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

Project Renew: Rebuild the Lao Temple

Remember the Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado that burned down? Well, now you can help. Especially if you live in Colorado.

On Saturday, February 18, 2012, you can attend a fundraiser at the University of Denver where “Asian and hip-hop communities will rise in solidarity to hold an extravaganza of Asian cultural dances and hip-hop showcases.” Admission is just $5!

To quote the flier:

The Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado burned down on December 5, 2011. Only darkened debris and remnants of memories were salvaged of the once regal temple that emanated strength and hope.

Even a small donation will make a big difference to this community. You can learn more about the temple at their website, where you can even submit a donation by Paypal.

Planning on attending the fundraiser? Let me know—I’d be delighted to post your photos or share your thoughts on this blog.

Support Lao Buddhists of Colorado

There is a huge backlog of Angry Asian Buddhist posts that I haven’t quite gotten around to, but some issues are more important than others. This is one of them. Gil Asakawa writes from Colorado:

The Laotians epitomize the ability of recent immigrant communities to hang together and promote their traditional culture and values while they (especially the younger generation) embrace American culture and values. That sense of unity will serve them well in the months to come, as they rebuild “their heart and soul,” as one tearful women described the temple.


I visited the temple yesterday afternoon and felt an indescribable sadness for their loss. Firefighters were still milling about, sifting through debris, probably investigating the cause of the fire. Police blocked the street (the temple faces a side street, not Wadsworth Blvd., which is a major thoroughfare). But a steady stream of Laotians kept coming by, parking their cars down the block and walking to the temple to pay their respects and offering their help.

One young man sitting in his car with his baseball cap askew rolled down the window and turned down the hip-hop on stereo to ask me details about the fire. I told him what I knew. He told me he’d helped the head monk for several years and considered him a mentor. A woman who parked her car and began walking began sobbing when she got her first look at the burned-out skeleton of the temple. She said she left work early when she first heard about the fire. Many of the visitors had just heard about the tragedy through the community grapevine while at work.

The community has established the Lao Buddhist Temple Fire Relief Fund at 1stBank, a Colorado-based bank chain, and is accepting donations to help rebuild the temple. You can find the nearest 1stBank location here, or call Sy Pong at 720-210-7555 or Maly at 720-217-6142.

It’ll help the Laotians bring back to life the heart—and soul—of their community.

Please support Colorado’s Lao Buddhists. You can learn more about the situation at the links below.

  • Congregation gathers at Buddhist temple lost in Westminster fire [Nina Sparano, KWGN]
  • Community rallies to rebuild Buddhist temple destroyed by fire in Colorado [Buddhist News]
  • Lao Buddhist Temple of Colorado Needs Help to Rebuild After Devastating Fire [Gil Asakawa, Huffington Post]
  • Buddhist Monks Hoping To Recover Temple Artifacts After Fire [Deb Stanley, ABC7News]
  • Blaze destroys Buddhist temple [CNN]

If you donate more than $250, I’ll send you a thank you card. More importantly, you’ll be providing enormous help to a Buddhist community that dearly needs it.

Update: In response to a question on Twitter, the fire occurred in Westminster, a suburb northwest of Denver. You can also get more information about donations at the temple’s website: laobuddhisttempleofcolorado.com.

The Future of American Buddhsim

While searching for inspiration for our temple’s summer camp next year, I came across some videos of other temples’ summer programs. These compositions reminded me that our “traditional Asian enclaves” are doing lots of work to nurture the next generation of American Buddhism. Much of what you read about Buddhist Asian America online comes from members of the Buddhist commentariat who are not part of these communities, and so I thought it would be good for you to see our backward, retrograde, traditional and insulated communities speak for themselves.

My favorite clip comes from the Sacramento Obon festival, where Socho Ogui, Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, danced to Taio Cruzalong with other Buddhist ministers and youth leaders.

The next generation of American Buddhism will come from many quarters, but it looks like some temples are already giving their kids a head start in community involvement.

Happy Ohigan!

Today marks the start of Ohigan (or Higan-e), a Japanese Buddhist holiday. To learn more about this holiday, I had the honor of interviewing Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge, resident minister at the Buddhist Church of Oakland. On the blogosphere, you may be more familiar with Rev. Harry’s podcast, the DharmaRealm, a Shin Buddhist podcast, which he produces with Dr. Scott Mitchell. Rev. Harry can also occasionally be found teaching at the Institute for Buddhist Studies.

Who are you?

A half-Asian Jodo Shinshu Buddhist minister. Also a musician and cat lover.

What is the Buddhist significance of this holiday?

I think several explanations are possible. “Higan” means “Other Shore” – in other words, the Other Shore of enlightenment. At the spring and autumn equinoxes, when night and day are the same length, the Japanese considered the Other Shore to be at its closest point, and thus an important time to practice, especially the paramitas. In fact, the term “paramita” can be interpreted as “reaching the Other Shore.”

Having lived in Kyoto, which is bone-chillingly cold in winter and unbearably hot and humid in summer, I wonder if monks found the mild weather of spring and fall to be more conducive to extended practice and lectures?

What does this holiday mean to you?

I usually view Ohigan in terms of balance. With night and day of equal length and mild weather neither too hot nor cold, I see the Middle Way in action.

What do you plan to do on/for Ohigan? 

My temple held its Ohigan celebration a week early. Not for any particular reason, things just worked out that way. One interesting result was that our service was on the first day of daylight savings time, so that things were kind of thrown out of balance. This was reflected in the world, since our service was a couple of days after the earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan. But although part of my Dharma Message was about the sadness we feel for those suffering, I also went ahead with my initial plan for a call-and-response funk version of the Golden Chain, calling on everyone to aspire to be the best Buddhists we can be, to try and be kind and gentle to every living thing, with the wish that all beings attain perfect peace. 

You can follow Rev. Harry on his blog, The Nenju, and also on Twitter (@gyokyo). Last year, Rev. Harry participated in an all-Asian American interview about Buddhism in America, which I blogged about. If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of Rev. Harry and his work in the Buddhist community.

All my best wishes for your practice this Ohigan.

Discrimination Against Buddhists in Kansas

Fox 4 Kansas City reports on alleged neighborhood discrimination against Buddhists in Kansas.

The Lao-Buddhist Association [Wat Lao Buddhasampham] is trying to move it’s Olathe temple to a location along 119th Street in Olathe. But the Johnson County Board of Commissioners has so far denied the group a conditional use permit. Neighbors say that the area the Buddhists have chosen is zoned residential, but Lama Chuck Stanford of the Rime Buddhist Center says that discrimination is the real reason behind the opposition.

“This is clearly just ugliness of ethnic and religious prejudice,” said Stanford. […] Standord notes that Christian churches are common in residential areas, and that comments made by residents during a January zoning board meeting indicate fear and ignorance. At the meeting, people raised concerns about traffic, water pollution and “animal sacrifices,” along with noise from gongs, which Stanford says are no louder than church bells.

You can watch a video and read the article in full at Fox 4 Kansas City. I’m very grateful that Chuck Stanford has the integrity to go out of his way and stand up for the rights of Lao American Buddhists.

Elsewhere on this blog, I keep track of vandalized Buddhists temples. I’m not including Wat Lao Buddhasampham on this list simply because vandalism (fortunately) doesn’t appear to be one of the issues. Even so, if you have updates or more information on this community situation, I encourage you post in the comments section below!

Buddhist Temples Under Attack

Every once in a while, a Buddhist temple is vandalized. Property is stolen, statues are defaced. When these stories make it into the daily news, they are picked up off the news feed and broadcast to the larger Buddhist community by high-bandwidth bloggers like Barbara O’Brien and Rev. Danny Fisher. A week passes, and for the vast Buddhist readership out there, it’s as though the event never occurred.

I collected a few of these incidents from 2010 and saved them into Google Maps. There are reports of attacks on centers in Iowa, KentuckyMinnesota and Ontario. (I only looked at North America.) Spread across America’s “Mideast,” these are surely not the only violent incidents over the past year. They are just those that turned up in my news feed.

If I had the abundance of spare time that I do on my vacation, I would probably connect with each of these temples, hear their stories first-hand, do some follow up investigation and report on it. Aside from wanting to bring greater definition to the incident’s human face, I’d want to know what the best way to help is. Every center has its own unique character, its own unique set of challenges to overcome.

This little map is just one step in that direction. As a resource, it doesn’t take much effort to maintain. All this information is already available in the public domain. Hopefully, someone might make use of it to reach out and provide local support. This map also serves to track events and trends that are quickly forgotten in our attention-deficit blogosphere.

Please drop a comment if you know of a (documented) recent incident you think should be added.

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.

Back from Chicago!

I just returned from a trip to Chicago, where I complained incessantly about the lack of 80 degree weather. Prompted by a question from Richard Harrold, one of the places I returned to was Wat Phrasriratanamahadhatu. Years ago I used to go there for chanting and meditation, and also for some of the major holidays. I also swung by Wat Khmer Metta, where some close friends of mine used to serve as monks. If any readers have visited either of these temples, I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Photos below!

(The larger space; front entrance on Broadway.)
Wat Khmer Metta
There is a lion in front!

Bat Nha on the Wall Street Journal

A Wall Street Journal opinion suggests the US State Department add Vietnam to its “list of countries of particular concern for religious-rights violations.”

Hanoi was listed from 2004 to 2006, and then removed as a reward for limited liberalization. Vietnam remains the only country that has changed its laws explicitly to get itself removed from the roster. The government made it easier to register religious groups, dropped some egregious policies such as forcing believers to renounce their faith, and improved its relations with the Vatican.

The Bat Nha example exposes how prone to backsliding Hanoi is if it’s not forced to follow such early steps with further progress. Now is a good time to ratchet up the diplomatic pressure again.

In a coupleprevious posts, I linked to differing views on the Bat Nha situation—the whole back-and-forth can be found on the Buddhist Channel(see herehereherehere and here.)