“Holding Up Our End of the Bargain”: Danny Fisher interviews three members of the award-winning Buddhist Association at the University of California-Irvine
In this new interview for Buddhadharma News, Buddhist blogger Danny Fisher interviews Michael Tran, Alex Wong, and Vivien Phung, of the Buddhist Association at University of California-Irvine, about BAUCI’s history, accomplishments, goals, and upcoming twenty-year anniversary.
A Top Ten Public Research University and one of the “Public Ivies,” the massive University of California-Irvine serves nearly 30,000 students in Orange County, CA. It certainly bespeaks the enormity of the Buddhist Association at UCI (BAUCI)’s contribution to the community there, then, that the modestly sized but intensely proactive and productive group was the recipient of this past academic year’s award for “Most Outstanding Religious Group” at the institution. Those of us working with Buddhist students at neighboring institutions certainly sat up and took notice.
One of the most active and engaged of all the student Buddhist groups in Southern California, BAUCI raised the bar this year with a number of programs and activities that have benefited not only UCI but the local community as well.
I spoke to three members of BAUCI — Michael Tran (who served as President of BAUCI from 2004-2007, and has served as Advisor since 2007), Alex Wong (President of Internal Affairs from 2010-2011), and Vivien Phung (President of External Affairs from 2010-2011, and the incoming President of Internal Affairs for the 2011-2012 academic year) — about the group’s history, accomplishments, goals, and upcoming twenty-year anniversary.
Michael, as one of the more seasoned members of the community, I’m wondering if you could you put the Buddhist Association at UCI into historical perspective. There’s been a lot of extraordinary activity by Buddhist students in Southern California in the last dozen years or so. Can you walk us through both the origin of BAUCI and the other organizations, events, and so forth that have been important at universities in Southern California?
Michael Tran: The Buddhist Association at UCI has existed for almost twenty years. In the beginning the group was composed of devotees of the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas and Fo Guang Shan’s Hsi Lai Temple, and served as a gathering spot for not only those interested in studying Buddhism but the Chinese-American students as well. At the time, it was called the Chinese Buddhist Society (CBS). Besides holding meditation sessions and discussions, members came in to receive free tutoring services and also career networking resources. Later our membership grew larger and more diverse, so the cabinet at the time decided to officially change the name of the club to the Collegiate Buddhist Society.
By then we were more actively involved in specifically Buddhist activities. We constantly worked together with Hsi Lai Temple and their Young Adult Division to host different events, including inviting the temple’s monastics to lead meditation retreats and give Dharma talks about how the Dharma was never separate from our regular lives. Later, because of different causes and conditions, the name of club has changed to the Buddhist Association at UC-Irvine, and since then the activity of the club has been flourishing throughout the campus community. As we have grown larger, the scale of our work has grown as well: our celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday, for example, was a collaborative effort between BAUCI and the Buddhist groups on other, surrounding campuses, such as UCLA, UC-Riverside, and USC.
BAUCI has also expanded in terms of hosting events from the outside, such as the Maitreya Project’s Heart Shrine Relic Tour, the Lotus Sutra Symposium Series, and Tibet Week at UCI (which is an event the campus does in collaboration with Garden Shartse Monastery). Through all these events we are able to bring great awareness of Buddhism to the UCI community as well as the Irvine community.
We are also very fortunate to be able to work with the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Center since 2007. The reverends and the center’s congregation are very compassionate and supportive of our events. Through the years we also received support from Amida Society of Los Angeles, Vairocana Zen Monastery, Pao Fa Monastery, Dharma Drum Mountain, and many, many others. Without the support of these groups, BAUCI would not have been able to become what it is today.
Alex, can you tell us about some of the activities and events organized by BAUCI in recent years? Which have been particularly meaningful and/or significant in your view?
Alex Wong: This question is a big one since we have had many activities and events these past couple years. We very often have guest speakers, symposiums, celebrations and some social outings. We even had an animal blessing event once at a shelter. The general rule of thumb, at least for me while I was on staff, was either to have activities or perish as a club. With that in mind, the staff and I set out to be all encompassing in our efforts to represent the diverse array of Buddhist traditions out there. We didn’t want to pick any particular Buddhist tradition and then limit the viewpoints we presented at our meetings or activities. Instead, we called ourselves the “Buddhist Association” and then went on from there to explore what that meant – Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana or otherwise. It sometimes felt like we were trading breadth for depth, but most of the time we were getting both simultaneously. Having come from a Buddhist background myself, I could maneuver a little easier with regard to the teachers and teachings being presented, but for new people I suppose it is a little bit like learning to swim by plunging headfirst into the pool. At least you get an idea of the vastness of Buddhism before picking which kind of Buddhist you would like to be or whether you would identify as Buddhist at all.
Anyway, in my memory, the intercollegiate Vesak celebration which was held on the UCI campus two years back sticks out as a good activity to discuss. This was an event that was tough to put together but was successful in the end. We had weekly meetings as a penniless staff of five college students to discuss and decide on everything from what kind of flowers to put on the altar to how many attendees we estimated would turn up to where we would get the money for everything. We were ambitious and enthusiastic (at least in the beginning) so meetings would last an average of three to four hours in drafty classrooms on the university campus. Sure, sometimes things devolved into goofing off and required a gentle (or forceful) tug back to the business at hand, but it all worked out for the best, I think.
We tried to have representatives from the major Buddhist traditions present at the event. This was no easy task considering the fact that we first had to find these Sangha members and then figure a way to communicate with them. Sometimes English wasn’t enough. The event had talks, performances, chants, bathing the Buddha and then food. An effort was made to represent Buddhist culture as well as Buddha’s teaching since the message is important, but so is the ritual and tradition, which helped to preserved it over the centuries and into the present. People were there, not as many as we’d hoped, but they were there.
Prior to my graduation, the last major event of BAUCI was the joint visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the creation of the White Tara Sand Mandala on campus by the Gaden Shartse Monastic Tour. We were not the main organizers of these events, but we were connected and tried to contribute as much as possible. If something Buddhist came to campus, we pounced on it regardless of whether we organized it or not.
There was also the trip to India sponsored by UCI for the purpose of visiting the Tibetan communit-in-exile, seeing the Dalai Lama and exploring life in a large monastic university. We invited His Holiness to visit our university campus again, and he accepted our initiation much to our excitement. As the time for His Holiness’ visit approached, the club staff and I approached university officials about having a sand mandala on campus as well. Why not? Finally, both events happened as planned. We were all exhausted at the end but it was a great way to end the year.
From my descriptions, it seems like things always went smoothly for BAUCI these past couple years, but many things screwed up too. In end, all I can say is that we tried and tried hard.
What can you tell us about the makeup of BAUCI? How many students are actively involved? What kinds of things are they interested in? Do they represent a fairly diverse spectrum in terms of background, major, involvement with Buddhism, etc.?
Vivien Phung: In my two years as a part of BA, I’ve noticed that many of the members are students who are looking to learn more about Buddhism – they range from having very little knowledge of Buddhism to those that have dabbled in it and in other religions as well. Those that are also trained in other religions have a genuine interest in Buddhism because it is often similar to their own religion. The students come from all majors and we even have a few graduate students and post-doctorates that are regular members.
Alex Wong: The club is not huge. I wish it were more like some of the other campus organizations that can boast of more people, but it was never a big club with many stable members. The people that do come seem to come largely from non-Buddhist backgrounds. The trend seems to be that if you’re raised Buddhist, even just nominally, you’re not interested in Buddhism. Otherwise, the people that come to meetings usually have had some exposure to Buddhism either from school or elsewhere. It is hard to say what they all have in common other than an interest in the Buddha’s teaching.
I am firmly a social sciences and humanities guy, so I tend to look at the world through those lenses. However, the people we attract are very often majors in the natural or physical sciences. I wish I had some facts and figures to share but I don’t unfortunately.
I do think that the people who come are from a diverse spectrum. Fellow students from the university come in to attend our regular meetings and talks, but very rarely do they specify exactly why they have come. More often than not, the reason they give is just an interest in Buddhism. Sometimes they come because they want to get away from the predominant religions that proselytize on campus. They come to explore and we let them do that without requiring any religious commitment from them. It is their affinity and karma.
In the past, prior to developing the club’s system of four guest speakers every academic quarter, there was the question of whether the club should have more of a practice orientation or a study orientation. People couldn’t sit still in meditation and had no interest in chanting, so it was decided that we would have more of a study orientation. We have a little meditation every meeting to calm the flighty academic minds in the room (our club seems to be popular amongst graduate students and post-grads) in addition to a dedication prayer at the end, but other than that the focus is on presenting and digesting Buddha’s teaching in a semi-academic way. There are three other student organizations on campus that are Buddhist influenced: a community service organization, a meditation group, and a branch of SGI. Between the four groups I suppose there is a certain sense of symbiosis, something for everybody of the Buddhist persuasion. We hold up our end of the bargain – studying the Dharma.
Vivien, as the incoming president, what directions do you see BAUCI going? What are things you hope to preserve at the group? What might you like to see change or develop further?
Vivien Phung: As the incoming president, I hope to continue some traditions such as inviting monastic and ordained guest speakers to come speak to us about the Dharma. However, I would like to incorporate more hands-on learning activities into the weekly meetings. I also hope for Buddhist Association to host more events such as the Gaden Shartse Sand Mandala Tour and perhaps an on-campus meditation retreat. We will also be working closely with the 2011 Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship project, as well as the White House Interfaith Initiative, both of which have recently been started up on campus, to help promote interfaith activities and understanding.
Lastly, you have a major anniversary that’s still a couple of years off. I understand that you’ve begun talking about it and doing some preparations. What can you tell us about that?
Michael Tran: It’s an honor for the Buddhist Association at UCI to celebrate twenty years. We’ve worked hard as well as other Buddhist organizations to bring the Dharma to the people that need it and by bringing up the spirit of compassion and bodhicitta to benefit all sentient beings — to the living through Dharma talks, meditation, pilgrimages, etc., and to the passed through rituals and blessings.
Currently we are composing a portfolio that will have our footprints for the last twenty years, and we are also in the process of planning an array of celebrations including an inter-tradition/interfaith forum and inter-tradition Dharma service. As the events come together we will update everyone on our website at www.clubs.uci.edu/buddhist.