Buddhist Temple Battle Opens Wounds in Denver's Vietnamese Community
Note: The feature story "A House Divided" looks into recent protests at Nhu Lai, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple in southwest Denver, and the long-running dispute among congregants over alleged sexual and financial misconduct by the temple's spiritual leader, Cuong Kim Le. Strong interest in the story in the Vietnamese community prompted a group of volunteers to translate our article, in an effort to make it available to more readers. Find a downloadable PDF of their translation below, following the English version.
They have been coming every Sunday morning for weeks now, in sunshine or snow, rain or wind. Old men and children, teens and middle-aged professionals — between thirty and fifty people, usually, gathering outside the gates of the Nhu Lai Buddhist temple in southwest Denver. They bring cardboard protest signs — some written in Vietnamese, some in English — and hang them on the iron fence.
RETURN OUR TEMPLE, says one. Another, the lettering smeared by wet weather, screams, MONK THICH CHANH LAC COMMITED SEXUAL BATTERY AGAINST OUR YOUTH MEMBER AND NOW HE KICKED US OUT OF OUR TEMPLE!
They also bring flowers and food, offerings for the Buddha. They set up a table with a picture of the Buddha right at the gates, put their hands together, and begin a series of prayers, accompanied by a wooden gong and bells. A similar service is held inside the prayer hall every Sunday, but the protesters — several of whom helped found the temple and supported it for decades — are not allowed to attend. Most of the time, only official members of the congregation, who have membership cards issued by the Nhu Lai board of directors, are allowed on temple property.
Just which group is larger, the protesters or the “official” congregation, is a matter of some dispute. Lawyers for the board of directors say the protesters are a small, disaffected group who oppose Nhu Lai’s spiritual leader, Thich Chanh Lac, and who haven’t regularly attended services at the temple for years.
“There are some people who want the monk removed, and there is a larger majority of people that don’t,” says attorney Tony Leffert. “There is a core of people who left, but it’s never been a majority of the church.”
The protesters say the congregation has dwindled drastically under the leadership of Thich Chanh Lac, whom they pointedly refer to by his secular name, Cuong Kim Le. A spokesperson for Nhu Lai says the temple has a congregation of 500 and “about eighty” core members; the protesters claim that the regular attendees now consist of a handful of women and even fewer men. They cite as proof a recent news report on SBTN, a California-based Vietnamese television station, which offered a glimpse of a sparsely attended prayer service inside the temple.
"The weekly attendance used to be around 200, maybe on holidays 400 or 500,” says Phillip Pham, a former disciple of Le who’s become one of his most strident critics. “Now it’s maybe twenty or 25 people.”
The current round of protests began in March, when Le, acting as the temple board president as well as the spiritual leader, denied the temple’s youth group access to its classroom building in the temple compound and prohibited the group from conducting ceremonies in the prayer hall. The youth group is a major component of the temple’s community involvement — an avenue for the children and grandchildren of immigrants to study Vietnamese and the dharma, a focal point for religious celebrations, social events and dragon dances. The protesters say they helped to raise $52,000 for a promised expansion of the group’s classrooms, money that they fear has now been diverted for other purposes.
Phillip Pham, once an ardent supporter of Nhu Lai spiritual leader Cuong Kim Le, now joins protests outside the temple.
“I think about this all the time,” says Lan Lieu, who has a receipt showing that she donated $20,000 to the temple in 2013, specifically designated for “extending youth house.” “I think about it when I get up in the morning. I get migraine headaches, worrying about the money and if we can ever get it back.”
Cuong Kim Le has said that members of the youth group have been disruptive and committed “immoral actions,” including being disrespectful to their 86-year-old spiritual leader.
“They don’t obey the temple rules,” says Lap Nguyen, the temple’s designated spokesman. “They do whatever they want over there. We don’t know what they are doing. The temple cannot be responsible for them anymore.” Temple officials want the group to acquire their own liability insurance; he adds that the donations for expansion of the youth building are kept in a separate account and have not yet reached the required amount to begin construction.
His critics say that Le is retaliating against children because their parents and youth leaders oppose him. But the clash is only the latest development in a long-running battle between the monk and ex-followers over control of the temple, a bitter struggle that’s received little scrutiny outside the Vietnamese community.
The rift goes back nearly twenty years, to a time when two sisters who had worked and studied in the temple accused the monk of sexually molesting them. The case stirred up considerable anger and outrage among the monk’s supporters and death threats against his accusers. Criminal charges were dropped after prosecutors decided they couldn’t prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, but a subsequent civil lawsuit resulted in a jury verdict of $4.8 million in damages against Le, the congregation and the temple’s board of directors.
In a Catholic or Protestant church, perhaps, such a scandal might result in a quiet deep-sixing or “reassignment” of the disgraced cleric. But while the lawsuit prompted some longtime members to leave the temple, Le remains firmly entrenched there. Indeed, the protesters say he’s managed to consolidate his power, changing the bylaws in order to allow him to preside over the board of directors for the past twelve years and gain control of the temple’s finances.
“He wants to be in control of the temple until the day he dies,” Pham says.
Le has also been involved in litigation against other Buddhist congregations over control of temple properties in Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and Atlanta. A few years ago, he rose to the position of chairman of the Overseas Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation in the United States — arguably the most powerful position of any Vietnamese monk in America, since the OUVBC is affiliated with the principal governing authority for Vietnamese Buddhists around the world, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. But in 2013, Le was abruptly removed from that position and expelled from the organization by the Supreme Patriarch in Vietnam, following complaints by other monks about Le’s alleged sexual misconduct.
Congregants and youth group members pray outside the temple gates.
Emboldened by that decision, some of Le’s local opponents went to court a few months ago, challenging the temple election process as unfair. In January Denver District Judge Ross Buchanan dismissed the case on constitutional grounds, saying he had no jurisdiction over how a religious group chooses to implement its bylaws.
“This is really a church governance issue, and it’s not appropriate for a civil court of law to get involved in the internal workings of the church,” Leffert says. “The temple has a validly elected board of directors — and has had one for the last five or ten years.”
Buchanan’s ruling did little to ease the standoff between the monk and his detractors. Leffert says the courtroom that day was packed with supporters of Thich Chanh Lac — but sheriff’s deputies also had to be summoned because his client was “actually approached and assaulted in the hallway of the courtroom.” The protesters say the Denver police are investigating an anonymous letter from someone threatening to shoot them.
Leffert says the board has “made overtures” to the dissidents to attempt to bring them back into the fold and ease the process required to become official members. The protesters claim the monk has the final say in who is an official member or not, and banishes anyone who challenges his absolute authority.
During one of the recent protests, a man named Hanh Nguyen stood at the edge of the gathering at the gates, watching grimly. A war veteran with a prosthetic leg, Nguyen has been an official member of Nhu Lai temple for years. He started going there in 2001, left in 2005 because of the uproar over the sisters’ lawsuit, returned in 2012. But a couple of weeks ago, he says, he took issue with what others inside the temple were telling the television crew from California about the protesters outside.
“They say the reason people don’t go to the temple is because the youth group here act like troublemakers and scare people,” he says. “I say, ‘That is wrong. The problem come from the monk.’ And they start to get very angry. They say I am a liar. Then they ask security to bring me out.”
He produces his membership card. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “Last week I come back, and they don’t let me come in.”
Temple spokesman Lap Nguyen says that Hanh Nguyen has been disruptive on several occasions. “You can go outside and yell, but you cannot come in my house and yell at me,” he says. “If he wants to come in and pray peacefully and follow the rules, we’ll let him.” (A sign in the temple says that “respectful and peaceful Buddhists are welcome,” but that “anyone creating a disturbance will be asked to leave and considered a trespasser.”)
Nguyen says he isn’t with the protesters. He isn’t with the people inside anymore, either. He’s just out in the cold, waiting for something to change.
Cuong Kim Le, also known as Thich Chanh Lac, says the protesters have “scared away” people from the temple.
Buddhism has been an integral part of Vietnamese culture for more than 2,000 years. For centuries it was the country’s dominant faith; under French colonial rule, though, only Catholicism was recognized as an official religion, while Buddhism was reduced to the status of an “association.” In 1964, even as monks were setting themselves on fire to protest their persecution by the South Vietnamese government, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam was formed, uniting several different schools of Buddhism under a single patriarch.
After the fall of Saigon, the Communist victors set up a state-sponsored Buddhist organization and began their own campaign against leaders of the UBCV, including the Fifth Patriarch, Thich Quang Do, who is currently under house arrest. Many UBCV loyalists fled, joining the tide of refugees created by the collapse of South Vietnam.
Thousands of those refugees ended up in Colorado. Khanh Le, a former Saigon public-works executive, arrived in Denver with his family in the spring of 1975. He remembers a small group of early arrivals making arrangements to use the basement of a Japanese Buddhist temple in Sakura Square for services in Vietnamese. “We didn’t have much knowledge, but we prayed sincerely from our heart,” he recalls.
The group eventually rented a small house on Pearl Street, then found an old church for sale in Arvada in 1978. Khanh Le, who’d found work as a manager of a suburban water district, contributed the down payment — but like many of his fellow Buddhists, he considered the property as belonging to the entire community. The Tu Phong temple operated for several years, but many members complained that it was located too far from the heart of the growing Vietnamese community in southwest Denver. In the late 1980s, that temple was sold; the services moved temporarily to a warehouse on West Alameda Avenue, and then to the property on West Iliff that became Nhu Lai temple.
During the move, the congregation parted ways with its resident spiritual leader. Cuong Kim Le was brought in as his replacement. According to statements Le has made in depositions, he arrived in the United States in 1986, after leaving Vietnam for studies in Taiwan. Several elders of the congregation say they’d received mixed reports of his previous work at other temples but didn’t inquire too deeply into his background.
“At the time, it was very hard to find monks,” says Pham, who joined the temple in 1982. “There were members who knew his past and said this monk is not a great one. But as Buddhists we always think, okay, you can’t be a perfect person. You could have a bad past experience, and we’ll give you a chance to renew yourself.”
Pham admits that at first he was impressed with Le. The monk was knowledgeable about Buddhism and didn’t seem overly concerned about conducting services in a warehouse without running water, or the $250 a month he received in the early days for personal expenses. (In Buddhism, the laity typically provide modest financial support to the monks, who are expected to be focused on spiritual work and avoid material entanglements.)
“I was very loyal to him, actually,” Pham says. “I went there every day to make sure he was well fed. If there was no water for the toilet, I would go carry water for him. I trusted him. Everything he said is what I learned from the dharma.”
Building on contributions from Buddhists across Colorado, the new temple on West Iliff soon began to thrive. Members bought lots adjacent to the original property and sold or donated them so that Nhu Lai could expand its operations. The bylaws made it clear that the spiritual leader “shall not be involved in the administrative and financial matters of the Congregation,” which were handled by an elected board of directors. While the board worked to put Nhu Lai on firm financial footing, Le’s popularity as the temple’s venerable abbot and trainer of monks continued to grow.
But by the mid-1990s, some people were beginning to question his leadership. They were troubled by the discovery that Le had brought several family members to live on the temple grounds. He introduced them as three nephews and a niece. Actual residency at the temple was supposed to be reserved for monks, but several sources told Westword that Le’s relatives made themselves at home there; at one point two of them occupied rooms in the basement of the main building that had been intended to be classrooms.
Even more disturbing were the rumors that began circulating about the monk’s personal conduct, rumors that would soon have members of the congregation choosing sides and emphatically denouncing one another. Before it was over, at least three women would make claims that the venerable abbot had groped them and seemed to expect sexual favors from them — claims that would bring the temple to the brink of financial ruin.
Hanh Nguyen, who was denied admission to the temple, shows his membership card.
The way Phillip Pham tells it, the scandal that wreaked so much havoc at Nhu Lai began with an argument over a fairly small sum of money.
Pham and a few other members of the temple had raised a couple hundred dollars by washing cars. They wanted to donate the money to victims of 1997’s Tropical Storm Linda, the worst typhoon to hit Vietnam in a century. But Cuong Kim Le told him that there was no point in sending the money abroad, Pham remembers, because it would only end up in the hands of the Communists. Incensed, Pham responded that he knew that the monk had sent thousands of dollars to family members in Vietnam; how was that any different?
Pham’s backtalk didn’t sit well with the monk or his supporters. Pham was confronted by members of the temple youth group, who demanded that he resign as a youth group leader. “I told them, ‘Okay, I’m going to quit,’” he recalls. “‘But I’m going to tell you one thing: Mr. Le fondled one of our youth members.’”
Pham says that his information came from his girlfriend at the time, the daughter of a prominent temple boardmember. She had told him that years earlier, the monk had come up behind her in the kitchen in the monk’s quarters as she was putting dishes away and fondled her breasts. The girl had not wanted to publicize the incident, but once Pham blurted out what he’d been told, the accusation spread like a gasoline fire. Soon Pham received a phone call from Thu Ho, another woman who had volunteered in the kitchen.
“I’m a victim, too,” she told him. “What should I do?”
Ho claimed that in 1994, when she was nineteen, Le had come up to her while she was washing dishes and grabbed her breasts. A few months later he did it again — and informed her that as her teacher he had a right to demand sexual favors. She rebuffed him both times but had been too embarrassed to report him. She kept her silence even after her sister told her that the monk had fondled her in 1996, during counseling sessions; the sister, who was fourteen at the time, was studying to be a Buddhist nun.
“At first I kept quiet,” Thu Ho says now. “It seemed the best way to move forward — and who would believe me and my sister?”
But after hearing what Pham had said, Ho changed her mind. “It was a shock,” she says. “I knew then there had to be more than three of us. If he could do that to me, he’s probably selecting many girls — and most of us keep silent. I need him to know I am no longer silent, that he needs to stop it right now.”
Ho wrote to the temple’s board of directors. She asked for an apology from the monk and a promise not to repeat such behavior. The board responded with a threat to bring legal action against her for slander. She went to a conference of monks in Dallas, seeking someone who had the nerve to stand up to the venerable Thich Chanh Lac; she didn’t find that person. Finally, after months of trying to solve the problem internally, she contacted the police and began to protest weekly outside the temple.
The temple leadership reacted virulently. The board of directors took out an ad in a Vietnamese newspaper, contending that the accusations were part of a “Communist strategy” to discredit their beloved monk. Le denied any sexual misconduct. “This matter never happened,” the venerable abbot told a reporter. “This is a conspiracy of the servants from north Hanoi.”
Protesters outside of the temple.
In a Viet refugee community, calling someone a Communist isn’t simply an insult; it can be a provocation of the worst kind. Ho’s father had served in the South Vietnamese Army. He had endured six years of brutal treatment as a prisoner of the Communists, then shepherded his daughters through years of refugee camps before finally being allowed to emigrate to the United States. Yet he was vilified in articles and fliers, paid for by boardmembers, which depicted him as a war criminal and as an undercover Communist agent sent to assassinate Le. His youngest daughter, who’d been sent out of state to continue her studies to be a nun, began to receive death threats.
The Ho sisters had several staunch supporters, including a former president of the temple board. But Thu Ho estimates that 90 percent of the congregation believed fiercely in the monk’s innocence; in fact, one of Le’s biggest backers was the boardmember whose daughter’s claim of molestation ignited the whole scandal.
“He is a master of manipulation,” Ho says of Le. “His followers called him a living Buddha. But this is America. I come here for freedom, looking for a future. And the future is not being a victim.”
In 1999, Le was arrested by Denver police for investigation of third-degree sexual assault and sexual assault of a child by a person in a position of trust. But prosecutors dropped the charges months later, after defense attorneys produced records that suggested the kitchen in the monk’s quarters had been converted to an office in 1993 — months before the alleged assaults occurred.
Despite the dismissal of the criminal charges, the Ho family proceeded with a civil suit in 2003 against Le and the temple’s board of directors. “It was a difficult case to put forth, for a lot of reasons, but mainly because of the cultural and language barriers,” notes John Haas, one of the Ho family’s attorneys. “Many of the people in the Vietnamese community wouldn’t participate. And the people who sided with the Hos were kicked out of the temple immediately.”
At trial a carpet installer testified that the 1993 renovation had not involved the kitchen in question. The alleged incidents involving Thu Ho were now too old to be a part of the case, but the jury found that Le had committed sexual battery on the younger sister. The panel also found members of the board liable for defamation, outrageous conduct and breach of duty. In all, the award of punitive and actual damages, costs and interest amounted to close to $5 million.
Actual recovery in the case amounted to about half of that. The organization’s insurance paid $2 million, but many members of the congregation also had to contribute substantial sums to the pot. Several boardmembers resigned, having lost their enthusiasm for the temple, for board duties, for the monk.
“We had to work very hard to get the lawsuit settlement,” says former boardmember Tri Nguyen, who now lives in California. “I almost lost my house. And then most of the people walked away from the temple. I haven’t been involved in the temple since then.”
As a monk and avowed pauper, Cuong Kim Le represented that he had no assets for satisfying the $1.6 million portion of the judgment assessed against him personally. But Haas says his team located a bank account that Le controlled with $100,000 in it and a cash flow of around $10,000 a month.
Curiously, while the fallout from the lawsuit prompted several longtime members to leave the temple, Le was not one of them. He still had many loyal followers, people who considered the verdict a product of bad lawyering, a smear that didn’t reflect the true character of their spiritual leader. “When the court dismissed [the criminal charges], he’s not guilty,” Lap Nguyen says, “The civil verdict doesn’t mean anything. It all happened long ago.”
Even as the judgment was being finalized, Le and the then-president of the board signed off on a substantial revision of the temple’s bylaws. The size of the elected board was trimmed from fourteen members to three. The provision that prohibited the spiritual leader from being involved in temple finances was deleted. The new bylaws allowed for the spiritual leader to become president of the board “in special cases” and required those who wished to vote in board elections to submit an official membership application, get approved by the board and obtain an official membership card.
The new bylaws struck some members as very un-Buddhist. “Ask anybody who goes to a Buddhist church: They don’t have membership cards,” explains Hong Nguyen, who says he attended Nhu Lai for twenty years but was denied a membership card. “It’s open to everyone. It’s built by the community’s money, and it belongs to them.”
“If we don’t require a membership card to vote, there might be 500 people we don’t know trying to vote,” retorts Lap Nguyen. “If you want to vote for president in America, you have to be a citizen and have to register before the deadline. The same thing here.”
Cuong Kim Le went on to serve three four-year terms as the board president, despite the obvious conflict of interest. If the president violates the bylaws, it’s up to the spiritual leader to take actions to dismiss him, and it’s the president’s responsibility to see that the spiritual leader meets the needs of the congregation, but Le was filling both roles.
Longtime temple member Van Dinh says that the changes in the bylaws were necessary because no one wanted to be on the board anymore, and that members petitioned Le to take over the president’s job. “Nobody wants to run,” he says. “They don’t want to take the responsibilities. They don’t want to be in court. They don’t want to pay the fine.”
After the verdict came down in her case, Thu Ho says, “it was an opportunity to send him away. But, no. They did not do it. They let him control everything.”
On paper, at least, the new bylaws preserved one vital control over temple finances. The president couldn’t also be in charge of the treasurer’s function, and the treasurer couldn’t sign checks for more than $300 without the president’s written authorization.
In practice, it didn’t always work that way, says Hung Lam, who served as the Nhu Lai treasurer from 2004 to 2008 — and, despite efforts to tender his resignation, was still listed as treasurer until 2012. After Cuong Kim Le became president, Lam says, he was sometimes asked to sign blank checks; Le would later fill in the date, recipient and amount.
And the amounts were often substantial.
According to Lam, Le asked him to open a new bank account with an initial $70,000 deposit, drawn from a check payable to Le and signed by one of his nephews. This appeared to be an account for personal use, but the account had a name — “Vietnamese Buddhist” — similar to the name of the temple’s official account at the same bank. Lam, who spoke to Westword through an interpreter, says he never questioned Le about the purpose of the separate account or the source of other funds, checks and cash that he was asked to deposit into that account. Among Le’s opponents, the arrangement became known as the monk’s “black account.”
Quite apart from donations at Nhu Lai, Le had other sources of income — for example, donations from followers at temples in other states that he visited as a kind of drop-in spiritual guide — that may have funded the account. In any event, a series of nine checks written on the account over the course of a year — checks that Lam says were blank when he signed them — indicate that the account was for purposes other than the operations of Nhu Lai. Three of them, totaling $85,900, were made out to Le’s niece. Two others, totaling just under $55,000, went to a nephew.
The other four checks, totaling more than $80,000, relate to Le’s dealings with other temples — including his efforts to seize control of two of them. In 2011 an elderly former boardmember of Philadelphia’s Bo De Temple filed a quit-claim deed attempting to transfer the temple property from its local owners, the Asian American Buddhist Association, to the Vietnamese American Unified Buddhist Congress, for the sum of one dollar. The document states that it was prepared by and should be returned to the Venerable Thich Chanh Lac, chairman of the VAUBC, at a California address. But the Bo De member wasn’t authorized to make such a transfer, and the deed went to temple officials instead, touching off a costly legal battle.
“They tried to do it in secret. No one knew about it until I received the notice of the transfer from the city hall,” says Niem Tran, the president of the Bo De temple. “It took about two years to get it back.”
In a deposition, Le, who had frequently visited the temple to conduct services, denied preparing the quit-claim deed or signing it. He insisted that the temple had been voluntarily donated to the VAUBC. “It’s not right, you know,” he complained, “if you want to donate and then you want to take it back. It’s just like — it’s just like a joke.”
A Philadelphia court ultimately ruled in favor of the local owners. Other litigation over temple property is still dragging on in Atlanta, where Le and two of his nephews are accused of filing an improper quit-claim deed in 2013, attempting to transfer ownership of a temple there to “secure” loans to the local congregation of $100,000. Le is also accused of fraudulently altering the local temple’s bylaws and executing a bogus corporate resolution authorizing the transfer.
Le met with Westword at the temple accompanied by Lap Nguyen and other supporters who served as interpreters and insisted that the venerable abbot would not answer questions about his personal life. Le declined to comment about the checks. He characterized the disputes in Philadelphia and Atlanta as part of a larger power struggle among different factions in the American Vietnamese Buddhist community.
Several temples have severed relationships with Le over the years; in announcing his discharge as a spiritual leader, one Florida congregation referred to his “my way or no way” approach. In 2013, sixty monks and other prominent members of the overseas affiliate of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam petitioned the Supreme Patriarch, Thich Quang Do, to remove Le as the American chairman, citing his history of alleged misconduct. The patriarch expelled him from the organization — almost ten years to the day after a Denver jury found him liable for sexual battery.
Why did it take so long?
“Thich Chanh Lac was telling everybody he’d been accused of slander, not sexual harassment,” says Penelope Faulkner, the Paris-based commissioner for international relations for the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. “The church didn’t know for years that he had been found guilty of sexual misconduct. He deceived the whole Vietnamese community. He was very powerful; there were other monks trying to cover up for him.”
Le says his expulsion was an act of retaliation. He had an ideological disagreement with a UBCV official, he says, which prompted Le to discontinue an annual six-figure donation to the organization — and led to his removal. (Faulkner acknowledges that Le contributed about $6,000 annually for two or three years to Vietnamese Buddhist Radio, but insists that his expulsion was entirely in response to “his continuous sexual misconduct and dishonesty.”)
The monk who replaced Le as the American chairman of the organization, Thich Vien Ly, lobbied for Le’s reinstatement. Within a few months, Ly was disavowed by the patriarch, too. Thich Vien Ly now lists himself as the president of the Overseas Vietnamese Unified Buddhist Sangha, an organization that appears to have been created in response to the expulsions. Le serves on the new group’s board of supervisors. Buddhism is not hierarchical, like Catholicism; there’s nothing to stop practitioners from setting up their own school, unified congress or whatever they want to call it. But the Nhu Lai website still prominently features a portrait of patriarch Thich Quang Do, and Faulkner believes the expelled monks are trying to mislead their donors into thinking that they are still in good standing with the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam.
“When Thich Chanh Lac got cut off, it was a terrible shock for him,” she says. “He lost all credibility. He kept hanging on to the image of Thich Quang Do, but he has no right to use the name at all. This is a breakaway organization. He has no legitimacy, as far as we are concerned.”
Le’s expulsion generated fresh questions about his ability to continue to control Nhu Lai. The bylaws — even the ones Le had revised in 2003 — clearly declared the temple’s affiliation with the Overseas Unified Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation in the United States; how could it continue to be led by a disgraced monk who no longer belonged to that organization?
Protesters outside of the temple.
Lap Nguyen says the patriarch has no authority over operations at Nhu Lai. “Mr. Le came to this temple in 1987,” he notes. “He built this temple from ground zero, until we have the biggest temple in Colorado. The congregation in Vietnam didn’t give him money to build this. They can remove Mr. Le from the position over there, but they can’t remove him from this temple.”
As Pham and others discovered when they went to court earlier this year to challenge the election process, civil authorities are reluctant to get involved in matters of church business. Having rebuffed the legal challenge, Le went on to issue some banishments of his own, denouncing the youth group and its leaders as troublemakers — and citing their support for the lawsuit as an example of their apostasy.
Leffert, the attorney for the board of directors in the election case, doesn’t view the recent protests as productive. “Whatever the issues are, there is an avenue within the church to have the monk removed and elect a new board,” he insists. “But instead of doing it through the bylaws, they just continue to ramp up the trouble — and to cause more and more problems.”
Nhu Lai holds board elections every four years. The latest one took place a few weeks ago, with Denver police officers observing. Pham counted 31 people who were allowed to go inside to vote. (Le supporters say 47 official members voted.) “If you had an ID and the voter card, you were allowed to come in,” he says. “The voter card was issued by the monk. If you oppose him, then you don’t get the card.”
Hong Nguyen didn’t have a card. He says there were only three candidates nominated for the three board positions. “Whatever I do, I still lose,” he says. “If I could vote, there was no choice — so I still lose.”
Leffert suggests that it may be time for the monk’s opponents to find another, more suitable congregation to join. But Haas, who represented the dissidents in the recent court challenge, says his clients have far too deep a connection to Nhu Lai.
“The temple is, for the older Vietnamese in particular, a real center of the community,” he says. “It was their world, and they put all their heart and money into building it. To just say, ‘Go find another temple’ — it’s like leaving your house. Some of them have their relatives’ ashes there.”
Khanh Le, who was there at the beginning, thinks that Cuong Kim Le is the one who should leave. “He should resign and go someplace to practice Buddhism by himself,” he says. “His ambition is too big. He wanted to become a kind of pope to the Buddhists.”
Le supporter Van Dinh doesn’t see a path to resolution of the conflict. “How do we reconcile?” he asks. “Kick Master Le out? That’s what they request.”
Le says that all the ill will outside is having an impact on the serenity of Nhu Lai. “Some people don’t understand the problem, and they are scared away from the temple,” he says. “They do whatever they want outside the temple. We cannot do anything.”
Thu Ho wipes away tears as she thinks about how the monk’s behavior altered the trajectory of her life and that of her sister. “This is not a Buddhist monk at all,” she says. “It’s not even a human being. He doesn’t have a piece of compassion in him.”
Now married and with children of her own, Ho tries not to dwell on the past. She tells herself that the troubles surrounding Cuong Kim Le, also known as Thich Chanh Lac, are a matter of cause and effect.
“I always think karma will catch up,” she says. “I never thought it would catch up this fast.”
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