A good life remembered

By Andrew Sirocchi, Tri-City Herald staff writer, April 10, 2005

Kennewick, Washington, USA -- As many as 200 people made pilgrimages to the Tri-Cities this week to bid goodbye to a man they say turned Kennewick's struggling Laotian Buddhist temple into a vibrant success.

A procession of friends, family and fellow monks garbed in ochre robes followed a colorfully decorated casket carrying the Venerable King Souvannaphoungeun down Kennewick streets Saturday, ending at the mortuary where the 68-year-old abbot's body and belongings were cremated during a traditional Buddhist funeral.

Souvannaphoungeun died March 24 and was lying in state at the 27th Avenue temple for 15 days, surrounded by an exquisite handmade casket adorned with gold, blue and green foil.

A bowl of rice, water and fish was placed at the foot of the casket each day, a tray offering food and water to his spirit, said temple member Somsamay Phongsavath. A money tree was potted inside the temple to collect donations for his family's expenses.

Mourners who traveled to Kennewick from around the country for the ceremony praised Souvannaphoungeun for directing the inspiring success of the Wat Lao Dhammayanaram temple since he took over its chief operations in 1999.

"Everyone lives a busy life but because of him, we all pulled together," said Yo Saithavy, who came from Boise for the funeral. "This is one of the few successful temples in the Northwest."

Speaking through an interpreter, Vilaychita Sithiphong, president of the temple's board of directors, said Wat Lao Dhammayanaram struggled when it first opened in 1995. Too few monks and little community support made it difficult for the temple to grow and serve its Buddhist members.

Under Souvannaphoungeun's leadership, the temple was able to generate community interest, increase trust and attract members from diverse ethnicities, said Sithiphong.

"From the first, he brought people together," Sithiphong said. "The things he said and the things he did made people believe in him."

Souvannaphoungeun grew up in Laos and followed tradition when he entered a monastery at nine years old. By age 21, Souvannaphoungeun was a fully ordained monk, but in 1975 he left the monastic life behind and fled his native country, where Buddhists were being persecuted for their religious beliefs. He met his future wife in a Thailand refugee camp and later moved his family to the United States.

In 1995, after his brother died, Souvannaphoungeun rekindled his passion for Buddhism. With his family's blessing, Souvannaphoungeun separated from his wife and children to once again become a monk, living in organized communities and devoting himself full-time to the religious life.

He practiced Buddhism in California for four years before being enticed to the Tri-Cities to serve at Wat Lao Dhammayanaram as the abbot, the highest position among five monks who live at the Kennewick temple.

Kykeo Phimmasane, one of Souvannaphoungeun's nephews, who also is becoming a monk, said his uncle's dedication and commitment to Buddhism is what many will remember first about him. But Phimmasane added that his uncle never lost his sense of humor and liked to make people smile.

"Even though he is a high authority in Buddhism he's still a regular guy," Phimmasane said. "He likes to tell jokes. That's what he loves."

Keo Souvannaphoungeun, one of five of the abbot's children and a monk who came from Pennsylvania for the funeral, said his father's death emphasized the importance of living in the present, bringing what is good into the world immediately.

"If you haven't done something good, you should do it now," he said. "I'm 40 and I'm moving quickly now."

Under the traditional form of Buddhism practiced at Wat Lao Dhammayanaram -- a school of thought known as Theravada, or Way of the Elders -- followers believe humans are fated to die and be reborn until they live perfect lives. Once a person has succeeded, various levels of heaven are opened.

Venerable Kham Khong Phatee, vice president of the Lao-American Buddhist Monks, said the large gathering and plush ceremony is evidence of all the past good the monk brought into the world.

Khong Phatee said Souvannaphoungeun's deeds will live on as they are adopted and continued by future generations that live and worship at the temple.

"What he did is for the benefit of the people," Khong Phatee said in Laotian, speaking through Souvannaphoungeun's son as an interpreter.

"It's not for himself. He did it for everybody."