Stephanie Caspelich

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Khemararam Temple: Strengthening the Cambodian Community through Buddhism

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The United States has provided a safe haven for more than 150,000 Cambodians who fled their country at the end of the communist Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. They brought with them not only the painful and terrifying memories of genocide but also the promise of healing and transformation provided by their Buddhist faith.

From 1979 to 1985, various religious organizations assisted in the settlement of large groups of Cambodian refugees in Chicago. While some chose to convert to Christianity and Islam, over 90 percent of Cambodians remained practicing Theravada Buddhists.

The Khemararam Temple was established in 1985 by the Cambodian Buddhist Association to provide renewal and strength to all those struggling with the crippling effects of war and tyranny. Its location at 1258 W. Argyle St. is central to Cambodians who have made their homes in Uptown and Albany Park.

“I go to the temple regularly to seek peace of mind and to heal,” said Choeung Tao. “It hurts for people to kill their own people. It’s not good for the soul.”

Tao, 42, came to the U.S. in 2005 by way of refugee camps in Thailand. He had witnessed most of the atrocities inflicted by Pol Pot’s authoritarian reign. As a musician, he always feared for his life as the professional and creative types were high on the extermination list.

“Meditation became an escape for me. It allowed me to focus on surviving,” said Tao.

According to Kompha Seth, who was a Buddhist monk for 15 years in Cambodia before moving to the U.S. through its refugee program, meditation has been a powerful tool in helping fellow Cambodians deal with the emotional trauma sustained during the genocide.

“The concentrated state where one focuses on his or her breathing allows the mind to calm down. You stop thinking. You convert your attention to a real state of awareness,” said Seth, 70, who is the current president of the Cambodian Association of Illinois in Albany Park.

He explained, “Mental formations (gilt, remorse, disappointment, misperception, judgment) cause suffering. I encourage people to practice the following types of meditation in order to deal with the mental and physical pains of suffering: Self discipline practice clears the mind to build awareness (sila) that will then lead to the right speech, right actions and right profession; Serenity meditation suppresses mental formations to help build the will and reach serenity (Samadhi) that will lead to the right effort, right awareness and right concentration; Insight meditation which uproots the mind allowing the release from mental formations that leads to wisdom and insight (Panna) which will result in having the right view and the right thought. Meditation essentially allows practitioners to achieve the Eightfold Path.”

Seth said he believes the biggest difference between Western religions and Buddhism is the approach to suffering.

“Westerners tend to avoid the discussion of suffering. It is too pessimistic. They believe that suffering is punishment from God. Suffering is a curse of God.”

In Buddhism, suffering is accepted and examined in order find the root cause. Once the cause (mental formations) is determined, it can be eliminated through meditation for a better result, according to Seth.

The Ven. Pheatarak Sok, an ordained Buddhist monk who has assisted Cambodians in renewing themselves through Buddhism for the past nine years, puts the idea of cause and effect in simple terms.

“You do good, you receive good. You do bad, you receive bad,” said Sok, 48. “It is the basic law of karma.”

According to the Ven. Sok, everyone has suffering. Buddhists do not blame anyone else for it but themselves. “We are the cause of our suffering but we can also be the solution.”

He said he believes the temple, which is home to an altar filled with statues of Buddha, candles, incense and a plethora of Buddhist art, provides the peace and quiet required to achieve a state of enlightenment. Practitioners kneel or sit on the floor as part of their meditative state.

“The Buddha says, ‘Take care of yourself-mind, heart, body, education. Don’t give too much time to other people to take care of you. You should take care of yourself, not superficially, but deep inside,’ ” said Sok. “When people are overwhelmed by mental pain, they cannot see themselves. The goal of meditation in Buddhism is to awaken the mind so it can reach enlightenment. When you reach that state, you see things differently. You see things as a cycle. After suffering comes relief, after pain comes joy.”

For many survivors and their families, the road to hope and forgiveness has been long and challenging but their faith in Buddhism and the promise of change has made the journey worthwhile.

“The regime tried to wipe out our culture, our people, but the will of the people survived and it still shows today,” said Song San, 46, who volunteers his time teaching classical Cambodian music at the CAI. “Our religion helps us see who we are as Khmer people. It was a big part of who we were then and it continues to help us grow into who we are now.”

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