Watt Samaki Temple

Information about this center is no longer updated. This data was last updated on 5 March 2004.

Phone: 207-797-8554


Most of the Khmer who came to Portland, Maine were farmers in Cambodia who fled the Khmer Rouge terror that began in 1975. In Cambodia they lived in small villages where the central institution was the Buddhist wat, where the monks lived and people gathered for worship. By 1984 the eight hundred or so Khmer in Portland established a nonprofit organization called the Watt Samaki, "Unity Temple," to raise funds to purchase a building.
The community located a promising site for its new temple-a large, abandoned chicken barn located on five acres some miles west of Portland. The community elders hired a lawyer to research the deed and appropriate variances, and they set up meetings with local churches to introduce themselves and their plan. The meetings went well, so they thought, and the Cambodians submitted a request for a special variance to turn the chicken barn into a "church".
The neighbors, however, were astounded and disturbed based their objections on local zoning ordinances. More than seventy towns-people showed up for the hearing. The Portland media began covering the story, intensifying the debate in newspaper and on television. The ethos and worldview of the Cambodian Buddhists was not at all suited to such controversy. They did not like the publicity, even the well-intentioned supporters, and they were embarrassed and distraught by the charges of those who opposed them and did not want them as neighbors. New immigrant communities often adapt, not by standing up for their rights through the process of litigation, but by seeking a more harmonious and less combative way. The Cambodians withdrew their application for a zoning variance and forfeited their $1,500 deposit. Meanwhile, a few churches in the area became concerned about the plight of their new neighbors, and donations of over $800 came in to offset the loss.
Six months later the community found a small two-story house in Portland. The local Quaker meeting loaned them $10,000 to help with the down payment, and the gray house was dedicated as the Watt Samaki Buddhist Center. At last the community could pour its energies into creating a Buddha Hall for worship and festivals. Supporting a monk, however, became a huge financial commitment, and after the community's monk left, the small temple remained empty except for weddings, New Year and ancestor festivals, and frequent fund-raisers.
In August 1993 Pirun Sen, a leader of the community who was a nurse and former monk, received a call from the Portland police notifying him of vandalism at the Buddhist center. Electronic equipment had been stolen, but the most sickening sight was the writing on the wall: "Dirty Asian, Chink, Go Home."
A few weeks later, Pirun Sen spoke of his feelings in an interview with Julie Canniff, a Pluralism Project researcher. Fortunately, the media had not discovered the story, he confided, expressing the mixture of shame and rage that victims of violence so often feel about attacks upon them. "You know our center is not a luxurious place, but we love it, take care of it as our heart and soul. It is the only place that can bring all of us together to love, to care for one another, to pass on the Khmer culture to the youngsters. This is why my tears keep dropping when I talk about the vandalism of the Watt Samaki with friends and caring people. These tears are for my people who are the foundation of the Watt Samaki and people who have passed away. It is a small house, but these people reminded me to take care of Watt Samaki as if it were diamond and gold."
The police were not successful in locating the vandals or the stolen equipment, but the neighbors, who up until this time did not know the purpose of the little house, pledged their support and watchful vigilance from then on. But as a result of this tragedy, many members of the community relived the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge and the unspeakable persecution they suffered. Repairing the damaged temple was only part of a much deeper process of repair that needed to take place in the wake of this attack. Despite all the difficulties, this is a community of survivors-first in Cambodia and now in Portland, Maine.
Taken from: Eck, Diana, L., A New Religious America: How A "Christian Country" Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. San Francisco, California: HaperCollins Publishers, 2001. pp 314-316.

Ancestor Ceremony

Cambodian people are like other people in developed countries-we have our own traditions for recognizing our heritage. The National Ancestor Ceremony (Spirit’s Commemoration Festival) is celebrated by all Cambodians and is carefully planned because it is both a religious holiday and a holiday of Cambodia. Before the celebration, children give money and food to their parents and grandparents to make the celebration joyful. Pre-festivities begin after the full moon in the month of Patro-bott (a lunar month in late September or early October), and end on the 15th day of that month, the Bonn Phchum-ben. During the pre-festivities, which take place from September 1st through the 14th, people from many districts and villages take turn of bens or offerings of food to the monks before 12 noon and soft beverages in the afternoon and evening. Everyday, beginning at 6:00 a.m. people can hear the beautiful, rhythmic chanting of Buddhist doctrine called the Parapavasotra. After 7:00 a.m., you can hear the Pin-Peat Ensemble perform, which enhances this festivity. At the Temple, each hall functions as a Ceremony Hall where people can see the Crocodile flags called the Tong-kro-peu fly high beside the National flag and the religious flag.
One day before the National Ancestor Ceremony, every Cambodian family prepares different kinds of cylindrical cakes called Ansorm (a sticky rice cake wrapped by banana leaf with either pork or banana in the center). Other special cakes include the Pyramidal or Korm cake, Round or Jeal cake, bott cake, and the lom-Orng-Romjake cake. Every family is required to make these cakes to donate to the Buddhist monks, share with friends, and save some for a gift to the dead or departed souls. These are all traditional cakes that have existed for a thousand years. The Cylindrical and Pyramidal cakes are also used for Cambodian weddings. Without one or both a couple may not have a child.
The day of the National Ancestor Ceremony begins in the early morning on the 15th day of the Patro-bott month. The traditional people devote most of their time at the Temple and bring buy-ben (special rice made specifically for early morning ceremony) and also sticky rice frosted with coconut milk and shaped into small, egg-sized treats. Another type of buy-ben is called buybet-tbo, which is served on a fancy, decorated plate covered by banana leaf. On top of the leaves sits a few candles.
Everyone in the pre-sunrise ceremony shares buybet-tbo after donating to the monks and souls. According to belief, the people always donate buy-ben and buybet-tbo to Buddhist monks, called bang-sukol, for the death in the morning before the sun rises. This rice is shared specifically with relatives and friends who were born in Hell (the departed souls) who have been released once a year only in Pchunben ceremony to receive this gift. These departed people are known as the Prats or Pata. They are souls with no clothes to cover their bodies; they are shy when the sun rises and they would not come to eat these meals. As soon as the sun rises, one could see many people in groups standing along the stupas (tower serving as a Buddhist shrine). Bone fragments are kept in the stupas and temple. The villagers clean and decorate the stupas with flowers and invite the Buddhist monks to honor the departed soul and bless them to be well and reborn into the best life as soon as possible.
Traditional people dress in hol, (a woman’s long skirt made of silk with gold or silver decoration), pamoung, (a traditional Khmer cloth worn by men and women), and a kro-mar-sotre (scarf around neck). They use one of their hands to hold the food container in place as they carry it on their head. The older people carry a bouquet, a candle, and incense to the ceremony hall. By 10:30 am, the temple is full of people chanting Bung-sukol by the Buddhist monks, followed by the offering of the food to the monks.
The Ancestor Ceremony demonstrates a character of happiness, which shows that we have a lot of food, snacks, cakes, and togetherness between brothers, sisters, and friends, who live nearby and far away. It also celebrates our connection to the souls of loved ones who passed away recently or a long time ago. This celebration is one of the greatest in Cambodia.
Cambodian tradition says that only one group of Prats are released to look for their children and grandchildren in the Buddhist temples in order to receive buy-ben to stop their hunger. If those departed souls who pray cannot locate their children in any of the seven Buddhist temples, they will angrily insult and curse their relatives and friends and hope for misfortunes because they are so suffering and hungry. This is the only celebration during the year where the Prats are released to come and accept the gifts of their children and grandchildren.
It is true that the ancestor always has mixed beliefs, but the value of the nation's character, which has been understood clearly for thousands of years, makes this an enduring celebration that is never forgotten by its people. The character of this celebration tells you that Cambodia is different from all other nations.
The Cambodian celebration has been planned for this year. To observe this ceremony, call the Buddhist temple at 207-797-8554.
This piece was written by Pirun Sen.
Cambodian-English Dictionary, V1&V2. Robert K. Headley Jr. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C. 1977.
Dictionnare Cambodgien Tome 1 & 2. Venerable Preah Buddhaghosachar. CHOUN-NAT. Edition De L'Institut. Bouddhique, 1968.
Khmer Culture for Family. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Refugee Education Center. Khao-I-Dang, Sakeo and Panatnikom, Thailand.