Time to remember 1991 massacre at Thai Buddhist temple

by Angela Cara Pancrazio, The Arizona Republic, Aug 9, 2006

West Valley, AZ (USA) -- It's August again. And when the month arrives at the Thai Buddhist temple in the West Valley, it is time to remember the tragedy. It is time to gather near the concrete life-size bust of Pairuch Kanthong that tops the stone memorial holding his ashes and those of the slain monks.

<< Winai Booncham, the abbot at Wat Promkunaram, has forgiven those who murdered his predecessor and friend Pairuch Kanthong (highest picture on board) and eight other people in 1991.

Kanthong, a Thai Buddhist monk, was busy building a temple when, in August 1991, two teenagers massacred him along with five monks and three other people at Wat Promkunaram, a Buddhist temple in Waddell.

On Thursday, it will be 15 years since Arizona's worst mass murder. Instead of abandoning the temple, the new abbot, Winai Booncham, six monks and the Thai community have worked hard over the years continuing to build on Kanthong's dreams.

Booncham arrived a day after the slayings. He helped clean blood from the carpet where his friend died.

After the tragedy, monks were too scared to stay there. Except for Booncham.

In spite of his fears, Booncham left his Thai Buddhist temple in southern California and moved into the Arizona temple.

Booncham and Kanthong had known each other in Thailand. The two monks had come to America at the same time and kept in touch.

He took Kanthong's body back to Thailand for cremation.

Then Kanthong began appearing in Booncham's dreams. Kanthong, the temple's abbot, told his predecessor that he needed the monk to take over where he had left off.

Back then, Booncham was a young monk with a fresh-shaved head of close-cropped jet-black hair.

His hair has faded and is now sprinkled with flecks of gray.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, Booncham is anxious. In the beginning, Booncham had no time to cry.

After all these years and several attempts, Booncham concedes that he is unable to honor the monks with his words.

Inside the L-shaped temple, golden Buddhas and pink roses, Kanthong's favorite, crowd the altar that rises behind Booncham's bare shoulders.

Booncham sets down his cup of Starbucks coffee and clutches his orange-yellow robe at his heart.

"On memorial day," he says, "I cannot speak."

"I cry."

"I see everything in this temple, like a dream, I see my friend. I see what happens in my mind. And how my friend suffered before he died."

Two Avondale High School students, Johnathan Doody and Alessandro "Alex" Garcia, were convicted and each was sentenced to nearly 300 years in prison for the killings.

Dressed in military clothing, armed with a 20-gauge pump shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle, Doody, 17, and Garcia, 16, showed up at the temple around midnight on Aug. 9, 1991.

In the morning, a woman who had come to the temple to cook for the monks discovered the nine victims.

After such a horrific crime, the impulse might be that of revenge or to hold a grudge against the killers.

Booncham remembers one of Kanthong's treasured Thai Buddhist sayings, "Don't brood over the past."

"When we talked," Booncham said of Kanthong, "he'd say, 'it's in the past, don't think about it.'"

Buddhists believe you are born, you serve but eventually you will be gone.

They understand and expect death. They believe in heaven and reincarnation.

"It was time for them to go," says Jantra Choosakul-Oswald, the temple's treasurer.

"It's still not the right way to go," she said.

"We've forgiven those who have done the crime. It's still very hurtful.

"For us to move on and not recognize them with a memorial would be way too harsh. That's why we will remember them always.

"We love them. We still think of them."

If Buddhists believe in rebirth, then around the temple it feels as if Kanthong has returned.

The heavyset grinning monk seems to be everywhere.

When the Wat Promkunaram gates open, he is the stone sentry looking over the driveway. The cottonwood trees that were a mere yardstick tall when Kanthong planted them, have risen a couple of stories tall.

His cottonwoods now cast shadows over the monk's lush garden of eggplant, basil, lemon grass, and mint planted alongside the mango, banana, pomegranate and loquat trees.

The painting of Kanthong, the portrait that he liked so much that he often mused about how that was the image he would most like to be remembered by at his funeral still hangs on a wall near where he died.

The community hall that he envisioned, where the monks eat their two meals a day, where young Thais study language and where new monks have their heads shaved, was built from donations after the killings and cash from cans that he collected.

And even more than the monument that was erected for the monks, it is Kanthong's old orange Chevrolet Suburban propped up on wooden blocks that is a constant reminder of the monk.

The battered orange Suburban might not run and looks like an old heap, but they kept it, says Tommy Thirasungsit, because it holds so many memories.

The history of the temple is locked inside Kanthong's car.

Kanthong would load up his car and drive to Los Angeles just to get more money for his cans. When the Suburban was breaking down, he'd risk driving 60 miles to Penny Noomee's home in Apache Junction to borrow her car to comb Canyon Lake for more cans.

During the snowbird season, Pairuch Kanthong hitched a trailer to the Suburban and drove it to Quartzsite. He hid his orange robe under a coat and covered his shaved head with a hat as he cooked satay so the women like Thirasungsit and Noomee could sell Thai food to raise money for the temple.

"He loved this temple. He built everything," Booncham said.

"Before I do anything at the temple, I ask Pairuch to help me."

About Wat Promkunaram, Arizona, USA

Wat Promkunaram
Theravadin (Buddhism)
17212 W. Maryland Avenue
Waddell, AZ 85355
Phone: 623-935-2276
Fax: 623-935-1174
Website: www.watprom.iirt.net

Wat Promkunaram is a Buddhist temple, monastery and cultural center created with the help of the Thai government by three Thai monks in 1983. At first a very small temple located in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the community purchased five acres of isolated farmland in 1985 and opened a new temple in the rural, far west Valley city of Waddell in 1989. The temple was stunned by the massacre of six monks, a nun and two other temple affiliates in 1991 (a tragedy that remains Arizona's largest mass murder) but has recovered to become a vital center for local Theravadin Thai, Laotian, Vietnamese and Cambodian Buddhists, as well as serving Mahayanist Buddhists and non-Buddhists.

Activities and Schedule
Open every day from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., the main prayer hall (sala) is available to the public for prayer and meditation. The monks maintain a structured schedule of daily activities from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m., including prayers and meditation, work on the temple grounds and counseling, preaching and teaching in scheduled classes or when guests visit. The Wat operates a Buddhist Sunday School for Thai-American children but it is also open to any interested community members. The center also holds Thai language classes, classical dance lessons, instruction in meditation, and special merit-making ceremonies for marking particular family milestones such as births, marriages and deaths.
Connected with its role as a community center, the Wat annually hosts eight major Theravadin Buddhist festivals. Many of these festivals, such as Loy Krathong or Magha Puja Day, display regional traditions distinctive to Buddhist communities in southeast Asia.

The monks resident at the center are predominantly Thai, though also including Euro-American Buddhist monks. The community served -- mostly Thais in the Valley in some cases for over three generations-- spans a number of different age groups. The modern monastic population is all male, while at worship services women may have slightly outnumbered the men present.

The center complex was placed in a distant rural setting that, over the years, has become less remote as the Phoenix metropolitan area has expanded. The main prayer hall building has living quarters for the monks and offices in the back-- it includes a small library. A large community hall is nearby on the grounds, and is attached to a kitchen and dining hall. It is used for receptions, parties and other social events. The buildings are surrounded by gardens which the monks maintain, and the garden contains various small shrines (including one dedicated to the victims of the 1991 massacre).

Date Center Founded
Founded in 1983, at present location since 1989.

Religious Leader and Title
Venerable Pramaha Winai Booncham (4th Abbot of Wat Promkunaram)

Membership/Community Size
Approximately 2,500 people in the community.

Ethnic Composition
Mostly Thai, but with significant representation among Valley Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese.

Prepared by David Damrel
Updated on May 23, 2003