Culture and spirituality: Temple provides community for Cambodian Buddhists

Aug 10, 2021 | Spotlight

By Amelia Brett

Thyda Freiberger slipped off her shoes with ease beside the door before entering her family’s temple. A short line of sandals sat next to hers on the front porch. Her black hair hung down her back in a long braid. After walking into the room, she bowed three times to pay respect in front of a large statue of Buddha. With rose red curtains tied back, sunlight reflected on ornamental golden leaves in front of decorative lotus flowers and a light pink box with the word “donation” painted on it in crimson letters. The Buddha’s face shone with closed eyes and a soft smile. The room was silent, except for the sound of Freiberger’s small daughter running around in socks and stopping to carefully pick up an incense stick.

Two monks sitting by the window in bright orange robes began to exchange conversation with Freiberger in “Khmer,” a Cambodian language, sometimes laughing. She occasionally turned to watch her daughter, who was still exploring behind her.

“We have to be present in the moment,” Freiberger said about Buddhism, sitting on a vast red rug with her legs crossed. Suddenly, her daughter began to cry and walked up to her.

A couple strands of hair hung loose from Freiberger’s braid and framed her face. She reached up to brush them behind her ears. She turned to the small girl and swept her into a hug, quieting the loud wailing and returning the room to a state of calm.

Family, Religion and Origin

Freiberger, 37, is originally from Cambodia. She said Buddhism has always been in her heritage.

Her grandfather, Phay Sun, had given up being a monk before meeting her grandmother, Seam Leang, she said.

Prior to leaving the country, her grandmother helped to support Buddhist temples there through funding. 

Her family fled to leave the political and structural turmoil left after war. A communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, had been trying to rearrange society in 1975 and killed over 1 million Cambodians in the process, according to a country profile by Minority Rights Group International on Refworld, a website by the UN Refugee Agency.

Freiberger’s uncles, Thourn Sun and Bouray Sun, escaped civil war in Cambodia by crossing the border to Thailand, she said. They were eventually sponsored by Martha Ann Deputy, the founder of the International Center of Kentucky, to live in Bowling Green in 1979.

Approximately 150,000 Cambodians arrived in the U.S. between 1979 and 1989 due to war, according to a “Frontline/World” historical analysis, “Chronicle of Survival: Back to Square One,” on the PBS website.

After Freiberger’s uncles found out their other relatives were still alive at a refugee camp in Thailand, Deputy arranged for those family members to come to the U.S. through sponsorship by Freiberger’s uncles.

This led to Freiberger eventually arriving in the U.S. with her family when she was 10 years old.

As a result, she mostly grew up in an American environment, and her family would drive far to reach temples for worship. Normally, they would travel to Nashville, Tennessee, which is about an hour from Bowling Green.

In order to fulfill the wishes of Freiberger’s grandmother to have a closer temple, the Wat Ahram Mein Jai Buddhist temple began in Bowling Green in 2010 with the help of board member Phon Yon, Freiberger, Freiberger’s mother, Freiberger’s stepfather and her sister. Her mother now has a home with Freiberger’s stepfather and one brother on the street of the temple, which is located at 255 Grassland Court. 

Its other purpose is to serve as a place for Cambodian Buddhists to gather in the area.

Buddhism is practiced in Cambodia by about 96 percent of the population, according to the United States Department of State’s “2013 Report on International Religious Freedom – Cambodia” on Refworld.

Kentucky had 439 Buddhists in 2014, which is less than 1 percent of the population, according to the “Buddhists by State” study by the Pew Research Center.  

From Cambodia to the U.S.

Across from the temple, the wall inside of her mother’s house displayed paintings from Cambodia, including a green landscape, as Freiberger sat recalling memories.

She said she lived in the country in Cambodia, and people would use candlelight and gather rainwater for washing. She mostly saw motorcycles or bikes instead of cars.

She had no recollection of attending Buddhist temples there, but she remembered that her mother and grandmother practiced the religion.

The overall lifestyle included hunting and gathering, with the main crop being rice. The weather was warm throughout the year.

This all shifted when Freiberger’s family moved to the U.S. on Dec. 6, 1991.

When she arrived, it was the first time she saw snow. She landed at the airport in Nashville with her mother, Hengbuon Sun, and her older sister, Kimberly Bitterling. She had never ridden a plane or seen paved roads.

“It was a complete culture shock,” Freiberger said.

Deputy picked up Freiberger and her family at the airport and took them to Bowling Green for a new life.

Freiberger’s family settled in a house with two bedrooms and one bathroom in downtown Bowling Green. After they moved in, the space was shared between 11 total relatives. This included Freiberger, her mother, great grandfather, aunt, uncle, cousin, and Freiberger’s five siblings.

She said they started out sleeping on the floor in front of the stove to keep warm due to the weather and condition of the house. Still, she said having plumbing and electricity was a huge difference compared to Cambodian housing.

“We were basically lost for a long time,” Freiberger said.

Bowling Green also did not have a Buddhist temple when she was growing up. After they moved to a different house in 1996, her family held celebrations or the Buddhist New Year at her mother’s house.

“It became like a temple, but it was only my mom’s living room,” Freiberger said.

Around that time, her family started traveling to different states in order to practice their religion, including Tennessee and Ohio.

Her grandmother was part of the reason she followed Buddhism since she was always  religious, she said.

Freiberger also had to tackle the difficulty of a new language. She said she started studying English more when she would see other children sitting together and talking at school.

“When I understood English, it was a great thing,” Freiberger said. “I felt like I finally accomplished something.”

She said she didn’t start calling Bowling Green her hometown until around high school.

After graduating from Warren Central High School in 2000, she went to Western Kentucky University for an undergraduate degree in hospitality management.

Freiberger said she planned to help run a buffet business with her mother at the time and graduated in 2005.

However, Freiberger didn’t follow this plan once her youngest brother, Bunthean Choun, had complications from Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition that affected his heart and kidneys.

Freiberger said she spent three months visiting her brother in intervals at the Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville. This led to her meeting her husband, Austen Freiberger, who worked with her brother as a dialysis nurse.

“When I first met him, it was love at first site,” Freiberger said, smiling. She remembered he had dark hair and dark blue scrubs on that day. That was in January 2006.

Bunthean Choun died many years later, but she said she believes her husband helped keep him alive at the time. 

Freiberger moved 130 miles away from her hometown to New Albany, Indiana, later in 2006 after getting married and changing her last name from Choun to Freiberger. She said she had two separate weddings, one American and one Cambodian. 

While the American ceremony was more private and small, she said the Cambodian wedding was larger. 

A Temple is Made

Despite the distance, she traveled home sometimes to visit family and help with Buddhist worship in the area.

Freiberger said her grandmother had always wanted a temple, and she hoped to have one the community could share.

“I wanted to make that dream come true for her,” Freiberger said.

Her grandmother died at age 72 in 2008 from lung cancer, but Freiberger and her mother still started a temple group in 2009 to honor her wishes at a trailer donated temporarily by Deputy.

“She didn’t want the religion to die when she did,” Freiberger said.

Meetings were normally with Buddhists from Myanmar, but the language barrier caused them to part ways and create separate temples.

The official services of the Cambodian temple, Wat Ahram Mein Jai, started in June 2010 at the home of Freiberger’s parents. Eventually, they were able to raise enough money by December 2014 to buy a manufactured home to serve as a temple.

Freiberger said the name means “temple of victory.”

She attributed a lot of the result to Deputy.

Freiberger said Deputy helped her and many people in Bowling Green until she died in March 2016 at age 75.

“She was like a grandma to me,” Freiberger said, her eyes welling with tears.

Freiberger continued to help with the temple whenever she was in town. She gained more responsibilities after she gave birth to her daughter in June 2016.  

“I love her so much; it was all worth it,” she said.

She has taken her child to the temple many times during visits, and she said her grandmother had hoped future generations would enjoy it there.

Part of her grandmother’s wish to serve the community was also fulfilled.

In the last year, two monks from Cambodia have moved into the temple. Socheat Kheang arrived in December 2017 and Sarith Nan joined in January 2018.

Present Day Practices

Today, the temple has two to five visitors that pray three times each day and share meals with the monks, Freiberger said. On the weekend, there are normally between five and eight people.

Sarith Nan, left, and Socheat Kheang, right, sit inside the Wat Ahram Mein Jai temple.

She translated as one of the monks, Nan, described the principles of Buddhism, which include 10 precepts. Some of the rules forbid killing, stealing, lying, adultery and alcohol.

Freiberger said she follows those first five precepts. She said most Buddhists follow these and don’t live by the rest of the list, which includes refraining from eating substantial food after noon and avoiding dancing or music, wearing personal adornments, using luxurious beds or seats, and accepting money by hand.

She also said she believes that bad karma can be lessened by good deeds and that people undergo reincarnation after death.  

“I’m a spiritual person,” Freiberger said. “I love my culture.”

At a recent Buddhist New Year’s event at the temple, about 40 to 60 people showed up to celebrate. Brightly colored skirts and tops stood out under an outdoor tent where many visitors sat and prayed. After food was offered to the monks, people ate various dishes together. Freiberger’s half brother, Somnang Heng, 25, sat inside the temple after the meal with a large picture of Buddha on the wall behind him.

“My sister is a very devout Buddhist,” Heng said.

He said he believes she is one of the reasons the temple is still going since she visits regularly.

A designer that creates projects for events at the temple, Marcus Dukes, 46, sat across from Heng.

“I feel like Thyda took over her grandmother’s role,” he said.

Freiberger’s sister, Bitterling, 44, stood on the front deck of the temple after some of the festivities.

She said she she does not consider herself  Buddhist, but the temple allows Freiberger and her mother to practice the religion with others.

Future Plans

Right now, Freiberger said she hopes they can expand the temple in the future.

“In our community, we struggle,” she said. There is often a lack of funding during the year.

Occasional celebrations at the temple help this through donations. This includes the Money Tree Festival, which is believed to bring good karma for those that contribute funds by placing them on a small tree. The New Year’s celebration also gathers donations.

If they receive more funding, she also plans to apply for a conditional use permit. This would give them full permission from the city to use the temple as a religious site in a residential area.

According to the City-County Planning Commission of Warren County, this type of permit is granted to allow someone to use land when there are some concerns about how it can impact an area. However, restrictions must be applied for them use it.

Freiberger said she is not sure when they will apply for the permit, but she plans to be there for the process.

Right now, she said she doesn’t know if the temple will survive from year to year due to financial struggles.

“My overall goal would be for our temple to be a household name,”  she said.  

The sun was setting, but the temple’s windows across the street still showed soft light.  

Freiberger looked focused as she readjusted to lean on a blanket and pillow on the couch in her mother’s house. Her child was sitting next to her, sometimes latching onto her arm.

“I want my daughter to be able to bring her family someday,” Freiberger said.

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