and arguing replaced the Buddhist mantras normally heard at that time of day, as members of both camps fought over microphones.Ngoc Em Le, the board president and longtime templegoer, urged the audience in Vietnamese to postpone the election.

"(My) group and another group (are) fighting. I'm president. I'm sad about it," Le said. He asked for a two-week delay because of the fighting, and because he and his supporters did not know enough about the candidates. Le chose not to run again.

On the other side were congregants who wanted a new leader to represent a congregation that evolved in the wake of Katrina, shepherded by a monk who arrived in town just in time to see the temple wash away in the storm.

At one point during Le's speech, people seated on the floor lotus-style yelled in English, "Vote. Vote." The microphone changed hands frequently, often with a struggle. When the head monk, Thay Thien Tri, reached for the microphone, he was pushed away.

Lan "Jack" Nguyen, an outspoken young member of the normally private community, was jeered as he promoted voting for each officer, rather than electing a president who would choose his or her board members. A templegoer yelled in English, "Sit down, boy."

More than an hour after the meeting started, the congregation was asked to move to the left side of the temple if they supported having the election, and to the right side in opposition. Within a few minutes, nearly everyone moved to the left.

The temple has a meditation group and language classes, attended by the community at large. Jan Thorsen, a meditation student, was among a small group of non-Vietnamese Americans who came to the meeting to vote.

At one point, according to translators, Le and his supporters suggested that young templegoers would not be allowed to run for office and non-Vietnamese Americans would not be allowed to vote. The young monk and his supporters, including the non-Vietnamese, are not qualified to run a temple, they said.

Thorsen said as committed members in the temple, non-Vietnamese should have a say in who represents them.

"I take out the garbage and work in the garden. I was here after the storm," she said. Many have accused Le's board of disappearing after Katrina.

Le's board and supporters said they have lost faith in the head monk, who they said is too progressive. Le's supporters are trying to deport Tri, who helped organize the Asian Moon Festival.

After Le and his supporters left the temple, Tri asked his congregation if they wanted him to leave. Many cried, including Kristy Truong, who said Tri was a great leader, a great teacher and the reason why she came to the temple.

In a corner, the pro-election group printed ballots and handed them out. One by one, people dropped their ballots into a red box, and their right hands were stamped to prevent multiple votes. A neutral moderator counted them.

Nearly four hours after they began, the votes were counted and Nguyen Thanh,had the most. Some who voted said they are now worried that the results will be contested.

Translation of the meeting was provided by three members of the Van Duc Buddhist Temple.