Dr. Thich Thien-An
Ven. Dr. Thich Thien-An came to Southern California in the summer of
1966 as an exchange professor at UCLA. Soon his students discovered
he was not only a renowned scholar, but a Zen Buddhist monk as well.
His students convinced Dr. Thien-An toteach the practice of meditation
and start a study group about the other steps on the Buddhist path,
in addition to the academic viewpoint.
Several years later,
his enthusiastic followers encouraged Ven. Thien-An to apply for
permanent residence and start a meditation center that included
place for practitioners to live. Twenty-six years later, The International
Buddhist Meditation Center continues to thrive.
The IBMC today consists
of six houses on a residential street several miles west of downtown
Los Angeles. Suto, as his students called him, believed in the importance
of being accessible to those who face the dukkha of city living.
Two of the houses in the compound are named for Vietnamese
monks who self-immolated to bring the attention of the world
to the horrors of the situation in Vietnam, an act which ultimately
led to the downfall of the hated Diem regime. One of those monks,
Ven. Tieu-Dieu, was Suto's father.
Suto was born in Hue
and grew up in a Buddhist family. Even as a young boy, he would
imitate the chanting and ceremony of the monks who came to their
house to give blessings and receive dana. He entered the monastery
at the age of 14 and continued his education, finally receiving
a Doctor of Literature degree at the prestigious Waseda University
in Japan. He then returned to Vietnam to found a university there.
Ven. Thien-An's vision
of his work in the U.S. was to bring Buddhism into another culture,
as always adapting to the national values and understandings. He
understood the American mind and culture and had a sense of how
the practice needed to differ for Americans to develop. He mentioned
often how the West would eventually bring Buddhism back to the East.
When Saigon fell in 1975,
Ven. Thien-An saw his responsibility and helped the boat people
and other refugees from his homeland. The center became a residence
for as many of the displaced as possible. Networking was done to
ensure help for the others. The American monks joined with Vietnamese
monks to do this Bodhisattva work.
The fleeing Vietnamese,
having left all their material belongings as well as family and
friends behind, were so relieved to find Buddhists when they got
off the ships that many of them cried. Suto opened the first
Vietnamese Buddhist temple in the United States. Eventually,
he became the First Patriarch of Vietnamese Buddhism in America.
Suto's vision of Buddhism
in America included a softening of the lines between different Buddhist
traditions, and the Center has always included teachers from Theravada,
Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, as well as monks and students
from many different countries. He encouraged interfaith as well
as interBuddhist activities, and provided opportunities for students
who wished to become dharma teachers and continue to live the householder's
life, rather than becoming monastics. Many American monks and nuns
were also ordained, and a number of his disciples still continue
his work, both at the IBMC and other centers.
Dr. Thien-An died at
the age of 54 of cancer which had spread rapidly throughout his
body, from his liver to his brain. In his last months, one could
often find him sitting peacefully on the steps of the bell tower.
It was a gift to be able to sit quietly next to him and feel the
energy of his understanding. He had many plans but saw the reality
of what was happening. He smiled, as he smiled often, a smile of
great compassion and loving-kindness for all the world.
chapter from Dr. Thien-An's book, Zen Philosophy,