To the south of Los Angeles is a lively independent suburb named Garden Grove. This small city with a population of around 170,000 is home to the Little Saigon of the Los Angeles region, named for the large number of Vietnamese refugees that immigrated there during the 1970s. Garden Grove has long been known as a conservative bastion with a well-run political machine that kept a tight leash on who ran the city. On 4 November by a margin of just 15 votes, Bao Nguyen beat incumbent mayor Bruce Broadwater to become one of a growing number of Buddhists now engaging in public political service in America.
In doing so, Bao Nguyen became not only the second Vietnamese-American mayor in US history, but also the first to serve in an American city with a population of over 100,000. In addition, at the sprightly age of 34, he became the youngest mayor in the history of Garden Grove. His path into the arena of public service was accompanied by a journey deep into the heart of the Buddhist faith. His Bachelor’s degree, which was in Political Science, came from the University of California in Irvine, but after graduating he turned to Naropa University, where he received a Master’s degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies, studying under the guidance of Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown.
Having been highly active in civic service since his youth, he did not take his studies at Naropa as a call to become a recluse; rather, he took the ideas of Buddhism as a call to benefit others through public service.
When asked how his faith and Buddhist Studies have influenced his experience, he says that Buddhism guides him in his belief in good government. He is highly influenced by the Vimalakirti Sutra, specifically the The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture, a translation of the sutra by Robert Thurman. In a telephone interview, Bao said, “Vimalakirti showed that there is a way for a lay person to benefit many beings—one does not have to be a monastic. He shows that as a lay person one can help many beings see reality and engage in non-judgment . . . one can develop tolerance through recognition of the non-arising of phenomena.”
Bao emphasized being influenced by the principle of anutpattikadharmakshanti, which Vimalakirti says is the “entrance into non-duality” and Judith Simmer-Brown explained as “tolerance for the birthlessness—or incomprehensibility—of all things, which allows one to experience joyful patience within ambiguity and have a direct curiosity into the unknown.” Bao believes that someone who has dedicated their life to public service will find that this helps to free them from a divisive view and to engage with people from a place of openness, enabling them to hear others’ needs.
When speaking of his education at Naropa, he fondly remembered his time there: “I was able to develop a very strong moral compass. I am grateful for the education that I received there,” he said, adding that when people ask him how he finds Buddhism useful, he replies that it is “extremely useful. I used it every day during my campaign, and now I use it in governing.”
Bao Nguyen winning the election to govern Garden Grove is not just a sign of Americans accepting a new generation of youth into the realm of governance—it is a sign that the Dharma is starting to be well accepted in American culture. Bao’s election indicates that Buddhist thought is beginning to shape and influence American political thinking, and in doing so, is bringing principles of compassion, openness, and integrity into an area of life that is well served by good motivation and intention.