Feud at East Bay Buddhist temple

By Kara Andrade, Inside Bay Area, March 22, 2005

OAKLAND, Calif. (USA) -- Its a very un-Buddhist thing for Buddhists to sue other Buddhists over a temples ownership. Its even more surprising for monks to gossip, steal, file restraining orders and threaten fellow monks.

But that is what has been happening at the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Societys temple for the past year, lawyers for both sides acknowledge.

The feud apparently started when the Oakland Cambodian Buddhist Societys board decided to transfer ownership of the societys temple to the International Community of Khmer Buddhist monks on June 27, 2004.

The conflict has escalated since Jan. 5, when ownership of the Oakland temple and
$100,000 of membership funds were transferred to the International Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, a corporation based in Lowell, Mass.

Since the Oakland board approved the ownership transfer, both the Cambodian Buddhist Society and the Khmer Buddhists have secured legal counsel and are suing for ownership rights of the East Oakland temple.

A peaceful protest was staged this month by Cambodian Buddhist Society dissident members against the temple transfer.

Since Jan. 5, the Massachusetts Buddhist group has moved some of its monks to the East Oakland temple. One of its monks, Pinn Mahamonirath, has had conflicts with the Oakland abbot concerning who controls the temple and disposal of temple property.

The dissident members of the Oakland Buddhist Society have received a temporary restraining order against the

Massachusetts group, effective through April 14.

The transfer of the Oakland temple and its funds to an outside
organization reflects the difficulties Oaklands Cambodian Buddhist community face assimilating to a more Western way of life, some local scholars say.

Although many may perceive Buddhists to be above such church politics, the issues have divided the small Cambodian Buddhist temple in East Oakland.

Henrik Mann, a doctoral candidate at the University of San Francisco, for the past year has been researching the Cambodian Buddhist Society as part of his thesis.

The problem the Cambodian community is facing is legitimization, he said. Its a conflict between generations regarding assimilation into American society. Who has the power to

decide the future of that community? It is a clash of culture. Its a clash of law. Its a clash of tradition.

On March 12, the day the Massachusetts Buddhists received the deed to the Oakland temple, about 50 dissidents marched peacefully at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. They carried signs demanding the return of their temple and restoration of power to Dhamasara Sam Son, their head monk or abbot.

On March 16, Cambodian Buddhist Society plaintiffs and more than 20 original temple members were granted a temporary restraining order to prevent the Massachusetts monks from interfering with the Oakland abbots right to access his living quarters.

The order also would prevent the Massachusetts group from transferring or selling the Oakland property.

A hearing will held April 14 on making the order permanent. But whatever happens in court will not end the controversy and bad feelings.

We started that temple, and now they are
trying to get rid of us, said Sokha Peoe, 38, a member of the Oakland Buddhist society. All our people want the temple to stay local and not belong to some temple from Massachusetts. Its very unfair, because they have taken our money to operate a temple that is not even ours anymore.

The facility, at 5212 E. 10th St., was one of the first community-owned Theravada Buddhist temples in Oakland, and many members are angry because they say they were not consulted about the transfer of power.

Dissident members say their Oakland board does not reflect the Buddhist culture, does not represent their needs and has undermined the authority of their head monk by merging with an outside temple without holding an open meeting for members to vote.

They have no right to transfer the temple without us voting, said Suy Srey, 75, a member since 1983 when the Cambodian Buddhist Society was founded. I was not invited to vote. We are a peaceful people. Im upset that I cant worship and its agonizing for us all.

Whats more upsetting to members is that the Khmer Buddhist monks have changed the locks on all the Oakland buildings. The abbot, 84, has no key to the building where he lives, and needs an escort to come and go. Some Oakland Buddhist society members also claim shrines inside the building were removed. And they are upset the Massachusetts group has installed Mahamonirath, a monk from another temple, to make decisions for their community.

But thats not the story told by Cambodian Buddhist Society directors, who transferred the organization and the temple to the Massachusetts group.

Dissident members insist the transfer was illegal. But William Ley, Cambodian Buddhist Society board secretary, says we held a meeting on June 27 and the members and the board were sent a letter, and everyone present voted.

Vannary Om, Buddhist society board president, also says the transfer was legal. As for the shrines being removed, we were remodeling and putting in new carpeting. (Some of our dissenting members) also dont like monks Mahanmonirath and Tep Kosal and want them kicked out.

Ley said it was difficult for board members to decide to merge but it was a necessary because of internal strife among the monks.

This is an appeal for unity so we dont continue to fight, Ley said.

The Oakland Buddhist Society dissidents are confused, said Community of Khmer Buddhists member Larry Hane. The signs theyve been posting say were taking their culture and their temple, but its all the same culture same temple. The temple was not given away. It belongs to everyone and the Khmer Buddhists are coming to make the Oakland temple better.

If Cambodian Buddhist Society members are confused, theyre not the only ones. Now that both sides are involved in a lawsuit, lawyers are grappling with details of the case and what exactly happened June 27, 2004 when the board approved the transfer.

What happened, said Cambodian Buddhist Society lawyer David Sternfield, is that somehow a monk from ... Massachusetts got involved in the (Oakland) temple and convinced the board to transfer the temple to a new organization. We believe ... it was an illegal and fraudulently called election.

Its a family feud you will rarely see in Buddhism, he said. Its a very un-Buddhist thing.

Community of Khmer Buddhists lawyer G.R. Woodfin said there was a public vote June 27 and letters were sent out about the meeting. Because the Cambodian Buddhist Society wasnt keeping proper membership and accounting records, he says, a new membership list was created from previous meetings.

Some Oakland Buddhist society members maintain the meeting wasnt public, but he said we had to change the venue after they convinced the location not to host the meeting.

Woodfin claims the abbots supporters held an illegal meeting to replace the sitting board and stole legal documents belonging to the Massachusetts corporation. He also claims the previous Cambodian Buddhist Society board didnt properly track accounts and records.

He claims the abbot and dissident members earlier changed the building locks to bar Kosal, who claimed he had been attacked by another monk, from the building. Kosal filed a police report saying he was shoved and hit by the man.

The abbots supporters feel the abbot has the authority to act unilaterally without prior approval of the board, said Woodfin. Cambodian Buddhist Society bylaws state that the business, property and affairs of the society shall be governed by a board of nine elected directors.

Mahamonirath denies he led a coup at the Cambodian Buddhist Society.

The board must vote, he said. Its the law. The community has to follow the rules. The other group (didnt) follow the rules and they are trying to make us look bad.

Kosal also has been blamed for his role in the transfer of temple ownership, and is seen by Cambodian Buddhist Society dissenting members as the chief instigator of conflicts among the monks, which led to the boards decision to change leadership.

As a monk I cannot plan a conspiracy and make others look bad and make myself look good, Kosal said.

As the conflict heightens, the gulf between among all parties makes it more difficult to see a possible resolution.

For order to be restored, Madawala Seelawimala Mahathera, a teacher of the Institute of Buddhist Studies/Graduate Theological Union, believes the Buddhist Society must hold two meetings.

Mahathera, who ordained the abbot in 1980, says a legal board meeting must be held where all parties are present, including lawyers and witnesses, to restore the original bylaws. Then all Buddhist Society members must vote on the possible transfer of the temple.

The new generation (wants) to change things quickly and they see the old people and the abbot as an obstacle to their progress, Mahathera said. But its the way these things should be because they are important decisions that take time.