The Story of Watt Samaki

Pluralism Project Research Archive: “Step by Step: A Field Study of Cambodian Religion and Culture in Portland, Maine”

Researcher: Julie Anne Canniff


In 1979, Anchina Bugden, a Khmer woman who emigrated to the United States during the 1960s, took the lead in sponsoring and settling other Khmer or Cambodian families in Portland, Maine. She worked through the offices of the Refugee Resettlement Center, funded by Catholic Charities of Maine. Most of the Khmer who came to Portland had been farmers in Cambodia, having lived in small villages where the central institution was the Buddhist watt, where the monks lived and people gathered for worship.

Monks occupy very important positions in the transmission of Khmer culture and values, always available to guide the community, perform celebrations of rites of passage, and supervise festivals. The Khmer traditionally observe four holidays each month or one holy day each week at the watt. Before the reign of the Khmer Rouge—the reign of terror which began in 1975—there had been 36,000 Buddhist monks in Cambodia. Fewer than 300, most of whom had escaped to the refugee camps in Thailand, survived the “killing fields.”

By 1984, the Khmer community in Portland numbered about 800. Learning the rules of American institutionalized religious bodies, they established a non-profit organization called Watt Samaki, or Unity Temple. Their aim was to raise funds to purchase a building to serve as a temple. Eventually they hoped to attract a monk to serve the community, but among Watt Samaki’s early leaders was Pirun Sen, an English-speaking former monk. He gathered community support and raised enough money to rent a small apartment in Portland to serve as Buddha hall and residence. In March of 1988 a monk, the Venerable Mang So, arrived in Portland to help them with their search for a temple.

Accompanied by Mang So, the directors of Watt Samaki located a promising site for their new temple, a large abandoned chicken barn with five acres of land behind it on a rural road in a small town of 7,000 people, just 22 miles west of Portland. They hired a lawyer to research the deed and appropriate variances, and set up meetings with churches in the local community to introduce themselves and their plan.

The meetings went well and the Cambodians submitted a request for a special variance to transform the chicken barn into a temple. But when the town neighbors got notices of the public hearing to approve the plan, they were astounded and disturbed. The previous owner of the chicken barn and the nearest neighbor circulated a petition outlining why they did not want a Buddhist “church” in their neighborhood, and hired a lawyer to accompany the opponents to the hearing. Over 70  townspeople attended the hearing, along with a handful of Khmer. Lawyers for both sides presented their cases. The lawyer for the neighborhood submitted detailed objections based on local zoning ordinances which the lawyer for the Khmer had not considered. The request for a variance was tabled indefinitely until a review of the zoning requirements could be carried out.

The Portland media began covering the story, intensifying the issue as leaders from both sides appeared on paper and on television. Editorials and letters to the editor appeared in the daily papers. The Watt Samaki elders were embarrassed and distraught by the turn of events and the public controversy. They withdrew their application, and forfeited their $1,500 option money. Churches in the area had become concerned about their plight, and donations of more than $800 from Maine churches came to help offset the loss.

Six months later, in January of 1990, the Watt Samaki community found a small two-story house in an outer section of Portland. The local Quaker meeting responded by loaning them $10,000 to help with the down-payment. At last, the community could pour its energies into creating a Buddha hall for worship and festivals. Venerable Mang So was no longer with the community, so the small temple remained empty except for weddings, New Years and ancestor festivals, and its frequent fund-raisers.

On August 13, 1993, one of the temple leaders received a call from the Cultural Affairs Officer of the Portland Police Department. “I am sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but I felt you should be informed of something before anyone else is contacted,” said the officer. “Vandals broke into the temple house last night. I think when they discovered all of the Buddhist things in it they decided to mess it up a bit. Can you meet me in twenty minutes?”

The temple leader met the police at the small gray house they had dedicated as the Watt Samaki Buddhist Center. The first thing he noticed was the blue sedan parked in the yard. All of its windows were smashed, as were the headlights. Rugs, blankets, and other items from the Buddha hall were strewn around the yard. As he entered the house he saw that the window in the door was broken. The recording equipment, television and stereo system were gone. Still, he was not prepared for what he saw as he walked into the downstairs hall. Huge chunks of wood had been hacked out of the door jambs, apparently with an ax. The Buddha serenely surveyed the damage from his alcove on the altar. Written on the wall was, “Dirty Asian, Chink, Go Home.” He closed his eyes, sickened by what he saw.

A few weeks later, he spoke of his feelings in a Pluralism Project interview. Fortunately,  the media had not discovered the story, he confided, expressing the mixture of shame and rage that victims of violence so often feel about the attacks upon them. “You know our center is not a luxurious place, but we love it, take care of it as our heart and soul. It is the only place that can bring all of us together to love, to care for one another, to pass on the Khmer culture to the youngsters. This is why my tears keep dropping when I talk about vandalism of the Watt Samaki with friends and caring people. These tears are for my people who are the foundation of the Watt Samaki and people who have passed away. It is a small house, but these people reminded me to take care of Watt Samaki as if it were diamond and gold.”

The police were not successful in locating the vandals or the stolen equipment, but the neighbors, who up until this time did not know the purpose of the little house, pledged their support and watchful vigilance from then on. But, as a result of this tragedy, many members of the community had relived the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and the unspeakable persecution they suffered.

Today, the Khmer in Portland have a new monk who lives at the temple with his young assistant. Young and old visit for advice, comfort, and just to talk. An older woman has chosen to live in the watt and serve the monk, as is customary in Cambodia. The Board is looking for another piece of land to construct a large meeting hall where they can hold their New Year’s festivals, dances and classes. They are a community of survivors—first in Cambodia and now in Portland, Maine.