Wat Lao Buddhavong
by Mary Beth Price
I searched for about an hour one evening for websites to direct me to some Buddist or Hindu religious temples. I also searched the yellow pages for about another half hour and finally checked out Mentor Shulman’s suggestions. I found Wat Lao Buddhavong Buddhist Temple in Catlett, Virginia.
I asked my retired parents, devout Catholics, to accompany me on my site visit, because I was nervous and they always enjoy an excuse to go to the city to have dinner. I telephoned the Wat Lao Buddhavong Temple the day before my visit and they suggested a time I arrive. My parents and I arrived on February 19 a recent warm and sunny afternoon. As we drove up the driveway toward the Temple we immediately were awe struck by the architecture of the building. It was a bright, beautiful building set in the country with blue, yellow, green and gold colors trimmed around. As we walked up to the building, my mother was first to notice the rack for our shoes. We were taking our shoes off when a woman, who appeared to be a church secretary, waved and approached us. I walked up to her and told her I was a student in a World Religion Class. She smiled and nodded and welcomed us into the temple.
As we entered through the double doors, decorated with gold Buddha figures, I thought I had entered another world. It just took my breath away. It was very colorful with large pictures, similar to the Shiva, Vishnu and Sarasvati pictures I found on the internet for the Pantheon. There was a large Buddha directly ahead against the wall, which appeared to be similar to an altar. It was shiny gold, but I later discovered it was bronze with gold on the outside. There were rugs lying on the floor where the people kneel and meditate. In front of the large Buddha altar, was a clutter display of different articles. There was another green glass Buddha trimmed in gold with a large display of jewels and gold around it. This appeared to be the center of attention. There were flowers and many others items present that had been given for offering.
The secretary asked us to sit in the chairs that were available off to the right side of the rugs and she disappeared but was still heard. She was speaking in another language to someone. Suddenly, she came out from the other side of the room with a young man dressed in a robe. He approached me and bowed gently. As I would with anyone else, I put my hand out to introduce myself and told him my name. He took his arms and crossed his chest and just bowed and grinned. I learned then, it must not be appropriate to shake the hand of a female. His name was Monk Philip.
I had prepared a list of questions and Philip was very helpful, kind and spoke very good English. Philip said the community gathers regularly once a month to gather for sermon, offering, and meditation. The language they speak is lao. He said the leader of their community/congregation is the Head Monk, who was seated near the green Buddha in the center. The atmosphere was very relaxed, peaceful and quiet. Philip said their community was first established in 1980 in a small house in Fairfax. Their congregation grew and in 1990 the temple I was in was built. When I asked him if they encountered any difficulties when they built the temple, he smiled and said “yes, yes, the neighbors did not understand, they just do not understand the Buddhism.” The temple now has 300 to 400 members and children are present and welcome at sermons. The head monk, Abbot, is in charge, but they also have a 12 member governing board to make decisions. They also have lay leaders that lead chanting and fix lunch when they gather. I asked him if they have teachers, similar to a Sunday school teacher and he said yes. They have some special festivals they celebrate, the New Year is on April 17, which he continued to invite me back to attend and I plan to return. They also celebrate on July 4. When the Hindu religion celebrates a Holi festival with laughing, dancing, face painting and parades, the Buddhist celebrate Holi Festival in May with mediation and memorizing teaching. Philip said they offer culture programs for the youth, language programs and summer camps for dancing. There was a large silver container of water sitting in the center a few feet from the altar and Philip said it was holy water. During the monks chanting, the lead monk will sprinkle holy water for good luck. I smiled at my mother, because that sounded like midnight mass in the Catholic service. I asked Philip about the two twin beds that were to the left of the altar filled with laundry baskets of “stuff” and lots of clutter. Philip said when the male child reaches age 20 he becomes a monk for three months in his lifetime. He can remain a monk or not, but has to serve as monk for at least three months. During this period he repays his debt to his parents and his belongings are offered to the Temple, which is what is displayed on and around the twin beds.
Near the chairs where we were seated was a small place for people to kneel and a large photo of a man. Philip said they were paying tribute to this man because he donated the large glass green Buddha placed in the center of the large room. There were lots of flowers and other items also given for offering. Philip said people give and give because the more you give, the less you greed. We walked over to some book shelves and he gave me lots of reading material. Some written in lao, but most in English. He explained there are 82,000 verses, 32 volumes of their readings, comparing to the Christian bible. It is made up into three parts, 1) rule of the monk, 2) teaching of Buddha, and 3) Practice of Buddha.
When I was done interviewing Philip he introduced us to the lead Monk. We gave a monetary offering, which was placed in a silver dish and handed to him. He commented on our happy, smiling faces and mentioned meditating (praying) when we eat, drive, and go to sleep. Philip had to translate a lot of what the lead monk said, but we learned he was age 69 and had been a monk since the age of ten. We visited with them for about an hour and left at 2:30 in the afternoon. Philip said the lead monk would sit at that location until about 6:00 p.m. and then retire to his home. The lead monk gave my parents and I a small Buddha statue in crocheted holders to hang around our neck, close to the heart. He said when we take them off; hang them high for good luck. As we left, both monks shook my fathers hand, so I must have been correct on the hand shaking of a female!
Philip, the lead monk and the secretary were very kind and helpful. This was a memorable moment and I was glad to have been able to visit the Wat Lao Buddhavong Temple. I look forward to returning on April 17.
|Created by Laura Ellen Shulman||
Last updated: March 19, 2004