Buddhist festival offers food, ceremony

by Valerie Zehl, Press Connects, Jun. 23, 2011

TOWN OF BARKER, NY (USA) -- Usually the grounds of the Wat Lao Samakhitham Buddhist Temple are silent, except for the whoosh and rumble of trucks going by on Route 11.

This week, though, the place is abuzz with preparation. On Saturday and Sunday, an annual festival will take place on the temple's 31-acre grounds, located south of Whitney Point and north of Castle Creek in the Town of Barker. Just look for the towering saffron archway, and the line of flags leading to a nest of ornate and colorful buildings.

Called Boun Phravet, the holiday celebrates the life of Buddha.

The festival is free and open to the public. Vendors will sell sticky rice, egg rolls, soup and other ethnic food and fare -- but spirituality and tradition are at its heart.

Some monks and other hosts can speak English and explain the unfolding religious ceremonies and symbols, as do booklets written in both Lao and English, said monk Phayvanh Chanthalangsy. He has a temporary home at this Wat Lao, but monks are considered homeless and with few possessions, he said, going wherever they're sent to serve and depending on the grace of others for their natural sustenance.

Beginning at about 10 a.m. Saturday will be "Alm Laos," reminiscent of the daily life of a monk in his native land, when he takes his alms bowl in hand to ask his neighbors to give what they can.

At 1 p.m., a rarely performed "sprinkling ceremony" will honor two monks who have earned a promotion in rank, said temple spokesman Khamhune Chanthavongsa of Endicott.

That caused part of the week's racket: building the structure where the two honorees will sit. They'll be drizzled with water from a snake-like metal channel above them in a ritual purification rite.

That solemn rite begins inside the temple and moves outside, where lay people and monks will walk around the temple three times before returning inside. There, they'll gather for prayer and recitation of the Five Precepts, abstentions at the heart of Buddhist morality, said Chanthavongsa, a former monk who moved to the area in 1975.

At 2:30 and 3:30 p.m., the ceremony will move to the property's pond and into the nearby woods, then back into the temple, the chanting punctuated by the sounding of gongs.

At various points in the day, guests will be treated to Lao folk dancers and music, meet white-robed Buddhist nuns and orange-garbed monks, and can wander the grounds to take in the unique architecture and culture.

Sunday's events begin at 3 a.m. with a "thousand blocks of rice" procession. The balance of the day is devoted entirely to a sermon chanting the story of a man named Phravetsandon. Believers at this Theravada Buddhist temple of the Hinayana sect believe Phravetsandon was reborn as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha.

"I've been there and I loved it," said Anne Bezek of Johnson City. "Everyone was very friendly and welcoming."

If you go

The Wat Lao Samakhitham Buddhist Temple at 2040 Route 11 in the Town of Barker will host a two-day Boun Phravetsandon Festival this weekend. Hours are approximately 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday. Events -- including religious ceremonies, traditional dance and music -- are free and open to the public. Food and other ethnic fare will be available for purchase. For more information, call the temple at (607) 692-7401.