Temple celebrates birthday of abbott

By KEITH WALKER, Potomac News Online, January 9, 2005

Catlett, Virginia -- It's not customary for Buddhists to commemorate an abbott's birthday in their home countries, but they make a good job of it in America.

Abbot Achan Boummy recently turned 68 and about 600 people from New York, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia showed up to help him celebrate at the Wat Lao Buddhavong in Catlett, said Toui Thiravong of Delaware.

"Today we come and pray for him because this is his birthday," Thiravong said.

Each of the celebrants came with a silver chalice the size of a salad bowl filled with cookies, fruit, chips, snacks, a small basket of steamed rice and good wishes.

After a dozen orange-robed monks offered 20 minutes of chants to honor Boummay, people lined up to drop their gifts at a table in the back of the temple.

It took nearly an hour for everyone there to make their offerings.

Then everybody ate.

It was a fine party by all standards.

There are few Buddhavongs in the region, Thiravong said

Out-of-state Buddhists to the north have a choice between the Catlett temple and a Buddhavong in Pennsylvania, Thiravong said.

"I chose to come here because so many of the Delaware and Maryland people come here," he said.

Though the congregation at Wat Lao Buddhavong is predominately Laotian, the scarcity of temples brings area Buddhists from most Asian countries together in Catlett.

Dr. Ruth Krulfeld, professor emeritus of George Washington University, adopted the Loa community after Boummay invited her to a similar celebration.

"They were kind enough to invite me to their New Year's celebration. I made friends with them," said Krulfeld,who once taught anthropology at the university.

Most Buddhists join the temple as monks or nuns at one time or another, Krulfeld said.

Women often become novice nuns when a family member dies, said Krulfeld, known as "Dr. Ruth" to the Catlett congregation.

"Some make a life's work of it," she said.

Others may join for as little as a week or two.

"In Thailand and Laos, men are expected to be monks at some time during their lives. Every man takes the precepts at some time," she said.

Thus the lack of birthday celebrations.

Perhaps one of the reasons so many choose the Catlett Buddhavong is because Boummay, a lifetime monk, is known throughout the world as a healer who has achieved enlightenment through his good works, Krulfeld said.

"The more good you do, according to Buddhism, the more merit you earn," Krulfeld said.

The next big celebration at the temple will be on the Fourth of July when people will come from around the world to be near the Abbot.

Thiravong, who was in charge of admissions last year, estimated that 10,000 people showed up for the festival.

Dr. Ruth "prescribes" that people come to the temple in July for a cross-cultural Independence Day.