By Matthew Chu
History and Introduction
Tucked away in the sprawling suburbia that is Silver Springs, Maryland, lies a modest Buddhist temple. In Thai, “wat” means temple, and “Thai” comes from the demonym of the Thai people. The temple was founded in 1974 by a Thai Buddhist community called “The Buddhist Association in Washington DC”. The community established the wat in a small house in Washington DC, and wrote a letter to Wat Mahathat in Bangkok requesting for a few monks to be sent to the newly established wat. The monks would live in the house they rented.
The monks arrived in the US on July 4th, 1974. While an important American day, it also had significance for the Thai Buddhist community. Asalaha Bucha Day takes place on the full moon of the eighth lunar month and coincidentally occurred on the same day as American Independence Day. It commemorates the Buddha’s first disciples and is one of Theravada Buddhism’s most important festival days. This had powerful meaning to the community because it symbolized the foundation of a new Thai Buddhist community in the United States.
Since its founding, Wat Thai has two abbots. The first abbot only remained in the United States for a short period of time before returning to Thailand and was unable to travel to the US. The second and current abbot is Phra Maha Surasak. Under his leadership, Wat Thai has grown out of the little house in Washington DC to finally reside at its Silver Springs location. It also gained several more full-time monks, growing from a pair of monks to ten fully-ordained monks.
Wat Thai caters mainly to the overseas community of Thai Buddhists. It serves over 2,200 families in the greater Washington DC area, and 37,000 people. It’s guided by three guiding statements:
- Our Purpose is to build a Buddhist community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Buddhists.
- Our Vision is to be used by Buddha to change lives, strengthen temples, and transform the world.
- Our Journey is to know, love and serve Buddha.
Their statement of purpose is derived from Buddhadasa’s teachings:
“Work itself is the very practice of Dhamma. All kinds of work, done as practice, are truly valuable.” -Buddhadasa
The teachings of Wat Thai fall solidly into the Thai Theravada Buddhist traditions. The temple has meditation and Dhamma discussions every Saturday, held in Thai, and bimonthly meditation workshops held in English. Their preferred method of meditation falls into the Vipassana school of thought, and their website has several beginner’s guides to vipassana meditation. However, the abbot also teaches two kinds of meditation: kasina and satipatthana. Kasina meditation uses a technique where the meditator concentrates on an image, commits it to memory and recalls the image to achieve meditative absorption. Satipatthana is the foundation of mindfulness. Kasina is sometimes incompatible with vipassana meditation where satipatthana falls within the Vipassana movement.
The abbot, Phra Maha Surasak, is a prolific writer – his preferred method of educating others in the Dhamma is to write short stories that contain a message about the Dhamma. Phra Maha Surasak writes under the pen name Luang Ta Chi, and is generally referred to as such. “Luang Ta” means Venerable Grandfather in Thai, and Chi is the first syllable of his monastic name.
Luang Ta Chi was born on June 8th, 1925 in a village called Ban Phon Ngam, which translates to the Village of the Beautiful Termite Hill. He was educated in accordance to the local Buddhist traditions, where he learned the Dhamma through the method of direct transmission. A teacher would read a few sentences from a text, and the student would repeat them until the student could remember from memory. The texts that Luang Ta Chi learned from were Dhamma stories, and he particularly enjoyed learning from them. These Dhamma stories left a lasting impression on Luang Ta Chi, and he brought this love of stories into his teachings as an abbot.
The abbot continues to publish stories about the Dhamma even up to the present day, despite being 93 years old. Some of his works include “Food for the Heart”, “Bad Men Become Ghosts-Good Men become Monks” and “Wipe Away Misfortune with Dhamma”
Luang Ta Chi was an influential teacher of the laypeople – he was able to speak directly to ordinary people in way that they could understand. This ability was also reflected in his short stories – he doesn’t use formal written language or idioms, and is able to reach regular people. His stories are published in a magazine called “The Light of Dhamma”.
From his position as a heavy writer, he believes that there should be some reform in the Thai state religious education system. Those who write textbooks should be able to:
- Understand the problems of life
- Know how to use the Dhamma to solve problems
- Explain things in ordinary language
- Have a deep understanding of Dhamma.
Being able to write in ordinary language is an important ability because it allows for the average person to understand what the text is about. The layperson probably will not have an understanding of how to read formally written text, nor be able to understand any idioms that may be used to drive home a point.
Luang Ta Chi was heavily inspired by the teaching of Buddhadasa, a famous Thai ascetic monk that was an innovative re-interpreter of Buddhist doctrine. He was inspired by Buddhadasa’s writing on the nature of work – people usually just do enough work to get by, but by doing work mindfully and with all of one’s effort, one can attain spiritual attainment.
Being a Thai Buddhist temple, Wat Thai adheres to the Theravada branch of Buddhism. It observes several Buddhist traditions. One of its significant ones is the Kathina Ceremony. It is held at the end of Vassa, the three-month rainy season retreat. Laypeople come and offer monks yellow robes, and make more merit than usual, and monks are afforded a pass on a few rules that they have to observe.
Another important tradition that Wat Thai observes is the celebration of Songkran, or the Thai New Year. People visit the temple and merit-make with the monks. Monks and laypeople pour water on the Buddha statue to represent purification and the washing away of sins and bad luck. Wat Thai opens up the temple grounds to the general public and hold festivities. They also serve Thai food and have other fun goods for sale.
Relationship to other Western and Asian Communities
Since it was established by the Thai Sangha Council, they are governed by the Council and its rules. The Sangha Supreme Council is the highest governing body of the Buddhist order in Thailand. It serves as the ultimate authority on religious matters within the Sangha.
Wat Thai is the second Thai wat in the US – the first one was founded in Los Angeles.
It has strong connections with the immigrant/overseas Thai community as well as those living in Thailand. It’s monastic lineage hails directly from Thailand, as its abbots have directly come from temples in Thailand.
The abbot maintains a strong relationship with his hometown in Khamcha-i in Thailand. He utilizes much of the donations to support his home regions. He founded several educational foundations that support children’s education programs as well as support monks at the Maha Chulalongkorn University.
As for Western communities, Wat Thai serves two purposes – Buddhist educational outreach as well as promoting Thai culture overseas. Many holidays and festivals in Thailand revolve around Buddhist traditions, closely intertwining Buddhism with Thailand’s cultural identity. Having the temple open up for Thai holidays serves both as cultural outreach and spreading Buddhism’s ideas and practices to the US. Similar to US Embassies overseas, overseas Thai temples promote Buddhist traditions and festivals and allow people to experience a foreign culture and religion. Wat Thai also holds Thai language courses for adults and children as well as Thai music and dance classes. These allow people to get interested and involved in Thai culture and increases Buddhism and Thailand’s soft power influence in the region.