SUGAR LAND, Texas (AP) -- The gilded temple shimmers in the dusty air as the sound of jackhammers carving out pagodas competes with a mockingbird's song.
A plump Buddhist monk sweats under his saffron dress robe in the heat of a Texas afternoon. He reclines in the monastery library, cooling himself with a 5-foot-long sandalwood fan.
In the adjoining temple, dozens of worshippers press their foreheads against the wall-to-wall carpeting before a 35-foot-high, white fiberglass Buddha. Thick, sweet incense curls about the altar flowers. Sometimes, the temple bells and drums can be heard blocks away, at the Circle K or Ali Baba's Barbecue.
This is the 10-acre Vietnam Buddhist Center in suburban Houston, which unifies the large Vietnamese immigrant population -- second in size only to that of Los Angeles -- by helping newcomers adjust to American life while teaching ancient ways to their children.
More than 100,000 Vietnamese immigrants are concentrated on the city's southwest side, where Chinese characters blare the names of Texas businesses in neon, and street signs are in Vietnamese. Along the 14-lane freeways, travelers tune in to Houston's Little Saigon Radio.
Thich Nguyen Hanh, the monastery's abbot and founder, sits serenely at a table in the library, hands folded, watching an ant crawl by his finger. He has lived in a monastery since he was 6.
''I would never kill an ant,'' said Hanh, who suffered decades of persecution by communists in Vietnam at a time when monks were routinely imprisoned or executed for their religious beliefs. ''I don't think the ant would like it. I would not like it if the lion killed me.''
Hanh, who fled Vietnam in the late 1980s on a frail wooden boat sailing across the South China Sea, said he is not bitter toward those who hurt him.
''Buddhism is about compassion,'' he said. ''There is no reason to ever be afraid. The only thing that anyone has to fear is that he will lose his compassion.''
The monks teach their philosophy of gentleness to about 4,000 worshippers who gather each week in the 8,000-square-foot temple, one of about two dozen across Houston. Construction at Hanh's monastery began in 1994, and continues as pagodas are added to house the ashes of the dead, and statues arise on the lawn.
The monks preserve Vietnamese folk culture by telling fortunes, performing acupuncture and doing feng shui consultations, in which they advise on where to build houses and how to decorate to create the proper flow of energy.
The immigration of Buddhists from places like Vietnam and Tibet feeds the growing popularity of Buddhism among Caucasians in America, says Lama Surya Das, author of the best-selling ''Awakening the Buddha Within'' and ''Awakening the Sacred.''
''We are seeing more people from Judeo-Christian traditions ... becoming Buddhist,'' says Surya Das, who grew up as Jeffrey Miller in a Long Island Jewish family and studied with monks in Asia for 20 years.
East and West meet in other ways, too. Monks have set up a counseling facility for Vietnamese immigrants who suffer psychological problems similar to those of American veterans of the Vietnam War.
Some of the immigrant elite, accustomed to servants and jewels, become depressed about their changed circumstances in America, said Hanh Vo, a Houston psychotherapist who works with the monks.
While the monks join the modern world by taking psychology classes and Rollerblading through the monastery for exercise, the children and grandchildren of immigrants are turning to the old values. They travel from all parts of the country to the monastery, which Hanh is working to make an international training facility. About 20 monks live there and 15 more are in training.
''How do you say persecute in Vietnamese?'' asks Jennie Tran, 15, a Houston high school student trying to question a monk who moved to the United States recently about his experiences.
Tran, her hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail, walks with all the style and flair of her mother, a fashion designer at JCPenney, even in the plain indigo robes of a novice Buddhist nun.
Soon, she will shave her head and take on vows of lifelong chastity and poverty. She studies about 20 hours a week, after school and during vacations, and probably will finish high school before taking her final vows. She is learning Vietnamese, which she whines about, and solemnly professes the benefits of vegetarianism, which she has practiced for a week.
Chu Thai Binh, 20, was born in Vietnam, where his father was killed in the war, then moved with his mother to Baton Rouge, La.
''Buddhism takes a lot of time, once you get involved in it,'' said Thai Binh. ''I want to become a monk so much. I want the time to meditate.''
But Thai Bihn, who is spending two months at the center, said he also must take care of his family.
''I have to think of my duty first,'' Thai Binh said. ''My mother doesn't make that much money. I think I will go to pharmacy school so I can support my brothers and sisters until they finish school. Then when they are grown, I will become a monk.''
The life of a monk protects aspirants from distractions and allows them to meditate, pray and study.
The monks eat vegetarian meals of steaming seafood soup and rice covered with tofu. About three hours of the day are spent in silence. Most days they wear brown robes, the color of the earth, which remind them to respect nature.
At the end of the meal, Hanh, the abbot, rings a bell to indicate the silence can end. He presents the students with a koan, or Buddhist riddle.
''What is Buddhism?'' he asks.
The answers come: a philosophy, a religion, a way of life.
''Buddhism is to smile and be happy,'' he said. ''Now you go smile and be happy, and I'll go smile and be happy.''
End adv for Friday, Dec. 8, and thereafter
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