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Wednesday, July 20,2011

A new beginning

Renovations are complete at a south side traditional Buddhist temple

by Chris Galford

After nearly seven years of construction, Lansing’s
Vietnamese community finally has a religious and cultural center to call
its own.


It’s been a long road, but after its christening
celebration on Sunday, the temple at 3015 S. Washington Ave. south of
REO Town stands as a true-to-form, traditional Vietnamese Buddhist
temple. The character is in the angles, shapes and furnishings of the
place — including a traditional bell, rack and drum all imported from
Vietnam. According to the Vietnamese American Buddhist Association of
Lansing, it’s the only such temple in Michigan.


And the temple was built almost entirely by the
community’s own hands. Hoan Doan, president of VABAL, said everyone
pitched in throughout the various stages of construction. Only the
air-conditioning and heating system was built by outside labor, he said. 


The story of VABAL members dates as far back as 1975,
after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. It was then
that Vietnamese refugees began resettling throughout various parts of Michigan, and Doan was among them. 


Many headed to Lansing specifically in the 1990s,
following the release of former government officials and soldiers from
communist “re-education camps,” Doan said. 


“Many were imprisoned for seven to 12 years before they came here,” he said.


Together with their families, many of these refugees saw
Michigan as an opportunity for new life — but it lacked a formal
Buddhist foundation.


In response, the community formed VABAL as an ecclesiastic nonprofit organization in 1995.


“VABAL’s mission is to preserve and promote Buddhism,”
Doan said. “Buddhism was in our tradition for thousands of years. In
Vietnam, 85 percent would identify themselves as Buddhist. It’s very
engrained in our culture.”


Yet even after organizing, VABAL members were still without a place of worship.


“We kept moving house to house until 1998,” Doan said. “Then five of us co-signed to buy a house on Bishop Road.” 


The property included three-and-a-half acres and a home
they intended to use as a prayer hall, but unfortunately, zoning and
spacing issues kept them from reworking it into a usable temple. Though
they labored and petitioned for years, VABAL finally sold the property
in 2004. Within a matter of days, Doan said, they had bought up a small
Baptist church on Washington Avenue with hopes of converting it.


It hardly suffices to say the old Baptist church has come a
long way. When VABAL purchased the church, Doan described a building
with window frames riddled with rot, a ceiling that was only eight feet
high in places and floors of solid concrete. So they took the concrete
out, replaced the windows and raised the ceiling. Nothing remains of the
old building, he added, save its bare frame.


While some funds came through charities, most were
individual donations by the active 15-family community that make up the
congregation. 


Since 2004, that community has also gained a nun to
perform Buddhist rituals, and to teach Dharma. Four times a year, they
also invite high-ranking monks from abroad to preside over holy
ceremonies. 


But for its members, the new temple is more than that —
it’s a community center and a classroom. Children of the congregation
also are welcome to attend classes in the back of the temple each week,
to learn Vietnamese and to participate in group activities. 


It is not the home many left behind in Vietnam, but
outside the temple on Washington Avenue, a small garden stands in
monument to the birth of the Buddha. It, like the surrounding community,
is still growing, still nourishing — but it has taken root, and new
life lies ahead.

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