LAKEWOOD — Tucked into a quiet residential corner of this city, the yellow three-bedroom house resembles any of a thousand middle-class dwellings in suburban Southern California. The lawn is neatly trimmed, the patio properly endowed with comfortable backyard furniture.
On the porch, however, dozens of empty shoes left neatly in rows provide the first hint that there is something unusual about the house. Walking through the door is like entering a different world.
Welcome to Khemara Buddhikaram, the area's largest and oldest Cambodian Buddhist temple. Inside, the air smells of incense and boiling rice. In what was the living room, a four-foot golden statue of Buddha sits amid an abundance of candles, flowers and blinking red lights. Kneeling before it, some wearing white or saffron robes, their heads shaved, the owners of the shoes sit chanting a rhythmic, almost musical incantation that to the untrained ear sounds decidedly otherworldly.
"If there were no temple," says Doung Chea, 72, speaking through an interpreter, "I would go back to Cambodia."
Indeed, this unobtrusive suburban shrine and one other like it have become the heart of the 50,000-strong Cambodian community in Los Angeles County. Many of the immigrants, like Chea, fled their native land to escape the harsh Communist regime of Pol Pot.
The refugees say the temples are more than houses of worship; they are major cultural centers providing much-needed community cohesion and service in an area that has become the unofficial Cambodian capital of America. And, in a very real sense, they say, the shrines are at the center of the restoration and preservation of the traditional Cambodian, or Khmer, culture, which was suppressed under Communism.
"I just cannot overemphasize their importance to the Cambodian community," says Nil Hul, executive director of the Cambodian Assn. of America. "They are the backbone of our culture and society."
In Cambodia, before the Communists, according to Hul, Buddhist pagodas--consisting of a temple, religious school, meeting hall and living quarters--dotted the landscape. It was there that the populace, 95% of which was Buddhist, went to worship, educate their children, receive counseling and advice, and, in some cases, shelter. Churches, schools and city halls rolled into one, the pagodas were the treasure troves of the country's culture, art, architecture, history and social welfare, Cambodians say.
Beginning in 1975, when Pol Pot took over, the Buddhist monasteries were systematically destroyed and most of the monks overseeing them were executed. Although the Vietnamese-backed Communists who took power in 1979 are slightly more permissive, Hul says, the practice of Buddhism is still not encouraged in his native land.
But the Cambodian refugees who began settling in Long Beach--there are nearly 26,000 in that city and Lakewood--brought their religion with them. And, in 1982, the Rev. Chean Kong, a Buddhist monk with a Ph.D. in philosophy and a master's degree in family counseling, founded the Khemara Buddhikaram to cater to their needs.
"When they come to the temple, they feel relaxed and happy," says Kong, who raised the $112,500 purchase price for the Lakewood property by selling community shares at $50 each.
Today, he says, there are eight Cambodian Buddhist monks based in Long Beach and Lakewood, two more than the number of rabbis. Kong says he is aware of one other permanent Cambodian temple in the area, in a private home in downtown Long Beach. Because the only other Southern California temples are in Santa Ana and San Diego, the monk says, his services draw people from as far away as Van Nuys, Bakersfield and Stockton.
Whereas major celebrations such as the Cambodian New Year in April, Ceremony of the Ancestors in September and Water Festival in November are held in El Dorado Park and attract as many as 2,000 people, Kong says, the average attendance at Khemara Buddhikaram's daily meditation sessions is 30.
"Sometimes some of them sleep here," says Kong, who lives at the temple with two other monks and has provided temporary shelter for as many as 15 homeless Cambodians at a time. Besides offering religious services, he says, the temple acts as sort of an adult day-care center for about 20 elderly parents of working Cambodians, who drop them off in the morning and pick them up at night.
Kong says he hopes to increase the services he and other monks provide by the $1.1-million purchase of a 91,000-square-foot facility in western Long Beach that would, among other things, accommodate a school, playground, teen center, social and cultural center and worship hall for 1,000 people.
Cambodian leaders say they have already raised money for a down payment and expect no problem in raising the rest, but negotiations have been stalled for a year while the owners--the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union Local 1-128, which uses the site as its headquarters, seeks new meeting facilities for its 2,500 members.
"At this point we have no possibilities," says Bill Martinez, president of the local. "It's all exploratory."
So the Cambodian Buddhists squeeze into their two small temples, often looking to them for the comfort and guidance required by immigrants in a new land.
Buddhist philosophy, Kong says, emphasizes rational and moral living, qualities he believes are essential to his people's survival in America.
"It's very, very important," says Than Pok, executive director of United Cambodia Community and a board member at the Lakewood temple. "When you feel depressed or down, the monk can lift you up."