If Saddha Kawthala were a Western-style spiritual leader, one might say he’s striving to bring his religion to a wider audience.
But striving would run counter to what the 51-year-old Buddhist monk believes.
The Buddhist way, he says, lets go of personal ambition and the stress it causes.
“It’s loving-kindness in everything,” he says, “living in harmony, no bullying each other, no fighting, respect everyone. According to Buddhism, whatever happens, give it up and let it go.”
So for the last year, Kawthala has been practicing what some Westerners might call the “Field of Dreams” method of spreading his religion – build it and they will come.
The saffron-robed, shorn-headed monk and a small band of followers have been turning a foreclosed-upon suburban home at 2025 E. Tillman Road into a monastery and spiritual center akin to what might be found in his native country – with the hope that the site also will become an exotic oasis welcoming to Americans.
Jeff Smith, 55, of Angola who has been practicing Buddhism since 1992 and is now a follower of Kawthala, says he finds the monk, who was born in Burma before it became known as Myanmar and immigrated to the United States from Thailand after he left his homeland as a teenager, a worthy teacher, or say-ah taw in Burmese.
“He’s very educated. He speaks seven languages – Thai, Laotian, Kayin (also known as Karen, and spoken by an ethnic minority in Myanmar), Burmese, English, some Chinese and Spanish,” Smith, a self-employed piano tuner, says.
“His uncle is an abbot. He is very respected among the (immigrant) people here. … He does a lot of volunteer translation. He also teaches children the language and religion.”
Kawthala says after coming to the United States he settled in Los Angeles for several years. After becoming a citizen about four years ago and reading on the Internet about the large number of refugees from Burma in the Fort Wayne area, he decided to come here, first residing at the largely Laotian Wat Lai Samakky Temple at 6409 Decatur Road.
In 2011, he started working toward starting Pa-O Temple, which he views as a chance to move Buddhist practice beyond his region and its ethnic-centered temples. The temple’s name roughly means “knowledge spreading like a chick coming out of its shell.”
He bought the house in December for $30,000 in cash received from donors in Myanmar and Thailand, he says.
Since then, land around the house has been cleared and its exterior was painted orange trimmed with marigold, considered auspicious colors by Buddhists. Prayer flags fly and extensive and colorful flower gardens have been planted “to be neighborly and look good and make good energy for people who pass by,” the monk says.
The leaking roof was fixed, new carpet was installed and inside walls were torn down to make a central gathering room. An altar dominates the room with a large statue of Buddha, and photos of special occasions line the walls. The temple opened officially in May.
Kawthala says he did something similar while in California. “I had different people coming, Chinese-American, Burmese, Karen, American. Here I can establish (an) American way (of practicing) and Burmese way and bring people together” with activities that focus on the different communities at different times.
Kawthala says his main outreach to Americans is meditation instruction in English at 7 p.m. Saturdays. Gatherings so far are small, attended by about a half-dozen people, who come to sit cross-legged on the floor for a half-hour of meditation followed by a short talk on the principles of Buddhism, socializing and refreshments.
Kawthala practices Theravada Buddhism, which is silent instead of involving the chanting some may be familiar with through exposure to Tibetan Buddhism. Theravada is Buddhism’s oldest surviving strain and is practiced widely throughout southeast Asia. In Myanmar, it is the dominant religion, with more than 80 percent of the population as adherents.
People who practice Theravada voluntarily abstain from lying, sexual misconduct, intoxication, stealing and harming living beings.
Meditation is focused on insight leading to the ability to live in a state of mindfulness, or consciousness of the effects of one’s actions. Besides meditation, another focus widely practiced by immigrants is merit-making, in which people do good deeds and works of charity, especially in providing for monks. The hope is to accumulate merits that obtain an advantageous rebirth.
As in their homeland, many refugees come to the temple daily, either to meditate or be of service to the monks by cooking, cleaning or washing dishes or providing supplies such as water and toiletries. Many seek Kawthala’s blessings for life events or during seasonal celebrations or to listen to teachings from him or from other invited monks.
Kawthala says as a monk, he tries to be of service to area residents, whether through participating in community cleanup days, food distribution and hospital visitations or helping refugees who do not speak English navigate American society by accompanying them to appointments or government offices.
While Kawthala has adopted some Western ways of spreading his religion – he posts videos on YouTube and has a blog at kawthala.blogspot.com – he says he thinks Buddhism has a lot to teach Americans, who seem to him to inhabit a rush-rush, materialistic world. Buddhism teaches a simpler way, he says.
“They get tranquility,” he says of those who follow its precepts. “They go back and use it (the religion’s teaching) at home with their families, and people like them more and they like each other better. Things go better for them,” he says.
If more Americans practiced Buddhism, he adds: “It would be taking away a lot of stress.”