Where is the First Khmer American Temple?

A good chunk of my questions this month ask to identify the first, the largest, the most whateverest. In the past, I’ve pointed to these superlatives to highlight Asian Americans’ significant role in the development of Buddhism in the United States. But there is a more important reason for asking these questions.

I want my readers to consider the different dimensions of Buddhist America. It’s not just about breaking down ethno-nationalist assumptions and showing that many Khmer Buddhists are not from Cambodia, or that many Cambodian Buddhists are not Theravada. I also want us to think more about where Asian American Buddhists are and how long we’ve been here.

That brings me to the question of today’s post, which was answered by @StarPhalla.

The answer is Silver Spring, Maryland, home to Wat Buddhikarama, founded in 1978.

I’m open to the notion that I have the wrong answer to this question, so I’d genuinely appreciate input from the many who know more about Buddhist America than I do.

When I first posted this question, I assumed the answer was Providence, Rhode Island. This past November, I visited Wat Thormikaram for Kathina, where I was told that the temple was the oldest in the United States. Wat Thormikaram was founded in 1981.

But @StarPhalla pointed out that the Cambodian Buddhist Society was a bit older. CBS was organized in 1976 and incorporated in 1978. The temple has moved a few times since then, but can now be found in Silver Spring. In contrast, the cities with the most Khmer Americans are Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts.

As I mentioned before, I’m happy to send a custom-designed postcard to anyone who correctly answers my #AAPI questions on Twitter, and @StarPhalla is the first postcard winner!

Photo credit: Cambodians in Washington, DC Metro

Happy Vesak!

I was reminded about this holiday by a Khmerican post last night with the photo below.

Then today on Twitter, @MichaelMurphyNY reminded me that I hadn’t posted about holidays in a little while. I didn’t have anything prepared for today. (In the past, I used to do interviews.)

A couple years ago I did an interview about Vesak with Firehorse, an Asian American who’s doing some incredibly awesome work in Southeast Asia. If you want to learn about Vesak from a unique perspective, then go check out that post.

There are a number of different holidays at this time of year to celebrate the Buddha’s birth. In general, the celebration takes place on the full moon day of May, hence this year it’s today. Many Chinese Mahayana Buddhists hold the celebration on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, which was May 17. (Last weekend, I was at the Southern California Celebration of the Buddha’s Birthday.) Japan, which long ago discarded the lunar calendar in favor of the Gregorian calendar, thus celebrates the holiday on April 8, which is extremely convenient for people who only use the Western calendar.

I’d love to hear how you celebrate Vesak. I’m going to temple this Sunday. #BuddhaDay

And thanks for the reminder, @MichaelMurphyNY.

Funeral for Ven. Chhean Kong, 1945-2011

Today is the funeral of Venerable Dr. Chhean Kong, abbot of Wat Khemara Buddhikaram, who died last week. Locally known as Wat Willow, it is one of the oldest and largest Khmer temples in North America.

Because of his background both as a Cambodian and a monk, Chhean was uniquely suited to treat Cambodians suffering from mental disease and trauma, such [as] post traumatic stress disorder and depression.

“He helped a lot of Cambodians with mental problems,” said Borann Duong, a member of the temple and its board of directors. “He was on call all the time, and he was very good when we had problems.”

Describing his approach to therapy to the Press-Telegram about nine years ago, Chhean said, “Rational living creates balance in the mind and body, but for many people suffering from mental illness, medicine and therapy must also be used. There is no reason for the spiritual and medical treatments to be mutually exclusive.”

In its early years, Wat Willow also offered a variety of social, community and cultural services, including weekend basketball tournaments for Khmer youth and adult day care for the elderly parents of working adults.

You can read more at the Long Beach Press-Telegram; the funeral announcement can be viewed here in Khmer and in English at KI Media.

Tribute to Preah Ros Mey, 1925-2010

A leader of Rhode Island’s Khmer community and president of America’s first Khmer temple recently passed away.

[Temple Vice President] Chea also credited Mey with keeping alive the teachings and legacy of Preah Maha Ghosanada, considered the supreme patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism until his death two years ago. Ghosanada and his supporters founded the temple (the Khmer Buddhist Society of Rhode Island). The temple served as a spiritual anchor for Cambodian Buddhists in Rhode Island and across the country.
You can read more about his life and dedication to the Buddhist community at The Providence Journal online.

(Photo credit to Andrew Dickerman/The Providence Journal.)

Christians Volunteer to Help Buddhist Temple

The story comes from the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

Around 25 volunteers from Carefest, an annual church-organized volunteer event, spent the day doing landscape work at the temple, which has been repeatedly targeted by vandals since it opened in 2003. Most recently, its mailbox has been damaged, shrubs destroyed, and security lights yanked from the ground.

One message volunteers wanted to send was that Christians care about people of other religions: It’s an issue that’s been highlighted amid vandalism at the temple, which last year included “Jesus saves” written in spray paint on the driveway.

This is a great news story. As someone who grew up subjected to the we’re-going-to-heaven-you’re-going-to-hell form of Christianity, I am always curious hear about Christian volunteers helping Buddhist institutions. As soon as I browse the title in my news feed, I’m dying to know: Why would they do this? I’m delighted to hear that they see this work as the proper Christian thing to do.

On the other hand, the help that other Buddhists in Minnesota extend to the Buddhist Support Society is easily overlooked. For one, it doesn’t make good press. (Of course Buddhists want to help other Buddhists!) So I’m curious in case anyone happens to know. What have other Buddhists in Minnesota been doing to help?

I’ll be more than happy to post about it.

Poetry of the Killing Fields

Contra Costa Times writes about Buddhist monk Ly Van, who left behind two works of poetry noted for their stunning “lyricism, poignancy and richness” which have since been formatted for broad distribution.

In an immaculate Khmer calligraphy, the 90-year-old monk transcribed two long narrative poems he had written, one called “The Khmer Rouge Regime: A Personal Nightmare” and the other titled “The Unfortunate Love of Sophoan Chea,” a tragic tale also set in the time of the Khmer Rouge.

Feeling the Khmer-language poetry deserved a larger audience, educator Samkhann Khoeun meticulously translated the work and created a book and a Khmer-language CD titled “O! Maha Mount Dangrek: Poetry of Cambodian Refugee Experiences.” The title refers to the treacherous mountain many Cambodians had to traverse to escape their homeland and cross the border into Thailand and the refugee camps.

A national tour is giving public readings, and they’re now in Southern California. Check out the presentation tomorrow at the Mark Twain Library in Long Beach.

Somaly Man

One of my goals is to highlight the profiles of Asian Buddhists, especially those whose religious identity may not be as prominent as their other accomplishments. One incredible personality is Somaly Mam. Tharum Bun has a very kind post about her on his blog Musings from Cambodia, which I’ve included below.

She’s not a prominent politician but an anti-slavery activist and survivor fighting for sex trafficked victims.

The 39 or 40-year-old Somaly Mam (she’s not sure about her birthday) stands out from the crowd for fighting tirelessly against human sex trafficking and helping the victims. In the poverty-ridden Cambodia of 14 million people she is not from an elite family. In fact Somaly was once a former sex worker herself; as a child she was sold into prostitution. But she rose up anyway to run a foundation, which is named after her, to help women and children to escape from slavery.

On the microblogging site Twitter she’s got 315,226 followers (126 tweets posted). In comparison there are only 59,154 people (1,355 tweets posted) who follow Thai former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra via Twitter (the figure was based on the date and time of posting this).

Somaly, also a human rights advocate, uses internet tools prolifically to spread news of her work to as many people as possible. Last week, she posted a tweet from her mobile phone about her speech ontrafficking that she was giving to more 700 students at a university in Phnom Penh.

In April last year Somaly Mam was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential figures. Her profile was written by non other than Angelina Jolie, goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, and she’s listed alongside the likes of British Prime Minster Gordon Brown and US President Barack Obama. You’ll find Somaly in the Heroes & Iconssection in between Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Thanks in part to the mainstream media, she can claim to be one of the most influential Cambodian figures not only in the Twitter universe but alive today.

Check out her book, The Road of Lost Innocence. Photo from Asian Correspondent.

When Monks Go Bad… (Speak Up!)

The Phnom Penh Postreports that “Buddhist intellectuals and civil society groups have called on the government to address a recent outbreak of offences ranging from drunkenness to rape and a deadly beating all allegedly committed by monks.”

Tep Vong, supreme patriarch of Cambodia, said he was aware a monk had been charged with killing a nun earlier this week in Banteay Meanchey province and welcomed the legal action.

“I do not have any particular advice on the issue because Buddhism already takes a clear position against killing animals and human beings,” he said, adding that anyone who committed a crime should be brought before the courts. 

He also insisted that his adviser, Kiet Chan Thouch, chief monk of Wat Leu in Preah Sihanouk province, was not guilty of getting drunk and attacking fellow monks in his pagoda, as was recently alleged. 

“I already investigated [Kiet Chan Thouch’s] case, and the accusations against him are untrue,” he said. The supreme patriarch is now pursuing legal action against Kiet Chan Thouch’s accusers, who he said had deliberately set out to damage the man’s reputation.

previous post here cited a UPI article, which addresses this very case. It’s important to understand the context surrounding these episodes—not just regarding the near annihilation of the Khmer sangha in the late 70’s, but also regarding who exactly today’s saffron-robed perpetrators are. Erik W. Davis wrote a thoughtful piece on this topic at his (former) blog.Nevertheless, a little more enforcement of the Vinaya might be overdue.

Khmer Krom Buddhists

Here’s an issue very dear to my heart, but I’ve very few minutes to write about it. From my Buddhist Channel feed, I saw a link to an article about Khmer language classes at a village in Vietnam. (You can check out the source link here.) For those who know little about Vietnam and Vietnamese history, the Khmer Krom are one of the persecuted Buddhist minorities of Vietnam. The region of South Vietnam was originally part of the Khmer empire, which the Vietnamese began annexing piecemeal from around 1700. (For comparison, the Vietnamese colonization of South Vietnam is along roughly the same timeline as European colonization of North America.) Cambodians still refer to Ho Chi Minh City (Sài Gòn) by its Khmer name: Prey Nokor. Ethnic Khmers constitute a significant minority in Vietnam, but their historical claims to the land are completely glossed over. The Khmer Krom still speak Khmer and still maintain Theravada Khmer temples—but they also face significant cultural, economic and political repression as non-Vietnamese. I’ve obliquely referred to the situation of Khmer Krom a couple times before (as in this post). More on this after I get back. It’s a Kathina weekend!

Now Available in Khmer

On the Khmer Buddhist website, I’ve noticed a number of recent Khmer translations posted (that’s translations from English into Khmer).

In the ever more interconnected domain of Buddhist publishing, the English language reigns supreme. This is where the cultural center of gravity is moving in the Buddhist world. It’s fortuitous for someone like me, a native English speaker, but I wonder what it will mean for the majority of Buddhists, who do not speak English as their native tongue—and what the broader implications will be in terms of influence, prestige and education.