Wat Santidham

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 27 October 2006.

Phone: 706-790-9374
Email: watsantidham@yahoo.com
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Description/Affiliations

Wat Santidham is a Theravada Buddhist temple located in south Augusta, a region of town associated with tremendous growth. Wat Santidham is part of the Dhammagut Order in the United States of America, a network of approximately thirty Thai Buddhist temples across the country.

Demographics

There are about 400-500 members on the mailing list. For regular services, however, attendance runs about 30-50 people. For larger ceremonies, attendance can be as high as 250-300 people. Most members are from Augusta, although some participants travel from Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina, as well as Savannah, Georgia. A large number of attendees are affiliated with Fort Gordon army base. A majority of members are of Thai and Laotian descent, and there are also some members of other southeastern Asian ethnicities, such as Burmese and Cambodian. There are a few Indian members and some Euro-American members, many of whom are military men married to Thai women. The predominant languages spoken are Thai and Laotian.

Activities and Schedule

At 7 a.m., the monks preside over morning chanting. They may be by themselves, or joined by a few members. Following morning chanting, the monks work in the garden, on the computer, clean up around the center, or meet with visitors until lunch. Lunch is at eleven, and is Thai or Laotian food delivered daily by members, as the monks cannot purchase or prepare their own meals. (Meals are occasionally difficult to arrange, as members must often take time off work to attend to this.) After lunch, the monks engage in study about Buddhism, either reading or researching on the computer. In the evening, there is again chanting and sitting meditation, which frequently members attend. Afterwards, the monks might talk and answer questions.
Special events are scheduled in coordination with Thai temples in Atlanta, so as to avoid conflicts, and are usually planned for Sundays. This is different, monk Phramaha Boonmee Ngaosuwan observes, than in Thailand, where ceremonies and festivals fall as they might – but in the United States, it is inevitably more convenient for working people to attend on Sundays.

Description of Center

Wat Santidham is located on Old Waynesboro Road, a once-rural road now dotted with some signs of growth: new, inexpensive housing subdivisions, a nearby grocery shopping center. The center is about three miles away from the Augusta Proctor & Gamble plant, and less than a third of a mile away from the newly constructed Cross Creek High School.
There are several small buildings on the temple grounds, including a sleeping area for the monks, and a main hall. The buildings are surrounded by well-tended gardens; the maintenance of these grounds is part of the monks’ daily routine. The gardens are lined with small flowering trees marked with signs bearing the names of donors who provide money to the center. A dirt road behind the center winds away to a construction site, where Wat Santidham is building a new meditation room, a good distance off the main road.
The main hall is a large rectangular room with plush carpet, and includes a sofa for members unable to sit on the floor. To the immediate left of the entry door is a raised platform, where three statues of the Buddha are surrounded by fresh flowers and small icons placed by members. Ngaosuwan explains that while one Buddha statue is the traditional ornamentation, another one was generously donated. The monks felt it looked too asymmetrical with two, so a third was acquired.
Gold plated bookshelves line one side of main hall, and there is a glass display case with a memorial to Monk Wichit Thongsawasadee, the former abbot of Wat Santidham who passed away in 2001. There are clippings of an Augusta Chronicle article on Thongsawasadee’s funeral taped to the case. Picture albums on nearby bookshelves hold pictures of Thongsawadee’s funeral and cremation services, as well as other temple events. On another elevated platform in the middle of one side of the room, there are four green mats, places for each of the four monks to sit in meditation. Pictures moving through stages in the life of the Bodhisattva line the room. These pictures, which are nicely framed and poster-sized, cost $100 each, according to Ngaosuwan, and have been donated by individual families There is also a picture of the Thai monarch King Bhumibol Adulyadej on the far end of the room, and a box designated for donations in the center of the floor.

History & Challenges

Before 1986, anyone looking to attend a Theravada Buddhist temple in Augusta would need to travel to Atlanta, or to a temple in South Carolina affiliated with Fort Sumter. In that year, however, a group of Thai families pooled their money and time and eventually was able to bring to Augusta a monk from the Wat Bar Van Monkol in Bangkok: Thongsawasadee, who was then 36 years old. The center now has four monks in residence.
Ngaosuwan has been at the wat for ten years, having come to Augusta from a temple in Bangkok. He did not want to come initially; he was worried the weather would be cold and his limited English would be embarassing. “When I was in university, I used to sneak out of English class -- I hated it,” he explains, smiling. “But I pay for that now.” Ngaosuwan is now the only monk at Wat Santidham who speaks English, meaning a great deal of the responsibility of speaking to members of the community falls on him. He is not entirely comfortable with this role. When a rabbi at a local synagogue invited someone from the wat to speak on a panel about religious differences, Nagaosuwan declined, worried about how he would express himself.
In addition to language barriers, there a few other consistent challenges, according to Ngaosuwan. In Thailand, temples often have fifty or one hundred monks – meaning there could be more free time or hours devoted to teaching. At Wat Santidham, the group of four monks must take care of all administrative and religious responsibilities, so free time is rare.
As is the case in other American temples, eating is a consistent challenge for the monks. “In Thailand, it’s easy to eat. You just walk the street with your bowl,” said Ngaosuwan. In Thailand, strangers would fill a monk's bowl, he explains, with food; it is an accepted and natural cultural practice.“Here, it’s hard. Everybody, everybody works.” A similar challenge arises in planning for temple events. In the United States, Ngaosuwan notes, the money is there for putting on events, but individuals able and willing to spend time attending and organizing are sometimes not.