Vandalism has plagued a Buddhist temple near Rochester for seven years. Neighbors and police are outraged and baffled.
A chorus of chirping crickets and the smashed shell of a mailbox greet Chhan Aun when he steps out the door of his monk's residence at the hilltop Buddhist temple southeast of Rochester.
"We are quiet and peaceful; we try to pray for good things, not bad," he said, wrapped in his orange robe, as a former monk translates his Cambodian words. "We don't understand why people are doing things like this."
This month's busted mailbox is the latest in a seven-year string of vandalism that has jarred the four monks who live on the grassy, rolling, 10.5-acre site they chose for tranquil reflection.
Someone sprayed-painted "Jesus Saves" and a cross on their driveway last May. Dozens of lights have been broken and stolen. Flowers and trees have been yanked from the earth. Instead of studying the teachings of Buddha, the monks have been installing motion-detecting lights and asking the Postal Service to approve moving their mailbox down from 29th Street and closer to their house.
"One night at 2 a.m., a group of four or five people were outside and I shined my flashlight in their face," said Aun, 63. "They never confront us face to face; they just run away."
Neighbors and police are outraged and baffled at what would motivate the vandals to harass such gentle men, some of whom, including Aun, lived through the Cambodian genocide of the late-1970s Khmer Rouge killing fields.
"They believe in peace and tranquility, and they sure don't deserve this," said Glenda Bale, who moved into the quiet residential area in 2003, just as the temple construction was completed and the monks moved in next door from their former downtown location.
Back then, her place was an overgrown "jungle," and as she worked to clear the lot, the monks would bring with food offerings. They invite Bale to all their celebrations.
Her friend's unlocked car was broken into once and papers were scattered. The monks say they've been struck three or four times a year since they arrived.
"For this stuff to only happen to them is totally uncalled for," said Bale, 47. "You couldn't ask for better neighbors, honestly."
Police cite six documented cases of criminal damage to property since last May, but the monks say the harassment dates to a group of aggressive opponents speaking out against the temple at city zoning meetings before the two temple structures were built. Opponents' concerns about increased traffic congestion have proven to be completely unfounded, Bale said.
"We have absolutely no idea as to why these people are doing this," said Sgt. Scott Behrns of the Olmsted County Sheriff's Department. "We're confident we'll catch the people doing it; it's just a matter of how long it takes."
Deputies have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood, and if arrests are made, Behrns said prosecutors will be asked to use state laws that target bias-motivated crimes. That could mean elevating misdemeanor charges into gross misdemeanors or felonies.
"Based on the way the crimes are occurring, one would think it's the same" person or people behind the vandalism, said Behrns, who thinks a baseball bat was used to destroy the mailbox earlier this month.
Community meeting slated
Rochester's Buddhist Support Society serves roughly 500 people, mostly Cambodian refugees who fled during the Vietnam War era and emigrated to Minnesota. The group owns the temple and recruits monks from Cambodia who make minimum five-year commitments to study, pray and teach at the hilltop temple.
Aun said that the destroyed mailbox, in itself, is not a big deal.
"But if they try to set fire to our buildings or hurt the monks, that would make us upset," he said.
He's speaking out despite some concerns that the vandals will relish the publicity.
"We want to show the community that we are doing something," he said. "It is 98 percent positive to get the word out and maybe two percent negative."
About 20 concerned citizens, mostly members of Rochester Meditation Center, met at the temple last Sunday, and a larger meeting is scheduled for June 3 at 4 p.m. Members of Rochester's Diversity Council, teenage youth groups, local church members and representatives of the police-sponsored Neighborhood Watch program will look for ways to enhance understanding about Buddhism and curb the vandalism.
Until then, Aun and his fellow monks will do what they came to Rochester to do. They will sit on pillows on the floor, surrounded by colorful paintings of Buddhist scenes, and recite prayers of loving kindness to the perpetrators of the vandalism.
"They know what they are doing is not right," Aun said. "We will pray for them to do good things instead of bad."
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767