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The American dream through Buddhist eyes

By Brandon Evans | Published Wednesday, January 29, 2014

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act upon them?”
- Gautama Buddha

Eyes pale blue as summer sky peer up at a golden statue rising on a rustic patch of land between the town of Newark and the waters of Eagle Mountain Lake. Hands weathered and worn as the bark on the old pecan trees in the yard grip the scaffolding that surrounds a 20-foot high handmade sculpture of Gautama Buddha.

The statue is the focal point of a Buddhist temple being constructed in Newark. The temple is the latest chapter in the life of a man whose journey harkens back to those seeking political and religious freedom through the American gateway of Ellis Island.

Bounhot Souimaniphanh, 84, was forced to flee his homeland of Laos in the late 1970s.

A landlocked country in southeast Asia, Laos borders Vietnam and Cambodia, China and Thailand. It’s a mountainous country – the mighty Mekong River snakes through its forest and jungles – and it was caught in the middle of the Cold War.

Once a longtime French protectorate, its people gained independence in 1953. But much like its neighbor Vietnam, it was taken over by the Communist Party in 1975 after a bloody civil war.

Before the Communists took over, many in Laos had helped the United States and its allies in the war in Southeast Asia. Bounhot was one of them.

The new Marxist government started rounding up people who’d helped the Americans. They killed hundreds of thousands.

“We had to flee or we would have been one of the families drug out into a field and shot,” said Seng, one of Bounhot’s seven children. “My dad helped the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Anyone who worked with the U.S. was killed.”

The family fled Laos and made it to a refugee camp in Thailand. From 1975 to 1996, the United States resettled some 250,000 Laotian refugees from Thailand. Bounhot, his wife Thongdam, and their seven children were among the first to move from the refugee camp to the United States. They just happened to land in the Metroplex.

“We were probably the third or fourth family,” Seng said. “We were political refugees.”

Blessed by Elders

BLESSED BY ELDERS – Thongdam Souimaniphanh, 72, gives her granddaughter a Buddhist blessing while her husband, 84-year-old Bounhot, watches. The couple and their seven children fled Laos in late 1970s as political refugees and wound up in the Metroplex. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“We were the first generation,” said Sam, another son. “The first generation is always the hardest. We all arrived at a strange, new world. We couldn’t speak the language. All we had was the clothes on our backs.

“But we were fortunate to come here. We took advantage of the opportunity. We went to school day and night to learn the language. We worked hard to better ourselves … Our parents told us we were in the land of opportunity. We can’t be looking for government handouts.”

Take advantage of the opportunity they did, as all seven of the children, five boys and two girls, grew up to become successful. They became doctors, engineers and even high-ranking officers in the military.

But along the way, their father wanted to make sure his children took advantage of another opportunity found in America – the chance to express religious freedom.

THE FIRST TEMPLE

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” – Buddha

BUILDING HERITAGE – Bounhot Souimaniphanh, 84, climbs to the top of a large Buddha sculpture being built in the middle of a temple currently under construction in Newark. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

While Bounhot Souimaniphanh and his family were among the first refugees to move from Southeast Asia to North Texas, they weren’t the last.

“There were a lot that were relocated here,” Sam said, “but they were scattered all over North Texas.”

So in the early 1980s, Bounhot purchased 10 acres of undeveloped land in Keller to build a Buddhist temple.

They broke ground quickly on what is now a sprawling and beautiful temple grounds in Keller. But some locals weren’t sure what to think of the ornate, Oriental architecture rising from what was then only pasture and dirt roads.

“When we first moved here people didn’t understand our culture,” Sam said. “It was all country back then. We started with nothing but a trailer. But my dad built it as a way to create a community for all the immigrants from Southeast Asia.”

“People from every nation and every culture that have come here have brought something new to America,” Seng said. “This is what we’ve brought here. This is important to us to pass down our heritage and beliefs to our children and grandchildren.”

Bounhot founded a second temple in Saginaw in the 1990s, and last year they broke ground on the third temple, located in Newark.

“We wanted to build it in a peaceful place in the country and near the water,” Seng said.

NEWARK’S TEMPLE

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” – Buddha

PEACE OF MIND – Bounhot Souimaniphanh, 84, a political refugee originally from Laos, is helping construct a Buddhist temple in Newark. He’s already founded temples in Keller and Saginaw. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Pohn Sengsuvanreta, a 51-year-old Buddhist monk, lives a life of extraordinary austerity.

He started training as a monk at an early age in Laos.

Now he lives in a small, simple building at the temple in Newark. His head is shaved, revealing a faded green tattoo of an ancient alphabet, meant to help him gain wisdom. He wears only a faded orange robe and sandals. His days are spent meditating.

The goal of the Buddhist is to eliminate all cravings and therefore eliminate all suffering. The monk is governed by 250 rules that keep him from engaging in the normal day-to-day life most people lead.

“I can’t even touch money,” Pohn said. “If I did, I might as well dress like you do and go find a woman.”

“The monks shave their heads and eyebrows,” Seng said. “They wear orange or yellow. They give up everything on the living earth that us normal people have. They can’t even be touched by a woman. The path they travel is very narrow.”

“Meditation helps me,” Pohn said. “It slows everything down.”

“They sit for hours in meditation and see things that we cannot see,” Seng said.

And the temple is not just for Buddhists.

“It is a place for everybody,” Pohn said. “If someone is suffering or hungry or addicted to drugs they can come here for help. If they just want to come here and meditate and quiet their lives for a little bit that is fine. We believe in love and happiness. We want peace.”

“At the end of the day it’s about becoming as peaceful of a person as you can,” Seng said. “Having health and wealth is what we strive for.”

RECIPROCATING LOVE

“To be idle is a short road to death and to be diligent is a way of life; foolish people are idle, wise people are diligent.” – Buddha

Bounhot is not a monk. He wanted a family. But he’s lived his life as close as he can to the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

Buddha was a prince from who lived in India about 400 B.C. At the age of 29 he left the royal life behind to live the life of an ascetic. Eventually, through much meditation he achieved Nirvana – the perfect peace of a mind that’s free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states. It is this state that monks such as Pohn hope to come close to.

Bounhot has devoted his life to keeping that part of his culture alive in America for his children and the community.

Another aspect of the Laotian culture is honoring elders and their wisdom.

“All our success comes from our parents,” Sam said. “Our parents have helped us so much. When they get older we want to help them.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Seng said. “We keep our kids around them. Once you get old, having grandchildren around keeps you happy and helps you feel young.

“They raised us … why would we put them away in a home? In our culture, it is an honor to care for our elders.”

At the seven acres in Newark, two rows of ancient pecan trees lead up to the large golden sculpture of Buddha. It can be seen from all directions. Several other small buildings have already been erected as housing for monks and for meditation. A pavilion has also been constructed, and there is room to keep building and adding to the ornate, Oriental architecture for years.

And almost every day Bounhot – who seems much too spry to be 84 – can be found working on the land or one of the buildings.

“You never finish,” Bounhot said. “You always keep working. Keep building.”

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