After Saturday’s storm, Navan Leng plowed the driveway and shoveled snow from the sidewalk Sunday at Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Buxton.

“I like it,” Bak Him, a monk who speaks little English, said of the snow. “But I’m cold, I don’t have a big coat.”

The Maine weather is in stark contrast to Bak Him’s homeland, Cambodia, a country in Southeast Asia with a tropical climate. A refugee now living in Buxton, Him is one of two monks at the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple, which has so far received an icy reception in its effort to get town permission to hold gatherings at the property.

Located in a typical New England house with shutters and a gable roof on Back Nippen Road, the temple appears at first like any other home in rural Buxton. But a sign on the home immediately sets it apart from any of the other homes along the road and the other Christian churches in town. The only Cambodian Buddhist temple in the state, Watt Samaki is home to religious practices that appear exotic and foreign but have endured throughout the world for centuries. The monks that live there function as the spiritual leaders of their congregation, whose members are taught principles familiar to all: I will not kill, I will not steal, I will not speak untruth and I will not consume intoxicating substances.

The permit process began in January, and on Monday, the Buxton Planning Board will re-open a public hearing on the request, starting at 7 p.m. in Town Hall. Neighbors have previously voiced concerns about parking and increased traffic through the residential neighborhood on rural Back Nippen Road. It is the board’s third hearing on the matter.

At a previous hearing Feb. 11, some Planning Board members said they thought the temple’s plan needed to be modified to include a stormwater pond to collect runoff from parking to trap pollution before draining into wetlands. The temple was also asked to resubmit plans for the 67-car parking lot after planners discovered that parking spaces were 6 inches short of an ordinance requiring 9-foot width.


The temple is located in a rural residential area where a church would be allowed. Temple leaders say the home would serve as the spiritual and social center for Cambodians in Maine.

“The temple is the heart of the community,” Leng, temple president, said. “The temple is the healing place. They put their mind in peace. Forget about world’s problems.”

Most temple members live in Portland, Westbrook, Saco, Biddeford and Brunswick. Sunny Brown Mao, the treasurer, travels to the temple from Augusta.

Most members of the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple are refugees. Many Cambodians fled to the United States since the reign of Pot Pol, Cambodian leader 1976-1979, in which as many as 3 million died. Maine has an estimated total of 350 Cambodian families.

U.S. Cambodian refugees usually live in urban areas where jobs are located, according to Sunil Goonasekera, a visiting professor who teaches four Asian religions, including Buddhism, at Bowdoin College.

The temple, which began in 1985, bought a small property in Portland as a first step, but sought a larger site. Leng said the price of the Buxton property was affordable and a nice location. The property, which the temple purchased three years ago, includes a home and an attached building that once housed a printing business.


While it might seem out of place in rural Buxton, the location on eight, largely wooded acres is not unusual for a temple, according to Pirun Sen, chairman of board of Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple. In Cambodia, temples are always in the forests. Buddha, the religion’s founder, is said to have been enlightened with the truths while under a tree.

“People like to meditate in forests,” said Sen, who was born in rural Cambodia. “It’s a place to focus. It lifts their spirits up.”

There are no chairs inside the temple, which is carpeted, and visitors remove shoes before entering. The monks sit on cushions on a raised platform, a little higher than the main floor where people sit.

“We can’t sit higher than the monks,” Leng said. “And the monks can’t sit higher than the Buddhas.”

Images of Buddha are displayed in the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple. Three of those Buddhas were shipped from Cambodia at a cost to members of $7,000. Members support the temple and the monks, but there is no set limit for donations.

“It comes from your heart,” Leng said about giving.


Temple artwork depicts Cambodian culture, and lights behind the Buddhas in the temple are from Cambodia. Unlike temples in the United States, artwork and writings are inscribed by artists on walls in temples in Cambodia.

Temple life

Goonasekera said a Buddhist monk typically begins each day at 4 a.m. with sweeping before worshipping and eating breakfast. “They keep it spotlessly clean,” Goonasekera said.

To become a monk, said Harry Schnur, a Bowdoin student studying the temple, the ceremony includes shaving the head and receiving the robes. “He is usually compelled to recite passages from Buddhist scripture in Pali, the Buddhist Holy language in response to prompting by senior monks,” Schnur said.

The temple is home to two monks, Him and Chantrea Mean. Him, who will be 73 Friday, was born in Cambodia and has been a monk for two years. Him fled Cambodia in 1979 and arrived in the United States in 1986 after stops in Thailand and the Philippines. Him, a first level monk, has been a member of the Watt Samaki Cambodian Buddhist Temple since 1987 and once served as its treasurer.

Mean, 60, came to the United States in 1997 and doesn’t speak English. Mean has been a monk for 40 years and was ordained in Cambodia. Mean has never been married.


Him gave up married life to become a monk. Goonasekera said monks have to abstain from all sexual activity and renounce the ways of the world. Him, who has seven children in the United States, separated from his wife, who lives in Portland, to lead a celibate life and qualify as a monk. Him earned U.S. citizenship in 2004.

Leng said Him became a monk because his goal is to help people conduct their lives according to Buddhist doctrines.

Goonasekera, a native of Sri Lanka, said lay members of a Buddhist temple take food, usually breakfast and lunch, to the monks, but dinner isn’t eaten in a temple.

Following tradition, Leng also delivered bottled water and bags of groceries for the two resident monks, Him and Chantrea Mean, after he cleared the snow. In Cambodia, families and nuns provide prepared food for monks. But in Buxton, Him and Mean often fix their own meals.

“I cook myself,” Him said, adding that his favorite food includes chicken, pork, noodles and vegetables.

Leng explained why the monks cook in Buxton. “The difference is over here most of us work different schedules. Old people can’t drive and they depend on daughters and sons,” he said.


Him enjoys gardening, and last year planted vegetables like cucumbers and tomatoes. “Hot, hot peppers,” Him replied when asked his favorite vegetable to plant.

Neighbors are welcome to pick vegetables from Him’s garden. He once earned an award helping students garden in the Sagamore Village neighborhood of Portland. He stores his award and other personal memorabilia in a Sam’s Club tote bag.

Him will be offered new robes in October in an annual community observance, celebrating the end of the rainy season. Him, like all Cambodian Buddhist monks, always wears the traditional robes, even to Buxton Planning Board meetings. The orange or yellow robes are symbolic of stained cloth.

Monks are forbidden to own property or a car and can’t wear fancy jewelry. Goonasekera said monks renounce singing, dancing or playing musical instruments.

Holy days for Buddhists are on full, new and half moon. Him is required to have short hair and shaves his head twice a month, including on the full moon.

On the Holy days, the laity usually wear white clothing and carry gifts like flowers, oil and incense to the temple.


“They worship very quietly,” Goonasekera said, then gather for a sermon, which lasts an hour. “The neighborhood won’t know anything about it.”

Community center

Besides worshipping, members go to the temple to seek advice from the monks. The temple is a source for physical, psychological and spiritual healing. “When they get depressed, they go to see the monks,” Goonasekera said.

Cambodians seek solace at the temple. A monk offers chanting for people and a blessing with water to heal their problems, according to Leng. A monk might give a crying child a bracelet or a necklace to keep evil spirits away.

Temple members greet the monks by kneeling, clasping hands together as in praying. The monks aren’t allowed to shake hands.

Goonasekera said a Buddhist temple is open to everyone, regardless of religion. “They don’t criticize other religions,” Goonesakera said.


“Monks are required to be polite,” said Goonesakera.

People aren’t questioned about their faith when visiting a Buddhist temple and monks don’t proselytize. Goonesakera said monks don’t carry out campaigns to convert people to Buddhism.

“People have to come to them,” Goonesakera said.

Cambodian Buddhists have seven special celebrations each year. The Cambodian New Year, April 13, is one of the three celebrations likely to attract some 200 people and cars for the 67 parking spaces the Planning Board is requiring of the temple.

On May 15, the temple will observe one of the four celebrations in which only some 20 cars are expected. It celebrates the birth and death of Buddha. “Buddha was a God but he passed away,” Him said.

Leng said the temple is important to Cambodian Buddhists and helps bring peace to the community. “The temple shows you the right path to walk,” Leng said.


The temple helps refugees adapt to a new culture. A refugee, Leng said about immigrating to the United States, “We lost hope, we came here to regain hope.”

Outside the Buxton temple, a U.S. flag is flown on a pole. Buddhism also has a flag with five colors – yellow, blue, red, white and orange. According to folk lore, the colors represent those of a halo around Buddha. Goonesakera said the Buddhist flag was designed by an American, Henry Steel Olcott.

Leng said Watt Samaki means “together” in Cambodian. “We need to have a temple,” Leng said. “That’s why we need help.”

Cambodian Buddhist Monk Chantrea Mean speaks about his daily life at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Buxton.

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