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Building on tradition

Monks plan to erect a temple on their 47 acres in Raynham

The tract of land off Ray nham's South Street East is the sort that often ends up being developed into an office building or store. But a group of Thai monks has a very different plan for the 47 acres they bought in July.

The monks -- who recently moved into a farmhouse across town from the Raynham dog track, down the road from the Sunday flea market -- are setting out to turn the land into a temple. It would include a pagoda for worship, a meditation center, and a grand hall in honor of King Adulyadej, the reigning Thai monarch, who was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge in 1927.

If the half-dozen monks in saffron-colored clothes and their followers are successful, they say, their temple -- called Wat Nawamintararachutis -- would be the largest Thai Buddhist center in the Boston area.

Like many immigrant religious groups, these Theravada monks come from humble beginnings. After arriving from Thailand, they lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, then moved to a house in Watertown, and have now relocated to their home in Raynham, which they bought for $1.5 million this spring.

For years, the monks have been searching for a large piece of land where they could build a Theravada Buddhist temple and cultural center, and Raynham offered the needed space at the right price.

On a recent afternoon, members of the temple busied themselves in the kitchen of the farmhouse and showed early drawings of the temple they are raising funds to build. A pagoda dominates neatly manicured grounds, with ample room for monks to live, teach, and meditate. No formal plans have been drawn up or submitted to town boards, but an architect from Thailand is due to visit this fall to help transform the sketch into a blueprint.

``We'll have to make a couple changes to make the [building] codes in the USA," said Srisak Sihatrai, a member of the temple. But when the temple is built -- five, 10, or more years down the road -- it will welcome everyone, providing meditation instruction, Thai language classes, and service to the community.

For now, gatherings are held in more commonplace quarters. A temporary white garage, festooned with yellow and blue ribbons, served the purpose on a Sunday in August , as members from Wilmington, Revere, and Rhode Island came to the temple to celebrate the queen of Thailand's birthday. The festivities included chanting and donations. Neatly packaged bundles of toothpaste, soap, and other necessities wrapped in golden gauze sat in front of each monk, some of whom had just arrived from Thailand. A monk sprayed holy water over a crowd of kneeling Buddhists.

Joy Nugranad-Marzilli , who traveled from Rhode Island for the ceremony, said the temple gives her American husband and her half-Thai daughter a way to connect to her culture.

Lex Tumsaroch , who came to the United States in 1967 when he was 17, said things have changed dramatically since he arrived.

``At that time when I first came here, people in the US didn't know much about people in Thailand. They knew about Siamese cats," he said. The Vietnam War increased people's awareness of the country. Now, with Thai temples in Bedford and Raynham, he said, the immigrant community scattered from Cape Cod to Worcester to Boston has a way of connecting with one another.

But the monks hope to reach beyond the Thai community to American neighbors as they follow their daily routine -- waking at dawn, chanting for half an hour, meditating, working in the community, giving advice.

The 2000 Census counted 2,141 Thai people in Massachusetts, a small population that is not thought to have grown dramatically over the past six years. ``Anecdotally, most of the Thai that I have seen are international students or are involved with small businesses -- they tend to be kind of scattered," said Michael Liu of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

But Buddhist traditions vary widely, ``just like Catholics and Protestants don't see eye to eye, and Quakers are really different, too," said Christopher Queen , a lecturer on the study of religion at Harvard University whose specialty is contemporary Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism, or ``the tradition of the elders," which the Thai monks follow, is considered the oldest Buddhist tradition, and is followed today by people in Thailand, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, according to Queen. The monks follow the 2,500-year-old teachings of the Buddha, believing that by letting go of delusions and attachments, it is possible to reach Nirvana.

In the Theravada tradition, the humble monks are revered and served by the laity and are considered a repository of virtue and knowledge, Queen said.

In Asia, Theravada monks wander the neighborhood begging for food from neighbors each morning. To give food to a monk is considered a virtuous act. But since the monks in Raynham are living deep in a suburban town that is 97 percent white, and 0.7 percent Asian at the last US Census count in 2000, members of the Thai community come to serve them food every day.

The temple in Raynham will not be the first outpost of Eastern religion in Southeastern Massachusetts. There is a Chinese Taoist temple and two Vietnamese Buddhist temples in Braintree, and at least two Buddhist temples in Quincy.

``It's a common pattern," said Grove Harris , managing director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, describing immigrant worship centers that grow from unassuming beginnings in houses or garages to structures on a more ``congregational" scale -- often in suburbs where land may be cheaper. ``People practice on their own and practice in their own home until they can acquire a common location."

For now, the Raynham monks are sticking close to their new home. ``We stay in the same place and not move anywhere for three months," said Somboon Cattabhayo, one of the monks. The tradition, he said, is imported from Thailand, where it rains for three months, making travel difficult. But the monks aren't worried about getting cabin fever.

``It is not boring because the monks prefer quiet," Cattabhayo said.

And they will keep busy in Raynham before breaking Buddhist lent with a celebration in early October.

Daily life, Cattabhayo said, is busy. ``We spread loving kindness to all beings around here and all the world."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

Carolyn Johnson reports on a group of monks who have purchased a Buddhist temple in Raynham.

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