Oral Histories

Interview of Bhante Chao Chu

Immigrant from Sri Lanka. Buddhist monk in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, founder of the Los Angeles Buddhist Union, and abbot of the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery.
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Immigrant from Sri Lanka. Buddhist monk in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, founder of the Los Angeles Buddhist Union, and abbot of the Rosemead Buddhist Monastery.
Cline, Alex
Chu, Bhante Chao
Persons Present:
Chao Chu and Cline.
Place Conducted:
The Los Angeles Buddhist Union in Rosemead, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Chu was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
6 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Birth and family farm in Sri Lanka—Growing up in Sri Lankan village—Siblings and family relationships—Going to temple in Colombo—Village dynamics—Early interest in monastic life—Ordained in 1964—Attends Buddhist college—Adjusting to the demanding schedule of a novice monk—Joins missionary program and learns English—Monastic mindfulness training—Studying Mandarin in mission program—Travels to Hong Kong during Vietnam War—Ordained in Chinese tradition in 1970—Lives in Hong Kong and teaches throughout Asia.
Adapting to Hong Kong—Cultural exchange between monks of different traditions—Continuing education in Hong Kong and elsewhere—Staying in a Japanese Pure Land temple—Ordained in Japanese tradition—Only Sri Lankan Theravada monk to ordain in other traditions—Relocates to China in 1979 to continue studies—Despite restrictions on foreigners, is allowed to visit most Buddhist temples and access Buddhist books--Hong Kong master purchases L.A. church in 1979—Original plans for Highland Park church—Relocation to L.A.—Lives in Mystic Dharma Temple after 1983 opening—Participates in 1984 Olympic committee—Temple demographics and chanting languages.
Early days of Mystic Dharma Temple—Adjusting to area and to Western Buddhism—Joins Buddhist Sangha Council of SoCal and Interreligious Council—Differences between Westerners’ and Asians’ expectations of Buddhism—Administrative challenges to relationship with master—Continues education at California State University, Los Angeles—Buddhist temples open in San Gabriel Valley—Reluctance to ordain American monastics—Graduates from Cal State, Los Angeles in 1985—Founds Los Angeles Buddhist Union in 1985 and Buddhist Ministers Program in 1989—Purchase of Buddhist Union’s campus in Rosemead in 1989—Master’s death in 2009 and closure of temple.
Legal battle surrounding Mystic Dharma and relocation of services to Rosemead—Types of lay ministers trained by Order of Buddhist Ministers—Importance of a well-trained monastic sangha in the twenty-first century—Changing demographics of the Chinese community—Secularization of Buddhist forms and profusion of temples—Uncertain future of traditional practice centers—Increased number of educational options—Buddhism’s future—Connections to other Buddhist traditions—Plans for the future harmony of Buddhist communities.