The Wat Dhammagunaram Buddhist temple — a peaceful piece of home


The Wat Dhammagunaram Layton temple. Photo by Kristine Weller.

The aromas of homemade Thai food wafted through the hall. A box of sesame balls, a tin pan of pad thai, a plate of fried vegetables, and lots of hot white rice were placed by the entrance to the temple. 

More dishes were added as people arrived. Beef jerky, spicy papaya salad, fish and doughnuts. 

Members conversed with each other in Thai while arranging the food neatly on a counter. Some grabbed water bottles or poured freshly brewed tea into paper cups. 

Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m., Buddhists begin gathering at the Wat Dhammagunaram Layton temple. There they have created a place for community, peace, and Theravada Buddhism.

Most Sundays a woman called Poonie is in attendance. Poonie, 93, is the oldest Buddhist at the temple. She helped set up the first Wat Dhammagunaram temple and has been supporting it ever since. 

Poonie is from Thailand and came to Utah because her husband worked at Hill Air Force Base (HAFB). In fact, according to a welcome pamphlet the temple provides, most of the founders of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple are wives of American airmen from HAFB. 

The pamphlet explains that these Thai immigrants wanted a place for traditional religious services. So, they founded the Wat Dhammagunaram temple in 1975, but it didn’t look like it does today. 

It began in a small residential home in Ogden and was then later moved to a second house in Layton. Finally, the temple found its current location at 644 E. 1000 North in Layton and was consecrated in 1995. 

The Wat Dhammagunaram sign identifying the temple. The committee members for the temple wish to add a fence here too so that the temple is more recognizable. Photo by Kristine Weller.

Many immigrants who go to this temple are Thai, although there have been members from Laos and Cambodia as well. Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are all predominantly Theravada Buddhist countries, which is why the Wat Dhammagunaram temple practices Theravada Buddhism. 

Phitthayaphon, one of the monks at this temple, said the basics of Theravada Buddhism follow five precepts: refrain from killing, refrain from stealing, refrain from sexual misconduct, refrain from telling lies and refrain from intoxication. 

A booklet Phitthayaphon provided, “The Main Ideas of Theravada Buddhism” by Du Wayne Engelhart, explains two important things related to the five precepts. 

The first is they are not rules, they are guides. 

Engelhart writes, “We should want to follow the precepts, not because we fear being punished by God if we do not but because we understand that good effects will come from observing them.”

Second, the precepts also have a positive meaning. 

Engelhart explains that instead of just refraining from each item in the five precepts, aim to spread kindness to all living things, be honest in your words and actions and respect the rights of others, show moderation in sexual activities, be sincere in speech, and keep a clear state of mind. 

Another big part of Theravada Buddhism is the four noble truths. 

The book describes each of these truths. First is the noble truth of suffering (dukkha). According to Engelhart, this means “suffering in many forms occurs in human life because of the unsatisfactory and changing character of existence.”

Second is the noble truth of the origin (samudaya) of suffering.  Engelhart explains this means craving is the origin of suffering. 

Third is the noble truth of the end (nirodha, extinction) of suffering. Engelhart writes “getting rid of craving is getting rid of suffering.”

Fourth is the noble truth of the way (magga), which leads to the end of suffering. Engelhart explains that “the Noble Eightfold Path is the Middle Way that leads to the end of suffering.”

Buddhism also emphasizes being welcoming to everyone. 

Arunne Chwab, a committee member at the temple, said everyone is invited to come to the temple. In fact, all the members are very friendly to newcomers and make sure to include them in the service. 

“Even if you not believe in our religion, you can come,” Chwab said.

Five Red Apples

After members and newcomers take their seats, the monks begin melodic chanting. 

Each has a microphone, as does one other member who leads chants the attendees repeat back. Two large speakers project the monks’ rhythmic voices.

These are the five bowls that are offered during the service. Food and larger items are placed inside the bowls and money is placed in the trays. One bowl is offered to the Buddha and two bowls are offered to each monk. Photo by Kristine Weller.

During the service, members walk to five bowls lined up next to the counter with food. It is my first time at the temple, so I stay seated, unsure what I should do. 

One congregant then urges me to go with her. She has a whole bag full of offerings to put inside the bowls and wants to include me. 

We walk over to the bowls and she picks up a zip-close bag of fresh rice, raises it to her forehead, and places it into the first bowl. She then hands me a small red apple to offer. The last thing for the first offering is a dollar bill, which she raises to her forehead, and places on a tray in front of the bowl. She hands me a dollar bill as well, and I do the same. 

We repeat the same offering for each of the five bowls  — five bags of rice, five small red apples, five dollars each. 

Bright Orange Robes

Today, only two monks look after the temple and conduct Sunday services, Phitthayaphon and Prapatphan. 

The two monks who take care of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple: Prapatphan, left, and Phitthayaphon. Photo by Kristine Weller.

Phitthayaphon was born in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and started his monk training after primary school. He was 12 years old. He originally started his training because he wished to follow one of his friends. 

However, after going to the temple, studying the Buddha’s teachings, and practicing meditation, he said he felt peaceful and happy. That’s why he continued his training and is still a monk today. 

“This is my own decision,” Phitthayaphon said. “In Buddhism, we don’t force people to be ordained as a monk.”

He also said if he wanted to disrobe and not be a monk anymore, he would be free to do so. 

Phitthayaphon came to this temple after another monk he knew here invited him. He said the process to come to America is quite lengthy, which is partly why there are only two monks at the temple. He first got a tourist visa and after a few months, he applied for a religious visa. 

This is now Phitthayaphon’s fifth year at the temple. 

The other monk, Prapatphan, has only been at this temple for about nine months. He can’t speak English, but that doesn’t matter much.

Monks have a fairly structured day, and a lot of the time they are around Thai-speaking people. 

Phitthayaphon said he rises at 6 a.m. every day but Sunday and chants until 7:30 a.m. Breakfast is at 8 a.m. and once he has eaten he cleans. 

Three buildings are connected to the temple grounds. The temple where services are held, a smaller building to the northeast side of the temple where food is sometimes offered, and a house behind the temple where the monks live. Phitthayaphon cleans and helps take care of all of these buildings.

After cleaning, Phitthayaphon said the monks will usually study until 11 a.m. Then they must eat lunch because monks cannot eat after noon. They can still have drinks, though. Phitthayaphon said his favorite drink is tea, especially Thai orange tea and green tea.

During the week, Phitthayaphon said they will typically cook food for themselves, sometimes with ingredients the Buddhists have offered. He said his favorite is northern Thai dishes because they remind him of home. 

Buddhists will also offer lunch to the monks, so they do not have to cook, but that is usually on Friday or Saturday.  

When Buddhists do offer lunch, the monks are occasionally taken to restaurants. Phitthayaphon said he and the other monk once drove three hours to bless a new restaurant and have food offered to them.

This is actually unusual for monks, Phitthayaphon said, because in Thailand monks don’t drive. 

This is one of a few differences between Buddhism in Thailand compared to Buddhism in the U.S. Another is when the holy day is celebrated. 

Buddhism follows the lunar calendar, so its holy days will fall on different days of the week. However, because the U.S. is dominated by Christianity and the workweek is structured accordingly, Buddhists must practice on Sundays instead. 

This doesn’t seem to bother the members of the Wat Dhammagunaram temple. Chwab, the committee member, says she goes to the temple because she finds peace and can meditate there. The focus is less on the mechanics of what is traditionally done and more about finding peace and honoring the teachings of the Buddha.

“We come together because we love this peace and happiness,” Chwab said. 

Buddhist holidays also correspond to the lunar calendar. The two biggest holidays in Thai Buddhism are the Thai New Year and the Kathina (robe) Ceremony. 

Although the new year is celebrated in Thailand on April 13, 14 and 15, it is not always possible to celebrate on those days in Utah. The celebration must be on the weekend since people need to work, so this year the temple held the Thai New Year festival on April 16 and 17. 

This is Chwab’s favorite Buddhist holiday. During the new year, people ask for apologies from monks and elders, but there is also a big celebration. 

The Wat Dhammagunaram temple, she said, has a food fair every Thai New Year. A small stage outside on the temple grounds hosts traditional Vietnamese, Laos and Thai performances as well. 

Chwab said there will also be kickboxing and a Miss New Year contest. 

The other big holiday is the Kathina (robe) ceremony, which is essentially a ceremonial presentation of new robes to the monks. 

Phitthayaphon, the younger monk at the temple, said monks typically stay in one place for three months and it is no different for the monks at this temple. 

According to the BBC, the historical reason for this is that during the Vassa, or monsoon, period, monks were journeying together, intending to spend Vassa with the Lord Buddha. However, Vassa began before they reached the Lord Buddha, and they could no longer continue their journey. 

The Buddha then awarded cloth and told the monks to sew a robe and give it to another because “there was nothing as uplifting as generosity and sharing.” 

The BBC also explained that a Kathina is the frame used to make the robes. 

So, after the rainy season, monks are offered new robes. They are a striking orange and Phitthayaphon said the robes have three pieces. 

According to “The Buddha’s Robe” by Barbara O’Brien, the main piece is a large rectangle, about 6-by-9-feet. It is usually wrapped to cover the left shoulder and leave the right shoulder and arm exposed.

The second piece is worn under the first. O’Brien explains it is wrapped around the waist, covering the body from the knees to the waist. 

The third piece, O’Brien writes, is an extra robe. It can be “wrapped around the upper body for warmth” or is “sometimes folded and draped over a shoulder.”

Phitthayaphon occasionally wears an orange sweater under his robes, but this is only because it is cold in Utah. In Thailand, he said he would not wear a shirt underneath. 

Phitthayaphon in the main temple area. He wears a sweater under his robe because it is cold in Utah, but in Thailand he would leave the right shoulder and arm bare. Photo by Kristine Weller.

He also said monks used to take robes from dead bodies. According to O’Brien, this is because the Buddha taught monks to get their robes from pure cloth, meaning cloth no one wants. 

O’Brien describes a cloth no one wants as the shroud the dead were wrapped in and soiled cloth. 

Today, monks no longer get their robes this way. Phitthayaphon said his now comes from a factory. However, the robes have always been the same bright orange. 

Wednesday Night Buddha

After making offerings to the first five bowls, I walk with the woman over to a table with eight more. These bowls each have a statue above it with the Buddha in different positions. Each corresponds to a day of the week, with two for Wednesday. 

She said Wednesday night is her favorite bowl to make an offering to. The Wednesday night statue is the Buddha standing with an elephant and monkey at its feet.

Below the bowl is a short explanation of the Wednesday Night Buddha. 

It says: “Buddha spent the rain retreat on his own in the Palilayaka (palelai) forest because he was tired of the monks of Kosambi who had split into two groups and were not in harmony. While in the forest, the elephant Palilayaka attended to him, and monkey offered him a beehive.”

I place a dollar she hands me in a different vessel and we stand in contemplative silence for a moment. 

We take our seats again as the previous five bowls are presented before the monks. Two bowls for each monk and one for the Buddha. 

The monks then begin their lyrical chant once more.

A Changing Landscape

The Wat Dhammagunaram temple has been at its current location since 1995. Although it has stood stable and strong in the ensuing years, the surrounding environment has been changing drastically since its consecration. 

An open field once surrounded the temple. However, residential buildings have sprung up in the last few decades. 

Previously a noticeable landmark, the temple is now easy to miss. 

The committee for the temple, made up of volunteers like Poonie and Chwab, is concerned about this. Warunee, another member, said the group wants to build a fence in front of the temple. 

“We want to make something in front to show people this is a Buddhist temple,” Warunee said.

The committee meets monthly to discuss temple activities and finances. Warunee is the treasurer, so she keeps track of money and bills. Every two weeks she counts the money that has been donated to the temple. 

At the end of the service I attended, she counted $968. 

Warunee counts the money collected from the service. Photo by Kristine Weller.

All the members cheered when Warunee announced this number; they are happy to support their temple. 

Warunee said the donations are divided into three parts. One part goes to the temple, which pays for utilities or gas. The other two parts are for the monks. She said they work for free, and they need some income for themselves as well. 

You Like Spicy?

A woman rings a gong. 

The chanting has stopped, and the gong reverberates into silence.

Now, about 30 minutes before noon, it is time for the monks to have their last meal of the day.

The monks sit at a table toward the back of the temple. Steam drifts from the homemade Thai food that has already been set out before them. 

As they eat, the rest of the members converse enthusiastically. 

At noon the monks are finished eating, and the service comes to an end. The congregants then gather to have their fill. 

The same woman I made offerings with urges me to get food, as does Warunee, the treasurer. They point out different foods displayed. 

A box of sesame balls, a tin pan of pad thai, a plate of fried vegetables, and hot white rice. 

We begin to fill our plates. Beef jerky, spicy papaya salad, fish and doughnuts.

Poonie, the 93-year-old member, points out the spicy papaya salad on my plate. 

“You like spicy?” she asks. I say I do, and she nods and smiles in approval. 

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  1. […] to Voices of Utah, a University of Utah reporting initiative, most of the founders of Wat Dhammagunaram temple are […]

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