Buddhist growth brings a temple

By CAMERON WOODS, The Taunton Gazette, Sept 25, 2006

Raynham, Massachusetts (USA) -- The building at 382 South St. East is an average-looking New England house, for now. The property is home to Thai Buddhist monks who use it while awaiting the building of the Wat Nawamintararachutis temple. Once completed, it will be the larger of two Theravada, or traditionalist, Buddhist temples in the state. The other is in Malden.

The monks bought the $1.5 million lot earlier this year and are working on plans for the temple. A little more than a dozen monks live in the one-family house, sharing their living space with temple activities.

For these monks, maintaining a traditional way of life has not been easy in America, but the growing Buddhist community in this country works to preserve their culture. In an average week the temple will see 200 patrons in search of a place to meditate or for a lesson from the monks.

Bristol County's population is only 1.7 percent Asian, according to U.S. Census data, but the monks say they draw visitors and support from Asian and non-Asian Buddhists from throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

One family working hard to keep their culture strong are the Kijsurachais, owners of Spizy, a Thai restaurant on Route 44.

"We moved here from Thailand with our children, and our restaurant is one of many that brings the monks food," said Sam Kijsurachai, a leader in the local Asian community. "In Thailand, the monks walk through villages and ask for food, but here we bring the food to the temples."

With interest in Buddhism increasing among westerners, Kijsurachai says that the small temple gets support not only from the Thai community, but also from a growing number of Americans.

"We get many Americans at the temple because they are seriously interested in studying Buddhism and want to learn about our culture," he said. "It will be very nice to have a bigger temple, because now we have many monks and visitors that are crammed into the house."

Though plans are not yet finalized, representatives from the temple met with the town planner Tuesday to discuss preliminary design ideas.

"As I understand it from the monks, the building will be a pretty traditional-looking temple, like a pagoda in appearance," said the planner, Richard McArthy. "They have brought in an example of what it might look like and it is smaller than I had expected, but very interesting."

The temple would be have a footprint between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet, with two or more stories, but McArthy says the monks will use a good portion of the 51-acre lot for outdoor activities.

The monks will celebrate a major holiday Oct. 21 under a tent. According to McArthy, at this celebration they will be host to a high-ranking holy man from Thailand who will help them hone the temple's design.

"The temple has to be traditionally accurate, and once it is built we will be able to teach Thai-language classes and have ceremonies with about 200 people," Srisak Sihatrai, director of the temple. "This property is something we looked for for a long time because it is big enough and has many trees and a small stream on it."

The monks are scheduled to meet again with the town planner after their celebration. The site plan should be settled then.

While Buddhists such as the Kijsurachai family wait for word on the temple, they must continue visiting the house on South Street East.

"It will be very nice to have a place to gather and be together," Kijsurachai said.

Like many men from Thailand, Kijsurachai became a monk after graduating from school.

Becoming a monk is not a lifelong commitment. Many Buddhist men serve as a monk for the three-month Buddhist Lent running from mid-July through the beginning of October, according to their lunar calendar. Although demanding employment and changing lifestyles make for fewer lifelong monks, the majority still become ordained as a cultural rite of passage.

"It was a very happy time for me to be a monk for three months," he said.

Although for Kijsurachai the days of being a monk are behind him, for his son, Jazz, a student at Bridgewater-Raynham High School, the decision to be ordained, even for three months, is still to be made.

"We do not force our son to become a monk, but it is a great opportunity for people to really learn about Buddhism," Kijsurachai said. "It cannot be explained, because the meaning of Buddhism is something that every person must find for themselves."