The Battling Buddhists

From the outside , the Trairatanaram Temple in a residential neighborhood of North Chelmsford looks like the Knights of Columbus hall it once was, with some notable exceptions: the Buddhist and Cambodian flags flying alongside the American flag and, near the parsonage at the far side of the parking lot, three ornate boats that were put on display at various local water festivals.

The building's second level is large and bright, more spacious than the first. On an upstairs wall hangs a photo of the temple's grand opening. A conference table stands to the side, with space for congregants to sit on the floor during a service. Bottled water is everywhere; Buddhist monks don't drink anything more intoxicating than that. It's one of more than 200 religious guidelines they are supposed to follow, including ones against having sexual intercourse, harming living creatures, stealing, and lying. But the rule that soon could most affect the monks who share this temple will come from a judge.

The temple is at the center of a five-year-old lawsuit that has divided the purportedly gentle monks into hostile, feuding factions. It has also divided the building where they worship. One group has taken over the upstairs; the other, the downstairs. The case rests on the question of whether two real estate transactions were fraudulent and
whether a board meeting was valid. A Superior Court judge is scheduled to hold a hearing this month that may determine who gets to stay in the temple and who will have to go. Behind the legal matter, though, lies a disagreement mired in Cambodian politics, conflicting religious interpretation, and lurid threats. For example, one of the parties claims in court documents that another threatened to eat the livers of some of his opponents. Each group has accused the other of spying on it with surveillance cameras. So much for Buddhist harmony and peace.

At the start , a cooperative spirit did prevail. In the mid 1980s members of the Cambodian-American community around Lowell bought the property that became the Khmer Buddhist place of worship now known as Trairatanaram Temple. They invited Khon Sao, a Cambodian who had lived in Thailand, to be their monk. Another monk, Choun Chek, came to live at the temple in 1997 after a coup d' é tat in Cambodia. Chek says the two men agreed to be “working friends” and spiritual leaders at the temple.

Sao and Chek are no longer friends. In fact, each is prevented by court order from entering the other's portion of the temple. So are their respective supporters. Chek also refuses to enter the courtroom where the case is being tried, which he believes is not the proper place for a Buddhist monk. Each side insists the other is not abiding by Buddhist tenets. Chek supporters say Sao wants to be a kind of pope of the monks, a violation of Buddhism's comparatively nonhierarchical structure. They accuse him in court papers of funneling local contributions away from the temple. They also say that, for a monk, he's just not very nice.

“People became uneasy because of his behavior,” says Thel Sar, a member of the temple who works as a probation officer in Lowell District Court. “He's insulted people's intelligence. He's cursed at people. He makes people very uncomfortable.”

Sao supporters allege in court documents that Chek has let local members of the Cambodian Funcinpec Party, which backs the country's constitutional monarchy, use the temple for organizing activities, and that he sends money back to the party in Cambodia–charges Chek denies. “I want to stop the political party inside the temple,” says Pere Pen, a member of the temple and former executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell. “The temple is not the place for them to do politics.”

The two sides agree on one thing: Each says the other does not belong in the temple. And each has maneuvered to get the other out. On June 4, 1999, Sao, Pen, and Sak Seang, another temple member, told the Chelmsford police that Chek had made threats against Sao and was in the country illegally. Five days later, Seang called the police to ask that officers remove Chek from the temple. The next day, however, Sao and Samboon Kert, a monk and Sao ally, went to the police station to report that Chek was again welcome at the temple.

The incident angered Chek supporters, who called a special meeting of the temple board. According to minutes of the meeting, 70 temple members voted to oust Kert as board president. In response, Kert fired all of the board's officers and installed himself in each of their positions. He also transferred the temple and parsonage to Sao's organization, the Community of Khmer Buddhist Monks, for $2. Members of the temple filed suit to get the buildings back. Chek supporters charged that Kert had no authority to transfer the property: “They didn't buy the property,” says their lawyer, Jocelyn Campbell. “They stole the property.”

But Richard Brody, an attorney representing Sao and his supporters, says board members had already given the land and buildings to Sao's group and even presented the organization with certificates to that effect at a religious ceremony in 1996. He says the special meeting organized by “insurgents” supporting Chek forced Kert to transfer the deeds to make ownership official in the eyes of the state. “He was concerned about the security of the temple. They wanted to make sure there was no question as to who owned it.”

Sao's group alleges the special meeting violated temple bylaws: Proper notice wasn't given, they say, and the required two thirds of temple members didn't vote. Campbell acknowledges there may have been minor flaws in the process but says the notice Chek supporters posted prior to the meeting was “clear to all of us who read it. It was posted how all meetings of the corporation were posted.”

Judge Paul Chernoff avoided the matter of the certificates in a ruling he made in May, instead focusing on Kert's property transfer and the special meeting. The judge expressed what he termed his “reservations” about both. Until those issues are decided in court, Sao and Chek remain, respectively, in the upstairs and downstairs of the temple.

Sao sits on a mat in his customary highest position at Trairatanaram Temple as he and four other monks chant before their midday meal. He is 70, but looks much younger. Sao's longtime friend John Massey, one of the few non-Cambodians involved in the temple, says that's because he eats one meal a day.

In an interview, Sao speaks mostly in English, with some help from a Khmer interpreter who people in the room describe as a former gang member–one of many they say Sao has helped. Sao says the temple should be a place for the monk community, as the religion dictates.

“This place for independence,” Sao says. “This place for a spiritual way, not for politics.” He repeats what he says people shouted at him following the special meeting: “Fuck you, man.” Chek didn't respect him, Sao says. He waves his arms wildly to show the way Chek supporters cheered after the special meeting–“like communists,” he says, a reference to the Khmer Rouge, the worst insult imaginable to these Cambodians.

Chek, 43, has his own colorful way of characterizing Sao, who he says lied about Chek's involvement in politics and even about having a heart problem when he was taken to the hospital after allegedly being threatened by opponents.

He is deceitful because of jealousy, Chek says. He lies because Chek attracted the support Sao craves. Sao's karma will reveal his betrayal, Chek declares. “When he dies and he is reborn, he will be born into an animal, and he will not have a tongue,” Chek says through the interpreter. “When you take the teaching of the Buddha and analyze it, [Sao] shouldn't be a monk. Anyone who wants to be a monk has to be truthful. You shouldn't lie to anybody or sabotage anyone's reputation.”

Chek insists he isn't angry with Sao. But he is saddened by the division he says the monk upstairs has caused. “People smiled at each other, respected each other,” he says. “Now they are no longer loving.”

A Chek supporter points out a surveillance camera above the downstairs entrance at the rear of the temple, which he says the upstairs faction installed to see who visits. He also points out cameras throughout the downstairs interior. These, he says, the downstairs monks mounted to keep opponents from trespassing and hurting them. The monks upstairs say cameras were installed there, too, to spy on them. Those cameras have since been removed by court order.

It doesn't take a monk to know that what's happening in this temple is not what the Buddha had in mind. “It seems to me that this is a complete waste of the community's money and energy, and that it would be better spent doing something else,” says Brody.

Both monks have faith, however, that the truth is on their side and that justice prevails in America. Sao sounds almost like an attorney when he vows to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court. But he sounds more like a monk later, when, for a moment, he seems even older than his years. “My mind get away from teaching of Buddha, get away from meditation. Sometime I want to die,” he says.

Chek finishes an interview, offering to answer questions about Buddhism. He smiles, his eyes bright behind large eyeglasses. As part of their religion, both monks–separately, of course–lead chants. The sound is calming, almost mesmerizing. If you close your eyes and listen, you can't tell if you're upstairs or downstairs.