Temple offers Buddhists a place of peace

by Debbie Barr, Special to the Sun Sentinel, September 1 2005

The sanctuary welcomes followers of Buddhism and those who would like to know more about it.

Kissimmee, Florida -- Like many people, Surapol Pongratananukul of Kissimmee copes with the hustle and bustle of modern life on a daily basis. The native of Thailand, however, finds inner peace through the basic principles of Buddhism, a religion of right living and purity of mind laid out by Siddhartha Guatama, the "Buddha," more than 2,500 years ago.

Squeezing in even five minutes a day of prayer and meditation in the Buddhist tradition brings him solace, he said.

"Everyone in the world has problems, suffering," said Pongratananukul, who moved from Thailand to Kissimmee in 1980. The meditation brings peace to your mind, he said. "It makes you happy."

To practice his religion and that of his ancestors, Pongratananukul, 56, has been a regular visitor at the Wat Florida Dhammaram Buddhist temple in Kissimmee since its opening in 1993.

The temple, founded by a Buddhist monastery in Thailand, is the largest of three in Central Florida and serves about 1,000 families locally and out-of-state.

Pongratananukul said he makes weekly visits to the Kissimmee temple on his day off and also accompanies his wife on Mondays when it is her turn to deliver the late-morning meal to the six monks and abbot who reside there. The women in the congregation take turns bringing food to the temple.

The compound is a sanctuary among giant oaks on a 7.6-acre stretch of land. It consists of a main chapel, several shrines, a Sunday school and Thai language and cultural center for children, a fellowship building with kitchen facilities, a monks' residence and a memorial to the Buddha's life.

Inside the main chapel of the temple sits a gilded 15-foot statue of the Buddha surrounded by hundreds of colorful flowers and offerings. The walls are lined with 33 ornately decorated panels made by Thai artisans.

Resident abbot Than Chaokhun Phra Vijitrdhammapani, who has overseen the temple since its opening 12 years ago, said the temple welcomes all Buddhists from across the world as well as people simply interested in learning about Buddhism. The temple, which is equipped with a computer learning station and wide-screen television for DVD viewing, also provides resources and materials for education about the religion.

A native of Thailand, Pongratananukul was raised with the principles of the Theravada branch of the religion, which is practiced in Southeast Asian countries that include Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos. The Mahayana branch is more prevalent in East Asian countries such as eastern China, Japan and Korea. Major centers for Mantrayana branch followers are in the Himalayas, Mongolia and Japan.

The Zen branch is practiced mostly in Japan.

Vijitrdhammapani said the Theravada school, followed at the temple, is the most conservative to Buddha's teachings and strictest in terms of interpretation.

"The Theravada are original Buddhism. We keep all of Buddha's teaching," said the abbot, who, like the other monks at the temple, lives a chaste life with minimal possessions.

He said that while there are several sects of Buddhism, all are rooted in the basic teachings of the Buddha, who was born Siddhartha Gautama in the Himalayas of Nepal about 563 B.C.

Buddha set forth that craving or selfish desire is the root of discontent, while relinquishment of craving leads to awakening and the release of karma, the universal law of cause-and-effect that propels reincarnation.

The five precepts of Buddhism -- no killing, no stealing, no lying, no adultery or misuse of sex and no indulgence in alcohol or other mind-altering substances -- are life skills to be practiced to keep on the path to enlightenment.

In July Theravada Buddhists celebrated Asalha Puja, or Dhamma Day, to commemorate Buddha's first sermon near Benares, India, and the ordination of his first disciples.

Vijitrdhammapani said that with lifetimes of practice, anyone can become a "Buddha" or an enlightened soul.

The temple, at 2421 Old Vineland Road in Kissimmee, is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Chanting and meditation sessions are offered twice daily and a weekly sermon is offered at 1 p.m. Sunday. Basic meditation classes and techniques on concentration are available every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information, call 407-397-9552 or visit watflorida.org.