After the countless rows of three-storied, neutral-colored, slat-board houses that make up Providence's West Side, the vibrant intensity of the Wat Thormikaram Temple's colored gates is startling. The gateway looms white and red and spans the length of three houses. Its twelve animal statues represent the Cambodian cycle of the zodiac. Behind the ornate gateway, an unfinished and unremarkable one-room construction project rests on a bare-bones foundation. Soon, a traditional Cambodian Buddhist temple--a Wat--will sit on this foundation, facing east towards the sunrise. This construction project, which began in August 2007, will rebuild America's first Cambodian temple.
The original Wat was founded in 1981 in Providence on Hanover Street by the Venerable Ghosananda, a Buddhist monk. As a testament to its founder, the new temple will use the first building's original foundations and be dedicated in Ghosananda's name. Nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, Ghosananda is also represented as a life-like statue in the temple. On Cambodian high holidays, like this coming weekend's New Year celebration, visitors will make offerings to this statue along with the Bhuddas. "That's how important he is," the Vice President of the Rhode Island Cambodian Society John Chea told the Independent, "Ghosananda was something else, he is god to a lot of people."
The Wat Thormikaram was housed in a quintessential Providence three-story house until an incense candle sparked a fire in the 1990s. In the aftermath, temple reconstruction was slow to start. Unfortunately, construction began at a poor time. In Chea's words: "We were convinced we would be done by the end of 2009, but all of our money just storyed because of the economy. We are about $200,000 behind, but we're sticking around. We aren't going anywhere, the money will come."
With this positive attitude, the construction crew continues to work on the Wat Thormikaram to provide a spiritual center for Cambodians in New England. This Wat is more than a shrine to Buddhism. As America's first Cambodian Holy Ground, the temple is a testament to the story of Cambodian immigrants, and a monument to the country they left.
After the Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s, thousands of Cambodians escaped. The Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals and anyone with a skill-set, wiping out a whole generation of leaders. Between two and three million Cambodians died, mostly due to exhaustion and starvation, but violent acts of torture and brutal murder were also standard. Only 6,000 of 80,000 Buddhist monks managed to survive the regime.
Jon mentioned the shocking violence he experienced before leaving the country at age 13, "I remember it all, refugee camps. I've seen people killed, murdered. People who were shot balled up on the ground. I've seen it all."
The Khmer Rouge came to power when the Venerable Ghosananda was on a spiritual forest retreat. As news of the genocide spread, he learned his family, including 16 siblings, had been killed. But Ghosananda refused to see the Khmer Rouge as "the enemy," and instead worked toward harmony in Cambodian society. Jon Chea told the Providence Journal that Ghosananda "was able to get tens of thousands of Khmer Rouge soldiers to defect...some even became monks...Ghosananda was prepared to stop violence, even in the battlefield." During one of his visits to Cambodia, Khmer Rouge soldiers asked him to bless their weapons so they wouldn't work, in order to prevent more senseless bloodshed.
In 1979, when Vietnam entered Cambodia and refugees fled to factional Thai-border camps, Ghosananda established simple shack-like temples in each refugee camp, and he taught meditation and inner peace. While at a refugee camp on the Thai border, the leader was dispatched to the Ocean State by immigration officials there. "It didn't matter to them, whether you were a Pope or a peasant," said Jon. "They sent people wherever they could find homes." The United States has granted 150,000 Cambodians refugee status since 1975, about 10,000 of which moved to Rhode Island. After Ghosananda's emigration, he founded about 50 temples overseas and dedicated himself to fostering international awareness of Cambodia's plight.
In 1988 Ghosananda was elected Supreme Patriarch, a title conferred by King Sihanouk of Cambodia. He represented Cambodia as a nation-in-exile at the UN, attending peace talks between the four warring Cambodian factions. "He was our only voice," said Jon, "he was a figurehead that brought our story to the light. He was not a politician. Peace, that was his goal, he had no agenda." Ghosanada said there was a fifth force in the fight--"an army of peace." This army would use "courage" and "bullets of metta [loving-kindness] for ammunition" in order to reach reconciliation. His teachings were mystifyingly simple: inner peace would lead to social peace; personal transformation would lead to social transformation. Jon said, "He was very calm, he was quiet and very solemn, if you asked him questions he would answer, but mostly he just smiled."
About ten to twenty people come to pray at the temple daily. But on holidays, the streets have to be shut down to accommodate the thousands of Cambodian Buddhists who flock here to celebrate the Khmer New Year and Thanksgiving. For the New Year, which will take place this weekend, Jon described a mass of people in the streets. The New Year is celebrated with offerings to the monks, reunions, and dancing. "In this fast-paced lifestyle, it is like a gift to have a couple of hours to celebrate, and reflect. Catch up with people, ask how are you, make sure you are alive. All the people reconnecting, the camaraderie is amazing.
"Neighbors in the beginning were not very happy, but eventually they understood that we are here for good. Now they are very positive, they just know in April and November this place will be crazy."
A vibrant, extensive shrine continues to thrive in the part of the original building that escaped the fire. Offerings of crimson flowers, unlit candles, brass goblets and green wreaths cushion six-foot-tall golden Buddhas. Behind the Buddhas glint unfinished window installations, and the doorknob-less doors flop loudly in the wind. Thin carpet is laid over the section of planks that awaits tiles, and thick, industrial-orange wires cross the shrine. The set-up of such a complex religious altar in the skeleton of a building still under construction is odd, but Chea explained, "It was just that we didn't want to move it. It had to be there. Religiously it must be here the whole time. There is a spiritual protection it's providing to the building." So the Buddhas will oversee the construction of the Wat Thormikaram as Jon and his crew help it to reclaim its position as a spiritual anchor and communal nucleus for expat Cambodians everywhere.
MAGGIE LANGE B'11 faces east towards the sunrise with guidance from HENRY PECK B'11 who calls it Cambodge.