Henri Brickey, Press Enterprise, California: Nguyen Dat wants Warner Springs meditation center to become one of the largest monasteries in California.
Just finding the Lieu Quan Meditation Center is an exercise in patience. The 10-acre retreat, where one monk has erected some of the largest Buddhist statues in the country, is on a dead-end road about 30 miles southeast of Temecula.
“Some people get overly curious when they find this place and start walking around … looking into windows,” said Arnold Bowman, who has lived on the property behind the temple for the past four years.
Ornately carved statues – three weighing more than 100 tons each – are visible from the front of the temple. Roughly a dozen smaller statues are scattered throughout the center.
Toward the back of the meditation center sits an unadorned brick house. Inside, Master Nguyen Dat, who came to the Chihuahua Valley more than 20 years ago from Los Angeles, spends many of his days at the center meditating.
Meditation, Dat says, is the key to cleansing and opening the mind.
“If your mind’s clean, everything’s OK,” Dat said.
Richard Cary, a tow truck driver who lives about 45 minutes south of the temple in Julian, found the Lieu Quan temple five years ago and is one of about 25 people who visit the meditation center regularly. Cary says meditation is a way of escaping from the “constant bombardment of stimulus” so common in American culture.
Dat said he hopes more Americans like Cary will come to the meditation center, which Dat said is open to anyone wanting to learn meditation. A few times each year, a large group of Buddhists from the Los Angeles area travels to the temple for holiday festivals. Other than those times, the center is nearly empty. But Dat wants to change that and is hoping to turn the center into one of the state’s largest Buddhist monasteries within the next decade.
On a recent winter afternoon, Dat, 62, talked about his hopes for the meditation center, where the monk spends much of his time when not teaching at a Buddhist temple in Gardena.
Dat arrived in the United States by way of Japan in 1978 with the clothes on his back and $1,000.
After living as a monk at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles for a few years, Dat wanted to find a place where he could meditate in peace.
“I needed quiet. I needed to leave the city,” said Dat, who studies a sect of Buddhism that stresses quiet meditation.
In 1981, Dat bought five acres in the Chihuahua Valley with money he borrowed from friends along with some savings from money he earned as a landscaper. When he bought the property, the meditation center was home to nothing but dirt and trees.
“Sometimes I stayed here a weekend, five days, one week, one month. I looked like a country man.”
At first, Dat slept on the ground and cooked his food over a campfire. Eventually, he bought an adjacent lot with a small home and started inviting other monks and Buddhist students to the center for meditation retreats.
Dat says he hopes to turn the Lieu Quan Meditation Center into one of the largest live-in Buddhist monasteries in the state, allowing up to 40 students to study at the temple full-time.
In Vietnam, Dat says, there are numerous temples dedicated to Lieu Quan — the monk who lived in the 1700s and founded the branch of Vietnamese Buddhism that Dat studies. Lieu Quan belongs to the Mahayana sect of Buddhism and is a school of Zen, which focuses heavily on meditation.
As a senior monk in the Lieu Quan sect of Buddhism, which only has one other temple in the United States in San Jose, Dat is solely responsible for every aspect of the Warner Springs temple.
“The plan is actually to build a large meditation hall, library and dormitory for monks to live in,” said Cary, who helps Dat with much of the center’s upkeep and maintenance.
Once complete, Dat says, the center will be able to accommodate about 40 full-time practitioners.
The plan for Lieu Quan is ambitious and expensive – somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, according to Dat, who said he plans to pay for the center’s construction with donations from members of his congregation. The largest Buddhist monastery in the state is in the Los Angeles suburb of Hacienda Heights, where the 15-acre Hsi Lai Temple was built 15 years ago at a cost of $30 million.
While it’s nothing like Hsi Lai, Dat is making progress at the Warner Springs temple. Since 1998, Dat has been adorning the Lieu Quan Meditation Center with large Buddhist statues, which are delivered from Vietnam in pieces and then assembled by Dat and a small crew of helpers.
At 45 feet long, the reclining Buddha statue at the rear of the temple is one of the largest reclining statues in United States, according to Dat. While other temples have larger statues, such as the 102-foot-tall Stupa of Dharmakaya at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Colorado, the statues in Warner Springs still inspire awe.
Another massive statue at Lieu Quan measures more than 20 feet in height. An even bigger one came from Vietnam five months ago and is 30 feet tall.
The statues, which are carved from stone, cost more than $100,000 each and are paid for through donations made by members of Dat’s congregation, Dat said.
Until the monastery can be built, the larger-than-life sculptures will continue to spend most of their time alone at the center with Master Dat.