Buddhist U.

Emerging Campus in Aliso Viejo Aims to Join East and West

Los Angeles Times, October 2, 1999
By Elaine Gale

Perched on 100 acres at the edge of a majestic canyon in Aliso Viejo, a university campus is being built by an international Buddhist organization that hopes to build cultural bridges between East and West.

A skeleton of a campus now sits on the wind-swept plateau, with half-built buildings draped in plastic and surrounded by construction workers, trowels and scaffolding.

The barren grounds will be lush by August, say organizers, who have planned extensive landscaping with a large "Peace Fountain," an artificial lake and 12 types of trees around the campus, including fruit-bearing avocado and orange trees.

Soka University of America's latest campus--following others built in Japan and Los Angeles County--is scheduled to open to students May 3, 2001.

"One of our underlying goals was to serve the Pacific Rim and bring together Eastern and Western cultures," said Wendy Harder, director of community relations for Soka in Aliso Viejo. Soka chose California for its American campuses to be near the Pacific Ocean, the bridge between the East and the West, she said.

The private university expects to reach an enrollment of 1,200 undergraduate students in five years, with graduate classes to be added later. The campus is being built by Soka Gakkai International, a lay organization of Buddhists from 128 countries. With 20,000 members, Soka Gakkai is the largest Buddhist organization in Southern California.

The Aliso Viejo campus is the third location in the Soka system, which was developed by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a Japanese pacifist who died in a Japanese prison during World War II.

The oldest Soka University is in Hachioji, Japan. It has about 8,000 students and was founded in 1971. The second Soka campus covers 600 acres in Calabasas and opened in 1987 amid a legal tangle with environmentalists from the the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy, who battled successfully to preserve a portion of the pristine land.

The Calabasas campus offers no undergraduate degrees, only a master's degree in foreign language education; English language classes for students from Japan; a Japanese Language Center and non-credit foreign language classes for American students.

"I really love this school. The philosophy is to contribute to society," said Richard Mazel, a practicing Buddhist and graduate student at the Soka University in Calabasas. "When you have that kind of focus, it's easy to work hard."

Spearheading the newest Soka campus is Eric Hauber, vice president for academic affairs and a member of the Soka Gakkai organization. He moved to Orange County from New Jersey to realize Soka's vision of a Tuscany-inspired campus with hand-troweled plaster buildings nestled near Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park.

Both a religion and a philosophy, Buddhism was founded more than 2,500 years ago by Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy Indian prince who walked away from his riches in search of the cause of suffering.

Buddhists use chanting, visualizations, meditations and rituals to cultivate detachment.

Hauber said the founders and members of Soka Gakkai want to emphasize Buddhism's philosophy instead of its religion in the undergraduate years. Although the university is founded and funded by Buddhists, it will have no required religion courses and no religiously oriented buildings on campus.

"Our goal isn't to produce Buddhists," Hauber said. "We want to produce young people who have developed a strong character and a sense of ethical responsibility."

Freshman dorms, however, will feature "multi-faith" rooms in which students may sign up to practice their respective faith traditions.

The structure of the campus is planned to foster a sense of community, with "cluster" spots of benches or outside terraces so students will mingle. There will be one cafeteria--no separate dining for faculty--with large tables to force students to interact with more than their immediate friends.

"We're proud to be the host region for this campus," said Frank Williamson, spokesman for Soka Gakkai International-USA in Santa Ana, who expects the university grounds and art museum to also serve the Orange County community.

Although the school may not emphasize faith, many of the administrators share the Buddhist philosophy. Twelve of the 17 administrators are members of Soka Gakkai.

The first year, the school hopes to enroll at least 100 undergraduates and expect more than 30% to be foreign students. The next year, they hope to enroll 100 more. After five years, the administrators will evaluate the efficiency of the marketing and the campus.


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