Gateway to Buddha

by David Tenenbaum, The Isthmus Daily Page, Nov 7, 2008

Cambodian religious center in Oregon is a concrete achievement, in more ways than one

Oregon, WI (USA) -- It's early summer, 2008. I am perched on a scaffold 25 feet above a driveway just outside the village of Oregon, south of Madison, looking down at a white house that was built - I'm guessing - in the 1920s.

<< From left: Soy Seng, David Tenenbaum, Ed Janus, and Sakoeurn Korn

The windows were busted out long ago, and I notice that the house has progressed from ramshackle through dilapidated to true hoveldom. Then I return to the task at hand: struggling to place a handmade casting on an enormous ornamental gateway.

I am helping two Cambodian Buddhist monks - Soy Seng and Sakoeurn Korn, as they are known on their American citizenship papers - and I am frustrated. We are working overhead, the blood is draining from our arms, and to me falls the sorry job of eyeballing the level that will establish the correct position.

That means I must announce, over and over, that the current try is good, but not perfect.

Calmly, persistently and cheerfully, Soy, the chief monk, has us relocate the casting, striving for an accuracy far beyond what I think the situation demands. His assistant, Sakoeurn, unflinchingly repositions the casting.

I join in, and eventually we get it right.

Accuracy within a 16th of an inch would be close enough for the average person building a giant gateway that reaches a peak of 35 feet tall, but not here. After all, this gateway will announce the presence of a Cambodian Buddhist temple on County Highway MM, just north of U.S. Highway 14. (The temple is now several years old; the gateway and fence will be done in a year, then further building will occur.)

Mention "Buddhist temple" in Madison, and most people assume you mean Deer Park, the well-known temple for Tibetan Buddhists, which the Dalai Lama visited this summer. Few people know about the Cambodians. Although only about a mile separates the two temples, the forms of Buddhism they practice are worlds apart in theology and culture, and the groups have little contact.

As we wait for the blood to return to our arms, I remind Soy what happened 12 years ago in the ruins beneath us. It was the place where we began our friendship.

In 1996 I was asked by a friend, Roger Garms, if I'd like to teach English to a monk for whom the local Cambodians had, amazingly, managed to garner immigration papers. Roger, a psychologist, said the temple and its new monk were supposed to help hundreds of impoverished Cambodians integrate into Dane County by sustaining their native culture.

I gave the matter a full 10 seconds of consideration, and soon found myself walking into a cold, cheerless living room decorated with a cheap rug celebrating a north woods elk. I turned for instruction to the only other person in the room who spoke English, Sarith Ou, a leader of the local Cambodian community. With his trademark half-smile, Sarith provided me with detailed instructions: "Okay, start."

Trying to conceal my growing bewilderment, I exchanged nervous smiles with a shaven-headed monk clad only in an orange robe. I immediately realized that my new student didn't know a word of English: not "you" and "me," not "yes" or "no." We had not been introduced. I knew his name was Seng Soy, but I had no idea whether I should I call him "Soy," or "Seng," or "your holiness." Sarith had already ducked out.

The moment obviously demanded improvisation, so I emptied my pockets and started working on pronunciation: "key," "penny," "one," "two," "all."

I had done absolutely no research on the Cambodian language, properly called Khmer, but I soon realized that it lacks many English sounds, including "r," "th" and "y." This monk could not pronounce or even hear, these sounds. "Yes," for example, came out as Russian-sounding "Zhess."

I also figured out that this guy in the orange robe, whatever his exact name was, was unlike anybody I'd ever met. He never frowned, always maintained eye contact, did whatever I asked, and would not quit trying to pronounce a word until I signaled it was time to move on. Unlike certain American students (like, say, all of them), he did not pretend to master something he hadn't.

And so we struggled with "Zhess" for a good 20 minutes. After he uttered a rudimentary "y" sound, we moved on to "you," and we struggled to shape "zhou" into "you" for another 15 minutes. I noticed he was extremely intelligent, and a perfectionist — a trait I would again see, years later, up on that scaffold.

We lived in the present tense for a few years, dealing only with the issues of the moment. But as Soy (that's his given name) progressed, I gradually learned scraps about his background. Like other Cambodians of his age (he's now 49) and older, Soy came from a shattered people. Hundreds of Cambodians live in Madison, Stoughton and Janesville, and almost all of the older ones left Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a killing field between 1975 and 1979.

Twenty years ago, I'd reported on the despair, trauma and poverty faced by many Southeast Asian refugees in Dane County. I had visited their poverty-stricken homes and seen the traditional reverence for age gone topsy-turvy: As children learned English, they gained power over their parents that they never would have had in Cambodia.

As months stretched into years, I began to view my weekly visits with Soy as a quick trip to Cambodia. The Cambodian community built him a much warmer house, then a temple, and imported two more monks. For a couple of years, I was tutoring three men, at very different levels, more or less at once. We worked on words, sentences, even body language — the meaning of a shrug or the two-hand, open-palmed gesture that means "I don't know." We worked on idioms: I cannot forget Soy's laughter when I explained "Can you give me a hand?"

After one of the monks returned home, I became better friends with Sakoeurn (pronounced, more or less, sa-KOON) Korn, a cheerful monk who had grown up near Soy. Stubborn Sakoeurn, who is now 48, knew exactly how he wanted to study English — even if his approach made no sense to me or to Ed Janus, a friend I recruited as co-tutor.

As Soy's English improved, I learned that he had grown up one of nine children in a farming family. I have long tried to avoid asking about "Pol Pot time" (the Khmer Rouge reign of terror is usually referenced by the name of its leader), but I did learn that he had slaved in the rice paddies, digging canals and building dikes. As soon as the Vietnamese Army expelled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Soy and Sakoeurn were ordained as monks in the same ceremony.

This year, on Oct. 9, Ed Janus and I watched Sakoeurn become an American citizen at the Robert Kastenmeier courthouse on Henry Street, a milestone that Soy had passed more than a year earlier. As we left, I mentioned in passing that Kastenmeier had been a steadfast opponent of the American war on Vietnam.

Although I have never gotten the definitive word on why they chose to become monks, following the compassionate example of the Buddha was — and is — the core of being Cambodian, both in Cambodia and, at least among the elders, here in Dane County. The monk is the center of that existence, performing ceremonies, guarding the temple and, as I was about to learn, building it.

I was introduced to the big building project in typical Cambodian fashion — obliquely. In the temple during English classes, I noticed a drawing of a gateway that echoed Angkor Wat, the massive complex of temples built during the apex of the Angkor Empire, almost 1,000 years ago.

Cambodians don't shower you with information, and I paid little attention to the drawing until Soy mentioned that gateway had been designed in Cambodia, would be built of reinforced concrete, and would be linked to a concrete fence several hundred yards in length.

The more I learned, the more improbable this project seemed. The gateway would be 35 feet tall and, like the fence, ornamented with thousands of handmade castings formed in 15 or 20 different molds. Soy would be the architect, and would, together with his fellow Cambodians, build the whole thing. I knew Soy had done some building with concrete in Cambodia, but I stressed that in Wisconsin, the ground freezes every winter, and there are these building codes.

Immediately, our English lessons shifted from discussions of past imperfect and the confusion over synonyms to more concrete subjects, like rebar, cement, gravel and the many meanings of "square." We talked about welding, frost heaving, and why a column has a "head" and a "foot." These discussions recalled my days as a mason in Waterloo, east of Madison, and my worst-selling book, the Masonry Toolbox Manual, published in 1990.

I began to realize that Soy and I both were interested in ideas and words — and in the art of building.

When a backhoe dug footings for the project in spring 2007, I began photographing Dane County's most improbable construction project. I watched as Soy and Sakoeurn bent and welded a stack of re-rod into sturdy reinforcements, with help from several other local Cambodians. I watched the crew build elaborate forms and photographed a dozen Cambodian men casting two giant columns for the gateway– all under the calm direction of a sandal-wearing monk in an orange robe.

I discussed with Soy the proper mix of cement and sand, and even pitched in to help build those castings, one by one. When I invited an architect friend to check out the construction techniques, he remarked, "I don't have anything to teach them."

Still determined to know why the project was so important, I asked Sarith, who simply said, "This is a traditional temple, and they usually build a gate and a fence."

And why was the temple so important?

"When Cambodians serve the temple and the monks, we build merits that are helpful during reincarnation," Sarith explained. "If someone died and went to hell, we try to bring food, money to the monks, to help get them released from hell."

Sarith Ou has been one of the driving forces at the temple since it was born in an apartment at Allied Drive in 1991, but he's had help. In 1992, the Madison Community Foundation contributed $10,000 for a down payment to buy five acres of land for the temple. The Mental Health Center of Dane County had long supported treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is rampant among survivors of the Cambodian holocaust.

Roger Garms, who served in Vietnam, and then became a psychologist specializing in the psychic wounds of war, had begun to wonder "if PTSD crossed over cultural boundaries" after he moved to Madison in 1990, so he volunteered at United Refugee Service. "We started a group of Cambodian army veterans," he says, "and these guys had exactly the same symptoms as the Americans GIs," even though their exposure was more severe.

"They were slaves for four years, and many of them also saw four years of bloody combat. The kind of things they witnessed — the murder of children, deliberate attempts to undercut people's sense of goodness, turning people against one another — was so cruel, so vicious, it was difficult to treat."

PTSD can be seen as a failure to relax from the hyper-vigilant state that is necessary during battle, Roger says. "Their whole personality was so tied up with these arousal symptoms that they had become different people. I remember one guy telling me, 'You see me sitting here, but this is not really me. The person sitting here is the ghost of me. I died in Cambodia.' These the same exact words I used to hear from GIs."

Although psychotherapy helped Americans with PTSD, Roger and his partner and fellow therapist Ann Garden found it less successful with Cambodians, and they stumbled on a different approach. "What proved to be most helpful was social work, to get citizenship, help the disabled get benefits, housing, attorneys, medications," Roger says. "We have a really good psychiatrist, Fred Coleman, who has been with us since the beginning."

The problem is not just PTSD, Roger emphasizes. "They have lost their culture, the ability to make a living.... They are in danger of anomie, rootlessness, a loss of place and purpose in life." And it is here that the temple may be most important.

"It gives meaning and purpose to people's lives," he says. "The temple in a village in Cambodia is really the only social institution. It helps the poor, the mentally ill. People trying to recover from drugs or alcohol can shave their heads, stay in the temple, and help the monks while they try to get their lives together."

Roger was gratified to watch "these soldiers get a temple started. It was really great to see them be able to do what they did, and see how much better they felt. It's an odd way to do psychotherapy, but you do what you can."

As time passed, I realized somebody was going to write about this massive building project and that I was in the ideal position to do it. This September, I drew Soy away from a group that was mixing and pouring concrete on the fence. We sat down on the ground and I asked how he had responded when the chief monk of Cambodia asked him to fly halfway around the world to lead a temple in a state he'd never heard of.

"I told him that would be okay, but I would have to ask my parents," Soy responded. With parental consent, he boarded an airplane for the first time and flew to Wisconsin and moved into the ramshackle house near the road — which was demolished this summer.

His arrival, I learned, quelled the internal tensions that the project had stirred. "It says something about Soy's character," says Roger. "He is a real monk, and everybody knows it, and that transcended those disputes, because you could not stay away when Soy was there."

Wisconsin was a cold place for a tropical man who had not yet begun to wear socks, but Soy maintained his monastic habits — never being alone with a woman, eating two meals a day, and refraining from such diversions as singing, dancing or attending baseball games (much to the dismay of Ed Janus, founder of the Madison Muskies).

Once situated in Oregon, Soy took up the religious duties he'd been trained for: chanting, meditating, consoling grieving families, and leading rituals. He directed the New Year's and ancestors' ceremonies, which attract hundreds of Cambodians from all over the Midwest for chanting, dancing, prayer, traditional reenactments and, of course, plenty of schmoozing and eating.

At the ancestor ceremony in late September, Vanna Pol, who has lived in Wisconsin since 1983, and is secretary of the Cambodian Buddhist Society, told me that the temple helps preserve the Cambodian Buddhist traditions: "Respect for old people, nonviolence, not having anger."

The monks at the ceremony were the center of attention. The food was plentiful, the English was scarce, and, as the monks chanted in the temple, I was reminded of the snap decision I'd made 12 years ago.

In a culture that reveres teachers and reveres monks, I was the monk's teacher.

But, in our own odd ways, Soy and I are also construction workers. When he came outside after the chanting was done, I teased him about his gate: "I thought you'd be done by now." We both laughed.

Madison group helps build Cambodian schools

As the political situation in Cambodia has stabilized, Cambodian Americans have begun visiting their homeland, and this transcontinental travel has spawned the Khmer School Project (, a Madison-based nonprofit. In 1999, the group began buying school uniforms for poor village kids in rural Cambodia as a way to encourage school attendance, and in 2003, construction of the first school began. Now, the fourth school is nearing completion, and ancillary projects, such as teacher training, vegetable gardens and fish ponds, are under way.

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