Monk serves community as spiritual guide

by ELIZABETH COOPER, Utica Observer-Dispatch, Jan 17, 2005

Utica, MI (USA) -- It was damp and dreary outside on Steuben Street Thursday, but the Cambodian Buddhist Community Temple was warm inside.

<< Buddhist monk and Burmese native Upyimnyal Nanta, left, shares a moment with Cambodian native monk Chamreun Khorl at the Buddhist Community Temple in Utica. Nanta came to visit with other monks to attend a funeral.

The modest, yellow clapboard building has been the religious center for about 75 Cambodian Buddhist families who have lived in the area since June 2004. And it has one inhabitant: a young monk whose job is to be their spiritual guide.

Chamreun Khorl is a slight man with a shaved head and a twinkle in his eye. He wears a traditional orange robe of light material and when asked if he gets cold when he goes out into the city's winter chill, he smiled broadly and nodded.

Seated cross-legged on the temple floor, beside a low table covered with a yellow tablecloth, Khorl keeps the conversation focused on religion.

"The Buddhist people who have the temple here decided to invite me here to teach about Buddha and the religion," Khorl said through translator Phillip Kuy. "The idea of Buddhism is to teach people to do better ways and live better on Earth, and give, and try not to do any wrong."

The temple's main room is filled with colorful posters depicting episodes in the life of Buddha, or of him teaching and meditating. Other posters warn of the fates that await those who commit sins, such as murder, drinking alcohol or adultery. At the front of the brightly lit space is a wooden altar filled with flowers and devotional objects.

Khorl said he likes life in Utica.

"For a monk, it doesn't matter where he stays," he said. "Here it is nice to go to school and study English. It's peaceful and quiet."

The monk is taking English classes at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, but so far, his ability to understand English is better than his ability to speak it. He has only been in the U.S. since February 2003, when he arrived in Boston, where there is a larger community of Cambodian Buddhists.

Khorl said Buddhists in Cambodia do not face discrimination. There is economic depression, however, and droughts often affect farmers' ability to feed their families, he said.

To become a monk, the 36-year-old Khorl had to give up all his worldly possessions, and he can never marry. He also is entirely dependent on the good will of his parishioners for his survival.

And his faith in them isn't misplaced. The 75 families in the congregation take turns cooking for him, and the temple is filled with other gifts that beautify its colorful main room.

"All the Buddhists who are here, they will support the temple and the monk whenever they can, from the heart and the mind," translator Kuy interjected, speaking for himself. The congregation is also taking up a collection for the victims of the South Asian tsunami.

At the end of the discussion, there was a quiet tromping of feet, the temple door opened and four more orange-clad monks in winter hats and jackets entered the room and took off their shoes.

One was Upyimnyal Nanta, the monk who leads the local Burmese Buddhist community. He had with him three other monks who had come to Utica for the funeral of a student of Buddhism they all knew.

They pulled colorful pillows from a stack by the wall and sat together on the floor for tea, in a scene that made wintry Utica seem for a moment like a slice of Southeast Asia.

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