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San Jose, CA; updated 12/21/2015 - A quiet hillside in Evergreen seems an unlikely setting for an epic battle featuring a notorious monk. That might sound more like a martial movie in which Bruce Lee takes care of business at the Shaolin Monastery. Yet for the past four years, an intense battle between neighbors and the Canh Thai Temple has been brewing, with the final appeal hearing to be before the County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, February 9th, 2016 at 9:30 AM.
On August 27th, 2015, the Planning Commission approved a use permit to develop a hillside Vietnamese Buddhist temple at 2532 Klein Road in San Jose, near the corner of Tully and Ruby. Despite their 5-0 approval of the permit, the Commission raised many doubts about whether the Canh Thai Temple organization can be a law-abiding permit holder. That echoed exactly the Evergreen neighbors' position: the religious organization had a storied history of violating not only County zoning laws, but also allegedly state criminal law and even federal tax law, not to mention also deeply held religious Buddhist principles. Just in 24 months of recent operation (from June 2013 to June 2015), the Temple operations prompted 16 dispatches of the County Sheriff. Most incidents pertained to nuisances to neighbors involving noise, cars and sewage runoff.
During the last hearing, Commissioner Debra Cauble credited the neighbors for not being motivated by religious bigotry. "I have been attending Planning Commission, City Council and Board of Supervisors hearings on land use matters for thirty years," she said during the August hearing. "I have heard public testimony against religious institutions that offended me and where it felt to me like the neighbors opposed it because of, you know, who [are] you people coming into our neighborhood and that kind of thing. And I will say that I didn't hear that from this neighborhood, which I appreciate. I think the neighbors tried to stick to the facts. And it seems to me that the root of the problems are the root of the concerns is based on a history of non-compliance and a fear that that will continue."
The organization calls itself Tu Viện Cảnh Thái, which translates to Canh Thai Monastery. But for the purposes of corporate naming and land permit, the organization calls itself a Temple. When the group first applied for a permit to build in 2012, they applied only for a residence for the head monk. As this was incorrect for a monastery (communal use) and also incorrect for a temple (religious use), that draft of the application was rejected by County Planning.
The Canh Thai Temple started operating out of two mobile homes without permits of any kind in November 2011. The usage continued intensely for three full years and only started to trail off in early 2015 when the Temple was pounded by court restraining orders and continuing heavy fines from the County. Their fines at $100 per day are by now over $100,000.
High Libido, Low Fidelity
Most stunning to the neighbors was a letter in Vietnamese, dropped in their mailboxes in early 2013. The letter's author was Mrs. Tran, a woman claiming to be the ex-wife of monk Thích Đức Huy, officially named Tuan Van Nguyen, the head monk of Canh Thai Temple of San Jose. The Evergreen neighbors were so shocked by the letter that they independently verified most elements of her letter:
The monk's estranged wife stated several other allegations, although those could not be proven, such as the monk's lust for meat pizza and adult films. The picture she painted was of a monk who was not true to any of the precepts he professed publicly. The Evergreen neighbors, while unable to verify all of the wife's letter, still verified enough to believe her unflattering portrayal of a duplicitous monk she once loved but now labels as the "lustful monastic."
The Lustful Monastic Literally Gets Exposed
Following her betrayal by the monk, Mrs. Tran confiscated some "intimate" pictures of the monk and his young pretty lover. Mrs. Tran then distributed those pictures to the monk's followers in an attempt to disgrace him. As the monk's new love interest was a freshly minted widow, Mrs. Tran also sent the pictures to the deceased husband's family. As a result, the followers who found the monk's behavior to be objectionable left him. The ones who remained then, and who remain his followers today, are not bothered by his stained reputation or are relatively oblivious. The deceased husband's family took away his urn of ashes, no doubt feeling that the monk should not be servicing both the deceased and his widow.
The same letter from the estranged wife was sent to the Canh Thai Temple's principle office located in Vietnam; and sent as well to the Temple's followers in the United States. Today, not surprisingly, the Venerable Master Thích Đức Huy's reputation precedes him within the Vietnamese Buddhist community of San Jose.
Monk Thich Thanh Hien of Sacramento wrote the following bad review of fellow monk Thích Đức Huy on 11/2/2014 on Facebook: [translation] "Why call it a Buddhist Temple, this mobile home in which he makes love to women before tables of prayer, from which he collects money to bring to Vietnam to build a home for his girlfriend, Tran Thi Cuc." The reviewer named the same widow mentioned by the ex-wife many years earlier.
Thich Thanh Hien's moment of frankness is rare. Only precious few individuals in the Vietnamese Buddhist community will come out explicitly and publicly against an organization that has gone rogue. Some are held back by religious convictions to speak against a leading figure wearing robes of honor. In other US communities, those who have exposed Vietnamese monks have faced reprisals, such as the Denver family who had been targeted after accusing a monk of sexual misconduct. What is more tell-tale is when nobody will speak in favor of the organization. At the August 27th hearing, no member of the public put in a good word for the Canh Thai Temple, perhaps due to its long history of serious misconduct.
Buddhist Organizations in the US and Vietnam
Canh Thai Temple originates from Vietnam, naming itself after the organization of the same name in the mother country. In Vietnam for many years now, Buddhism has been under state control by the Communist Party. Master Thích Đức Huy's organization comes out of that lineage.
Of course, in the United States, religious organizations are not under government direction. They may answer to a religious hierarchy, such as Catholic churches do. Vietnamese Buddhist organizations in the United States are almost all independent entities that are accountable to no one but their own Venerable Master for religious direction. Without a hierarchy to answer to, temple formation becomes an irresistible businesss opportunity for entrepreneurs and rogues. Several pagodas in San Jose are known for being outstanding vegetarian restaurants and even offering entertainment venues. While such activities does not invalidate their religious worth necessarily, it does highlight the need to evaluate each organization on its own track history.
A meaningful check does exist, and that is community opinion. The Canh Thai Temple is largely isolated, although not completely so. Other temples in San Jose are certainly aware of monk Thích Đức Huy's dubious reputation. They make their opinions known in a circumspect manner and almost always off-record. A head monk at a San Jose temple at which Thích Đức Huy was formerly resided has said off the record that contributions to the Canh Thai Temple do not benefit the public, and that the Canh Thai Temple operates for business gain.
Status as a US Religious Organization
In 2015 the Evergreen neighbors received an anonymous tip which put the Temple's IRS 501(c)(3) status (as a religious public charity) into serious question. This tip, which suggested that the Temple's allegiance is foreign rather than domestic, also was verified after some basic research.
In February 2009, the Canh Thai Temple filed its articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State of CA. The corporation type was "mutual benefit," which is incorrect for a religious organization intending to benefit the American public. The mutual-benefit form is contrary to public benefit, largely due to private transfer of assets to members upon dissolution.
In March 2010, the Temple filed an amended articles of incorporated with the California Secretary of State. The amendment itself came entirely from boilerplate language, with only the exception of one word in the dissolution clause: "county" was changed to "country" of the principle office of the organization for the purpose of determining final dissolution terms. (Source: the Canh Thai Temple's IRS 1023 application for 501(c)(3) status, p. 20, clause #3, 5th line. This may be compared to legitimate 501(c)(3) language actually recommended by state governments.) The San Jose Canh Thai Temple's principle office is the temple of the same name in the Phú Yên Province of Vietnam, with which Master Thích Đức Huy has direct and personal ties. The tax authorities have never detected this evasion of the federal 501(c)(3) clause which intends to impart permanent domestic public benefit as a condition of tax-exempt status.
The head monk of Canh Thai Temple has stated to his followers that he will not fly the South Vietnam flag, as many other Vietnamese American temples do. His decision has fueled speculation that the Temple is backed by funding from Vietnam. There is no way to verify the Temple's financial activities, given that all their transactions are cash transactions and controlled by the monk himself. Please refer to past-year IRS tax returns: 2013 2012 2011 2010 (missing) 2009 2008
The Temple organization is financially distressed. In addition to racking up a $100/day County fine for several years, the Temple is delinquent on their 4/10/2015 and 12/10/2015 property tax payments, totally over $8,000 including penalties. The Temple still has not filed their federal tax return yet for year 2014.
Can this operator raise the necessary $1,500,000+ to build a large temple site? If not, will they return the cash they raised? If they can raise all that money, how much of it will be owed to a foreign source? Will loans be repaid or simply appropriated? It will be difficult or impossible to answer these questions due to the opaque manner of the organization's financial disclosure.
Using the System, Gaming People
The Planning Commission hearing initially was slated for May 28th, 2015, but was postponed. Within days of that date, the two main publicity Web sites of the Canh Thai Temple went blank:
These Web sites would have offered more insight about the organization for all to see. Their secretive actions are troubling, considering that they are recognized at the federal, State and County levels as a tax-exempt charity that must benefit the public. These tactics of the organization are consistent with what the community has called out as a Cat-and-Mouse game played by the organization to hide from the law at all costs.
How did the highly competent Planning Department of the County of Santa Clara come to recommend a permit approval that, according to neighbors, is obviously faulty? To understand this is to know the most basic problems of the permit.
The Planning Staff did not believe that the dozens of intentional use violations by the Temple were a deal breaker. The Temple had purposely defied the many arms of the County in the past: The Planning Department, the County Counsel, Code Enforcement, the County Sheriff and even the County Court.
The Planning Department asserted the following, in paraphrase: "The Temple is starting to behave better. We have set permit parameters that would make the use acceptable to the rural surroundings, such as a maximum of 100 attendees. When the applicant gets the permit, the permit could be revoked if the applicant does not abide by the main terms."
The community's position has been that the Temple has behaved better recently only in order to comply just enough to seal the permit approval. Later on, the Temple's actions are likely to self-serve and to further devalue the beauty and tranquility of the neighborhood. The expenses so far to the County have included:
The costs to the Temple's associates and followers have included:
In short, the County will eventually get back all their direct losses, by way of liens against the Temple property. But the harm done to others may be irreparable. Monk Thích Đức Huy is a master at the game of Cat and Mouse, and so far, he has squeaked out ahead. In the end, even if the scandalized Temple were finally shutdown and all County losses recovered, the neighbors feel they and the Temple followers will suffer the same fate as did Mrs. Tran: hustled and battered down.
Since August 2015, the organization has renewed its effort to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to build, but has not been doing so very publicly. Instead, they are fundraising using the old phone system, word of mouth, and low-key Facebook pages.
History of the Land
The Temple property was previously owned by the Bay Area Church of God for almost 17 years. The Adventist Church purchased the property in 1994 with the intention of building a church, yet never did so. Speculatively, one might guess that the County of Santa Clara has evolved to become more permissive of institutional uses on Greenbelt properties. The "Bible" for planning of land usage is the General Plan. The County's General Plan is clear in stating that only very low intensity institutional uses shall be permitted in rural residential zones, and yet the Temple has hosted several busloads of people simultaneously in the past as part of their festivals. The Canh Thai Temple is designed to be the second largest Temple in the San Jose area among the 21 Vietnamese Buddhist Temples, as measured by floor area. Master Thích Đức Huy envisions his Temple will be a unification center for Buddhists across the United States.
Neighbors Versus Monk
In perhaps the most unusual hearing in years, the County Planning Commission on 8/27/2015 heard of neighborhood hostility involving not only the usual nuissances of noise and vehicles, but also more novel accounts of "incantation mirrors." In early 2014, the Temple installed three magic mirrors on the property line between their land and their neighbor to the east, facing the neighbor's front door. The mirrors feature Tibetian spells or incantations, suggesting that they were special ordered from Asia. Nobody locally has guessed the intention of the spells, but the best guess is deflection of evil spirits.
Kimberlee Lu, a business owner of the Hoa Sen Gift shop in San Jose, is also the Treasurer of the Canh Thai Temple Corporation. At the hearing, she insisted the mirrors were not meant to be offensive to the east neighbor.
The commissioners were also told about the toilet and several tons of trash placed by the Temple on the east and south property lines. Commissioner Kathy Schmidt asked Kimberlee Lu about the toilet, which also was put close to the neighbor's front door, but never received an answer. Therefore it remains unknown whether Ms. Lu believes the toilet to have been also inoffensive.
Surprisingly, for a religious establishment, not a single member of the public, prominent or humble, spoke in favor of the development. Several months earlier, Mr. Henry Liem, a lawyer and the President of a very small nearby homeowner association, spoke in favor of the Canh Thai Temple. But after he learned more from his neighbors about the Temple's soiled underside, he did not return to again speak on their behalf as he had promised he would.
At the 8/27 hearing, an official from the Catholic Diocese gave public testimony, which again stirred more controversy. Mr. Ian Abell is the Director of Facilities at the Diocese of San Jose, one of the largest Catholic Diocese in the United States. Mr. Abell spoke on behalf of the Bishop and stated that the Diocese owns a 15-acre parcel nearby the Temple, and also owns a 20-feet-wide right-of-way adjacent to the Temple. With that parcel being adjacent and affected by the proposed development by encroachments, Mr. Abell requested that the Diocese be indemnified for any subsequent design faults.
Subsequently Mr. Abell was impugned by two of the Planning Commissioners, despite that the Diocese took no position on the permit. Commissioner Aaron Resendez questioned whether the Church was attempting to ingratiate itself with the neighborhood in order to make its own future development easier. The Commissioner's accusation was puzzling, since it served to recall to memory his own exposed conflict of interest only a year earlier.
Chairperson Scott Lefaver delivered the fatal insult to Mr. Abell by actually laughing him off the podium. Leading up to that, several Commission members were unsure whether the Catholic parcel was really next to the Canh Thai Temple property, and so they asked to be shown a map. The neighbors tried to show a true map, but the application's consultant, MH Engineering, insisted on showing their map which was a false map. The false map showed the Catholic land as being several hundred feet away, with no right-of-way visibly adjacent to the Temple, contradicting Mr. Abell's repeated statement that the Church owns an adjacent right-of-way. Mr. Abell's appearance was then abruptly terminated by the Chairperson, who said as he was laughing: "Okay, thank you. Now, I think we know where your property is." The insult was so flagrant that Mr. Abell did a turn-around double-take as he stepped off the podium.
After the 8/27 hearing, the neighbors emailed an accurate parcels map to the Planning Commission and requested an apology for the Official at the Catholic Diocese. However, the Commission never did so. MH Engineering also took no responsibility subsequently for having shown that false map.
In a hearing full of faux pas and awkward moments, easily the most winceworthy was the testimony of Ms. Kimberlee Lu, the main spokesperson for the organization.
Her testimony started well, with a prepared speech stating that the organization served their elderly members by performing all kinds of assistance. The Temple in the future is to be a nice place to which the children can come and grow. However, Commissioner Schmidt then asked about unnice things done by the Temple to neighbors: placing a toilet and incantation mirrors on the property line. Ms. Lu "passed" on the toilet issue. She seemed to evade the mirror issue by talking about another mirror that had been improperly stored elsewhere on the site.
Ms. Lu appeared uncomfortable, actually leaving the podium at least two times and having to be called back. She laughed anxiously when asked by two Commissioners whether she understood that County laws were to be taken seriously. And when asked about the group's plan to serve food, she stumbled through claiming that only snacks and finger foods would be served, using little bowls and little cups. For over three years, the organization had served full meals in normal-sized dishes as part of their religious exercise.
The treasurer was asked a second time about the incantation mirrors and whether they had been meant to harrass one of the neighbors. The consultant, Gloria Ballard, seemed to sense it was an important question to determine the credibility of the applicant. She then advised the Ms. Lu as follows: If the mirrors have no religious purpose, then say so; and if you didn't install the mirrors, then say so. Unbeknownst to Ms. Ballard, her spoon-fed answers were picked up by the County microphones. Ms. Ballard is the Vice President of MH Engineering.
Ms. Lu then went on to say that the mirrors did not have a meaning in the Buddhist religion. In a torturously long and erratic answer, she finally completed her explanation, that the mirrors were there to protect vegetables, stray kittens and neighbors' chickens from hawks.
Chairperson Lefaver normally upholds decorum, but in this particular case, he could not control his chuckling as Ms. Lu explained about the mirrors protecting chickens and kittens. With Ms. Lu having uttered such meandering fatuities, the Chair repeatedly thanked her and chuckled directly into the mic so as to shoo her off the stand. The double standard felt unfair to the neighbors, for they could only smirk and were not allowed to guffaw or chortle.
A Conflicted Commission
The unanimous approval of 8/27/2015 masked several key facts. This Planning Commission customarily votes according to consensus, even on controversial topics, based on how their final discussion went. The ensuing discussion for this permit had been conflicted, with Commissioners quarreling with both sides and pointedly doubtful of the Temple organization's ability to conform. Just before the vote took place, and knowing what the unanimous vote would be (based on Commissioner statements), Commissioner Dorsey Moore simply stood up and left. It is unclear whether he did so out of conscience to avoid voting for law-breakers; or if he was evading a vote against the environment in voting for a large institutional use in the Greenbelt; or whether he just took an inopportune and urgent bio-break. Perhaps we will never know.
There was true unanimity on one point, however: These neighbors were spookily well-organized, perhaps too organized. Ms. Ballard of MH Engineering got this snowball rolling by offering that the Temple was like a good many other applicants out there; and that the only real difference was the extremeness with which the neighbors had organized. With that backhanded compliment, the table was turned in the neighbors. The hearing became just as much about them.
Commissioner Resendez told off the Evergreen neighborhood, telling them to do something else more worthy. "You know it's a great work whoever was organizing you guys is a great work ... All you guys came in today you know it's great to organize in other good causes. This one is, and I'm going tell you straight to you every one of you ... If you were to improve your property and will have this opposition, how you will feel about this."
The neighbors sat there like so many logs, silent and unable to retort, as their civic involvement was characterized as the stuff of the ozone. They felt that 150 major violations of County law was over the top, and that simply uncovering the truth was not extreme.
With the exception of Mr. Scott Lefaver who as Chairperson remained quite neutral in accordance with custom, all other Commissioners noted the neighbors' efforts and thanked them sincerely for a clear presentation.
Tears for Worshippers
A year earlier on August 5th, 2014 the Temple organization held a community outreach meeting. Neighbors were so vocal and insistently pressing that Reid Lerner, the architect representing the Temple as applicant, broke into tears during his presentation. His voice quivered as he sniffled, "I, I see people, coming together, to pray." He wiped away his tears and tried to continue. At one point, he almost quit altogether, his sadness having become indignation. "I'm just not feeling the love tonight!" he explained.
The room then grew uncharacteristically quiet as each neighbor asked himself or herself, "Am I such a monster, persecuting monks and their flock? Or am I just decent and law-abiding and expect others to be likewise, and this architect is kind of pretty sensitive?" After a respectful couple of minuts later, the crowd once again became spirited.
A year later, after the August 2015 commission hearing, Mr. Lerner's tears became spiteful laughter at the neighbors. Monk and consultants alike, all were beaming with joy that large public assemblies, whether forbidden or legitimate, had triumped over neighborhood concerns.
The relationship between neighbors and the Temple has spiraled downward from the start. The Temple officially bought the property in August of 2011. They quickly began building two "mobile home" structures totalling 2,200 sq ft. By November of that first year, they hosted their first public assembly.
In several video shots of that first event, a for-sale sign can be spotted. The neighbor of the rear flag lot had put up her property for sale during the Temple's construction of their "mobile homes." Given the umpermitted nature of the Temple, the next owner of the rear flag lot had little idea of what was in store for them, but they were soon to be the top enemy targeted by the Temple.
Contact Mark Cao at (714) 699-4447 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.