(This article was published in the January 2010 issue of Asia Trend Magazine.)
Tucked unobtrusively into a parcel of land on 2120 SE 15th Street in Gainesville is a small white gazebo of a type that used to be ubiquitous in the back yards of Middle America. On SE 15th Street, the gazebo is not used as a quaint backyard whimsy, but for quite an unexpected purpose: The gazebo is a Buddhist temple, or, in Vietnamese, a chua.
In the Chua A Nan/A Nan Temple’s makeshift shrine sit statues of Buddha and the bodhisattva Quan Yin. Smoke from fragrant incense sticks wafts through the gazebo’s screened walls and across the lowlands that will eventually house a pagoda, a multi-purpose building known as a hau lieu, a library, and a monks’ quarters. In its formative stages, the A Nan Temple has land, the gazebo, and a monk.
Thay Duc Thong, the monk, will one day come to live on this parcel of Gainesville land; he is young and relatively new to America and he radiates a quiet philosophical strength and purpose. Until the living quarters are built, Thay Duc Thong comes to Gainesville for the major ceremonies.
Late each Sunday afternoon, the Buddhists of the A Nan Temple gather for quiet worship on their 8.75-acre parcel of land. The afternoon light is low as they practice their devotion. As the autumnal sun begins to set, they share a potluck meal and show the visitor where the 2500-square foot temple will stand and where the Buddhist garden and pond with lily pads will be. This is the typical lowlands of Northern Florida, where pine trees rise above palm. The remaining acreage contains what will eventually be landscaped lowlands as well as designated wetlands.
The A Nan Temple purchased the land in June, 2008. The first task was to clear the acreage that was not wetlands. The 20-person group undertook ad hoc fundraising efforts, largely through the local Vietnamese community. They raised $25,000 of the $250,000 they will eventually need for the initial construction. With the land cleared, they applied for site-plan approval and began to look ahead.
Trang Le, one of the group’s spokespersons, says that the project will take over a decade to complete. She stresses the importance of having a local temple and mentions the age of the core group. Many members of the group are elderly; some members have already passed away. Since there were no Buddhist temples in the Gainesville area, people had to travel to Jacksonville and Orlando to worship, and this was too far for the elderly to go each week. Ms. Le says that the group “wanted to have this (temple) for a long time.” She has been in Gainesville since 1975 and adds, “Now we get old and we don’t want to travel.” But Ms. Le, who is in her early fifties, is almost half the age of the group’s oldest member, 96-year-old Huyen Nguyen.
Ms. Le speaks of someone who has passed away, but who had seen the beginnings of the temple project. “Now she can die peacefully, knowing that we will start.”
They started in 2005, by searching for a suitable parcel of land and looking for sources of funding. One site was too expensive and another didn’t work out. On their third try, they found the land on SE 15th Street, but the three acres that were not wetlands had to be cleared before they could put the land to use. They have been busy; there are four major ceremonies and festivals to plan, besides working out the structural details of the buildings and seeking sources of funding.
The first building will be the hau lieu. The hau lieu will provide the group’s first permanent shelter and will be used for worship until the pagoda is built. It will also have bathroom facilities and a kitchen, neither of which the group has access to at the present. The library/classroom building is where instruction in the Vietnamese language will occur so that the children of the community may learn and preserve their native tongue. Bruce Stewart, who is the temple’s English-language liaison, mentions that the pagoda-style design of the temple building is similar to the Hall of the Mandarins in Hue, Vietnam. The design creates another, more concrete, link to the homeland.
The people who worship at the temple are proud of their status as Americans, but they also recognize the importance of maintaining their Vietnamese identity. That they succeed in blending the two disparate cultures becomes publicly evident when they march in the opening procession of a local festival, wearing traditional Vietnamese dress and carrying small American flags.
Until the first building can be constructed, children are not routinely brought to the land because of mosquitoes. They did come, however, for the Tet Trung Thu, a mid-autumn festival for children that took place in early October. At the festivals and ceremonies, the population grows from the core group of 20 to three or more times as much. Over the course of the year, the A Nan Temple will also celebrate Tet (Vietnamese New Year), Phat Dan (Buddha’s birthday), Vu-lan (analogous to Mother’s Day in the United States); and Ha Nguon (an end-of-year festival).
The group is committed to their plan, even as it is, in Mr. Stewart’s words, a “grassroots effort.” It isn’t hard to visualize how the site will appear once the project is completed. The temple will be the focal point, at the rear of the three acres. The buildings will be laid out in a square, with the more functionally designed living quarters and library/classroom building adjacent to the pagoda and the hau lieu opposite it. The Buddhist garden with its pond will be to the back of the living quarters. The view into the wetlands is a dynamic, humid-subtropical one. Birds stir the vegetation, and if the entrance on SE 15th Street is discounted, there is a sense of restful isolation that perfectly suits the temple’s meditative purpose.
The A Nan group seems unruffled about the scope of the project ahead. They know it will take time and effort, and they know it will not happen overnight. And if this is all they have, this land with its gazebo, then that too will be fine, says Bach Lien Duong. “After all, Buddha spent the night under a tree.” She gestures to the native vegetation ringing the site and smiles. “We have enough now.”
Chua A Nan is open to all and is a 501 (c) (3) organization.
Chua A Nan/A Nan Temple
Dai Tong Lam Buddhist Association
P. O. Box 14834
Gainesville, FL 32604