Buddhist temples cultural, spiritual havens for local Asian-Americans

By Kyle Alspach, Sentinel & Enterprise, April 30, 2006

Fitchburg, MA (USA) -- Silently, the monk in the bright orange robe sits lotus-style, taking in deep breaths, one after another. Surrounded by golden Buddha statues, flowers and fruit offerings, the 64-year-old is demonstrating the meditation routine he does every morning and night.

He serves at one of Fitchburg's two Buddhist temples, the Wat Lao Dhammaram, which opened near Saima Park in 1996.

The center's congregation derives from the Asian nation of Laos.

"A lot of Laotians need a temple," said Khamphouy Sommala, 61, who founded it. "They need to keep the culture and the customs."

Another Buddhist center -- the Hue Lam Meditation Temple, a Vietnamese congregation -- opened in West Fitchburg a year ago.

The influx of hundreds of Asian families to the region over three decades has fueled the creation of the temples.

Some of them have brought a desire to continue the Buddhist pursuit of "freedom from suffering" -- through practices such as meditation and chanting.

For monks such as Phop Xayphakatsa, who serves at Wat Lao Dhammaram, the temple is life.

He and another monk aren't allowed to leave the temple grounds.

But for many Asians in the community, the temple is a reminder of home.

Sammy Sommala, brother of Khamphouy, smiles when he speaks of the similarity between Wat Lao Dhammaram and the temples in his native land.

"It's exactly the same," said Sammy Sommala, 50.

Laos is a mountainous nation in Southeast Asia bordered by Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west.

During the Vietnam War the two Sommala brothers had served in the Laotian army, which supported the Americans.

They had to temporarily flee the country to Thailand after the war, and came to America in 1980.

"We can't stay over there," Khamphouy Sommala said.

Khamphouy Sommala said the building at 159 Richardson Road was once a school, before he bought it for use as the Buddhist temple.

The ceremony room of the temple has no seating, only mats on the floor, where several people sat eating lunch with the monks last week.

The focal point of the room is a crowded stage containing fruit and flowers offered to Buddha, dozens of small statues and three larger, golden statues.

Khamphouy Sommala says the temple only drew a few people at first for holiday celebrations, such as New Year's, and the regular monthly Sunday service.

Now the temple receives 200 to 300 people, he said.

The Asian population in the Fitchburg-Leominster area was almost nonexistent in 1980, but by 1990 had grown to about 1,600 people, according to U.S. Census data.

Their numbers nearly doubled by the 2000 census, to more than 3,000.

One of the most recent people to come to the area from Laos is 28-year-old Khamphou Chindamay.

Chindamay came in 2004 to serve as a monk at Wat Lao Dhammaram.

He also came to study. Chindamay is now working toward a GED certificate at the McKay building at Fitchburg State College, and doesn't plan to stop at that goal.

"I want to continue my education at a college," Chindamay said. "I'm not sure what major I want to choose."

Laotians are not to be confused with the Hmong people, said Bee Yang, president of the local Hmong-Laotian Foundation.

Though many of the Hmong come from Laos, they are ethnically different from Laotians and speak a different language, Yang said.

Only Laotians tend to practice Buddhism, while Hmong do not, he said.

Yang estimated that the twin cities have about 200 Laotian families and 180 Hmong families.

The younger Buddhist congregation in Fitchburg, found at the Hue Lam Meditation Temple, consists largely of people from Vietnam.

The temple occupies a former Catholic Church at 2 Vernon St., off Westminster Street.

It opened in January 2005.

"This temple is a little beauty," said the Venerable Man Shing, an American Buddhist nun based in Worcester. "But it's just getting started."

A normal Sunday ceremony at the temple takes place in the church's original arched sanctuary, which now contains a six-foot-high gold Buddha.

The services usually attract 30 to 40 people, but holidays can draw up to 200, Man Shing said.

Larger celebrations take place in a newer sanctuary. The church's pews and organ pipes remain, but Buddhist icons and Vietnamese phrases now decorate the hall.

One larger celebration is the birthday of Buddha, which will happen May 7.

Three nuns preside at the temple. The head nun is Su Co Nhu Bao, a 40-year-old Vietnamese immigrant.

Bao, who speaks limited English, said through a translator that she has big plans for the temple.

She would like to start a separate meditation ceremony in English every Saturday morning, while continuing the Sunday services in Vietnamese.

A free, day-long meditation retreat will be offered on May 6 at the temple, which is open to everyone.

Buddhist ideas have caught on strong in America -- and in Central Massachusetts -- during the past few decades, said Ahna Fender, public awareness coordinator for the Insight Meditation Society in Barre.

The society offers silent meditation retreats for anyone -- not just Buddhists -- with teachings based on Buddhist ideas, Fender said.

"Anyone can meditate," she said. "It's really not limited to one religious preference."

Sharon Salzberg, who co-founded the society in 1976, said she has seen interest from people in Central Massachusetts grow in recent years.

Much attention has been paid to the health benefits of meditation recently, causing more people to seek out the society, Salzberg said.

Most people who visit do not intend to become Buddhists, she said.

"They are interested in the methodology of meditation," Salzberg said.

Retreats at the society take place on a secluded, 200-acre property in Barre.

The small town also contains the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, which is affiliated with the society.

The center offers classes year-round on subjects such as Buddhist psychology and meditation for college-aged students.

According to tradition, Buddhism began in Nepal and India in the 6th century B.C. through the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama.

The religion spread throughout Southeast Asia, but didn't get much notice in America until the latter half of the 20th century.

Khamphouy Sommala said he has gotten used to the way Buddhism is practiced in America, where temples are staffed by just three monks.

Some temples in Laos are occupied by between 100 and 150 monks, he said.

But he doesn't dream of going back, either.

"I'll stay here (in Fitchburg) forever," he said. "This is my city."