Practicing Buddhism on Valley Boulevard: A conversation with Venerable Master Xin Jing Shih

The smell of incense, the sound of soft chanting, and the sight of the large Buddha sitting at the entrance greet visitors as they enter the Shiang Guang Shan Temple on Valley Boulevard and Raymond Avenue. The Buddhist Temple, in a business district near a Wienerschnitzel and tattoo parlor, hosts religious services and events for Chinese and Vietnamese residents in the Alhambra area.

Venerable Master Xin Jing Shih, 40s, is the founder and spiritual leader of the temple. Born in Vietnam and of Chinese descent, Shih took her vows 25 years ago and was ordained in the Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan. She is a Buddhist nun and a venerable master — a spiritual leader who has studied Buddhism to a great extent — and runs and leads the services at the temple, such as meditation and chanting sessions. She also provides lessons to those who want to learn more about Buddhism.

With the help of a translator, we spoke to Shih about Buddhist teachings and the temple's future plans, including moving to a new location in La Puente.

The Shiang Guang Shan Temple

Why have a Buddhist temple in the middle of busy Valley Boulevard?

Usually in Asia, Buddhist temples are built in mountains away from society. These temples serve as retreats and are generally places of pilgrimage, not places where common people may visit weekly.

In this country though, because Buddhism is a new religion and needs to grow, temples are being opened in city areas so that devotees can visit weekly to learn, meditate, and practice Buddhism. This temple was built here to bring convenience to people in the area, so they can feel like heading to the temple is an easy commute. Because of the hectic work and school schedules of modern people, the temple needs to be accessible and adaptable to their lives. I have adapted the temple schedule to meet the needs of people today by offering activities on the weekends and evenings.

What are the goals of the Shiang Guang Shan Temple, and what makes it unique?

The purpose of the temple is to provide a place for people to practice Buddhism, recite the sutras, take classes, and conduct repentance ceremonies so that they can use the teachings of Buddhism in their everyday lives. The temple allows followers to pay respects to the Buddha and possibly learn more about Buddhism.

This temple is unique because we have meditation classes, and after a service I give talks. These meditation classes help people to relax and temporarily escape their daily lives.

Who attends the temple?

A majority of devotees at the temple are of mixed Chinese and Vietnamese descent. These devotees are first-generation immigrants who are seeking a place to practice their native religion and traditions. They are typically around 40 or 50 years old, and speak little English. In the future, I hope to introduce a new generation of people to Buddhism and I am seeking bilingual individuals to assist me in translating ancient teachings into modern English.

Shih (center) is a venerable master of Buddhism.

What are Buddhist services like?

All of the services mentioned before are conducted in the temple and usually take 2.5 to 3 hours. I instruct and lead everyone in the service. These services are for repentance, marriage, funerals, and other life events. They are conducted three times a month and usually on Sundays. 

How do you think these services benefit the community?

First, Buddhists in the community must understand the concept of karma: the cause and effect of one’s actions. Once people understand karma, they will endeavor to do good things and lead their lives in positive ways through following the five Buddhist precepts:

  1. Refrain from killing
  2. Refrain from stealing
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. Refrain from false speech
  5. Refrain from intoxicants

After understanding the five Buddhist precepts as well as karma, people will begin to benefit from the services offered at the temple.

What would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of this temple?

I try to set up the temple in accordance with Buddhist principles, because if the temple isn’t run in accordance to the Dharma — the teachings of Buddhism — there are no strengths. 

As for weaknesses, the habits of people are quite strong and it takes time for them to fully develop the principles. Another weakness would be the small number of followers. The small amount of followers is largely due to the fact that the current location is temporary and that the temple is looking to gather new followers at the new location in La Puente.

Food at the Shiang Guang Shan Temple.

Why are you moving to La Puente?

The new temple in La Puente will be complete in about a year, and then we will be able to conduct more classes and activities. The move will be hectic but hopefully it will be a location that will be more appropriate for the functions of the temple.

My experience in Alhambra has been very positive. The people are friendly and helpful, but this area is close to many Buddhist temples, so it would be nice to be able to go to a new location where the Buddha’s teachings will be new and fresh to people.

The new facility will certainly be helpful in meeting the goals of the temple since our current location has no real kitchen. However, the best aspect about the new location will be the new people that the temple will hopefully attract so that the Buddha’s teachings can be shared more broadly.

Any other future plans?

There are plans to gather new followers, visiting schools who have a need for Buddhism, and possibly prison visits. Prison visits help to educate convicts and hopefully convert them to Buddhism.

Editor's note: This interview was edited and condensed. This story was written in the Alhambra Source and Asian Americans Advancing Justice Youth Feed Journalism workshop.

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