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The Watt Munisotaram raised a number of interesting questions for me that I pursued in my research and fieldwork. First among them is how the Watt carries out its stated purpose of playing a role in “facilitating the practice of Buddhism in the West."1 According to tradition, the Buddha's teachings have truly arrived in a new country when “sons and daughters of good families in the country join the monastic order” (Cadge 31). By this logic, Buddhism is fully established in the new area only when native-born people join the sangha, or order of monks. Although Vicheth Chum has been in the U.S. for 16 years, there is not a monk at the Watt that was born in the U.S. Only time will tell if an American-born monk will practice at the Watt Munisotaram.
I wanted to learn more about how the history of the founders, who were mostly refugees from the Khmer Rouge that outlawed Buddhism, shaped the purpose and practices of the temple including the religious education of the American-born generation of the Cambodian refugees. Finally, I wanted to examine how the Watt has been received by the mostly White and Christian community of Hampton.
Throughout this process of exploration, photography, videography, interviews, and frequent visits to the Watt ceremonies and community events allowed me to further explore these questions and uncovered new possibilities for discovery.
Through these visits, I've observed and heard reference to some of the important values that the Watt holds:
The community strongly values family and taking care of elders. I've witnessed numerous multi-generational outings and picnics as well as the Watt's plans to build of community center, and possibly a retirement home.
Hard work and giving back to the community in Minnesota and back home in Cambodia (via donations, volunteering to help serve of the board, lay bricks, paint Buddhas, decorate for festivals, etc.) are integral aspects of community life at the Watt Munisotaram.
For the most part, I've noticed fairly fixed gender roles; women cook, clean, and do more of the “housework” of the temple while men do the hard labor (construction) and can become monks, give tours, and are generally the “face” of the temple. That being said, both men and women were working on decorations and there are a lot of women volunteers on the board of directors who have tremendous sway within the temple.
Sras Chuop highlighted in her Facebook post the passion and time commitment volunteers put into the Watt Munisotaram in order to ensure that their heritage and culture is passed onto the next generation.
Hao’s father accepted him as a gay man but his mother took much longer. As such, it's hard to know the general attitude the Watt has towards the LGBTQ community. I also did not directly ask anyone about the presence or acceptance of the LGBTQ community at the Watt.
Getting the opportunity to learn about the Watt from some amazing people and being so warmly welcomed into the community was an incredibly rewarding experience. I learned just as much about myself as I learned about the Watt, which is why it's so important and valuable to learn about other cultures and communities other than your own. I look forward to visiting the Watt in the future.
-Will Yetvin, 2016
About Us. Watt Munisotaram. Retrieved 4/20/16 from http://wattmn.org/about-us-2/ ↩