Protests Outside Vietnamese Temple Make for a Somber Buddha's Birthday

Update below: The birthday of Prince Siddhartha Gautama nearly 2,600 years ago is traditionally one of the most festive holidays of the year among millions of Mahayana Buddhism followers. In the past, the celebration of the Buddha's birthday has been one of the most heavily attended events of the year at the Nhu Lai temple in southwest Denver, in the heart of the city's Vietnamese community, drawing several hundred people. 

But last Sunday's celebration at Nhu Lai  had a much leaner turnout.

The temple parking lot had more cars than usual, including many with out-of-state plates, but wasn't close to capacity. A visitor who peeked inside the prayer hall during the service, weaving past a security detail and a NO TRESPASSING sign at the temple gates, estimated attendance at fifty to sixty people — roughly the same number of people who were gathered outside the gates, holding their own birthday ceremonies and protesting against the conduct of the temple's spiritual leader, Cuong Kim Le, also known as Thich Chanh Lac.

As reported two weeks ago in my feature "A House Divided," the weekly protests began in March, 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 85-year-old 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 — a charge that eventually led to a $4.8 million civil verdict against Le and his board of directors.

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. Opponents complain that he has limited attendance at the temple to those who support him, and that those without official membership cards are considered trespassers. 

"We're not trying to take control of the temple," says Phillip Pham, a former disciple of the monk who has become one of his leading critics. "We want the board of directors to operate in the best interest of the entire congregation, rather than in the interest of a few people."

Supporters of Le say the group outside is "scaring away" faithful congregants.

During last Sunday's protest, a young man who identified himself as Jackson approached a reporter and denounced the protesters for "assaulting the temple," claiming that they were trespassing and violating the law. Other protesters soon joined the conversation, demanding to know what law they were breaking. Jackson shrugged and walked away. 

A core of Le supporters insist there is no way to reconcile with the group outside. The protesters say they're not about to abandon a temple that belongs to them as much as anyone.

But given that the combined turnout of the insiders and the outsiders last Sunday amounts to only a fraction of the numbers Nhu Lai used to see on Buddha's birthday, it may be that most of the congregation has chosen a third path in this fractious struggle: Just don't show up at all. 

Update May 27, 9:50 a.m.: A Vietnamese translation of our May 10 feature article about Nhu Lai Temple, "A House Divided," is now available on our website. Scroll to the bottom of the original article to locate a downloadable PDF in Vietnamese.