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The sign on the City Heights temple’s front wall has seen better days. “CHINESE RIEN SHIP ASSOCIATION,” it reads in large, once-bright, red letters.
On the first day of the lunar month, worshippers start arriving shortly after 9 a.m. Many of them, too, have seen better days. Most are old, some are frail. Many arrive alone. They step inside and sit at plastic fold-up tables. They sip sweet bean soup out of Styrofoam cups. They chat in shaky voices.
They walk up to the altar stations and kneel to pray before Buddhist statues. For family back home. For good, or at least better, health. For fortune. They light sticks of incense and waft them gently, then prop them in gilded pots filled with ashes of prayers that came before. Then they repose, for a moment, in the fragrance of the lingering cloud. This small, tucked away corner of City Heights will be the final resting place for many of them.
They’ve been coming here to pray at least twice a month since 1982. The Chinese Friendship Association has been a place of worship, social convergence, and mutual assistance for hundreds, perhaps thousands of San Diego’s Southeast Asian refugees.
The association’s temple is the second oldest Buddhist temple in the neighborhood, founded by immigrants who fled the wars of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, settled in San Diego, and found few Buddhist temples.
As the community has evolved, so has the temple. Once a local institution that helped transition new refugees into American life, it has, more recently, taken on the role of helping them transition into the next life.
In a modest room behind the elaborately adorned hall of worship, you’ll find the temple’s newest addition: a granite altar bearing a statue of Buddhism’s goddess of Earth, and below it, four rows of mailbox-sized compartments awaiting the cremated remains of the 48 people who will, someday, be entombed there.
“Our people wanted this,” Ming Lau, the temple’s president said of its roughly 200 members as he pulled open one of the varnished wood doors covering the miniature chambers. “A lot of our people, they don’t like to be buried at cemeteries here. They go there and they feel different.”
As the oldest among this refugee community’s first generation reach their twilight, the need for culturally appropriate burial space has been a growing concern, Lau said.
To address it, the temple dipped into its moderate donation-only budget to install the cabinet-resembling columbarium. Still unfinished, it has received decorative adornments as the temple’s resources have permitted, but Lau said its members takes pride that it is one of the few — if not the only — spaces exclusively for Buddhist burial in San Diego. They have been eager to sign up for slots.
The temple once had more than 800 members who paid $10 each time one died, the collection serving as a sort of self-procured life insurance for a community unprepared for death in the United States. The inexpensive niches mean the $5,000 to $6,000 the temple will give each of their families once they’ve departed will go further in covering funeral expenses. They’ll no longer have to buy a plot in a cemetery.
Four members have died this month; just 200 remain. The temple, which continues cutting the checks at a significant loss, has stopped accepting new participants. Not enough people want to participate to allow the program to sustain itself.
For Lau, the conundrum is clear. “When we came, we didn’t know what was life insurance,” he said. “That is why we did this. Today, life insurance is very easy. Everybody buys it.”
The challenges reflect the divergent realities facing the temple’s Asian immigrant community.
On one hand, the temple, in its new role as final resting place for many of its worshippers, has become a powerful embodiment of community cohesion. On the other, its younger members, upwardly mobile over the generations, have depended less on its services and left it strained to provide for those who, in old age, need it most.
They still come from across the county, especially in times of need.
Julie Lam was laid off from her job as an accountant two months ago. Since then, she has driven to City Heights from her North County home regularly, to pray for good fortune as she looks for work and, between prayers, use the temple’s fax machine to submit job applications.
“A lot of people have lost their jobs,” Lam said. “So they come here.”
The statue to which worshipers pray for good fortune, propped off to the side of the temple’s main room, has received a lot more attention in recent months, said Dung Vuong, a temple volunteer. A few weeks ago a rumor circulated among members that elsewhere, a devout Buddhist down on his luck prayed before it so intently that a figure carved from valuable jade appeared to him. The Chinese Friendship Association saw a temporary spike in attendance.
Though its numbers are scarcer these days, the temple still relishes in smaller triumphs.
It has never had a resident monk, but two months ago, one of its devotees invited the Venerable Xian Zhong, who led a meditation class she attended, to perform the Buddhist chanting ceremony there.
Now, on the 1st and 15th of each lunar month, when Buddhists celebrate the start and end of the moon’s cycle, the building resonates with the chants of a real monk, instead of a crackled recording.
As its members grow older still, Lau said he dreams of building a larger temple, with space where the old can live, complete with gardens where they’ll tend the vegetables they grew as farmers before leaving their counties in haste, many on rickety boats and separated from their families.
“That would be nice,” Lau said. “I would love to build it, because someday I will be old too.”