Temple's serenity shattered

by Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer, April 11, 2005

Leadership battle divides Cambodian Buddhist congregation
Oakland, CA (USA)
-- For almost two decades, the Cambodian Buddhist temple in East Oakland has been a quiet place for meditation, a retreat for refugees who fled the violence of their homeland.

<< Abbot Sam Son

Now, that peace has been shattered, and a community divided.

Instead of Buddhist chants, there is a litany of restraining orders and police reports, a lawsuit and allegations of harassment, verbal abuse and battery. At a time when members of the community would normally come together for the three-day Cambodian New Year celebration that begins Wednesday -- the culture's most important holiday and a time of renewal and reflection -- they are fighting for control of the modest temple.

The dispute centers on the January transfer of ownership of the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Society's temple and more than $100,000 in membership funds to the Massachusetts-based International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks Center.

In Cambodia, abbots traditionally are the authority at the temple. In the United States -- where temples are often nonprofits, with tax-exempt status -- the board of directors has the final say. And when the abbot and the board disagree, discord reigns.

In this case, the temple's directors -- who instigated the transfer and then disbanded once it was completed -- said they were forced to take action to save their community. They had to discipline monks who, they said, viewed Internet porn and played cards.

"We feel that the Buddhist religion will go down the drain if the monks do not follow the rules," said former board president Vannary Om, a medical interpreter.

The undisciplined monks would not listen to the board, Om said, because the directors were laypeople. So the board appealed to the higher power of the international monks center.

Since January, the international monks center has changed the locks to doors at the temple and stripped founding abbot Sam Son of all religious, ceremonial and business authority.

The 84-year-old abbot -- who swore to devote himself to Buddhism after his life was spared by the Khmer Rouge -- and his supporters deny the allegations of undisciplined conduct. In a lawsuit filed last month, they say that the board held a fraudulent election in June of last year and that actions approved at the meeting, which led to the transfer, are invalid. They seek to elect a new board.

For the time being, they have received a temporary restraining order against the international monks center, forcing the Massachusetts group to give the abbot access to his living quarters and preventing it from selling the property.

Sam leaves the two-story temple from time to time, but he is afraid he will be locked out.

"We worked so hard, spent so much time to establish this place," Sam said through a translator. "This is not what Buddhism represents. We represent peace and harmony."

Alameda County is home to about 4,300 Cambodians, according to the 2000 U. S. census, part of a larger Bay Area community of 13,000. Many escaped the Khmer Rouge, the bloody regime that killed an estimated 1.5 million people, or left their homeland during the years of U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia. More than a third of the area's Cambodians live in poverty, and a majority have not graduated from high school.

In 1988, the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Society, founded by refugees five years before, scraped together $40,000 as a down payment on the building at 5212 E. 10th St.

Since then, it has served as an important community center, drawing close to a thousand people for major festivals and a couple hundred each week for prayer and meditation. It looks much like the other run-down houses in the neighborhood, except for the spirit shrines and the posters of the Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields outside.

Follower Chray Suy, 74, still prepares meals for the abbot, to bring blessings for the next life. She lost a son to the Khmer Rouge, who tortured him to death.

The wizened woman has trouble sleeping these days. "This was a place where people came together," she said.

Because of the internal strife, the temple stopped offering English and parenting classes for adults, and Cambodian classes for children. A $40,000 city grant for the classes expired after a new board was installed in May 2002, and the directors did not apply for another.

The infighting began soon after the board took power. One of the new directors, William Mour Ley, 52, said when he asked for financial documentation from the outgoing board, he received little paperwork -- which, he said, raised questions of financial improprieties.

Then, in the spring of 2003, a monk reported that someone had accessed porn on the temple's computer, said Ley, who served as the board's secretary. "No matter what, the monks are not supposed to go to that kind of Web site. It's very inappropriate," he said.

That July, a monk reported that other monks played cards.

Countering those charges, Rene Suon In, president of the previous board, said he provided ample financial documents, including tax reports. The allegedly disobedient monks deny viewing porn, and their supporters say that a troublemaking monk was the one to suggest playing cards -- and then reported the others to the board.

But the problems kept up. Later that year, two monks -- one from each side in the dispute -- got into a fistfight, another monk allegedly wrote slanderous poems about Ley, and the abbot reported finding what looked like a can of juice in his refrigerator that actually contained poisonous gas tank cleaner.

In February 2004, the board held a public meeting to discuss the turmoil, but nothing was resolved.

In June, the directors sent out a notice to members calling for a meeting to discuss "a decision on transferring power allowing the committee of monks to lead monks for the sake of Buddhism, and the discipline of monks."

However, the notice did not state the purpose of the meeting was to vote to merge with the international monks center.

The board claims 387 members voted -- out of 610 eligible -- and more than 96 percent were in favor at the two-hour election in Oakland. That, however, raises more questions from the members who side with the abbot, who note that at the time of the 2002 board election, there were only 160 eligible members.

Former board president In, a mental health and substance abuse counselor who is one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs, believes he knows the real reason for the transfer.

Cambodians have a saying about a dog with meat in his mouth who is chased by cats, In said -- rather than let the cats get the meat, "He throws the meat away."

Unable to get along with the abbot, In said, the board gave control of the temple to the international monks center. Pinn Mahamonirath, listed as the organization's secretary and treasurer in corporate documents, said the group has 35 monks and controls temples in six states. There have been problems elsewhere, too: The leaders of the group were entangled in lawsuits in Massachusetts and New York. But by uniting under the international monks center, Mahamonirath said, the temples can raise more money than each could alone. He wants to expand the Oakland temple, perhaps moving, buying more land and starting up classes again.

Many of the Cambodian temples in the United States are controlled by the laity through the board of directors, Mahamonirath said, and the international monks center wants to put power back in the hands of the religious leaders.

"It's a revolution," he said. But, he insisted, "The party accusing, they see something bad that's not. We want to help them and make peace."

On a recent afternoon, a monk started videotaping Christina Sam, the abbot's daughter-in-law, as she and a reporter entered the temple's shrine.

A large Buddha on a wooden platform loomed over the room, but gone were plastic plants and many smaller Buddhas that once decorated the room. There were coffee creamer and foam cups stored in the room, along with two sleeping pads.

"It was very beautiful before. This is not supposed to be this way," Christina Sam said, tears spilling out. "The board claimed everything done in the past was not right but wrong. They claim monks had no discipline. That's not true at all. That's an accusation to accomplish their goal."

Madawala Seelawimala Mahathera, president of the American Buddhist Seminary in Berkeley, ordained the Oakland temple's founding abbot. He thinks the international monks center should convene both sides and allow the community to elect a new board.

"What the new owners are saying -- 'This is my temple and you're out,' and changing the locks -- is absurd. It's extremely un-monkly," he said. "This shouldn't have happened. The monks should live peacefully as they used to live."