Hangin’ with the Buddhists

We have new neighbors (in the last couple of months or so) and the neighbors were having a shindig today, so I stopped over to meet them. We’ve suspected it was some sort of Buddhist temple or monastery, so I’ve been curious. It is indeed going to be a Lao Buddhist temple. They have not yet received their tax-exempt status so it’s currently just a home for a few monks. When the paper work comes through from the state of Nebraska, we’ll have a second Buddhist temple in Siouxland and it will be just a few doors down from us.

“Two temples for a very small Southeast Asian population?” you may ask. (At least I did.) Most Laotian Buddhists practice Theravada Buddhism, which (according to the Laotians) is the traditional form. Most Vietnamese Buddhists, on the other hand, practice Mahayana Buddhism. According to the Laotians, Mahayana is the progressive variety. Siouxland now has a temple for both varieties.

We are currently in the midst of Buddhist Lent. If this shindig is any indication, it’s good to be a Buddhist in Lent. According the Wikipedia, the monks have to stay home during this three month period in order to study the teachings of the Buddha. Wikipedia didn’t say anything about the community, but based on my one hour of experience, the people celebrate Buddhist Lent with volleyball, loud, raucous music and dancing, and lots of food: sticky rice, chicken on skewers, beef on skewers, pork sausage on skewers, and those funky sweet soybean cakes … oh, and beer … lot’s of beer.

This particular shindig was a sort of kick off party for the new temple. People from the temples in Sioux Falls, Worthington, MN, Storm Lake, IA, etc. came to South Sioux City to celebrate, pray for their dead relatives (which is evidently a primary activity during Buddhist Lent), have a volleyball tournament, and eat, eat, eat! It’s worth noting that all these towns are packing plant towns. Like immigrant populations for several generations, these immigrants tend to work the hard and sometimes disgusting jobs that more established Americans tend to avoid if at all possible.

It’s interesting to see how these populations have become enculturated. It is generally believed that Buddhists eat a primarily vegetarian diet. But today there wasn’t a vegetable in sight. I suspect the truth of the matter is that Indians and Southeast Asians have traditionally eaten a primarily vegetarian diet with a little meat mixed in when available. That regional reality was incorporated into the religion. (This is similar to Christian fasting rules.) When the people and their religion came to the U.S., the diet rules were no longer practical, or at least desirable  These people, although they self-identify as Asians, are very much Americans. They drive like us (SUVs and Audis were prevalent),  they get inked like us, they eat like us, they are us.

It was also interesting to discover that the reason they are in our neighborhood (a few hundred yards outside the city limits), is that the City of South Sioux City would not give them a permit for a temple. The person telling me this didn’t elaborate. He said that they do have to do some work so that their parking, water, and sewage meet the Dakota County standards for public buildings, but other than those public safety issues, the County has no authority over where churches can be built.

If all this is true we have a very big church-state problem in South Sioux City. In a secular society such as ours, if South Sioux City can deny the Buddhists a room at the Inn, they can do the same to the Baptists. On the other hand, it is distinctly possible that what I heard is not accurate. I was trying to understand a man with limited English skills. I was trying to hear him over the very loud music. And he simply could have had his story wrong. But all of that, if it is addressed at all, must be pushed to another essay. For now I’ll say welcome to the neighborhood.

Oh, yeah, and is there any chance we can have Laotian restaurant here in the neighborhood?

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