A Really Real Cambodian Wat in Minnesota

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Once there was evil in the land – I mean Cambodia and not Minnesota (we have not yet sunk so far). And I do mean real evil – not the malevolent presences in Stephen King novels nor the incorporeal intent of Lord Voldemort tormenting Harry Potter – but ordinary flesh and blood evil – the intentional evil of evil human beings.

I refer to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge and their dreams of a truly good and virtuous Cambodia. Pol Pot set out to remove the Khmer people from sin by removing from the people all those individual Khmer who had been tainted by corrupted values or life-styles.

Pol Pot’s project was to restart Khmer greatness at a Year Zero from which point in time all great things would ensue.

The policy of the Khmer Rouge, according to Im Vin, a survivor I met in Thailand in 1978, was “If you live, we gain nothing; if you die, we lose nothing. So, why not kill you today?”

And so, some 1 to 2 million Khmer lost their lives.

And many thousands came to Minnesota as refugees, thanks in great part to the work of my colleagues on the Citizens Commission on Indochinese Refugees which, in 1978, convinced the Carter Administration to admit refugees from the Vietnam War.

In Pol Pot’s eyes, one of the sources of sin besotting his Khmer people was Theravada Buddhism. Thus, the destruction of Buddhism was ordered. Monks were killed; temples pillaged, desecrated, and abandoned; all written scriptures burned;

When I stumbled into one of two refugee camps for Cambodians in Thailand in 1978, I ran across two monks. As far as they knew, they were the only monks left alive still able to provide Buddhist practices for Cambodians. They did not know of any surviving copies of the Tripitaka in Khmer, the 110 volumes of Theravada teachings.

But last Sunday in Hampton, Minnesota – some 40 minutes south of the Twin Cities – Cambodian Buddhism was back.

Pol Pot’s dream was trashed; thankfully flushed down the toilet of history.

Cambodians in Minnesota and elsewhere had built for $1.6 million a proper Wat with sloping roof, gilt trim, supporting columns, thevadas and naga serpents sculpted out of cement, eight Sima or boundary stones marking off the sacred precincts.

The wat sits on a hill surrounded by Minnesota farms and exurbs. Southeast Asia exotica in the middle of Lake Wobegon white bread. The head monk, Venerable Moeng Sang, now has a religious title bestowed by the King of Cambodia, in a touch of royal recognition for a tiny bit of Minnesota reality.

At the installation of the edifice, some 70 Khmer monks were in attendance, some from Cambodia itself, where Buddhism has come back. Local Khmer Minnesotans danced the welcome dance and the dance of the Apsaras – female deities whose presence on earth indicates peace and prosperity; thousands of Khmer Americans attended for food, fun, religious merit-making and lectures on Buddhism.

The Sunday afternoon when we arrived at Wat Munisotaram was hot and humid; the patio by the new Wat structure was set up as I had seen so many times in Cambodia and Thailand – two tents flanking an open space for the dancers with monks and important guests sitting in an open-sided wooden pavilion between the tents facing the open area.

It was as hot as it has ever been in Cambodia. The dancers were in heavy costume, sweating and nervous to be presented before the monks as carrying on an ancient tradition central to what it means to be Khmer. Small bottles of ice water were handed out over and over to the guests. The program was long. We were blessed with words seeking for us compassion and wisdom. It was déjà vu all over again for me; a rebirth of Cambodia in a new land brought about by people in exile, each of whom had lost family to Pol Pot’s reign of virtue.

No mainstream press showed up to record for history the new birth of religious liberty in this land of the free and home of the brave – no Star Tribune, no WCCO, no MPR. Two mayors showed up to say welcome to Minnesota.

There was no Cambodian Schindler’s List to watch; no holocaust memorial to keep us from forgetting. Just some people happy to have their religion and their identity back again.

I don’t know if I should be proud of my country for truly being a land of freedom or just cry over the cruelties that happen to the innocent and over the oblivion about the world in which so many of my people live.