Buddhist temple in Catlett reaches out to county neighbors

By Cheryl K. Chumley, Fauquier Times-Democrat, Nov 8, 2005

Catlett, Virginia (USA) -- For the fifth year, members of Wat Lao Buddhavong in Catlett offered thanks for hospitality to the residents of Fauquier County, via a formal expression of dinner and cultural festivities at the temple, or sala, on Saturday evening.

<< At the Wat Lao Buddhavong in Catlett, Vernon Riley, president of the Catlett Fire Company, receives a plaque of thanks from Souksomboun Sayasithsena (in suit) and Phra Ajaan Maha Bounmy Kittithamavanno, a monk.  

Called the Neighbor Dinner, the 5:30 p.m. affair included what one attendee referred to as the "graceful beauty" of specially trained dancers -- some as young as 7 years old -- who performed in traditional Thai fashion.

The dancers, ranging in age up to 18, train weekly at the temple to bring their art to a nationwide audience; they had just returned from Richmond in time for Saturday's event.
"It's beautiful," said Caroline Anderson, an official with BB&T Bank who studied meditation at the temple and now handles its banking accounts. "They just talk with their hands and feet and it reminds you of a Hawaiian dance ... but it's just so graceful."

Barefoot, dressed in robe-like clothing with colorful sashes wound about their waists, dancers and temple
members hosted a crowd of roughly 70, with blessings from the temple's high official -- the abbot -- offered to all.

"This is an opportunity for the Lao people to thank all the neighbors in the community. We do it every year," said Ilene Tognini, general counsel for the temple. "It's for all the firefighters, police, sheriffs ... and for the banks, post offices, Home Depot -- all the places we frequent and all the people that are our neighbors."

Singled out for special thanks, though, was Catlett Fire Company, a geographical neighbor to the temple, praised for its members' friendliness and helpfulness. In response, a fire official expressed similar sentiments about temple personnel.

"I think they're doing a great job and I am very supportive of them," said Vernon Riley, president of the Catlett Fire Company, after receiving the recognition.

Festivities aside, the temple itself could be considered a cultural attraction.

Scattered in dense clusters and piled atop tables throughout the room were hundreds of colorful novelties, knickknacks and Buddha statues, the majority of which were presented to temple insiders as gifts, Tognini said. And bordering the top of the walls around the entire interior of the structure was a pictorial history, or mural, of Buddha. One side tells of his birth and life; the other, of his life after children, through death.

He was reincarnated, according to traditional teachings, 500 times.

It was under the wall relaying Buddha's later life that the food, a mix of Lao, Thai and American, was served.

"The best," Anderson said, "is the sticky rice. It's simply white rice they steam ... and then add coconut milk. Sometimes they put tiny black beans in it, but it is so good."

Aside from specialty noodles and soups based on Lao or spicy Thai recipes, the majority of foods served were American -- like roast beef, ham, turkey, cheese, wrap sandwiches. This concession to American culture, though, was largely necessary if dinner was to be served at all; normally, those of traditional Laos descent do not even eat after noon except for fruit and juices.

When they do eat, it's on the floor and from a common dish with hands, said Tognini. Saturday evening's eating arrangement was another nod to American lifestyle, recently instituted by temple officials for special occasions.

"We had to buy these," Tognini said, referring to the chairs, table and silverware. "Usually, we all sit on the floor ... and eat with our hands."

The temple's roots in Fauquier County began in 1985 with relocation from Arlington and purchase of roughly 58 acres of Catlett Road property.

The relocation was steeped in controversy, Tognini said. Although not personally involved in the brouhaha that erupted when the temple made application to locate in Catlett, Tognini described the debates as heated and difficult, escalated to the point of legal wrangling.

Since, the temple's members have worked steadfastly -- with much success -- to achieve good relations with neighbors via the annual dinner as well as an ongoing open-door, welcoming attitude.

And since then, too, Buddhists from all over the United States and even overseas have visited, according to the temple's Internet site, http://www.watlao.org .

In fact, the abbot himself is known far and wide for his meditation technique, said Chanthol, a monk of roughly 11 months who explained that his name was given him by "the master" -- meaning the abbot -- and could be translated as "moonlight, spirit of the moon."

Chanthol is a former chiropractor who has practiced Buddhism for years. Just recently, he received the go-ahead from the abbot to teach meditation, a key element of Buddhist training, to interested members of the public.

"I want to teach them to be free in their minds," Chanthol said. "It's not about trying to achieve a goal. It's just trying to let go of things that are kicking you around."

Regarded as psychology and a philosophy by Chanthol, Buddhism is also considered by many a religion.