Finding religion, and more


The no-frills first floor inside 2400 S. Sixth St. — where renovations looks more like unfinished business due to a lack of wallpaper and carpeting — is starkly contrasted by the brilliance upstairs.

At the top of the staircase are shoes of the faithful, who sit and kneel on colorful rugs placed side by side. They wait for a monk to bless them with sacred water and flower petals from metallic containers. Their attention is focused on a Buddha statue surrounded by vases of flowers and candles. The sunlight shining through the room accentuates vibrant paintings that hang behind the sculpture, highlighting key moments in the life of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism.

As chief monk Muni Ratana passes by the believers, they show respect by bowing three times while kneeling. One woman searches her purse for change to give for the temple.

But what residents — mostly Cambodians — find even more beautiful than this prayer space is what it stands for.

The Khmer Buddhist Humanitarian Association, which is headquartered in the building housing the Bra Buddha Ransi Temple, provides support to this population.

"The temple is the center of the Cambodian community," Ratana, also from the 2400 block of South Sixth Street, said. "The temple becomes very important because it’s a place to maintain their culture."

Also referring to the site as a "library for the community," Ratana said a resident can obtain information at the building on immigration documentation, citizenship and applying for a green card. Assimilating individuals to the area also is key.

An important endeavor of the association is providing knowledge of Buddhism, the fifth largest religion in the world. Born in sixth century B.C.E., Siddhartha gave up royal status to live alone in the forest, attempting to save mankind and end all suffering. For six years, he spent time with religious teachers and underwent rigorous ascetic discipline. Siddhartha eventually found perfect enlightenment and, through his journey, developed the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path leading to the extinction of suffering. Five precepts also are observed in Buddhism: abstain from killing any living being, stealing, sexual misconduct, telling lies and intoxication.

Carrying out these teachings are the temple’s eight monks, who typically dress in orange robes and sandals. Their heads and eyebrows are shaved to show they "give up their life" and "pay attention to" their religion, Ratana said.

"Buddhism is a peaceful religion," Ratana, also the association’s CEO, said. "We teach people how to be compassionate so we can live in peace. Also, we teach about how the laws of nature apply to all people."

Roughly 9,000 Cambodians live within South Philly’s borders, according to estimates by the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia. Though predominantly utilized by this group, Chinese, Indonesian and Vietnamese residents also seek support from the association.

Many Cambodian residents, Ratana said, still are suffering from the trauma that ensued when the Khmer Rouge communist regime ruled Cambodia in the 1970s. Family members either were killed or displaced during this dark time, in which more than a million people died.

"Some of them, they live without hope, without seeing the future," Ratana, originally from Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, said. "So, Buddhism — the temple — is teaching the community to live, to learn, to hope again."

Founded in 2001 by fellow monk Vatha Sakyamuni, the temple was formerly inside a residence on the 1800 block of South Fifth Street. The move to a roomier location was to better serve the growing community, but Ratana would, one day, like to see the association in an even bigger facility.

Adjacent to the building is a fenced-in area that includes stone statues of Buddha and monks praying on their knees. "Ten very strong men cannot hold [one of the statues]," Ratana said with a laugh.

The items eventually will be placed inside the building, which has received zoning approval for renovation, but still awaits a permit and the final blueprints from engineers. Ratana estimated the cost at $300,000, which is being raised solely by donations.

Maintaining the association and temple also depends on the good graces of residents.

Donations are sent overseas, as well, to a similar organization in Cambodia. Monks collect such money when making house calls to bless a resident’s home, marriage, new car or job, among other things.

Ceremonies also bring in funds, as well as bring out this population. During the Cambodian New Year in April, hordes of residents took to the streets. Monks lectured and chanted, while women performed ceremonial dances. Sitting in circles, children took part in a game similar to Duck Duck Goose.

During the association’s Benda Celebration last month, residents were divided into familial groups and performed ceremonies for their ancestors. Each family also took turns offering food to the monks.

While the community does include other temples, Ratana is particularly proud his association can offer a helping hand in any way possible. Once renovations are complete, he anticipates starting an after-school and summer program for children of residents the association serves.

The temple and association, Ratana said, "is very interesting to [residents] and that’s why we feel the temple is very successful."

For more information on the Khmer Buddhist Humanitarian Association, call 215-336-9547.