Prospect Park South

VIDEO: In the heart of Brooklyn a devout Cambodian culture celebrates centuries-old traditions

November 2, 2018 By Liliana Bernal Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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At 26 Rugby Rd. off Caton Avenue in the landmarked neighborhood of Prospect Park South, stands stately a Queen Anne-style house that serves as the Watt Samakki-Dhammikaram Buddhist temple, Brooklyn’s only Cambodian Buddhist temple.

Cambodian and Buddhist flags flutter on a sloppy Saturday bathed in heavy rain that brought the pass of a nor’easter through the city last weekend. Oversized statues of Buddha planted in the front yard guard the temple’s entrance. The porch is flooded with all sizes of shoes.

Inside, surrounded by golden Buddhist sculptures, five monks in traditional orange robes pray and chant in front of dozens of barefoot Cambodians that gathered to celebrate Bon Kathen, a holiday that marks the end of the rainy season.

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Most of the attendants are part of the first generation of Cambodian refugees who arrived in New York in the early 1980s, fleeing the merciless Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot, who’s genocidal campaign killed nearly two million people from 1975 to 1979.

Between 800 and 1,000 families, mostly Buddhists, ended up in Brooklyn, where they fought for a temple to worship. In 1987 The Cambodian American Society Humanitarian Association of New York and New Jersey acquired the house in Prospect Park South and settled it as a pagoda, or place of worship, for the Cambodian newcomers.

“They established this temple so that those who wanted to preserve the culture, preserve the traditions and the religion, they can come here to celebrate,” said Kevin Sary, an electrical engineer who came to Brooklyn with his family in the mid-80s as a refugee.

After listening to the Achar prayers, the worshippers lined up in front of the monks to offer them homemade dishes that each family brought.

Southeast Asian cuisines such as curries, rice noodles, fried rice, meats blended with fish sauce, exotic fruits and a mandatory white rice bowl filled the altar where the monks waited cross legged.

Along with the food, dollar bills of several denominations filled pots as gifts to the monks, many of whom are still supporting their families in Cambodia, according to temple members.

Following the tradition taught by Buddha about 3,000 years ago, Kathen is a ceremony to offer a new robe to the monks who had finished a three-month period of retreat during the rainy season. Nowadays, Kathen is mostly a fundraising ceremony to collect money for the pagodas.

About $45,000 was raised this year at Watt Samakki.

“We used to raise a lot more but [because of] today’s weather people didn’t come,” explained Mean Mak, chairman of the temple’s board. The money is used to fix the temple and pay the utilities, he added.

Mak, who came to New York as a refugee in 1975, has been on the temple’s board for six years. He worked as a runner on Wall Street and, guided by his finance background, he adopted a “transparency” policy that he says brought back the congregation’s trust in the temple.

While the monks ate, the dedicated group listened to the speech in Khmer delivered by a guest monk, who came from Virginia, before opening a space for three young girls wearing typical costumes who performed a classical Khmer dance.

Although most of the members are older, Mak and Kenny Seng, the executive president of the temple, are aware of the importance of attracting the youth to the pagoda to transfer their heritage to the upcoming generations.

“Before we didn’t have dance, anything like that, so the kids usually [didn’t] come. Now we have the dance, and hopefully we can teach them Cambodian language soon,” Mak said.  

At an improvised dining room on the temple’s floor, everybody sat cross legged and shared dishes. There are about 100 Cambodian families still living in Brooklyn, Mak said. Since the early 1990s, many have left their homes in the Flatbush area as they became targets of violence.

As the rain persisted outside, the rest of the celebration continued inside the temple. A monk wrapped in a new robe led the congregations that gathered behind him with gifts and flowers.

Laughing and dancing, the worshippers walked around in a circle three times to the beat of drums while the monk recited prayers in Khmer. For the believers, it’s a ritual to prevent the devil from entering the temple.

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