WASHINGTON – The biting odor of burning incense mixed with fragrant coconut jelly desserts will fill the air as Cambodians prepare for their biggest cultural celebration of the year, the lunar new year, at a Silver Spring Buddhist temple.
“The new year brings a new spirit,” said Sovan Tun, president of the Cambodian Buddhist Society, a local religious organization with members across the United States.
In honor of the year of the boar, he explained, many Cambodians will clean their homes, wear new clothes sewn in traditional fashion, shine their Buddhas, make new resolutions and go to the ceremony, where monks will sprinkle sweet-scented holy water to wash away old sins.
Cambodian families flock to the temple from throughout the region, and from as far away as California, Tun said.
Vatt Buddhikarama, a temple designed and decorated in the style of traditional Khmer Buddhist architecture with tapered pointed roofs and thin columns crowned with statues of holy figures, opened on New Hampshire Avenue in 1986 as the first organized Cambodian Buddhist temple in the United States.
The Cambodian new year is based on a lunar calendar, and falls usually in the second week of April. The celebration lasts three days beginning Saturday, April 14, and draws anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 people each day, depending on the weather.
Guests begin each morning inside a prayer room in the temple on their knees with their hands flatly clasped in prayer as they chant in unison before a row of monks.
“Many people chant, but not all know how,” said Tun of Pali, the language of prayer, which is used in ancient religious texts, but is obsolete in modern dialogue, much like Latin and Sanskrit.
The religious service is followed by free food, dances, folk music, games and is a social event for many Cambodian youths.
“Happy new year from Maryland . . . Anyone going to the temple this weekend?” writes Veronica Ros in a Cambodian culture discussion group on Facebook.com, an online social network for students.
“Happy New Year! Gonna be chillin’ at Wat Khmer,” writes Ulysses Som, a 21-year-old from Frederick who helps his mother cook in the days before the festivities. Even though he misses out on other cultural events, he makes a point to come to the new year’s celebration to see people he hasn’t seen in a long time, to show what he has accomplished and to demonstrate respect for his mother and the Cambodian community.
“Oh my gosh, he’s grown up . . . all the women are probably chasing him,” he expects his mother’s friends to say. “The more Cambodians who show up will help us become closer as a community. We should never forget our roots.”
At the ceremony, guests will conduct a symbolic food offering to the monks, who are regarded as teachers and embodiments of Buddha’s teachings. They form a line to serve rice, soups and desserts to each monk.
In Cambodia, monks go door to door begging for food, explained Tun, but since they can’t do so in America, volunteers bring food to the monks at the temple once a month on a designated day, and once a year to the festival.
When Cambodia fell to communist takeover in 1975, the first influx of refugees came to America. Tun and other members of the society felt the need to build the temple for new refugees to worship.
The next groups of refugees staggered in after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, as family members reunited after years of separation resulting from the four-year rule of Pol Pot, who ordered nearly 1.5 million Cambodians tortured and killed.
“Refugees come from all walks of life,” ranging from educated and rich to poor and illiterate, said Tun. “Refugees don’t come by choice, but for survival. Some don’t even know (about) running water. They have more problems adjusting to American life. Many suffered a lot from Khmer Rouge trauma. They have to rely on something. That is why we try to make the temple like the ones in Cambodia.”
About 1,900 Cambodians live in Maryland, according to the 2000 Census.
“The temple is also a place of conservation of culture,” said Tun explaining that shelves of Cambodian Buddhist texts, books and artifacts are archived within the walls of the “wat,” the Khmer word for temple.
Sunday classes are offered at the temple for community members to learn music, dance, language and religion. The temple also offers free food for the hungry, Tun said, and a place to stay for Cambodians who need temporary shelter. “We even have tourists who come to stay here,” he chuckled. “The Cambodian temple is not only a place of worship. It is a community.”
– 30 – CNS-4-13-07