Inside The Hsi Lai Temple
In exclusive interviews with CNN, a Buddhist monk and nun give their side of a Democratic fund-raising controversy that haunts the vice president
By Wolf Blitzer/CNN
LOS ANGELES (Aug. 18) -- It's a story Al Gore would love to go away, and one Republicans love to keep bringing up: what in the world was the vice president doing last year hosting a Democratic fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple near Los Angeles?
In an exclusive interview with CNN, the temple leader explained what he hoped to get from Gore. And telling her story is a Buddhist nun, who has been given immunity so she can testify to the Senate committee investigating the affair without fear of prosecution.
The Hsi Lai (pronounced "see lie") temple is high in the hills outside Los Angeles, an insulated world. Nuns and monks meditate on the teachings of Buddha. It's a far cry from Gore's world of money and politics.
But in April last year, those two worlds collided.
That fund-raiser has become perhaps the most embarrassing moment in Gore's political life. It haunts his ambitions to become president. Whatever really happened here, it lets Republicans charge that Gore was selling U.S. policy for campaign cash.
A Taiwan connection?
Was the temple's master, Hsing Yun (pronounced "sing yun"), trying to influence the U.S. government to be more supportive of Taiwan?
"I have no relationship with the government of Taiwan," Hsing Yun replied through an interpreter. "My meeting with Vice President Gore was based on religious goodwill and friendship. That's all."
Hsing Yun's movement is based in Taiwan. He's the spiritual leader of more than a million believers worldwide. He explained in detail to CNN just what he wanted when he asked Gore to come to his California temple. It's the same story he's been telling Senate and Justice Department investigators behind closed doors, though they remain skeptical.
"We have absolutely no relationship with politics," he said. "I represent only myself and Buddhism."
All about politics
But this story is very much about politics, and more.
The campaign season was in full swing. The Democrats had lost control of Congress and were desperate for money to win it back, so much so that some party fund-raisers were willing to bend, perhaps even break, the law.
Gore had been scheduled to visit the temple to do what he called "community outreach." But party organizers turned the event into a fund-raiser, something prohibited at a nonprofit religious institution.
Gore went despite warnings to his staff from the National Security Council that "great caution" be used, because the temple "may have a hidden agenda" to display U.S. support for Taiwan.
Only the month before, the Clinton Administration had sent warships to the straits of Taiwan after China threatened a missile attack.
Hsing Yun says he gave $5,000 to thank Gore for years of U.S. support.
"In Taiwan we often benefited from U.S. aid. We thought to ourselves, 'One day we will do some good to American society. We'll give them some help.' There was no objective. We did not seek any favors in return," he said.
Continued: Why were the illegal contributions made?
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