Ven. Sao Khon DhammatheroNational Journal

LOWELL, Massachusetts—Robed monks are a common, if still unexpected, sight in this old Massachusetts mill town. They are among the thousands of survivors of the Cambodian genocide in the late 1970s, which brought waves of Cambodian refugees to Lowell. Now they make up one-quarter of the city's population.

One of those monks, Ven. Sao Khon Dhammathero, has an ambitious plan to bring a bit of the Khmer empire to Lowell: He is building a Buddhist temple modeled after the famous ruins of Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Dhammathero and the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks have purchased 12 acres of land along the Merrimack River and raised $840,000 so far to build the site. The three-story temple, called Vatt Khmer Lowell, would rise up behind a bowling alley a few blocks from a Dunkin' Donuts. Blueprints also include a space for a cultural center and senior center.

Dhammathero recently spoke to National Journal about how Cambodians are changing America's first industrial city.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What did you think of Lowell when you arrived?

I didn't know anything about the United States, except what little I learned in Cambodia about the history of the United States of America. When I first woke up in Lowell in 1984 and looked around in the morning, I saw some Cambodian people—refugees like me. Many other people in town saw Buddhist monks and would say, go away. No respect. I wanted to run away from the United States and go back to Thailand or Cambodia. It was too hard living here. I had never slept on the bed before. It felt too high. Even breathing in and out was too hard because all the walls are closed and there is no fresh air.

Why did you decide to stay?

Because of my community and knowing the problems of Khmer refugees like me, like the impact of the war. They are always thinking about the war. Cambodian refugees have a lot of mental disease and spiritual disease because of the war. I'm changing that. I help, like a counselor, by talking to them. Maybe someone's husband died in the war, someone's mother died, father died, teacher died. I have no family. My mom passed away when I was 19 years old and my father passed away during the war. So I've been a monk since I was 14 years old. That's how long I've worn this robe. I never wear anything else.  

How has the Cambodian community changed since 1984?

The Cambodian people here are happier because of Buddhism. Their conversions happened through the teachings of Buddha about suffering, about community, about justice. Now I don't see myself as a Cambodian monk or American monk; I am the son of God, the son of Buddha, working for everybody who has the same suffering.

You said you've dreamed of building a temple like Angkor Wat here in Lowell for many years. What inspired that?

I built one Buddhist temple from 1985 until 1987 in North Chelmsford. I worked hard for that temple, but it got too small. I want to show the Cambodians and younger generations of Cambodian-Americans about the culture of Khmer. Older people are passing away, so now we need a place to train young people to stay away from going down the wrong path, thinking harmful thoughts, saying hurtful things or physically hurting others. They need a place to learn about moral conduct. And we also want them to learn about the history of [Cambodian] refugees here in Lowell.

Why is it important to have the temple look like Angkor Wat?

I want there to be a symbol of the Khmer empire here in Lowell. Angkor Wat is that symbol and we are all Khmer. The four towers represent the four virtues of Buddhism: Number one, loving kindness. Number two, compassion. Number three, joy. And number four, equanimity.

Do you think you will be able to raise $10 million to finish the temple by 2020?

Yeah I think so. We've had 84,000 donations of $100. Now we need $8 million. It's a start.

This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.

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