Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Hidden Temple: Wat Lao

My parents fled as refugees from the southeast Asian nation of Laos following the Vietnam War. After crossing many rivers and running through many fields, they made their way to Columwbus, Ohio after being sponsored by family, where I was born a couple of months later reuniting with additional members of our family and friends from the refugee camps. The Laotian population was continuously growing. To preserve some of our cultural to meet the demands of the expanding population, there was a Lao Buddhist temple built in the early 1990s since most of the Laotian population practiced Buddhism. The Buddhist temple was originally built next to the Community Refugee Immigration Services building on the east side of Columbus to better serve the Laotian population.

It was a win-win: The community could have a piece of home at the temple (which they named Wat Lao Buddahamamakaram), all while trying to transition to their new home, near to the services they were requesting from the immigration offices center next door. Growing up, inside those buildings was where I spent most of my time. My family was faced with much culture shock; having language barriers did not help us much with the whole resettlement. I spent most of my time either needing help learning to speak English, inside the temple meditating to keep calm from [and] not losing [our] shit in a new country.

There was an annual festival at Wat Lao called That Luang, named after the national symbol and most important religious monument of Laos. Buddhist monks would gather at a replica stupa that they hand-made for the religious ceremony to mimic the one in the homeland. They’d make offerings with things such as flowers and incense; circle the stupa three times, and do other religious rituals that’s meant to earn you good karma.

Buddhist Ajanh Sun Palee used to reside at the temple. Like me, he took advantage of the English learning resources of the immigration center, after he came from Thailand in 2003 due to the high demands of the growing community. He, along with fellow monk Ajanh Pa Thavone, was a big part of the That Luang festival, including the complicated task of building the annual replica. (Due to lack of storage space they built a new version year). An impressive task, considering there were only them and one other monk at the temple. “We made it all. From start to finish—just us monks,” Ajanh Pa said.

After the ceremonies, we all gathered together around these straw basket dining tables where we sit on the floor and ate together like one big family. It was a potluck style lunch after the monks eat first. Oftentimes, the ceremonies take place in the morning to be mindful of time because monks are only allowed to eat from sunrise to noon. Usually after the ceremonies and after everyone eats, you get a chance to have a one-on-one with the monks where they give you good luck by tying a bracelet to your wrist. The bracelet represented love and luck.

Misconception: not all Laotians are Buddhist. Although this was a Buddhist ceremony, we often had non-Buddhist members participate anyway. Coming to a new country with no knowledge of the language or culture is extremely difficult. Growing up, the temple was the Lao community’s haven to connect, kind of like a support group—and the monks acted as a form of therapy for new Laotian residents of Columbus. Most Laotians don’t believe in mental health care. Community leader Bounthanh Phommasathit, who owns a home health care company, explains.

“It is because they are coming from a third world country,” she said. “Laos does not have the resources to provide those services or even educate them on the topic. It was not a part of our culture to speak to a healthcare professional about your problems. Most Laotians meditated to release their feelings. If they found it difficult, they would reach out to monks for a better solution.”

Coming as refugees meant you came to this country with nothing but the clothes on your back and each other. You literally ran away from war. Observing the smiles and laughs at the festival from the temple showcased a community sticking together through it all; through the war, being separated from family, living at various refugee camps throughout southeast Asia, crossing many rivers and running through many fields. All hurdles they had to jump to make it to freedom in America.

“Observing the smiles and laughs at the temple showcased a community sticking together through it all; through the war, being separated from family…”

Today, the temple attracts attention from non-Laotians for their brightly colored beautiful stupa that the ao community built together in 2009. It was meant to continue to preserve and honor the Laotian culture. It mimics how a traditional Buddhist temple in Laos would appear. Because of the growing Laotian population and increasing curiosity of Buddhism from the general population, there are now two additional Buddhist temples in the Columbus area. Ajanh Sun heads one in Groveport and Ajanh Pa heads another one in Canal Winchester. All three temples primarily serve the Lao community but open their doors up for anyone wanting to learn about the traditional Buddhist practices. If you ever drive through the eastside of Columbus and see this magnificent shrine, look at it as Columbus’ hidden beautiful treasure built by an indestructible community. •

Wat Lao is located at 3624 Bexvie Ave. For more information on Columbus’s Lao community, visit the Lao Volunteer Donation Association at laovda.com.

This story was written by Tina Maharath.

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