Cambodian Buddhist Society of Wisconsin

This profile was last updated in 2002

History

The Cambodian Buddhist Society of Wisconsin is the name given to the organization of roughly 500 to 1000 Khmer people who relocated to the Madison area in the late 1970s and early to middle 1980s following the tragic Pol Pot revolution in Cambodia. The group purchased land in Oregon, Wisconsin, in or around 1990. Initially, they used the house that came with the property as a temple and as housing for the community’s resident monk. Five years later, the current Cambodian monk in residence organized the building of a new temple and community center on the property. People congregate there for ritual and cultural events, and to tend their community garden.

Khmer in the Community and Temple

Life is not always easy for the Khmer people in Madison. The language barrier, especially in the older generation, is a significant obstacle to gainful employment, as well as to official or legal communication. In addition, the traumatic experiences of the civil war in Cambodia have left their mark on this community. However, the community has provided some assitance. Psychologist Roger Garms began providing free Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome therapy for the men of the community in the mid-1980s, and this project has now grown to a social service program funded by Dane County. The program provides transportation for interested Madison Cambodians to the temple grounds in Oregon on Mondays and Wednesdays, at which time they meet with Dr. Garms or his wife, Dr. Ann Garden. Although psychological help is available at this time, Drs. Garms and Garden more often translate documents that are incomprehensible to some of the community’s members due to their unfamiliarity with English. The chance to attend to the community’s resident monk is also an important, and potentially healing, aspect of these visits.

Madison’s Khmer people, like many people who have moved from one part of the globe to another, are pulled between forces that demand the assimilation of unfamiliar cultural forms in order to survive in the United States and forces that strive for the preservation of their Cambodian heritage. The temple complex of Oregon is a site of integration for these seemingly contradictory forces. Here, important elements of the Khmer heritage, such as the care-taking of a Buddhist monk, the offering of devotion to ancestors, the opportunity to grow their own food, and the chance to meet with other Khmer speakers, can be maintained. And here, also, Drs. Garms and Garden assist their adaptation to American culture.