Wat Willow Buddhist temple tentatively reopens without monks as protests continue

Protests continued outside a West Long Beach Cambodian Buddhist temple Monday during a reopening celebration hosted by its embattled board of directors.

Nearly 20 monks from around Southern California joined members of the Khemara Buddhikarama Temple, known by many as Wat Willow, for an hours-long blessing ceremony celebrating the reopening of the temple.

The temple was closed for over 10 days for minor repairs, including new locks installed by the board of directors after a faction of the congregation trespassed in protest of the eviction of two monks, including the head monk the Venerable Thet Sim.

Dispute between Buddhist temple’s board and its congregation leaves monks out in the streets

Members are at odds over the handling of the planned construction of a new temple on the site, with accusations of mismanagement of funds coming from both sides.

Supporters of Sim allege some of the board members have pocketed the money, leading some members to donate directly to the monk. In turn, some members of the board claim the same of Sim, but supporters said he used the money to fix immediate needs of the current temple.

Protesters held handmade signs and spoke through a handheld speaker microphone while the ceremony took place indoors Monday morning. Protestors criticized the board’s decision to evict the monks, which they believe is a violation of Buddhist practice.

Visiting monks pray in front of Buddha before they leave the Khemara Buddhikarama Cambodian Buddhist Temple after a blessing ceremony in Long Beach Monday, October 28, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

While the board invited the temple’s two remaining monks back and to take part in the blessing ceremony, the monks say they will not return unless all four monks are allowed back in.

Vatthana Tran, one of the visiting monks from a San Bernardino temple, said he was not aware of the situation before he arrived for the blessing ceremony.

Through an interpreter, Tran said if a congregation has an issue with a monk, only fellow monks or the temple’s members can decide his fate. That is the practice at his temple.

He suggested bringing together area monks “to judge which monk is bad or not” in accordance with Buddha law.

Laura Som, who is the executive director of the MAYE Center in Cambodia Town and was at the temple on Monday, said she was approached by community members to help with conflict resolution.

Together with longtime community leaders Alex Norman and Marc Coleman, the three have spoken to board member Kimthai Kuoch and protesters.

“While this is a heart break, we hope that a process to resolve conflicts can be developed in the Cambodian community to reflect an awareness of community mental health, legal and administration procedures, community growth, inclusivity, and the practice of nonviolence, social justice, and forgiveness as we unite and grow as a community,” Som said.

A temple member leaves as she passes protesters in front of the Khemara Buddhikaram Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Long Beach Monday, October 28, 2019. Some members of the temple are in protest of the temple board members. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Meanwhile, Kuoch says it’s unclear if the temple will be able to stay open during its normal operating hours, citing ongoing disruptions by protesters.

He hopes the two remaining monks can come back and expects to add temporary help by bringing in two more monks from Santa Ana and Pomona.

As the largest and oldest temple in Long Beach, Kuoch said its imperative to have at least four monks serve the congregation.

As for the temple’s long-term plan, Kuoch said construction is expected to start in January 2020. The $1.5-$2 million project is expected to take one to two years to complete.

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. Growing up as one of six kids in the working-class immigrant suburb of South Gate, she was taught the importance of civic engagement and to show compassion for others. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015. An avid Harry Potter fan, Stephanie now lives in Bixby Knolls with her boyfriend and their bearded dragon, Austin.
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