Buddhist Temple Hopes to Draw Young Cambodians

Kandaal Pheach, head monk at Wat Jotanaram, the temple built by refugees who fled Cambodia in the 1980s, following the destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouge regime. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Chamroeung Duong views an NCAA basketball game at Wat Jotanaram before evening prayers. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

A young monk at the temple checks in on a varsity basketball game. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Wat Jotanaram is not only a temple, but also a community center. Here, young and old followers enjoy fish ball soup and noodles before praying. The temple’s future might be in jeopardy if it doesn’t attract more young Buddhist followers. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Wat Jotanaram followers chant Khmer songs during a Buddhist prayer ritual. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Brother Kandaal Pheach (second to the right) leads Khmer prayers at Wat Jotanaram. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Sophouns Kandaal Pheach, a Cambodian monk clad in a vibrant orange robe, lights a stick of incense and cups his hands to pray in front of an altar of golden Buddha statues at Wat Jotanaram, a Buddhist temple in the Bronx.

“This temple is my life,” said Pheach, who immigrated to America from Phnom Penh in 2001.

The two-story building on Morris Avenue is a temple, a community hall, and Pheach’s home, all under one roof. Beneath its ordinary house-like exterior is a pocket of Southeast Asian culture. As a house of worship, Wat Jotanaram, also known as the Khmer Buddhist Society, caters to more than 300 Cambodian Buddhists.

Pheach leading a meditation session (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Pheach leading a meditation session (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Pheach leads group meditations on the second floor, as old women chant Khmer prayers. In the lobby, Cambodian health care is offered, including a treatment called kos kyhol, where a coin is lubricated in an herbal liquid balm then firmly applied to the skin to alleviate flu-like symptoms.

“This temple plays the most important role to free sufferings mentally, physically, of my people. When the Cambodian community has unity, we can be happy,” Pheach said.

There are approximately 4,000 Cambodians and Cambodian Americans living in New York, with about 1,600 of them living in the Bronx. Buddhism is the dominant religion among Cambodians, and this temple caters specifically to Cambodian Buddhists, although followers from other countries are welcome.

The first big wave of Cambodian immigrants to the U.S. arrived in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as refugees fled the extremist Khmer Rouge government that killed millions. Many could not speak English and had little professional training, taking whatever jobs they could get once in America.

The building that houses Wat Jotanaram was purchased in 1985 by the first Cambodian immigrants who had survived the bloody regime.

“Cambodian people suffer so much,” said Pheach, who arrived later than most Cambodians after the Khmer Buddhist Society recruited him in 2001.

Pheach, however, wasn’t a refugee. His family remained in Cambodia following the genocide. At 19, Pheach entered the monastery and became ordained. He left his entire family behind to become the head monk here.

Cambodian immigrants who arrived before him had little education, spoke little or no English and bore deep psychological scars from Cambodia’s genocide.

Lang Leang, 70, former president of the Khmer Buddhist Society, was one of them. As a newly arrived refugee in New York, Leang got a job in a medical clinic, but the pay was so low that he was barely able to feed his family.

“When we came to this country, we had nowhere to go,” said Leang. “It was very hard to try to raise a family not only for myself but for other community members so [we could] maintain the culture for the next generation.”

Leang had watched some family members starve to death, while he nearly did the same, hiding from the Khmer Rouge near the Thai border.

Yet, despite their hardships, Leang and other refugees made it a priority to establish a temple. By 1985, the refugee community had raised $65,000 to buy the property that now houses Wat Jotanaram. The temple’s name translates to beautiful, peaceful, delighted, and shining place – and it’s a bridge between the new and the old world, as well as a Cambodian community center of sorts.

On any given day, you can find old Cambodian men sprawled on the temple’s vibrant carpets, watching college basketball on a lone television screen, while women prepare steamy fish ball soup in the kitchen, joking in Khmer as they stir broth and chop cilantro. They pray and share meals at Wat Jotanaram. Funerals, ordinations, and blessings are also often held here, and it’s where Pheach lives, as well, with two other monks.

“The temple in the Bronx is a very critical cultural space,” said Pete Pin, a Cambodian photographer, who documented the Bronx’s diaspora community for The New York Times in 2012. “It’s critical for the generational transfer of culture.”

Pin, 31, who came to the United States as a small child, is not a Buddhist, but rather an agnostic who was raised as a Christian. However, he goes to Wat Jotanaram and other temples like it in America to learn Khmer, Cambodia’s traditional language that is being lost among second- and third-generation Cambodian Americans.

“That’s where Cambodians like myself can go to learn the language. Just basic stuff like how to read and write,” said Pin.  “That’s offered primarily in the temples.”

Sopheavattey Virak, 22, was born in Phnom Penh and arrived in America two years ago. Her connection to her heritage comes largely through weekly visits to Wat Jotanaram. She’s one of the few followers her age who attend this Bronx Buddhist temple, where she has learned Khmer.

“The temple means the place that the Khmer community comes to meet and join together. It also means the place that can make us feel calm and peaceful,” said Virak, who aspires to one day return to her home country and serve as Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States.

Meas Vuthy, 84, is Wat Jotanaram’s oldest monk. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

Meas Vuthy, 84, is Wat Jotanaram’s oldest monk. (Photo by Dorian Geiger/Voices of NY)

However, it is first-generation Cambodian elders who predominate among Wat Jotanaram’s followers. Pin said this is true of most Cambodian Buddhist temples throughout America.

“After a generation or so these temples will no longer exist because of a lack of participating Buddhists,” said Pin.

The long-term survival of Wat Jotanaram depends on second- and third-generation Cambodian Americans. Yet many Cambodians in the Bronx are disinterested in something they feel they have little or no connection to.

“They don’t get what’s going on here and they don’t understand the language,” said Sandra Sok, 14, who is wearing a black “I Love NY” T-shirt.

Sok, born in the northwest Battambang Province of Cambodia, is one of the temple’s younger Buddhists who makes an effort to attend Wat Jotanaram with her family. She noted that most Cambodians in New York who are her age have a limited grasp of their traditional language, something she said discourages them from attending Wat Jotanaram where many of the ceremonies are performed in Khmer.

“The prayers they don’t understand. They get bored when prayer is going on. They’re not interested at all. They think it’s better to stay home or something, and go on the Internet,” Sok added.

Rottana Duong, 43, is another Wat Jotanaram worshipper, whose father, Chamroeung Duong, is the temple’s current president. Duong, too, is troubled by this trend.

“I’ve been living in this country for 30 years and I’ve seen a lot of Cambodians try to adapt to American culture,” said Duong.

She thinks most young Cambodians sweep their heritage under the carpet in favor of a glamorized American lifestyle.

“They start to lose their culture and also their religion, which is sad. So now they are more Americanized,” she explained.

Aside from the difficulty in recruiting young Buddhists, many community leaders in the temple are in their 70s and 80s, with few candidates in line able – or willing – to succeed them in their respective roles at Wat Jotanaram. This deeply disturbs Pheach, the temple’s head monk.

“Every day I worry about losing my temple here,” said Pheach. “All people tried very hard to build this temple for the next generation, for the young generation. I am worried every day my temple will disappear because young people are not interested in Buddhism.”

Dorian Geiger is a freelance journalist and student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter

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