News at Tipitaka Network
An unusual place to find a Thai temple
The Copenhagen Post, Thursday, May 28, 2009
A quiet suburban street on Amager conceals a Buddhist temple for Copenhagen’s Thai residents.
It may come as a surprise to most people that there is a Thai temple - or wat - located in Denmark. Watpa Copenhagen, situated in a quiet suburban street in the sleepy village of Dragør, on Amager, is unknown to most. The Copenhagen Post paid a visit to the Sunnataram Copenhagen Buddhist Meditation Temple in Dragør and sat down with Abbot Phra Somsak Gandhasilo to discuss what life is like for a Thai Theravada monk living in Denmark.
The five monks currently residing at the 17 year-old temple begin their day at 5.30 with chanting and meditation. This continues until 7.00, when breakfast is eaten. After breakfast, chanting and meditation is again resumed. During this time, the community is welcomed into the temple to take part in ceremonies and donate alms. Lunch is provided at 11.00 – which, for the monks, is the last chance they will get to eat that day as no solid food is allowed after midday. All of the food is supplied entirely from donations offered by the community. Meditation and study is once again resumed after lunch until evening.
'The community supplies us with material nourishment,' explained Samsok, 'and in return we offer them spiritual sustenance.' And that community is a substantial one: there are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 Buddhists living in Denmark, with Asian immigrants and their descendants making up 80 percent of them. Of the 7,700 Thais living in the country, about 95 percent are Buddhist.
In the past, the monks frequently made trips into the busier parts of Copenhagen to receive alms from the community. But the harsh Danish winters and their traditional robes – designed for warmer climes - were ill-suited, and so now meals are cooked in the temple's kitchen by volunteers from the community.
Outside, a serene garden filled with cherry blossom and flowers with a fish pond surrounds the temple. The garden and buildings are maintained by members of the community as the monks' religion does not permit them to undertake any action that involves cutting – such as gardening.
Back inside the temple, the upper floor has been converted into a magnificently decorated meditation room, complete with illustrated renderings of the Buddha's teachings festooned across the walls. It is here that the monks perform their daily meditative rituals. Among these rituals is a mental focus on Sankhara ('that which puts together'). The characteristics of the Theravada school of Buddhism (which Thai Buddhists subscribe to) include the concepts of Annica (impertinence), Dukkha (suffering) and Anatta (not self).
The meditation centre has seen a revival over the past few years, with membership numbers growing from 1250 to 2000 in the last 10 years. And weekends have become quite busy around the temple. Many visitors, including student groups from Sweden and tourists from Thailand, have been amongst those who have come with the aim of learning about the centre.
Somsak, who is originally from Bangkok, said many of those who come to visit take part in various celebrations such as 'loy kratong', or the Thai festival of light, and Vesak Day, sometimes informally called 'Buddha's birthday', which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Gautama Siddartha, who is better know as the Buddha.
'We currently have anywhere from 30 to 100 visitors during the weekend,' said the abbot. Funding for the temple relies strictly on monetary donations provided by these visitors.
The Dragør monks are looking forward to a ceremony to be held on 17 October, when the Thai ambassador, acting on behalf of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, will present them with a ceremonial robe.
Buddhism was first introduced into Denmark during the 19th century, when literary works began to inspire enlightenment thinkers and romantics alike to adopt the spiritual ways of a distant, yet seemingly recognisable and rational tradition. Today, Buddhists comprise around 0.5 percent of the population, making it the country's fourth largest religion.
Many scholars believe there are three different types of Buddhism: Theravada, or Southern Buddhism, which is a word from the Pali language (thought to be spoken by the Buddha) meaning 'the Doctrine of the Elders', Mahayana, or Eastern Buddhism and Tibetan, or Northern Buddhism.
In the past, there have been attempts to consolidate the various sects of Buddhism into an all-inclusive organisation which would transcend cultural and sectarian boundaries. In 1991, Lakha Lama, a Tibetan-born monk who emigrated to Denmark in 1976, established the trans-sectarian Buddhist umbrella organisation 'Buddhist Forum', which has been a member of the European Buddhist Union since 1993.
When asked what advice he could impart to those curious to learn more about the Buddha's teachings, Samsok thought for a moment before saying 'nobody hurts you more than you hurt yourself'.
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