Festival of praise: Utah's Thai Buddhist temple honors monks

By Jessica Ravitz, The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov 13, 2005

LAYTON, Utah (USA) -- In ancient India, when the rains fell, people became anxious about their young crops. The water wasn't the problem. It was the wandering monks who tramped across their vulnerable fields who had them worried.

So Lord Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century B.C., adopted and set forth the practice of a rain retreat - the idea that during the three-month rainy season, also known as Buddhist Lent, monks would stay put. Between the July full moon and the October full moon, they would dedicate themselves and their teachings to one temple community.

Within 30 days after Buddhist Lent and before the monks resume travels, Theravada Buddhist temples honor monks by presenting them with new robes. The festive event is called a Kathina ceremony, and on Sunday, Utah's only Thai Buddhist temple - Wat Dhammagunaram - had a celebration of its own.

And it wasn't just about the saffron robes.

Large pots brimmed with sticky rice, curry chicken and bamboo soup. There were heapings of fresh fruit, crispy Thai noodles, spring rolls and, perhaps reminders of where the people were, a plethora of Twinkies.

More than 20 monks, the bulk of them visitors, circled the tables placed outside the Layton temple. People pressed their palms together, bowing their heads in reverence, before scooping food into the monks' silver begging bowls.

Of the 227 precepts observed by Theravada Buddhist monks, one is that they cannot eat solid foods after noon.

"If they eat too much, maybe they're going to be lazy," explained Nora Beaty, of Clinton, who often brings breakfast or lunch to the four monks who live in "the white house" next to Wat Dhammagunaram.

Beaty, 56, like many of the women around her, was dressed in fine Thai silk. She came to Utah in 1976, after marrying a U.S. airman who had been stationed in Thailand. With other Thai immigrants, many of them also wives of servicemen, she helped establish the Layton temple.

While the monks retreated to eat their lunch, the celebrators had their own feast. The majority of the approximately 200 attendees were Thai, but there were also Laotians, Cambodians, a smattering of Westerners and others. Like many of the monks, a number of the guests were out-of-towners. Kathina ceremonies don't have a set date, so some Buddhists take the opportunity to travel, visit and support other communities.

Members of Wat Dhammagunaram recently attended a Kathina ceremony in Las Vegas, and for their festivities they were joined by Buddhists from as far away as Albuquerque, N.M., and Southern California.

Sunday's ceremony, it so happened, was not just any Kathina ceremony. It was a Royal Kathina ceremony, since the King of Thailand had sent a golden robe for the occasion. Although King Bhumibol Adulyadej holds limited power politically, he is a source of pride to the Thai people. Thailand, known as Siam until 1939, is the only Southeast Asian country that never fell under European control. So just as there are altars to the Buddha, there are also altars to the king.

To the rhythmic sounds of long drums, hand cymbals and small gongs, the people began the procession to usher in the robe-offering ceremony. Three times, clockwise, they circled the grounds surrounding the temple: once for the Buddha, another for his teachings and the third for the monastic community. Women danced and sang along with the traditional instruments, and the celebrators carried offerings for the temple and the monks.

Some held robes, others sashes or socks. Layton Police Chief Terry Keefe walked with a carrying case for a monk's begging bowl. There were meditation pillows, blankets and bath mats. Boxes containing a lamp, garbage bags and a rice cooker were tied up in gold ribbons and bows.

Outside, Wat Dhammagunaram appeared unassuming, simple. But inside, it was an explosion of color. Hot pink and bright yellow bunting lined the walls. Large golden buddhas stood against a red backdrop and behind gilded altars. Money trees, in which bills of all denominations and personal checks hung like foliage, dotted the room. Some of these trees - financial support for the temple - rested in laundry baskets, surrounded by additional offerings of toiletries and canned goods.

Roberta Chase, 56, of Taylorsville, took in the activity - the sounds and the sights - and smiled.

"It's just like Thailand," marveled Chase, who was raised Catholic but feels "at home" in the Layton temple she's frequented for five years. "Just like Thailand."

The most senior monks sat on a raised platform; the others, who could not fit on the platform, were in chairs to the side. They bestowed blessings in Thai, chanted in Pali (language of Buddhist scripture), and the people - most were sitting on the floor - bowed down, echoed responses and held their hands together in praise. A small boy hid beneath a sweatshirt, slurping on his bottle.

Individuals were called up to present the new robes. In gratitude for the offerings, the monks invited supporters to receive gifts in return. A chanting book, a small buddha, a key chain to remember the day. And, not least of all, a framed picture of a Bodhi leaf, mounted above Pali script.

It was while sitting beneath a Bodhi tree that Lord Buddha found enlightenment.

Wat Dhammagunaram Abbot Phrakhru Phutthiyansophon sat on the platform after the Kathina ceremony ended and the people began to leave. He fingered the bowl of key chains and spoke about his own search for truth. He said that when he began - at 12 - to study with monks in Thailand, he embarked on the journey without a known purpose.

"At the time, I didn't understand why," the 48-year-old monk said. "But I liked it."

Many Thai men accept monastic vows for short periods, most commonly for the length of one rainy season only. But with the Buddhist Lent now over, the abbot has no intention of leaving. Ever since he became a monk at 20, he's relished what he now understands.

"The true nature of the world," he said softly, leaning over his crossed legs. "The nature of the people."