The doors of the Cambodian Khemara Buddhikarama Buddhist temple in Long Beach, California, were secured under lock and key on 15 October, after the temple’s board won court eviction proceedings in September. Three of the temple’s resident monks who were evicted from the premises have since been sleeping in cars near the temple entrance, and have been joined by a number of congregants who have set up tents, tables, and chairs in the area in a show of solidarity.
The temple’s daily meditation schedule continues, with the presence of a statue of the Buddha serving as a substitute alter, while the loyal worshippers have been supporting the evicted monks by providing them with food and water. As long as participants remain peaceful and do not trespass, Long Beach police have reportedly agreed to allow the temporary camp to remain in place.
According to Andrew Cooledge, the monks’ attorney before the ruling, the evictions were a retaliatory move by the temple board. The attorney for the board, Tracy Guerra, responded to questions via email and her statements shed some light on the monks’ stance during the legal proceedings.
Firstly, the monks have alleged that the board members have engaged in fraudulent activity and wanted the monks to cooperate, which they refused to do. Secondly, the monks stated that they had asked the board members to make repairs to the temple, which the board had also refused to do. Finally, the monastics have alleged that the board members were punishing them for practicing freedom of expression.
A jury decided in favor of the board members and, according to Guerra, refuted all three of the allegations. Tim Milner, another attorney representing the monks, has declared that the monastics will be appealing the decision.
The threats of eviction began more than a year ago, with monetary collections totaling over US$300,000 as the main point of contention. The temple’s head monk, Venerable Thet Sim, and his assistant monk, Ven. Tith Bun, felt that the collection should be spent on much-needed repairs for the temple, while a majority of the 19 board members planned to use the money to build a second pagoda. Some congregation members have criticized the board for lacking transparency in how their donations were being distributed.
Ven. Sim stated that his refusal to forgo much needed repairs—such as leaks and cracks in temple ceilings and walls—in favor of a second pagoda were the reason for his eviction. He added that the monastics were being made to do an unreasonable amount of manual labor, a claim that has been refuted by the board members’ lawyer.
Many congregation members have expressed support for the monks. The temple—which is also known as Wat Willow to denote its location on Willow Street—has more than 1,000 members, some of whom contributed large amounts of their own money to buy the land decades ago.
Congregation members and cousins Polyana Heng and Ashley Ngor praised the temple and its monks for being “at the core of this community” and highlighted their significant contribution toward healing the generation of Cambodians who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. (Los Angeles Times)
Calling the current state of affairs a “crime against humanity,” Oni Vitandham—who spent a year at Khemara Buddhikarama as an orphan more than 30 years ago—also expressed his support for the monks. (Los Angeles Times)
“The temple is a shelter where we welcome everybody, where we try to provide for everybody,” Vitandham said. “We cannot lose the monks. The board has tried to use them as their piggy bank. What will happen to them? Can you believe that they’re now sleeping in their cars? This is injustice.” (Los Angeles Times).
According to Guerra, once the eviction process is finalized the board will employ a new head monk and plan to renovate the temple.
Ven. Sim expressed that he worries about the temple’s members more than himself. “It’s very meaningful that we have people who care,” he said. “There is no conflict among us.” (Los Angeles Times)
“We work together like a brotherhood,” Ven. Bun added. “The members are our family.” (Los Angeles Times)
Monks’ eviction from Long Beach Cambodian Buddhist temple riles congregation (Los Angeles Times)
Dispute between Buddhist temple’s board and its congregation leaves monks out in the streets (Long Beach Post News)