An internal dispute between worshipers and the board of directors of a Cambodian Buddhist temple has spilled out into the streets of West Long Beach.
Since Oct. 16, three monks have been sleeping in their cars parked adjacent to the Khemara Buddhikarama Temple at 2100 W. Willow St., known by many congregants as Wat Willow.
They are never alone though.
With the support of many congregants—some of whom have acted as bodyguards until early into the morning—the monks have received food, water and anything else they need.
A handful of canopies are set up along the sidewalk’s grassy area, along with tents, tables, chairs and coolers filled with water.
A makeshift altar with a statue of Buddha sits on top of a rug, allowing for daily meditation to continue.
Handmade signs read in part: “no monks no monastery” and “all Cambodian people fight for justice!!”
Conflict began over a year ago when the temple’s head monk for over 11 years, the Venerable Thet Sim, withdrew his support for the construction of a new temple to replace the current building, which resembles a multi-purpose hall.
In light of the monk’s change of heart, he was removed from the subcommittee overseeing the construction project, and when voting time came around last August he was not re-elected chairman of the board of directors, according to Kalmine Ly, who is the board’s treasurer.
As such, Sim’s name was then removed from the bank account where both regular temple funds and construction funds are deposited.
“Then the problems started,” Ly said.
Longtime congregant Suzanne Keo, who has been supporting the monks, said Sim withdrew his support for the construction project after the board of directors refused to share updates or be transparent with him or the congregation that has been providing the funds.
“Congregants were asking how the money was being dispersed,” Keo said.
Tension grew last winter as the head monk gained supporters. Soon after, congregants began donating directly to the monk instead of the board.
Ly said the situation became hostile toward the board, claiming the monk began to incite rebellion among some congregants who refused to let board members meet in private.
The congregants said they just wanted answers to their questions.
Then, this spring, Ly said, the board decided to evict the head monk and one other monk. But they refused to leave.
During a civil trial in September, a judge sided with the board after learning that they had given the two monks 30- and 60-day eviction notices, in accordance with their time at the monastery.
The monks’ attorney Andrew Cooledge maintains the evictions were retaliatory after the tenants brought up maintenance issues such as a leaking roof.
Keo and others believe the trial also didn’t take into account religious and cultural practices and pointed to a bylaw amended in 2012, the year after the temple’s founder and head monk died.
In the original bylaw, a monk cannot be removed by the board—a standard custom in other Buddhist temples. A monk can only be removed by fellow monks or the congregation itself. And while the amended bylaw states a board can remove a monk, it can only do so after a public hearing, which never took place for the two monks.
Temporary temple closure
While the judge upheld the eviction of Sim and Tith Bun, both congregants and the two remaining monks were surprised to find out on Oct. 16 that the temple was going to close temporarily while the board assesses the safety of the building, changes the locks, adds security cameras and other minor repairs. Sheriff’s deputies even appeared to help enforce the court-approved permit.
Sarun Caea, one of the monks who was temporarily displaced, said he wasn’t aware of the temporary closure until the day it happened.
Through an interpreter, he said he felt depressed and is still in a state of shock. He feels his safety and privacy is compromised after learning that cameras are also being installed inside the building.
Ly said the board reached out to a Buddhist temple in Santa Ana that agreed to provide temporary housing for the two remaining monks.
But, as supporters noted, everything the monks know is in Long Beach, including their congregation they are supposed to lead.
In addition, congregants said that on the day that the two monks were ordered out, the board refused to let one of them go in to get his medicine; he was instead told to go to the hospital.
Ly said it was because the board feared he would stay in his room and refuse to leave.
Now Bun and the two remaining monks are under the care of congregants, while they in turn lead prayers on the sidewalk.
Earlier this week, congregants were left on the street to celebrate one of Buddhism’s biggest holidays, Kathina, which is a time for giving thanks to monks.
Ly said the board had rescheduled it to the beginning of November but congregants said they were not told.
The temple is supposed to reopen on Oct. 28, but both sides are unsure if there can be any peace or unity. Trust has already been compromised.
Both congregants and the remaining monks are calling for a special election to refill the board of director seats, especially those filled by 12 new members who were elected in 2012 when the bylaws were changed.
“We want the 12 [new] board of directors out,” said fellow supporter Vathana Prak. “There’s no way the people will trust them again.”