Trouble in Zen: Retreat residents file lawsuit in Carroll County

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By Phyllis McLaughlin

By Phyllis McLaughlin

Landmark News Service

Seven residents of a Zen retreat off of Gilgal Road in Carroll County have filed a civil suit against three other members, including the Bodhidharma Monastery’s spiritual leader.

The suit, filed Oct. 28 in Carroll County Circuit Court, alleges breach of contract against the defendants – Buddhist monk Ha Hong Luu, board president; Huang Tran of Crestwood, board vice president; and Catherine Pham of Germantown, Md., board secretary.

In the suit, the plaintiffs claim that Luu – either with or without the knowledge of Tran and Pham – illegally obtained mortgage loans on the property and sold off nearly half of the 300-acre retreat to outsiders, unbeknownst to other members.

The majority of the acreage lies in Carroll County, though portions of the retreat overlap into Henry County.

The suit further alleges that Luu, either on his own or with the knowledge of the two other defendants, “laundered those funds through the Monastery bank account and eventually … used those monies for his own personal gain/use.”

According to documents provided last month to The News-Democrat by the plaintiffs and other concerned members, Luu took out a $30,000 mortgage on property owned by the monastery July 2, 2010, from First National Bank of Carrollton and took a second mortgage of $179,500 on monastery property through that same bank on May 4, 2012.

The suit also alleges that Luu sold tracts of monastery land to others at rates below fair market value in 2012 and 2013.

Other documents provided by the plaintiffs list four transactions labeled “secret illegal sales 2013” – specifically, the sale of 57 acres for $80,970, 70 acres for $101,046, 30 acres and a house for $156,000 and 4.5 acres for $6,000.

Despite protests against the sales from the plaintiffs, the suit further alleges that Luu “failed to take appropriate action to recover those funds for the monastery” and “has indicated that he will be selling other parcels of land to third parties … [who] … may not be interested in the common goals of the community and/or may wish to establish commercial business within the community destroying its purpose.”

The plaintiffs – Cu Nguyen, Loan Nguyen, Nam Do, Mai Pham, Amanda Khong, Hoang Bui and Tien Tran – give addresses on either Zen Forest Road or Hue Nang Trail, properties within the monastery that bear the Turners Station Zip code.

The plaintiffs claim they, in good faith, contributed financially to the original purchase of the monastery property in 2002 and “also performed labor and/or furnished materials for the founding of the community,” according to the suit.

In addition to a court injunction barring future land sales, mortgage activity or other transactions involving monastery lands, the plaintiffs are seeking the appointment of a receiver to handle any funds or transactions while the suit is pending, as well as a court order forcing the defendants to provide all bank and financial records regarding both personal and monastery accounts.

The plaintiffs also are seeking monetary damages and reimbursement of court costs and legal fees.


 Background of the monastery, attorney comments on the suit

In an October 2004 article in The News-Democrat, the monastery was intended to be “a compound to include five sections: a village for laymen planning to move here from all over the country, plus a village for nuns, a village for monks, a public worship area called ‘Buddha Hill’ and space devoted to the wilderness.”

In the article, Zen student Cu Nguyen said he had moved here from Oregon to make the monastery his retirement home.

According to the 2002 Articles of Incorporation, which establish Bodhidharma Monastery as a nonprofit 501(c)(3), and subsequent amendments, the monastery was established as “a religious corporation and is not organized for the private gain of any person. … to promote religious studies and practices of Buddhism: education in Buddhist Zen studies and practices; operation of a Zen Monastery; and charitable works.”

Additionally, the “property of this corporation is irrevocably dedicated to religious purposes and no part of the net income or assets of this corporation shall ever inure to the benefit of any director, officer, or member thereof, or to the benefit of any private person.”

Just with the sales of property alone, the plaintiffs allege in another document that the Bodhidharma Zen Monastery bank account should have a balance of more than $433,000.

“We don’t know where the money went,” Robert Frederick Smith, a Louisville attorney representing the plaintiffs, said Monday. He said there have been rumors that the monk invested the money elsewhere and alleges Luu may be using the funds to pay for personal travel.

“We could have straightened this out by opening up the information about the bank accounts to members, but [Luu] refuses to do this,” Smith said.

Crestwood attorney David Funke, who represents Luu, called the accusations “silly” and said his client, a native of Vietnam who was granted residency in the United States eight years ago, has “impeccable credentials as a healer, peacemaker and leader” who, as a monk, has taken a vow of “poverty, chastity and obedience.”

Funke said his client does travel all over the country because he is “in high demand” for his skills as a Zen teacher.

Funke said he has served as legal counsel for Luu since 2005. “I’ve been familiar with the books and dealings for some time,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “There is nothing there that is contrary to the law. Everything is in order.”

Funke continued: “He has taken a vow of poverty and lives by it, but he has living expenses and has to eat. He travels to do what he is called to do. … I don’t see how [the plaintiffs] have the standing or the right to sue him. Can I sue the Red Cross because I believe the Red Cross has mishandled its money?”

Rather than going to Circuit Court, Funke said the matter should instead be handled through the state attorney general’s office.

Funke said said he believes at least one of the plaintiffs has commercial interests in the property, not his client.

And, filing a civil suit seeking monetary damanges, “I think, speaks as to what [the plaintiff’s] motives are. I don’t think it’s the well-being of a nonprofit organization.”

Smith and Funke both said they plan to meet to negotiate a settlement in this case – possibly as soon as the end of this week.

Smith said if no agreement is forthcoming, the suit will go before Circuit Judge Thomas Funk later this month.