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Laotians teach their young how to honor the dead

on September 30, 2010

Pasith Vattaso was 23-years-old and scared when he first arrived in Oakland with his family five years ago. He flew thousands of miles from Laos with his wife and parents to start a new life in a city where he knew no one. Vattaso said the change was distressing but he soon found Wat Lao Rattanaram, Richmond’s Laotian temple, and there he found solace.

After five years, Vattaso said he feels settled in and is busy raising his two-year-old daughter, Nadia. His current concern is about finding enough time to get back to the temple. “Here [in the US] I work and can’t always go. Only sometimes on events like this I can come,” he said.

Pasith Vattaso said his two-year-old daughter, Nadia, already understands Lao, but he worries that she will lose the language as she grows older.

Scores of Laotian Buddhists from around the bay congregated at the area’s only Laotian temple this past Saturday. They came to observe ‘Khaw Sahlaat,’ a Buddhist holy day when the living pay their respects to the dead.

“On this day, it’s like Satan gives a break to the souls of our ancestors. So we give them the best food and basic things they need,” said Bounmy Somsanith, a retired social worker and former president of the temple.

Silver-colored bowls—filled with everything from toothpaste and Ovaltine to rice, incense, and paper towels—surrounded two of the temple’s board members as they counted short stacks of small cash donations. Worshipers filed in and wrote the names of their deceased loved ones on the blanks of small slips of paper which invited the dead to come collect their gifts.

Around 200 members—many in traditional silk clothing—packed the giant prayer room and spilled out into the main hall as the temple’s seven monks blessed the donations. After the monks finished chanting, worshipers exited the temple and walked single-file with their symbolic gifts for the dead to a tented area in the back.

One by one members placed their items into alms bowls lining tables beneath the tent’s shade. The food and money will be used to maintain the temple, pay off debt accrued when the property was purchased, and support the monks who live there.

Nearly three in four of those who came to the temple on Saturday were women. No one, including the temple's president, La Nhonthachith, could explain why.

Wat Lao Rattanaram—found behind the civic center on Barrett Avenue—occupies the space that was once the First Church of Christ Scientist. Apart from a new fence, a large red and gold entrance sign housed in traditional Lao architecture, and some modest decorative changes, the outer shell of the building looks unchanged.

Inside the temple, however, members replaced the pews with dark red carpets. They converted the old pulpit into a repository of relics, including a massive golden Buddha who stares slightly above all those who enter the prayer room.

In 2004, board members relocated the temple, which had been in West Oakland, to Richmond so they could accommodate their growing membership. According to La Nhonthachith, current president of the temple, the property and renovations cost $1.2 million.

Somsanith, the temple’s first president, said the new location is safer, more convenient, and less crowded. He hopes more Laotians, especially younger Laotians, will be attracted to the temple and participate on holy days like this one.

Austin Chanthavong was born and raised in Richmond. He said his grandmother is pressuring him to stay at the temple next summer.

Austin Kusone Chanthavong, a Richmond resident and 14-year-old student at De Anza High, sat patiently at his mother’s side while the monks chanted over the loudspeaker. After the monks finished, Austin walked off to a back room where several kids had gathered in front of a TV to watch SpongeBob SquarePants and music videos. He’s been coming to the Lao temple for as long as he can remember and said—in typical teenage terseness—that he thought it was, “alright.”

Like many Laotian parents who were at the temple on Saturday, Austin’s parents struggle to keep their language, traditions, and beliefs from fading with their children. Austin’s father, Nekone, speaks to his two boys in Lao but he said they always respond in English. Austin acknowledged that he can speak Lao, but said he’ll only speak the language with his grandmother, who doesn’t understand English.

Austin spent a lot of his time that day tapping away at his cell phone, chatting with his friends outside, or slouched in a chair in the TV room—which he jokingly said was his favorite part about coming to the temple.

Nekone said it’s very different from Laos, where most everyone is Buddhist and there is ample time to go to the temple. Because Austin is busy with school throughout the year, Nekone wants his son to stay at the temple next summer.

After first participating in the holy day's main rituals, a number of children gravitated to the TV room.

During the summer break about a dozen boys from the Bay Area usually join the monastery for several weeks. In Laos, it is typical for boys under the age of 18 to become novice monks and spend weeks or months at a temple as a kind of spiritual right of passage. “We want them to become monks to avoid gangs, drugs and other bad things,” said Somsanith, former president of the temple. “But they have to observe the eight Buddhist precepts too.”

In Buddhism, girls aren’t allowed to become monks. So unlike Nekone, Pasith Vattaso can’t send his daughter, Nadia, to stay at the temple when she’s older. Vattaso’s primary concern is just making sure Nadia can speak Lao. But he admits that he’s in for a challenge. Even if Vattaso speaks to his daughter in Lao at home, “When she starts school and makes friends, she will only want to speak English,” he said.

As for Austin, he already tried staying at temple once. It didn’t work out. “I left after two weeks, I couldn’t eat dinner,” he said, referring to the monk’s practice of abstaining from food after noon.

“I worry a bit because as soon as they grow up they seem to stray away from the temple,” said Austin’s father Nekone. Nevertheless, Nekone is determined to have Austin stay at the temple next summer and he told him so. “We’ll see about that,” Austin said in a muffled voice as he turned away.

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