Buddhist temple

Monk turns Gulf Coast suburban home into a Buddhist temple

Pisit Opnititanit left Thailand and eventually found his way to a few acres of land next to a cow pasture on Martin Bluff Road in Gautier, Mississippi.

The Buddhist monk could have stayed in his home country, where 95% of the people practice Theravada Buddhism. Instead, his devotion led him to the Mississippi Gulf Coast via New Orleans.

Since the opening of Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee in July 2016, Opnititanit and other monks and volunteers have transformed a typical suburban house, adding gable-tiled roofs in the traditional style and an intricately carved wooden porch. A sign outside announces sales of Thai food on Sundays, which is how most of Wat Buddhametta’s non-Buddhist neighbors know the place.

The temple is the only Therevada Buddhist temple in Mississippi and one of the few on the Gulf Coast.

“It’s not just a religious place, it’s more of a community center, to get together, eat good food and enjoy life,” said Monsiri Jintasawang, whose mother has been involved in the temple since her birth. opening.

Jintasawang lives in Las Vegas, but has driven her campervan across the country to help with Songkran Temple’s celebration of the Thai New Year. Sunday’s festival brought people from Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida to the temple to pray, share food, and seek blessings for the New Year.

Rita Ritano, born in Bangkok, is originally from New Orleans. Next week, a Thai temple will hold a celebration there. There’s also one in New Iberia, Louisiana, and several around Irvington, Alabama, which is home to a Cambodian and Laotian community.

Because temple communities throughout the southern Gulf are relatively small, New Year’s celebrations are staggered so people like Ritano and monks can attend.

On Sunday afternoon, the monks at Wat Buddhametta and their colleagues in New Orleans sat outside the temple behind seven Buddha statues, one for each day of the week. The participants filled cups of water and poured them on the Buddha statues and then on the monks.

In Thailand, people celebrate the holiday by going to the temple to pray, donate to monks, and acknowledge the misdeeds of the past year.

“And then the community takes the plunge,” said Ritano. “It means you are clean. “

Family reunions and water fights

Wirinda Rongdech, 24, was among visitors to Wat Budhametta Mahabaramee on Sunday. Rongdech is originally from southern Thailand but studied and worked in New Orleans. A colleague born in Thailand invited her to join their trip.

“I just wanted to see what a Thai temple looks like in America,” she said.

It was different from Songkran in Thailand, where part of the festivities are huge water fights. Holidays fall during the hottest part of the year in Thailand, so water is not only a symbol of ablution but also a welcome relief from the heat.

In big cities like Bangkok, people arm themselves with water guns and buckets, and water fights turn into big street parties. As Rongdech puts it, people “get drunk and wet”.

The holiday falls on April 13 but is celebrated until the 15th, and everything is closed so people can return home to be with their families.

“The most important thing, the key, is the reunion,” said Joe Khotwong, legal adviser to Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee and chief monk of the Wat Wimuttayaram Buddhist temple in New Orleans.

“When children leave their parents to work in the city, they come back for the New Year,” he said.

Theravada Buddhism in the Southern Gulf

Theravada Buddhism is also the dominant religion in Laos and Cambodia, and Wat Buddhametta Mahabaramee also serves community members with roots in these countries. There are also Vietnamese participants, but most Vietnamese Buddhists align with Mahayana Buddhism, and on the coast, most Americans of Vietnamese descent are Catholics.

The first Theravada Buddhists arrived in the southern Gulf in the 1970s as refugees after the Vietnam War.

Some of them eventually reached the Gulf Coast. Cambodians arrived in Alabama around Bayou La Batre in 1975 and quickly built their own temples. Laotians and Vietnamese also came to work in the seafood industry.

The thriving Vietnamese community of Biloxi has established its own Catholic church and Buddhist temple.

US Census data breaks down the national origin of some of Mississippi’s roughly 30,000 Asian residents, showing that about 7,000 Mississippians have roots in India and about 11,000 in Vietnam. But the census does not have a separate box for Cambodians, Laotians and Thais to check. Instead, they are brought together with other nationalities under the “Other Asian” umbrella, which encompasses around 2,000 people in the state.

The census estimates that there are approximately 10,000 “other Asians” in Louisiana and 8,000 in Alabama.

Thai immigrants to the United States came mainly for economic reasons – Ritano arrived 40 years ago as a student. Some of the oldest members of the Mississippi community are women who met their American husbands while serving in the Vietnam War.

The Khotwong Temple in New Orleans was established in 2009. Historically, Thai Buddhists from Mississippi have traveled to Louisiana or Alabama for festivals and events.

Finding a monk who could establish a temple in Mississippi was a challenge, he said.

“It’s not just for a year, maybe long-term leadership,” he said. “A small community, there were no monks who came.

A monk on a mission

Then Opnititanit, who had been to Khotwong Temple in New Orleans, decided to move to Gautier. The location was good, within a three hour drive of small Thai communities in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And, to a Theravada Buddhist missionary, setting up a temple where there was no place of calling.

In addition to regular prayers and attending festivals, Opnititanit and her colleagues teach visitors, including non-Buddhists, about Buddhism and meditation.

He is also overseeing the physical expansion and remodeling of the temple. Her construction skills are self-taught via YouTube and internet research.

Each week, volunteers cook and sell dishes like pad thai and papaya salad to help raise funds for the temple expansion.

The landscaping and decorations in front of the temple were all imported from Thailand, Khotwong said. The temple community plans to build a multi-purpose center and the monks will once again take care of the construction.

“There is no money,” Khotwong said. “We dedicate our lives to serving Buddhism. It’s our return, not the money.

Opnititanit spends many days working in front of the temple. It’s cheap and it gives him the opportunity to meet people who might be wondering about the Buddha statues on Martin Bluff Road.

“Every day people stop,” he said. “The temple is for everyone in the world.


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