Site Visit: Buddhist Wat

Wat Buddharangsi of Miami (Buddhist Wat)
PhramahaThanee Khonkla, Monk
15200 SW 240th Street,
Miami FL, 33032
305.245.2702

As a religion major I have always been told that the absolute best way to learn about a religion is to plug yourself into the role of one who follows that religion. The best advice my first religion professor gave me was that the easiest and quickest way to learn about a religion is to attend one of their services. You cannot comprehend the beauty of any major religion by merely hearing about it in lectures, or viewing pictures in books. Religion itself is a concept that isn’t like mathematics or science. In appearance, it’s more like an art, and when I entered the grounds of the Wat Buddharangasi of Miami I felt as if I walked into an Asian painting.

To start with explaining my experience with the Wat I first must lay the ground-works of why the site is there and what they believe in. To begin the Wat Buddharangsi of Miami is of the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Buddhism itself is more of a philosophy than a religion. It is atheistic as taught by Siddhartha. Siddhartha was an Indian prince who, after years of trying to find meaning and enlightenment in Hinduism, decided that there must be a better way. This resulted in him teaching a new path of enlightenment, and one that focused on the existence of suffering everywhere and how, through personal enlightenment, one can find a middle ground. This ‘enlightenment’ is achieved by realizing the true nature of reality. This stage of mental enlightenment led to the term Buddha for Siddhartha; which literally means ‘enlightened one’. As I learned from the Wat, they believe Buddhism can be summarized in the word Vimutti. This means “Freedom from all defilements and sufferings is the Ultimate” (www.watmiami.com). By walking a middle-way, and by eradicating suffering, a state of nirvana can be achieved where the effects of suffering will not have it’s depressing blow. The Wat itself places an importance on the Buddha’s 4 noble truths, his Eight fold path, the Tripitaka (the Buddha’s preserved teachings) and the Buddha’s first sermon (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta; Discourse of the Turning of the Wheel of Dhamma/Truth).

This emphasis on the teaching of Buddha led rise to the reason the Wat was built. In Thailand culture, a huge importance is placed on the lives of Buddhist monks. Just as the Thai community in south Florida carried their culture with them oversea’s, so would the need for Thai Buddhist monks follow. After a while the Thai community in Miami needed someone to fill the roles that the Buddhist monks would normally play, and they sent a request via the Thai Embassy here in the states. Upon the request, a monk named Ajarn Surachett was sent. Here he went through the process of renting out a home, doing small time services, and then buying a small house and land. After various donations, enough money was raised to built the Wat and have a Buddha shipped oversea’s. To this day, the Wat Buddharangsi of Miami is in various stages of construction, and as I visited the sight you could see some construction pieces hidden out back.

It is this statue of Buddha that remains most vivid in my memory. Out of all the interesting images and colors that struck me, the giant 5 tons 23 feet high Buddha appealed to me most. It was an absolute beauty in its golden splendor. The gold of the Buddha was a color repeated all throughout the building. As you walked around the Wat you noticed the importance that the color relationship of red and gold had. These two colors are easily associated with asian culture and Buddhism, and in the middle of Homestead they did their part to stand out. From the fiery red dragons on the top of the gate, to the golden framework of the building, it was all very Asian in design. The wat appeared as if it was sliced directly out of Thailand, and replaced into sunny Miami. The only clue that I remained in Miami was the various palm tree’s sprinkled throughout the surrounding yard. Besides the powerful imagery of the Wat and the Buddha, other small images struck me as interesting. One was having to remove my shoes upon entering the buildings, while another was the weird flowers adorning the inside of the Wat. Another image that struck me as odd was a tree with money clipped to it’s branches. Another image that seemed alien were the dozens and dozens of plum-like lamps that rested before the giant Buddha. All these seemed completely alien to me, and only added to the feel of being oversea’s in Thailand.

The Wat and it’s contents were no the only alien objects I encountered. A third color struck out; orange. As I pulled into the driveway and met one of the monks, it was interesting to find him wearing nothing but a rich orange robe. Besides this, he wore sandals. You would think that in Miami, we would be sporting some shorts and a t-shirt, but he and the rest of the monks continue to wear the traditional monk robes found in Buddhism. This added, once again, to that Thai-feeling.

The Wat itself is opened from 7 in the morning to 7 at night. At around 6 am, the monks gather together to chant and meditate for about an hour. This is usually closed off from the public, and isn’t made open until Sunday. On Sunday’s, at around 5, they hold meditation and chanting sessions. Besides this, the Wat remains open for visits. I was rather upset that I was visiting the site on a day that didn’t host the chanting, meditating, or any other events. However, I was rather lucky. Upon arriving on the Wat grounds, I was greeted by a rather shy Monk whose name I couldn’t ever pronounce. He first hid behind a column, and didn’t warm up to me until I told him I was from FIU. From there, the adventure began. I was lucky enough to run into this kind man, who decided to give me a solid two hour tour of the Wat. Instead of dropping in on their meditation services, he taught me in his broken English about my Dharma, and how to properly bow down to the Buddha statue. Now I initially had issues with this because, as a Christian, the Old Testament law of bowing before idols is frowned down upon, but in the spirit of being a religious student I got on my knee’s and emulated by excited teacher. It was this personal relationship and teaching that was better than any worship service I could image them having.

However I don’t want to belittle their worship services and festivals. As with Asian culture in general, there are many things to feast and celebrate over. To start they hold a host of ceremonies. On March 3rd they’re holding a Maghapuja Ceremony, which is a Buddhist holy day on the full moon in the third month of the lunar calendar. Thisis the day Buddha gave the sermon “Ovadha Patimokha”. As with Thai culture, they also celebrate Songkran (April 15th), which is the Thai New Year. A second ceremony is Visakhabucha Day, which also celebrates additional teachings of Buddha. These are only two out of the nine ceremonies they celebrate, and only one of the 6 festivals they have.

My personal experience was a powerful one. Upon arriving to the Wat, I was greeted by a monk who was more than happy to show me around. We struggled with communication the entire time, but we shared an email amount of curiosity that held our interactions together. After the awkwardness had subsided, he was more than happy to show me the Wat grounds. My first impression was how beautiful everything was. From the Wat itself, to the fabric that adorned the monk, to the small shrines and garden placement; it was all absolutely beautiful. Reds and gold’s can hardly be found in any Miami-style architecture, and it was a welcomed change. Upon walking around the ground I instantly felt as if I were in a completely different country. This helped me as I tried to place myself in the role of one visiting the Wat for worship. I was lucky enough to have this Monk find me, for he decided to open the Wat itself and let me in. Here I got a private tour of the place, and even my first lesson in Dharma and how to properly bow down to Buddha. He showed me in three steps where to place my hands, and how to properly kneel. It was rather amusing, but refreshing none-the-less. After admiring the massive Buddha and it’s adorning lights, he showed me around the inside. He showed me where each monks sit, where and how you sit and kneel for meditation, and where the master monk is during services. He even showed me pictures of the Thai king, and how everyone is placed during ceremonies. After the private tour, he took me around the grounds. I continued to ask questions but the language barrier prevented any real answers. At some point the Monk got an idea, and after making me take my shoes off, he took me (by surprise) into the Monk’s residency. This struck me as bizarre, since I couldn’t understand why he would want me in here. I enjoyed all the sights and sounds of Thai music and art, and it wasn’t until I realized two monks were staring up at me that I didn’t belong. However the monks merely smiled, chatted with me, and gave me a handful of pamphlets. With that I decided to leave, feeling as if I’ve had my fill of Buddhism for my first day. With the proper amount of bowing (handshakes are a no-no), I smiled and accepted their offer to join them for chanting next Sunday.

-Leonard O Goenaga

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