The birthday of the Buddha is one of the most joyous celebrations of the year in Mahayana Buddhism. At the Nhu Lai Temple in southwest Denver, you can count on the holiday drawing a larger than usual crowd of congregants.
You can also count on it to draw more protesters outside the temple, too — and last Sunday's service was no exception. For the second year in a row, former Nhu Lai members, including more than a dozen children and adolescents, gathered outside the temple to celebrate the holiday on their own, amid some amplified shouting at those inside and a speaker blaring a recording, detailing the alleged faults of the temple's 87-year-old spiritual leader, Cuong Kim Le, also known as Thich Chanh Lac.
It was an open question as to which group had the larger presence — those inside the temple or out. But not much has changed since the outside contingent began protesting fourteen months ago.
As reported last year in my feature "A House Divided," the weekly protests began in March 2016, after Le 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. But that clash is only the latest development in a long-running battle between Le and ex-followers, many of whom would like to see the monk step down. The temple, built largely on the labor and donations of refugees who arrived from Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s, has been rocked by allegations of sexual and financial misconduct, dating back to accusations more than a decade ago by two sisters that Le had sexually molested them when they were teenagers — a charge that eventually led to a $4.8 million civil verdict against Le and his board of directors.
Cuong Kim Le, also known as Thich Chanh Lac (in yellow robe facing camera), conducts services on Buddha's birthday while protesters watch from outside the fence.
Despite efforts by his opponents to challenge the temple's bylaws and election process — and a decision in 2013 by the leadership of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam to expel Le from its ranks — Le has managed to retain his position at Nhu Lai, which is no longer affiliated with the UBCV. Opponents say that he has limited attendance at the temple to those who support him, and that those without official membership cards are considered trespassers.
Part of the dispute revolves around the outsiders' complaints that they donated thousands of dollars to upgrade the youth classrooms at the temple, only to have their children denied access to it. The protesters have rented a nearby facility for the youth group, where they study Buddhist teachings, the Vietnamese language, and other subjects. Their parents and many of the youths still show up outside the temple every week, with signs denouncing Cuong Kim Le; at last Sunday's gathering, photos of the monk were taped in the driveway leading to the temple parking lot, forcing attendees to drive over their leader's image.
Police consider the dispute to be a civil matter. A Denver judge refused to intervene as well, citing constitutional concerns about separation of church and state. Requests to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and city council member Jolon Clark for assistance recently led to an effort to engage both sides in mediation, but that, too, ended in impasse. According to protester Phillip Pham, a former disciple of the monk, his group broke off protests for several weeks "as a sign of goodwill" — only to be told by temple officials that they would not participate in mediation unless the group ended its protests for two years and took down a negative website about the monk. At that point, he says, the protests resumed.
"What else can we do at this point?" Pham asks. "These protests are the last thing we want to do, but there is no other option."
Nhu Lai spokesman Lap Nguyen confirmed that his side isn't interested in negotiations with the outsiders unless they end their protests for two years. "We don't have anything for them anymore," he says. "How can we let them in when they behave so badly?"
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Many former members of the temple now attend services elsewhere. The outsiders estimate that the core of regular attendees at Nhu Lai consists of around two dozen people. The number of people outside protesting seems to be dwindling, too, but the group is occasionally bolstered by a show of solidarity from others.
"I'm here because these people need help," says Ha Do, who belongs to another temple but joined the protest last Sunday.
A Vietnamese translation of last year's feature on the temple controversy can be found in PDF format at the bottom of this link.