By Joel Hall
Driving down Interstate 675, one may catch a glimpse of an ornate building, intricately-carved and hand-painted in red, gold, and jade green. While curious to some, the Main Buddha Altar -- which is near completion -- will soon become the centerpiece of the Wat Lao Buddhist Temple in Conley.
It was there on Saturday that nearly 100 Laotian Buddhists celebrated Boon Pha Vet, one of the most sacred holidays of the Buddhist calendar.
Boon Pha Vet recalls the life of Prince Vessantara (Pha Vet Sandone in Lao), the penultimate reincarnation of Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, the "Enlightened One." In Buddhist mythology, Vessantara was a generous prince in Southeast Asia who gave away nearly everything to his subjects.
Vessantara is said to have been so charitable that one day he gave away a sacred white elephant, which angered the king. The king banished the prince to the forest, but during his absence, the land became stricken with drought and famine.
"After he was chased out of the kingdom, the land went dry," said Chantho Vorasarn, a board member of the Wat Lao Buddhist Temple. "This is a ceremony celebrating the special generosity of this one human being ... he gave with no remorse."
Boon Pha Vet celebrates the return of Vessantara, which brought the strife to an end. Over the two-day ceremony, temple goers demonstrate their charity by assembling "money trees" and gathering fruit and other gifts to offer to the temple monks. In return, monks offer chants and prayers to bless the congregation.
While the holiday serves as a chance to celebrate the prince's charity, it also serves as a particularly auspicious time to ordain monks.
The temple, however, will be unable to ordain monks until the Main Buddha Altar is complete, as it is a vital part of traditional Buddhist ceremonies.
The Main Buddha Altar is "like the heart of the temple," said Vorasarn. "Without that, we cannot ordain the monks."
While the temple itself has been in Conley since 1996, work on the altar did not begin until late 2004. The construction has been long and difficult, as many of the building materials have been imported directly from Thailand and Laos.
However, Vorasarn said the temple is "90 percent complete," and that this summer, the temple will accept its first class of monks-in-training.
Handpicked from a young age to serve as spiritual leaders, the monks will learn traditional Lao religious chants, meditation techniques, and train in more than 200 precepts of physical, mental, and spiritual purity. Among those rules, Laotian monks are prohibited from physical contact with women, denied alcohol, and are only allowed two meals -- breakfast and lunch -- a day.
"Thai, Laos, Cambodian, and Burmese traditions are very strict," said Vorasarn. "To become a monk, you have to abstain from just about everything that everybody else does."
Soukanh Thephravong, a temple member, said that Boon Pha Vet is not only a time to celebrate the monks of the temple, but also a chance to share Lao traditions with the younger generation.
"Every year, we are very excited," said Thephravong. "It's a chance to teach Lao children our traditions ... how to respect elders."
Thephravong, who moved to the area from California 11 years ago, said the temple also serves as a source of emotional and financial support for the Lao community.
"Some people come here and don't have work, or don't have a job," said Thephravong. "We keep helping each other. That is why we can have cars and don't have to beg. We have each other."
The Wat Lao Buddhist Temple in Conley is currently preparing for its Lao New Year celebration, which will take place from May 9-11. For more information, go to www.watphothisaram.org.