Posted on Sun, Aug. 15, 2004

A temple rises
An ancient religion and a humble band of Vietnamese nuns land in the unlikely spot of Rendon, Texas. Their message? Peace, and welcome.

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

For the passing drivers who slow down and stare each day, and for most of the immediate neighbors, the place could not be more mysterious if it had dropped down from Mars. This is Rendon, after all, a quiet, unincorporated enclave of old-time (Christian) religion 20 miles southeast of downtown Fort Worth, a place where the writings of Deepak Chopra and the teachings of the Dalai Lama have not deeply penetrated.

But, as unlikely as it seems, it is here, on 10 wooded acres along Rendon Road -- just down from Fay's Cafe, rusting roadside hubcap art and scattered trailer homes -- that the mystical East has come to meet the rural West.

Last Dec. 14, Zen Buddhist monks and nuns from around the world, plus hundreds of lay Buddhists from the United States, dedicated the majestic new temple of the Quang Chieu Zen Monastery. Every Sunday since, scores of lay people, most of them Vietnamese Americans, drive through the monastery gates, often in luxury cars and large SUVs. They are North Texas engineers, postal workers, homemakers, insurance agents and their children. They don gray robes to meditate, chant Buddhist sutras, study Zen teachings and eat potluck lunches afterward.

The place is home to about a dozen nuns, humble and solicitous women who meditate almost four hours a day and forswear meat, television, radio and newspapers (though there is a cellphone handy for emergencies and a donated treadmill in the dining room). They say their intention, and that of their spiritual leader, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Thanh Tu, is to minister to Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, by teaching the practice of meditation, which millions of Americans in recent years have found to be a powerful palliative to the stress of Western life.

So far, new students have only trickled in, typically finding the monastery by accident. One of them, a Roman Catholic and Vietnamese construction company owner, saw a group of his countrymen building the temple while driving by on Rendon Road last year and stopped to offer his services. In the process, the man was introduced to the art of meditation and Zen philosophy. He now spends much of his free time meditating at the temple and still attends Mass on Sundays.

"Can you be this and that at the same time? Why not?" the man said one night after an evening meditation service. "You can have burgers and soup at the same time. You can have chop suey and tacos. I'm not here to find Buddhism but to find myself. Now, when I read the Bible, I read it with a clear mind."

Indian-born Neelu Udeshi of Mansfield said she thought her son was joking when he called one day in March, telling her he had driven past a new Buddhist temple in the area. Udeshi, another novice meditator who had been looking for a temple for years, left to find the place herself the moment she hung up the phone.

She was immediately mesmerized by the monastery -- the majestic temple, the man-made stream that flows downhill around large rocks and through beautiful gardens, the welcoming lay people and kindly nuns.

"It's like my prayers had been answered," said Udeshi, who was raised a Hindu in India. "I just felt at home. You know, you have some kind of idea in your head of how a place should be, and this was exactly how I had imagined a Buddhist temple. It's just so peaceful. The nuns are so happy and so willing to help. When I go there, I don't want to leave."


Many of the neighbors along Rendon Road, however, were less sanguine about the newcomers, at least initially.

Three years ago, lay followers of Thich Thanh Tu obtained the master's permission to build a temple in North Texas. Using private donations, they purchased the 10 acres that were for sale on Rendon Road. Tu, who has about 100,000 followers in Vietnam, Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States, dispatched Thich Nu Hanh Dieu, one of his leading nuns from the home monastery in Vietnam, to supervise construction.

Then, in a spate of activity last year, mystified neighbors watched as truckloads of dirt and cement bags arrived up the hill. A huge statue of Buddha was set in place, and the temple of red brick, exotic yellow lattice and a red tile roof was built around it by scores of lay volunteers.

More recently, neighbors have listened to the haunting afternoon gong of the temple bell, heard the singing in Vietnamese and seen the nuns in their pajamalike monastic clothes and conical hats as they work in their gardens or paint the wrought-iron fence, seeming to prefer to keep to themselves.

"No one knew what to think," Crystal Godwin, whose mother owns Fay's Cafe, said on a recent morning. "Everyone was thinking, 'What were they doing here? Why Rendon?' With all the terrorism things going on, people were getting that feeling, 'Oh, wow.' "

Everyone, that is, except Roy Lewis and his wife, Annette. One afternoon about three years ago, Roy Lewis noticed an older Asian woman in gray pajamas struggling to pull a package from her mailbox. Lewis, a retired metal worker, helped her out, then returned to his yardwork.

"I just thought a bunch of Korean people had bought the land up the hill," Roy Lewis said.

The next day, the woman came to their door and introduced herself as Cinnamon, a Zen Buddhist nun who was born in Vietnam and had lived in Denver. In the months and years to come, Cinnamon, whose given name is Thuan Dao, often brought other nuns down the hill and introduced them to the Lewises. In one such meeting, Annette Lewis met Hanh Dieu, the construction supervisor and young abbess known by the nuns at the monastery as Princess Snow.

"I wanted to know why Cinnamon wasn't in charge, since she was so much older than Princess Snow," Annette Lewis said recently, remembering that visit. "We all had a good laugh about that."

The Buddhist nuns and the couple exchanged flowers from their gardens. One Christmas, the nuns brought chocolate-covered macadamia nuts as a present. One day last year, Annette Lewis spoke to them of her grandson, a Marine stationed in Iraq, and pulled out his photograph to show Cinnamon.

"I said we were all saying prayers for his safe return," Annette Lewis recently recalled. "And she said, 'I'll pray for him, too.' I think they're just wonderful. They've taken something up there and made it beautiful."

Annette Lewis and her husband are devout members of the Rendon Church of Christ. She has no interest in learning about Buddhism. The kindness of the nuns up the hill more than suffices.

"There's no reason to be fearful of them," Annette Lewis said. "They're so innocent and childlike in their ways. They are friends."

2004 Star-Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.