|Feb. 24, 2006
A Supreme Patriarch
of Cambodian Minnesotans
By Doug McGill
ROCHESTER, MN -- When the Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism in Cambodia decides
to open a new school or build a new temple in his country, his thoughts
turn to friends and financial supporters in Minnesota.
The Cambodian Buddhists of Minnesota are hardly wealthy or powerful by
American standards. At the two largest Cambodian Buddhist temples in
the state, in Hampton and Rochester, the temples' lay members raise families
on the basis of jobs ranging from the menial to the middle class.
But from the vantage point of Phnom Penh, where the Venerable Tep Vong
leads Cambodia’s 12.5 million Buddhists, the roughly 5,000 Cambodian-Minnesotans
are seen much differently -- as a critical financial, cultural, and political
That’s why, when the Cambodian Buddhist temple in Rochester opened
a new meeting hall last July, Tep Vong flew from Phnom Penh to Rochester
to officiate over a three-day ceremony that drew the city’s Mayor,
state senators and representatives, and about 800 Cambodian-born U.S.
The Supreme Patriarch came to do some bridge-building, fund-raising,
and pressing the flesh.
“We hope people in Minnesota will help the people of Cambodia,” said
Tep Vong, a slight man with a broad grin and round spectacles, wearing
a bright orange robe. “The people of Cambodia are poor. I want
to spread the word here to help rebuild Buddhism in Cambodia.”
“Rebuild,” because during the Cambodian holocaust of 1975-1978 the
ultra-Maoist leader Pol Pot outlawed Buddhism and ordered the destruction
of the country's 3,600 Buddhist temples, including irreplaceable ancient
texts. About 1.7 million Cambodians died during the genocide, among them
50,000 Buddhist monks who were killed or forced to flee.
Tep Vong, a young monk at the time, was ordered at gunpoint to take off
his monk’s robes and then sent to a “re-education” camp
where he spent three years digging ditches.
After the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh in 1979, Pol Pot was ousted and
Buddhism in Cambodia began to rebuild in an occupied country divided
by civil war. After the Vietnamese left in 1989, chaos continued as Pol
Pot’s Khmer Rouge party continued to exert influence and many coalition
governments were formed and dissolved.
With 95 percent of Cambodia’s 13.6 million population being Buddhist,
the government’s leaders, especially the strongman Prime Minister
Hun Sen, have had great incentive to restore close ties with Buddhist
leaders who returned to Cambodia after the genocide to rebuild the religion.
Tep Vong, as a Buddhist leader sympathetic to Hun Sen, has been instrumental
in that process. Named Supreme Patriarch of Cambodian Buddhism
by Hun Sen in 1991, he has angered many of his own clergy by insisting
that monks must not vote in elections – nor encourage lay people
In interviews that echo the Rev. Pat Robertson’s statements that
God’s vengeful hand lay behind 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Tep
Vong has also intimated that Cambodia’s holocaust victims may have
died at least in part as a result of bad karma built up in previous lives.
"If it was not Pol
Pot's evil deeds, it was our sin of bad deeds that we had done in our previous
lives," he told the Documentation
Center of Cambodia in 2001. "I'll never forget the sufferings I
had in the [Pol Pot] regime. I was detained for 80 days and tortured
ruthlessly. Nonetheless, I could bear all that agony since it was the
result of my past life's bad deeds."
In his embrace of Hun Sen, Tep Vong stands in contrast to Maha Ghosananda,
his predecessor as Cambodia’s Supreme Patriarch of Buddhism,
who has won several Nobel Peace Prize nominations for leading peace
walks through Cambodia and calling for nonviolent solutions to war,
land mines and deforestation. He lives in exile today in the U.S.
Despite their differences, both leaders are playing a key role in spreading
southeast Asia’s traditional brand of “Theravadan” Buddhism
around the world – including in Minnesota.
Since the 1960s, three major waves of Buddhism have washed over the U.S.,
beginning with the Japanese Zen tradition in the 1960s. More recently,
Tibetan Buddhism has become popular thanks to the charismatic Dalai Lama,
who is forced to live abroad because China occupies his country.
In recent years, Theravadan Buddhism from Southeast Asian countries such
as Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia – the last hastened
by the Pol Pot genocide -- has formed a third wave of Buddhism visiting
The Rochester Cambodian Buddhist temple started in 1986 when a group
of holocaust refugees, who had arrived several years earlier, scraped
together the funds to bring a Cambodian monk to Rochester.
The Rochester temple started in rented rooms, then moved to a two-story
home whose living room was rehabbed into a shrine containing memorial
photos of Cambodian Buddhist leaders killed during the holocaust, statues
of Buddha, flower garlands, fruit offerings, and burning incense sticks.
By 2003, the 300-plus Cambodian immigrant families who form the core
of the temple built an actual temple or “wat” in Rochester
that supports five monks and sports sky-tassel filials at each roof corner,
a sun-eating Cambodian folk deity guarding the front door, and murals
depicting the life of the Buddha.
“He was shocked when he saw our temple,” said Sokhom Roth, the head
monk of the Rochester Cambodian Buddhist temple, said of Tep Vong’s
three-day visit last summer. “It was not only how big the temple
was, but how many Cambodian monks were living here.” More than
40 Cambodian monks from a dozen states in the U.S., including Massachusetts,
Nebraska, and Rhode Island, attended the ceremonies.
Most members of the Rochester temple, Roth said, regularly send money
to Cambodia to support the building of new Buddhist temples in their
home provinces. More than $50,000 – an almost unheard-of sum in
most Cambodian towns -- was recently raised to build a temple in Battambang
Sitting cross-legged on a cushion at the temple in July, Tep Vong said
that the spiritual void created in Cambodia by the genocide posed his
biggest challenge as Buddhism’s Supreme Patriarch in the country.
Christian missionaries are aggressively making inroads, he said, as are
Islamic fundamentalists who are building new mosques. In addition, Cambodia’s
folk religion that stresses ritual worship of animist deities is also
making a comeback.
“There might be a religious war as a result,” Tep Vong said.
“Cambodian Buddhism is healthy in this country,” he added. “It
is a good place for it to be preserved for future generations.”
Copyright @ 2006 The McGill Report