If you’ve driven through the lands that are Rush, NY in Monroe County you have seen plenty of wide open pastures and farmlands dotted with occasional homes, farms, parks and a few housing developments. The town of Rush is small (though it is home to the meeting place of my parents so I’m grateful for its establishment) and is perfectly illustrative of the small, rural villages that you find just south of Rochester: quiet, conservative and lots of open land. Because of this, most people are surprised to drive down the west end stretch of Martin Road and find an elaborate looking gold and red temple seemingly out of place in the center of a large lawn.
I had visited the Wat Pa Lao Buddhadham multiple times in hopes of running into someone to talk with. They probably assume that I’m among the many who pop in and get out of their cars to look around out of curiosity–it apparently happens all day long there. One time I stopped with a friend so I could show him and he said, “We have to come back, how do we get in touch with them?” I told him there was no website, no Twitter or Facebook account, no email to get in touch with them, just a phone number that I hadn’t been successful with. Luckily, I’ve known Patrick and Sue who are from Laos for years because we are always at the same Starbucks at the same time. I asked them if they knew much about the temple and sure enough Sue had a family member, Tom, on the board at the Buddhadham! She had him get in touch with me, and after numerous emails and phone calls, I had a tour lined up.
We arrived a few minutes early like we always do and took our photos. The driveway was filled with cars, we had been told ahead of time that a ceremony and then lunch (which happens every week) would just be ending and we could just walk in. I won’t lie, even though we were following directions by just walking in and asking around for our contact it feels a little uncomfortable and almost intrusive to just walk in to a place of fellowship and say, “Hey we’re here!!” I suppose one of the reasons I have had such great experiences on this project is because I don’t shy away from it, but it’s definitely uncomfortable when you don’t speak the language or know the customs. I walked in and asked around for our contact, Kennedy (the President of the Board of the temple) and was greeted by smiles and hellos by everyone and directed to him. Kennedy said his hellos and immediately introduced me to Pubien, who is the current Vice President. Though it wasn’t our fault, I feel a little bad because she wasn’t expecting us. Pubien walked us to the main temple and chatted with us, telling us a little about the history of the property.
As we walked another car pulled in with a curious driver-by and she began walking with us and asking questions along with us–she must’ve assumed that we also had just dropped in. Unfortunately, between the other woman popping in and Pubien being scheduled a surprise tour that she didn’t know about, we didn’t get too much of her time. All of us walked into the main temple together and spent a few minutes chatting until our host had to excuse herself for a meeting. I had been looking forward to this particular tour for months and it seemed like after seeing the main temple for a few minutes it was over. We stood there in the parking lot trying to decide what to do. Pubien had taken our contact information because we had shared how interested we were in learning and seeing more–but it seemed like we were done for the day. As we were trying to decide what to do with ourselves, a car drove up and the man driving stopped and asked if we needed help. We sort of sheepishly described what we were hoping for, and that our tour that we had set up had to be rescheduled. He told us to wait where we were, and he’d find someone right away to help us. Optimism set in.
After about ten minutes of waiting and seeing no signs of anyone we again began to slump a bit in our moods and figured we would have to find a way to come back to see and learn more. Just then a man walked out of the main house and noticed us and walked toward us asking if we needed help with anything. We shared what we were there for and that we had had a stroke of bad luck that day in procuring information. He immediately volunteered himself to help us with whatever he was able to.
Ironically, Vilat was visiting from Dallas while he assisted his daughter in getting settled at her new college (RIT) and wanted a temple to touch base with while he was in Rochester traveling. He said he was just as much of a visitor as we were, but he’d happy to chat with us. Like little kids, we were all smiles and optimism again–and excited about the idea of being able to see more.
The three of us started to walk the property and Vilat began to explain how the property is laid out. The congregation actually owns 65 acres, and it at one time was a dumpy land with garbage strewn across it. The Laotian community purchased the property VERY much to the dismay of the neighbors and they have been very vocal about not wanting it in their neighborhood. Apparently after ten years of complaining the neighbors gave in and quieted down, because the last five years have been peaceful for the temple. There is a house on the property where three monks live and services are held. Then the awe-inspiring red and yellow temple that faces to the East and houses multiple Buddha statues. Outside the temple at each corner there is a shrine to the 12 astrological animals, and a large fountain with Buddhas and koi fish. Scattered around the property there are multiple other shrines but they were all locked–there are multiple Buddhas (apparently including a jade Buddha) in different locations around the property.
A fence divides the property between ‘sacred’ and ‘common’ areas. Wat Pa has festivals a couple times a year with music and food, and the fence marks a clear demarcation where alcohol should not cross. We walked back and forth looking at the property and chatting about the customs that are specific to Laotian Buddhism. Buddhism is found in nearly all countries, but as it’s adopted as a way of life in a new place, cultural infusions make their way in to the daily practice. One of the customs I’ve always found really interesting about Laotian Buddhism is the use of “Spirit Houses”, which are small temple looking buildings about the size of a large bird house. There are indoor and outdoor spirit houses. In the outdoor, any spirit wishing to enter the home must stop at the spirit house and ask permission–providing these small homes to the spirits are intended to appease them. Offerings are made regularly.
Though we didn’t quite get to see everything we had hoped, and learn more about the customs and traditions, like always we made a new friend. We had a great time chatting with Vilat and he explained quite a bit (much of which is the information you just read about) about the property and nuances of the practice of Laotian Buddhism. We offered to return the favor and explain the property and nuances of Rochester next time he is in Rochester and exchanged contact information. I hope he likes garbage plates!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com