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ALLSTON / BRIGHTON


BUDDHIST TEMPLE

by Claudia
Torrens

Temple Serves Burgeoning Allston-Brighton Community

Buddhist monks Phramaha Samrong Maha and Phramaha Anan are looking for a 10-acre parcel of land to build a bigger temple.

Every day at 7 p.m. silence falls over a small second-floor apartment on Commonwealth Avenue.

On carpets in the living room and the corridor, about 15 people sit, shoes off, eyes closed, heads down. They are paying their respect to Buddha and, as one says later, "looking for peace of mind."

This tiny apartment is a Buddhist temple that quietly opened its doors last summer to serve Brighton's growing Asian population. However, it already has outgrown its congregation. That's why the three shaven-headed orange-robed monks who oversee the temple are looking to move to a larger home next month.

The monks' prayers are just one indication of a vibrant population of nearly 2,000 Buddhists living in the Allston-Brighton) community, also the home to immigrants from Brazil, Russia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Census data shows that the number of Asians in the neighborhood has increased by 28.2 percent since 1990 to 9,600. They are the fastest growing ethnic group in the neighborhood, comprising 14 percent of Allston-Brighton's population.

At the temple, the monks and the majority of worshippers are Thai. Phramaha Samrong Maha, one of the youngest monks, is proud of his community but concerned that it is growing so fast.

"We need a bigger temple," he said. "This is too small for us and it gets really crowded." Samrong, 28, said that three more monks will come from Thailand in June, when the temple moves to a larger apartment in Watertown. "We need help sometimes. We also invite monks from Chicago, New York and Washington because there is a large number of Buddhists in the community."

Currently located at 1765 Commonwealth Ave., the temple is sustained by donations and offerings. Worshippers, who come in small groups, all contribute to the rent. The money is sometimes collected through the little bonsai that are scattered around the living room; worshippers hang $10 bills in their branches before leaving. The monks call these bonsai "money trees."

Many of the Buddhists who come to Wat Nawamintararachutis, as the temple is called, are also Lao. In addition to these worshippers, a growing number of Vietnamese, Sri Lankans, Cambodians and Burmese have started to attend the meditation sessions.

"We all believe in the same Buddhism," Samrong said.

A small group of Thai residents pray at the temple on a Sunday afternoon.

Filled with an aroma of incense, the living room of the apartment is decorated with red rugs and pillows, bronze figures of Buddha, flowers, pictures of the Thai royal family, a computer and a television for viewing Buddhist teacher talks.
At the entrance, beside a sign that reads, "Please take your shoes off," there are several brochures written in Thai that announce the schedule of the monks' meals and the meditation hours. The fliers also appear in a national Thai newspaper and are distributed around Allston-Brighton's Thai restaurants and shops.
Facing immigrants' needs
While the increasing demand for religious services and meditation reflects one aspect of the growing Asian population, there are other signs of the neighborhood's struggle to meet the new immigrants' needs. For example, many Asian residents do not speak English and ask for translation help in order to pursue basic needs such as buying a house or paying their taxes.

There is a lack of available translation services in the neighborhood, particularly for Chinese speakers, according to a report by the Allston-Brighton Healthy Boston Coalition, a neighborhood association that works to improve immigrants' situations.

The report also suggests the neighborhood should increase linguistic and cultural services for minorities. Residents interviewed for the study said there is a great need for multi-lingual employees in the neighborhood, but that they are hard to find.

"There aren't many services for the Asian population in Allston-Brighton; probably because there weren't many Asians a few years ago," Meredith Polin, a representative of the Allston-Brighton Healthy Boston Coalition, said. "However, people should look for multicultural employees in order to help this growing population. It's obvious they do not have the same opportunities as Americans have."

Asians, like other immigrants, also face documentation problems. Large portions of immigrants in Allston-Brighton are undocumented and they are most likely not counted in the census. The Boston Coalition report explained that the dilemma arises when they are afraid to speak up and therefore are unable to access the services they need.

The Buddha statue, center of the prayers, at the Wat Nawamintararachutis temple.

Monks at the temple have faced similar problems. For example, Phramaha Anan, another of the three monks, speaks broken English and has been taking ESL courses at the Boston Center for Adult Education since he arrived in Boston last August. Before that, he studied English for three months in Thailand, as one of the requirements of his missionary program. After he passed an English test and sat for an interview, the Council of Thai Bhikkhus in the United States decided Anan was prepared to come to Boston.

"I like this city. I came here to pray, run the meditation and help the Thai and Asian community. I think I'll stay a long time," Anan said.

A temple 'like those in Thailand'

Three months ago, Anan, along with the six members of the board of directors of the temple, asked Joe Milano, honorary Thai Consul in Boston and owner of the Union Oyster House restaurant, to help the meditation center look for a 10-acre parcel of land in order to built a large temple. "Like those in Thailand," Anan added with a smile.

According to the monk, the final move to the new temple is expected to take place after a two- to three-year interim period at the Watertown apartment. For him, this will be the final step toward serving the spiritual needs of the entire Buddhist population of Boston.

Milano, at first, thought that procuring the land would be difficult and expensive. But he has heard that an anonymous donor in Thailand has volunteered to pay for the land and temple.

"Boston is a fertile area for Thai people. Thousands of Thai students come here every year. The Thai king [Bhumibol Adulyadej] was born here, in Cambridge," he said. "I think it's good to further the culture of a country, and a temple would definitely unify a large portion of the Asian Buddhist community."

Sam Setagahyuraksa, a Thai worshipper and member of the board of directors of the temple, acknowledged that finding the land won't be easy. "We are looking for a lot of space, close to everybody and with parking," he said.

Setagahyuraksa, who is 64 and lives in Chelsea, attends the Brighton meditation center between two and three times per week. Besides praying, he also administers its budget. Setagahyuraksa helped the monks find the Brighton apartment and his name appears on the lease.

"Before, I used to pray at a Buddhist temple in Bedford. Now I'm happy to come here," he said. "It's closer. However, I really hope we can find a new land and construct a bigger temple."

"The temple is also like the center of the Thai community in the neighborhood. We get to know each other, we talk about our problems. I think we needed a place like this."
Taweesak Sripan, one of the worshippers of the temple.

Setagahyuraksa, as well as the rest of the practitioners, sometimes brings the monks white buckets full of bulbs, pens, notebooks, food, toothpaste and towels. Buddhists call these offerings "sangadana" and they are a way of expressing gratitude to the monks.

Opal Garienvar, a 23-year-old American student with Thai roots, also comes to the temple to pray. She and her mother sometimes cook for the monks in the kitchen of the apartment. "Sometimes we bring food, sometimes we cook ourselves," she said.

"My mom heard about the temple through a friend, so we decided to come," Garienvar said. "I don't come as much as her, but I suppose young people like me are not that religious. I guess we just come from a different situation."

Nine percent of Allston-Brighton's residents are age 65 or older. Of this group, 12 percent are Asians and Pacific Islanders. The monks say worshippers at temple are of all ages, but that the majority are older than 40.

Ethnicity is also very diverse inside Allston-Brighton's Asian community. After Chinese, Indians form the second largest group of Asians in the community. According to the Allston-Brighton Needs and Assets report, they comprise 12 percent of the neighborhood's Asian population, followed by the Korean community, which is 9 percent.

The temple, open 24 hours a day, draws from the diversity of Asian immigrants in Allston-Brighton. They don't only come to meditate or pray; they can also have talk-therapy with one of the monks by appointment. "We are like psychologists," Phramaha Samrong said.

The temple was constructed to honor the king of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, who curiously was born at the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge.

Monks at the temple practice Theravada, or old school Buddhism, according to Samrong. Theravada is the precursor of other popular Buddhist schools, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Practitioners of these other schools are welcomed to the temple.

"Buddhism is about wisdom. Whoever likes it, is well received at the temple. If there is a type of Buddhism that is good for you, you just follow it," Samrong said. "We just heal people with our minds."

For Taweesak Sripan, a 30-year-old Thai waiter, meditation helps him to think about himself. "People don't have time to think about their problems, about their future," he said. "I like to come here and breathe, relax and reconsider things."

Sripan has been living in Boston for five years, but it was not until recently that he felt he had a place to interact with the rest of the Asian population. "The temple is also like the center of the Thai community. We get to know each other, we talk about our problems," he said. "I think we needed a place like this."

The Wat Nawamintararachutis temple has no sign on the front wall of the apartment building. At first, it is as invisible as the Asian population that lives in the neighborhood. However, neither the temple nor the Asian community is small anymore. All signs are both will continue to grow, quietly but persistently.

CLAUDIA TORRENS

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- Prayers at the Wat Nawamintararachutis

- The Buddha statue

- Honor to Bhumibol Adulyadej, king of Thailand

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- Wat Nawamintararachutis

- Allston-Brighton Healthy Boston Coalition

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