Buddhism flowers for Southeast Asians in Inland Empire

By Naomi Kresge, Press Telegram Staff writer, March 13, 2005

Long Beach, Calif. (USA) -- Even though Long Beach resident Rean Tha has a Cambodian Buddhist temple in her hometown, she occasionally heads 60 miles east next door to the California Speedway in Fontana for special occasions.

"We believe it is peace it's peace and quiet," she said recently while arranging flowers at Wat Patumsuvannaram, a temple established by Cambodian refugees in 1998 as a place for Cambodian, Laotian and Thai immigrants to honor both their heritage and their faith.

The temple, all but invisible during NASCAR races, features saffron-robed monks and a young bodhi tree, under whose boughs Buddha was said to have found enlightenment, grows on ground once soaked with motor oil.

On a recent weekend, in their haven between a trucking business and a scrap yard, the Theravada Buddhist community celebrated the holiday Magha Puja with quiet chanting and offerings of food to Buddha, their dead relatives and the monks.

With the rapid assimilation of their children into American culture tens of thousands of Cambodians live in Southern California, many in Long Beach the mostly first-generation immigrants can foresee a time when both might be lost.

By having a cultural hub in the Inland Empire, where their community's families are increasingly moving, they hope to help stop that from happening. "It's very important, because this is a way to pass on the tradition to the younger generations," resident monk Sovann Thaopraseuth, 73, said in Lao, with community member Somboone Sengamphan, of San Diego, translating. "The role of the temple here is very important, because it is the center of all the community in the vicinity."

Part of the Cambodian Monks Association of America, the temple is one of three Cambodian Buddhist temples in Southern California. The other is in San Diego. Nationwide, the association has 76 member temples.

Members said they chose their six-acre Fontana site in the center of the industrial area north of the Speedway because the land was plentiful and affordable. The lot was a wrecking yard when they bought it, said Savai Bopha of Rialto, the temple president.

The group cleared out the debris that filled the lot, hauled away the oil-contaminated soil, planted grass, trees and flowers and built a parking lot and the shell of an outdoor worship hall. In 2000, they added hand-carved trim in bright yellow and blue around the two little houses, which are used as a sanctuary and as homes for the monks.

Last weekend, a rooster wandered behind the larger of the two homes while the women in the group sat inside, on the kitchen floor, and prepared the ceremonial meal.

Laughing and chatting in Cambodian and Lao, they prepared larb, a mixture of pork and pork belly with peppers, spices and onion.

Anita Shem, 43, of Fontana, arrived bearing hot and sour soup and dressed in a Western pants suit. She explained that though she sometimes attends Christian services with her other family members, she makes a point to attend all the temple festivals as well.

"Everywhere I go, as long as it's a good way, I want to join with them, too," Shem said.

She came to Fontana as a refugee in 1981, one among five members of her family to survive the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that devastated Cambodia in the late 1970s. Shut out of language classes at her refugee camp because polio had left her unable to walk, Shem arrived unable to speak a word of English.

'A different planet'

"I felt like I came from a different planet," she said.

But since then, she said, Fontana's population has changed, and having learned English and, with the help of surgery and a leg brace, to walk, she serves now as a cultural liaison of sorts for fellow immigrants.

She explained some of the idiosyncrasies of the temple ceremony for example, a small tray of food taken outside was for the spirits of the previous owners of the property, and striking the gong placed before the Buddha was a call to worship.

In front of Thaopraseuth and two younger monks who came from San Diego for the ceremony were low round tables piled with the fruits of the women's labor the larb, glass noodles, aromatic soups, seafood and meats and desserts of sweet sliced gelatin in coconut milk, fried bananas in tapioca and sticky, leaf-wrapped rice flour dumplings stuffed with yellow beans.

The worshippers lit incense and candles in front of a large golden statue of the Buddha, placing steaming rice and other dishes before it. Someone struck the gong again, and the monks began to chant.

The congregation turned to the monks, offering Thaopraseuth a dish of candies and food.

Honoring dead relatives

Then each worshipper spooned some rice into the three urns, and tucked a few dollars under a dish next to them. Thus, Shem explained, they honor dead relatives by giving alms on their behalf.

After the ceremony, the monks began to eat. They would finish their lunch the only large meal of the day for the monks, who break their fast with porridge and pledge not to eat after noon before the rest of the congregation ate.

Many of the people who attend the temple come from the same cluster of nine ethnic Lao villages in western Cambodia, Sengamphan said.

When they bought the land for the temple, said Shem, who is ethnic Cambodian and not part of the ethnic Lao group, people laughed at them.

They asked why the group would want to be so far out in the country, she said.

But now the temple has big plans. In late April, members are planning a larger-than-ever Cambodian New Year festival, a weekend-long celebration where they can show off Cambodian folk dances and games and sell Cambodian and Laotian food.

The festival already draws thousands and makes up to about $20,000, they said, and this year, the temple is counting on festival revenue to grow.

They want to set up classes for the children, Thaopraseuth explained, and put a roof on the outdoor prayer hall.

A few have already sent their sons to be novice monks for a few weeks in the summer tradition dictates that being a monk is not a lifelong avocation, and all young men are encouraged to spend some time in the temple.