Buddhist monks find their calling in Kansas temple

by GORDON D. FIEDLER JR., The Salina Journal, November 18, 2011

SALINA, Kan. (USA) -- The journey toward nirvana begins early for the Buddhist monks at their temple compound northwest of Salina.

The four orange-robed "Buddha men" stir before 6 a.m. One by one they descend the stairs of the two-story rural-home-turned-religious-site into what once was the main living area but now is the chanting room.

Led by elder monk Laungpho Miang, they are Noi Tunsirisittikum, Kom Chartsak and a monk for less than three months, Californian Ajan Adam.

At one end is a shrine holding images of the Buddha, a pair of candles, wands of incense, and some offerings of food and water. Except for a wide, low, wooden platform running along one side, the chanting room contains no other furniture. A large gong stands in one corner.

A lay Buddhist, Samran Chumsena, uses a mallet to beat an increasing tempo on the gong, a signal for the monks to take their places in the chanting room. The monks kneel on squares of carpet and face the shrine, their legs tucked beneath them, backs straight, hands pressed together, and begin their daily ritual.

The sound that emanates from the men is both eerie and calming, and to unfamiliar Western ears is reminiscent of a didgeridoo, the droning Aboriginal wind instrument. They are speaking Pali, a liturgical language of northern India that dates to the days of the Buddha, which comes from a Sanskrit word, buddhi, or wisdom.

The chanting is part responsive, led by the elder monk, and part recitation in unison. Its purpose is to prepare the men for meditation. It is cadenced and melodious, and with a wider tonal range could be compared to Gregorian chants.

At times they bow, touching their foreheads to the carpet. The bows, as are other ceremonial gestures, are performed in threes.

This continues for nearly an hour, when one monk rises to turn off the lights. They then sit in meditation. Ten minutes later, still in darkness, they begin alternately chanting and bowing again.

On this day, the chanting lasts a bit longer than usual, said Adam, 23.

Most mornings, the chanting is over in about 40 minutes; meditation, 20 minutes more.

But the monks aren't watching the clock. Often they are not conscious of time's passage.

"Once you get going and you're feeling it, it catches you," Adam said. "You don't know how long you've been sitting there."

At its simplest, Buddhism teaches its followers to shun what is bad, embrace what is good and keep a pure mind.

"Everybody can be happy if you follow what he teaches," Chumsena said of Buddha.

Besides manning the gong, Chumsena chanted along with the monks who invite any of the Buddhist community to share in their morning ritual.

The monks at the Salina temple, Wat Videsdhammarangsi ("wat" means temple), are members of the Theravada sect and have their own distinct chants, which are not prayers but teachings of the Buddha.

The chants go by such names as "Homage to the Triple Gems," the "Three Refuges," the "Five Precepts" and "Discourse on Loving Kindness."

The "Five Precepts" chant translates as: "I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from destroying living beings."

"I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from taking things not given.

"I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct.

"I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from false speech.

"I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from liquor causing intoxication and heedlessness.

"I undertake to observe the Five Precepts to the best of my ability."

This is repeated three times.

The chant, "Homage to Buddha," translates:

"Thus indeed, is that Blessed One: He is the Holy One, fully enlightened, endowed with clear vision and virtuous conduct, sublime, the Knower of the worlds, the incomparable leader of men to be tamed, the teacher of gods and men, enlightened and blessed."

As a new monk, Adam chanted along while reading from a book written in the Pali language. The others, having more experience, knew the chants selected by the elder monk, who may choose to lead different ones daily.

Adam said that all of the printed chants are in a book as thick as a metropolitan telephone directory.

"Each story has some sort of moral or enlightenment to help you be human," Adam said.

Following the morning chants, the monks busy themselves with chores around the temple grounds. While one runs a vacuum, another steps barefoot into the 30-degree dawn to sweep the deck that surrounds two sides of the living quarters.

Adam takes time to down a protein shake, but the others avoid the kitchen and jump right to work. On this day the monks were readying the temple grounds for the Kathina ceremony, one of the main annual festivals in Buddhism. When there is enough light to see, some of the monks begin hanging streamers and planting American and Buddhist flags along the drive and at the sign marking the entrance to the temple at 2857 Pleasant Hill Road.

Monks may eat breakfast but usually only consume one meal a day, in late morning. They are not to supposed to eat anything heavy after noon.

Buddhist monks don't live to eat but eat to live and consume just enough to keep their bodies functioning. According to Buddhist literature, eating more than that may disrupt discipline and interfere with meditation and study, which is how the monks typically spend their afternoons.

Also, there is another reason for eating so little. Monks as a rule don't fix their own food. This is done for them by the members of the Buddhist community, who arrive each forenoon with prepared food or who bring raw ingredients and cook it in the fully equipped kitchen.

The monk's code allows them to only eat food given them; they can't ask for it. The Buddhist community views feeding monks not as an annoyance but as an honorable duty, a practice that dates back thousands of years, when mendicant monks traveled the countryside and relied on villagers for their needs.

Thus monks are mindful of this volunteer effort and don't want to be a larger burden by eating more.

As a recent morning warmed, volunteers arrive to begin preparing the food.

One of them is Hommai Denham, who was reared in Thailand and came to the United States in 1970. She is at the temple almost every day.

"Because I love it," she says as she scurries about assembling the trays of rice, vegetables and other Asian fare.

"Before, I didn't know," said Denham. As a youth, she never went to the temple and when she came to Salina, the closest wat was in Wichita, which was too far away to visit regularly.

Serving the monks is a way to reconnect with her Asian heritage and to become a better Buddhist, she said.

"I learn from them," she said, gesturing to the monks who had taken their places around a low table set up at one end of the chanting room.

Also reconnecting with her religious roots was Kham Keophaymany-Gonzalez, who came to Salina from Rhode Island where the local temple was not a big part of her family's life.

"I went two times," she said. "I was scared of the monks. I never had the opportunity to get to know them."

Now a young mother, she wants her children to become associated with the temple in ways she never was.

"To me, it's important," she said with her youngsters clinging to her side. "Growing up I didn't do anything. I want to show (her children) how to follow the religion and our own culture. If I didn't show them, they might not know anything."

Also, there was a more selfish reason: "I'm a stay-at-home mom and it gives me something to do so I don't go crazy," she said.

The local temple held its official opening in 2009 with a grand ceremony that attracted more than 200 monks throughout the United States and Southeast Asia, where the Therevada sect is predominant. The local temple serves the needs of a large Southeast Asian Buddhist population in the Salina area. Before the local temple opened, members had to go to Wichita. Unlike Catholic priests, Buddhist monks are not obligated to take lifelong vows. They may "disrobe" at any time but are expected to serve at least a year.

Sophy Kea is now a lay Buddhist but had been a monk in California.

The death of his mother caused him to reflect on his life at the time.

"I wanted to find myself in life," he said. "I didn't have a path."

Although he came from a traditional family, becoming a monk taught him much about his beliefs.

"It was a brand new start for me," he said. "I am thankful I got the chance to do it."

Self-improvement was one of Adam's motivations for becoming a monk.

"I wanted to find a different way to better myself," he said.

And like Catholics, having a monk in a Buddhist family is a source of pride.

"It's a blessing for you to become a monk," Adam said.

Why they shave their heads

As a monk, he had to shed his former life, materially and physically. Monks shave their heads to remove signs of vanity and give up all but basic necessities: a few sets of robes, a pair of sandals, a bowl and a few personal items, such as a razor compose their worldly possessions. In the tropical climes of Southeast Asia this is sufficient, but where sub-zero winters are more the rule than the exception, they are allowed to amend their wardrobe, but only if members of the Buddhist community offer the additional clothing. On this day, some of the monks wear socks with their sandals and sport blaze-orange sweatshirts and stocking hats. In the foyer of the living quarters, yellow rubber muck boots stand at the ready for when the snow flies.

What little the monks obsess over their daily clothing decisions is more than made up for by the dizzying restrictions that compose the Therevada sect code of conduct.

Monks must adhere to more than 200 rules, ranging from the serious, such as killing, to the mundane, such as when and how far they may open their mouths when eating.

Also, Buddhist monks are celibate and are to have no physical contact of any kind with women. Even innocent gestures such as shaking hands or hugging is forbidden, as is being in close proximity to females.

Recently, a small demonstration of this played out, when Denham wanted to pass a plastic grocery bag of items to one of the monks. Instead of handing it to him, she placed it on the ground for him to retrieve.

As in other religions, Buddhists celebrate important milestones throughout the year. One of the biggest, the Kathina ceremony, occurred Oct. 30. It was held in the sala, which in Buddhist temple compounds in Southeast Asia take the form of open-sided pavilions. At Wat Videsdhammarangsi, the sala is a metal building that once was a barn.

The Kathina, or robe-offering ceremony, occurs in either October or November, depending on the lunar calendar and is the largest "alms-giving" event in the Buddhist year.

It follows another significant ceremony, Ok-Phansa, that celebrates the end of the monsoon season, or vassa, during which Buddhist monks are restricted to a temple at night. After the vassa, they are allowed to travel once again. The ritual dates to the time of the Buddha, who after receiving complaints from villagers that mendicant monks were damaging crops, decreed that all monks should remain at their temples during the vassa. Ok-Phansa officially releases them from this forced sabbatical and, at the Salina temple, drew hundreds of Buddhists who ceremoniously offered food and money to the monks. The money helps with upkeep and maintenance of the temple grounds.

The Kathina ceremony was similar in form to the Ok-Phansa but was much more elaborate.

The ceremony picks up where Ok-Phansa leaves off, when the monks resumed their wandering, and, according to Buddhist scriptures, has its origins in the travails of 30 monks who were en route to visit the Buddha when they were forced by the vassa to halt their journey.

Here is a description of the Kathina that Adam read during the celebration:

"Although they lived harmoniously during the retreat, the monks were unhappy at not being able to be with the Master. When they were allowed to travel again, the monks continued on to see the Buddha. Hearing of their unhappy sojourn, the Buddha decided to cheer them up by allowing them to roam freely after the rains retreat to gather cloth for robes.

"The Buddha knew that nothing is so uplifting as sharing and generosity, and so then established a procedure whereby the monks could agree among themselves to make a gift of the cloth so acquired to one of their number. Once the cloth has been offered, the entire community tries to take part in the activity of sewing the new robe, it being stipulated that this robe be cut, sewn and finished before the dawn of the next day. In those days, the method used involved spreading the pieces of cloth on a frame and stitching them together. This frame was called a Kathina."

The ceremony has been updated and now the mass-produced robes are purchased and presented to all of the monks on hand for the ceremony.

At the local Kathina ceremony, piles of plastic-wrapped robes were stacked on a table, awaiting the formal presentation.

As with the Ok-Phansa, members of the Buddhist community, some traveling as far away as Nebraska and Texas, began to assemble by 10 a.m. in the sala. Except for a few benches along one side, the sala was absent of chairs and family members, young and old, sat on the carpeted floor. While one of the monks talked in Pali, women busied themselves with filling silver bowls with prepared and canned food, money and other items.

When it came time for the monks to eat — the numbers swelled to 11 by visiting monks — they were served on round, wooden trays. The Buddhists then enjoyed a pot-luck meal of Asian delicacies.

The ceremony moved outside in the afternoon. Members of the Buddhist community queued up and as the monks passed down the line, they presented their gifts, after which they paraded three times around the sala and monk's residence, accompanied to the beat of drums and cymbals.

Among those in the processional was Salinan Eddie Phommachanh, himself a former Buddhist monk. He became a novice at 17 in his native Laos in part to avoid military service.

"I go to soldier or I go to Buddha? I go to Buddha," he said.

During his years as a monk, he said he learned about the human condition.

"Buddhist religion teaches people to stop the bad things and do the good things."

He learned the four noble truths: Life is subject to suffering, suffering is caused by ignorance which results in desire, suffering can be eliminated by the removal of desire, and there is a path to the elimination of desire.

"You born, you grow up, you sick, you die. Nobody can get away from this," he said.

Young monk Adam doesn't know how long he will remain a monk.

"It's a calling," he said. "It's one obstacle I have to accomplish, to surpass, in my life."

He said what he's lost materially he's gained spiritually.

"It works both ways," he said. "That's karma."


Information from: The Salina Journal, http://www.salina.com

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