Temple of the heart

by Frank Carini, TownOnline.com, May 6, 2005

New England, USA -- Founded in 1985 and created on the back of $5 and $10 donations, Sanghikaram Wat Khmer Trust, also known as the Lynn Buddhist Temple, has been the cultural and religious backbone of Lynn's Cambodian community for nearly two decades.

But the reach of this Chestnut Street temple and its now seven influential monks is growing. Today, the temple draws people regularly from 24 New England communities, including Revere and Swampscott. During seasonal celebrations, the temple can draw a few thousand people. Even Cambodian-Americans living in Lowell - the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States with 30,000 and home to four Buddhist temples - travel 32 miles south to attend services at Sanghikaram Wat Khmer Trust.

As Lynn's Cambodian population approaches 20,000, the city's affordable-housing market is most often cited as the driving factor. While Lynn resident and Cambodian refugee Sareth Sak acknowledges that correlation, he says people shouldn't underestimate the attraction of the Chestnut Street temple and the influence of its religious leaders. He also hopes the temple can be used as a vehicle to better unite Lynn's Cambodian community.

"Temple is centerpiece of any Cambodian community," says Sak, the lead organizer for the Asian American Community Action Association.

To make that happen, newly-arrived Cambodian refugees, in 1984, began to raise money for a temple. A year later, the group acquired a former church, Calvary Baptist, and converted it into one.

Since then, the temple has acquired a house across the street that is now a monastery residence for monks, and there is talk about acquiring another piece of property in the neighborhood.

Buddhist monk Son Dork, 80, was among those who helped make the temple a reality, going door-to-door on foot in search of donations and distributing flyers. And through interpreter Sak, he says the temple needs to preserve and reeducate the Cambodian community about customs and cultures that "we lost for so many years," referring to the brutal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

"We need to educate younger generation about where they came from and who they are," says Dork. "They need to learn values and beliefs - learn to be good person."

To foster better communication between the city's four generations of Cambodian-Americans, Sak says the temple needs to be a place for the young and old to build a relationship - a place where they can sit and talk.

Conversation, he says, is what his community so desperately needs.