A Growing Buddhist Population Tests the Neighborliness of a City

By CHRISTOPHER MAAG, The New York Times, April 21, 2007

FORT WAYNE, Ind.(USA) -- The newest Buddhist temple here is a vinyl-sided house on the edge of the prairie. Worship services are so popular that people who arrive late must squeeze into the two-car garage, kneel on the concrete floor and pray between a golden statue of a smiling Buddha and a black Craftsman riding lawnmower.

Ashin Tayzawbatha, a Buddhist monk, outside his house in Fort Wayne which doubles as a temple. J.D. Pooley - New York Times

“For a house, it’s very big, but for a temple, it’s very small,” said Dr. Khin Oo, a physician and president of Dhammarekkhita, a Burmese temple and monastery here.

Fort Wayne, a city of 248,000 people and 606 Christian churches, is in the midst of a Buddhist temple boom. Southeast Asians have opened six temples here in the last seven years, including one for Laotians, two for Burmese and two for Mon, another Burmese ethnic group. Only a handful of Sri Lankans live in Fort Wayne, but they decided to build a temple here anyway because of the city’s strong Buddhist network. Fort Wayne also is an easy drive from Sri Lankan communities in Chicago, Indianapolis and Detroit, said Thalangama Devananda, a Sri Lankan abbot.

Because housing in Fort Wayne is inexpensive, most temples occupy former houses tucked into residential neighborhoods (except the Laotian temple, a former used-car dealership). The Sri Lankans’ altar, for example, sits in the basement recreation room of a three-bedroom house, which the Sri Lankans bought four years ago for $47,000.

Turning a house into a Buddhist temple has often meant uncomfortable compromises with tradition and friction with neighbors. Now Fort Wayne’s Buddhists are building their second generation of temples. Two groups built sizable sheds on their properties last year to create separate spaces for their shrines and monasteries, as is the custom in much of Southeast Asia. Two others recently bought houses on large tracts in rural areas and plan to construct buildings there, where land is cheap and neighbors are few.

“There have been a lot of cases where Buddhists face community hostility, so you find them building temples way out in the boonies,” said Russell Jeung, an assistant professor of Asian-American studies at San Francisco State University and an expert on religious practices of immigrants.

Southeast Asians started moving to Fort Wayne in the mid-1970s, lured by low living costs and high-paying factory jobs that require little English, said Nyein Chan, a Burmese refugee and resettlement director for Catholic Charities in Fort Wayne. Today the city is home to 4,600 Asians, Mr. Chan said. That includes over 3,000 Burmese, the largest concentration of Burmese refugees in the country, said Anastasia Brown, director of refugee programs for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The migration continues. In the next seven months Catholic Charities will bring 300 Burmese to Fort Wayne, more than in any previous year since the program started in 1994, Mr. Chan said.

Temples here already strain to meet growing needs. It is impossible to kneel before the altar inside the Jetavan Burmese temple on Sylvia Street because the living room is crammed with three threadbare recliners, reserved for monks, and a tangle of computer wires and keyboards for the temple’s Sunday school class.

When he lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, Venerable Kuthala, a Burmese monk, meditated two hours a day. Now he is so busy serving as a translator and mediator between Burmese families and Fort Wayne’s schools, hospitals and police department that he barely meditates an hour and a half each week, he said.

Monks are supposed to live a simple life, which traditionally precludes driving, Venerable Kuthala said. But because there is no one else to do it, he regularly climbs into a 15-passenger van and drives refugees 125 miles to the immigration office in Indianapolis.

Then there are the neighbors. On religious holidays, hundreds of Buddhists park on two-lane Sylvia Street, blocking driveways and ripping up yards with their tires. A neighbor, Anna MacDougal, has complained to the police and zoning inspectors, to no avail, she said. At times she has paid tow truck drivers to take cars away.

Temple leaders, acutely aware of the parking problem but oblivious to Americans’ love for grass, converted the front lawn into a parking lot and covered it with gravel.

“I was appalled,” said Donna Davis, 56, a medical assistant who lives next door. “If they want to live here, why can’t they start acting like Americans?”

During the summer, some monks follow the traditional practice of bathing in the backyard (with their robes on, behind a screen).

“I can’t stand them,” said another neighbor, Kelli Lawson, 33, who says she is uncomfortable with many aspects of Buddhist life. “It’s strange to us, so we don’t like it.”

Lay Buddhists say they generally feel comfortable in Fort Wayne. But Venerable Devananda says he gets nervous eating breakfast at the Golden Corral, his favorite restaurant. “I don’t feel comfortable going out in public in my robes because people point and laugh at me,” he said.

To get away from gawking, angry neighbors, the Jetavan temple paid $21,000 last May for three acres on Fort Wayne’s outskirts. Members are applying for a $230,000 loan to build a separate shrine and monastery.

Last September, 26 monks from Burma and across the United States traveled to Fort Wayne to bless the land behind the Dhammarekkhita temple. The process took two weeks, and included monks squatting on every square foot of ground to bless it with prayer.

Construction of a 3,500-square-foot shrine will begin in May. After that, temple leaders hope to build a parking lot and a pagoda.

“There aren’t any trees here, but at least it’s quiet,” Dr. Oo said.

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