Discovering the Vietnamese Buddhist Wat Pa Lao Buddhadham temple just south of Rochester.
by Chris Clemens
If you’ve driven through the town of Rush in Monroe County you’ve seen plenty of wide open pastures and farmland. Those lands are dotted with occasional homes, farms, parks, and a few housing developments. Rush is small and perfectly illustrative of the rural villages you find just south of Rochester.
Most are surprised to drive down Martin Road and find an elaborate gold and red temple seemingly out of place.
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 to look around–apparently it happens all day long. One time I stopped with a friend so I could show him. He said, “We have to come back, how do we get in touch with them?” But there was no website, no Twitter or Facebook account, and no email to get in touch with them. There’s a phone number, but I had never found success in calling it.
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 if they knew much about the temple and sure enough Sue had a family member, Tom, on the board at the Buddhadham!
She put him in touch with me, and after numerous emails and phone calls, I had a tour lined up.
Arriving At Wat Pa Lao
We arrived a few minutes early like we always do and took a few photos. The driveway was filled with cars, for a weekly ceremony and then lunch. We were told it would just be ending and we could just walk in.
Though we were following directions, it still felt uncomfortable and almost intrusive to just walk in and say, “Hey we’re here!!”
When I walked in and asked around for Kennedy (the President of the Board of the temple) I was greeted by smiles and hellos from everyone. Kennedy said his hellos and 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 we chatted, 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 took our contact information because we were interested in learning and seeing more–but it seemed like we were done for the day.
Sticking Around For A Bit
Just then a car drove up and stopped so the driver could ask 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 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 asdked if we needed help with anything. 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). He discovered Wat Pa while looking for a local temple to touch base with while he was in Rochester. He said he was just as much of a visitor as we were, but he’d happy to chat. Like little kids, we were all smiles and optimism again–and excited about the idea of being able to see more.
Hanging With A New Friend
The three of us walked 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. In the beginning, they were very vocal about not wanting it in their neighborhood. Apparently after ten years of complaining the neighbors have quieted down, because the last five years have been peaceful.
A house on the property houses the monks who live on site, and also has a weekly worship space. 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 twelve 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. Within those 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.
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. Any spirit wishing to enter the home must stop at the spirit house and ask permission. Providing these small homes to the spirits are a way to appease them.
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
A few years after this post, I received an invitation to return to the temple for their cultural festival. For more information about the temple and their festival, you can read this post here.
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens