On a sunny Saturday, rows of Cambodian Buddhists gathered under a white tent adorned with pink and turquoise ribbons, singing songs about the history of their people, watching a young woman perform a traditional dance and carrying Styrofoam bowls of rice as offerings to monks.
In front of them sat 140 monks from around the world, wearing their distinctive robes in shades of tangerine, melon and copper.
They were among nearly 7,000 people who traveled last weekend to Watt Munisotaram, the country’s largest Cambodian Buddhist temple located in rural Dakota County, to celebrate the inauguration of a new reflection pond. Cambodian-Americans came from across the U.S. for the three-day event, many camping out.
“This is once in a lifetime,” Sonny Lay said of Muchalinda Pond’s inauguration. “It’s really a blessing to experience.”
The 200-by-175 foot pond features a 20-foot statue of the Buddha in the middle. It took two years to build at a cost of about $530,000.
Temple is nationally known
The event also marked the temple’s 29th anniversary. Initially located in Eagan, it is now on 40 acres in Hampton, its vibrant colors and distinctive southeast Asian architecture rising unexpectedly from surrounding farms.
“To the mainstream society, I always tell them we just saved you $3,000 to $4,000,” joked Chanda Sour, a temple member. “Now you don’t have to go to Asia [to see a temple].”
The $1.5 million temple building, inaugurated in 2007, “really put Minnesota’s Cambodian temple on the map,” Sour said, as did an exhibit of the world’s largest jade Buddha in 2014. Watt Munisotaram has become the country’s biggest Cambodian Buddhist temple, despite the existence of larger Cambodian communities in Boston and California.
“It’s almost even better than what is in Cambodia,” Sour said.
The place has obvious religious significance, but is just as important culturally and artistically, he said.
College professors visit and bring their students, and the temple gives thousands of tours a year, Sour said.
“Our community, we have gone beyond the killing fields,” Sour said, referencing the sites in Cambodia where more than a million people were killed and buried by the Pol Pot regime. “We are now carving a new chapter in history.”
The temple’s physical dimensions and beauty are a source of pride to the 10,000 Cambodian-Americans in Minnesota, said Aht Sao, a member who once served on the temple’s board.
“It means a great deal, especially to the elders,” Sao said. “Our faith is a big part of who we are.”
The temple is the glue that holds the community together, he said.
Pondering its meaning
Pengsan Ou, a past vice president of the temple, said the pond represents Buddha’s reflection after he became enlightened. Buddha was meditating without food or water for six weeks, Ou said.
Saturday was a day filled with religious significance. But the weekend also featured food booths, dancing and socializing.
“My grandma comes for the religious part, I come for the food,” said Victor Faulring, visiting from Seattle.
Alex Prom drove in from Chicago with about 20 family members to camp out. He said he wishes the temple were closer. He said when you show up at the temple to camp, everything is provided. You come with nothing and leave with everything, Prom said.
“It’s not about religion, it’s about coming together,” he said.