There are signs the historic, three-story Buddhist temple in Fresno’s Chinatown is coming to life again.
There’s a newly erected metal fence around the property, a few cars in the parking lot and inside the ordination hall, the sounds of voices chanting in unison.
In the middle of this large room on the top floor, four women sit on cushions. Antique pendant lights hang from a high ceiling that has intricate woodwork. Multi-paned windows let in lots of light. The women face two Burmese monks in brown robes and recite the five precepts of Buddhism. They vow not to drink or do drugs, lie, commit adultery, steal or kill.
“This is where all the Burmese people come and meditate, not only necessarily Burmese people, not necessarily Buddhist people, anyone who is willing to come and meditate here, they can join us. They’re welcome to do that here,” says Htein Lin, who is part of Fresno’s small Burmese-American community. .
Lin is a doctor, a profession that turns out to be pretty common in Fresno’s small Burmese-American community. Indeed, the four women who are meditating are all retired doctors. And Lin and several other physicians raised the $750,000 to purchase the Betsuin Buddhist Temple last summer. It was built by first generation Japanese immigrants, the Issei. They were mostly field workers who were paid very little but still managed to fund the elaborate temple. But in 2011, after much soul searching, the Japanese-American congregation put the property up for sale and moved to North Fresno.
The Burmese-Americans bought it last year. It’s now called Mrauk Oo Dhamma. The goal is to make it a monastery and a meditation center.
At the front of the hall is a colorful shrine with a very big Buddha statue. It’s handcarved, and covered in gold leaf. It was recently shipped from Burma or what’s now called Myanmar. There’s a smaller Buddha to the left.
“When we bought this property, we found this statue in the storeroom,” says Lin referring to the smaller Buddha. “Oh, I was so excited!”
It turns out a mayor from a small Burmese town presented this Buddha to the city of Fresno in 1961. The city then gave it to the temple where it was stored after the Japanese American congregation left.
Lin asked the former owners if it could stay with the temple and they agreed the Burmese Buddha belonged here. Plus they were thrilled the new buyers were Buddhist.
“Amazing! This is from Burma, since like 50 years ago,” says Lin, adding that the Buddha makes him feel like his community is meant to be here.
There are even two monks who traveled all the way from Myanmar to reside temporarily at the temple and teach meditation.
And closer afield, Burmese-Americans from Los Angeles and San Francisco have also come to help fix up the property. Fresno local Kent Ng has rebuilt cabinet doors inside. And outside he points to some wood doors he replaced.
Ng’s not a doctor but he’s married to one. I ask him to spell his last name and he says, “Nice Guy.”
“OK” I say, a little confused.
“Just the N and G so the people ask me how to spell [my name]. You know Nice Guy? That’s the N and G. That’s it,” he says.
Nice guy. Funny guy. We walk through the building that’s behind the temple. It’s a large fellowship hall with a kitchen. There’s five decades of memories in this 6,400 square-foot building: weddings, festivals and thousands upon thousands of meals served.
We head up a small stairway, through a door going outside to a large tree with heart shaped leaves.
“OK Raymond, do you wanna talk about the tree?” Lin asks.
“Uh yeah,” says Raymond Ko. He’s also not a medical doctor. “I’m a dentist,” he says as he and Lin and Ng all burst out laughing.
And like Ng, he’s married to a doctor.
And he’s a funny guy, too. “Where’s my script,” he asks pretending he needs one to talk about the Bodhi tree. But clearly, he doesn’t.
“It’s a banyan tree, the family of a fig tree. This is a sacred tree for us because Buddha was enlightened under this tree,” he says. Well, not this particular tree.
But, he says, “this particular tree is related to the real tree. When the real tree died in India, it was cloned. One clone was sent to Ceylon. And that clone we got from Ceylon to here.”
I asked him how that happened. How did the temple get a seedling from a Bodhi tree in what is today called Sri Lanka?
“I don’t know!” he says laughing. “The Japanese did it. Not me. It comes with the property.” Lin echoes him, “This comes with the property.”
It comes with the property. Along with the goodwill of the Japanese-American congregation who built and cared for this landmark temple for decades. Now it’s in the hands of newer immigrants who will tell their own stories while tending to the Bodhi tree.