A dispute over who controls the board of directors of Wat Lao Buddhavong, a Theravada Buddhist temple in Catlett, has caused deep divisions far beyond its walls, deeply reaching the Lao-American community in the Washington, DC area.
The most visible expression of Theravada Buddhism in the United States for over three decades, Wat Lao Buddhavong has become the focal point of a conflict that is both legal and cultural, Lao and American, personal and ideological. The conflict does not promise to be easily resolved.
Claiming to be the legitimate voting body with the power to elect new board members, 77 people gathered at the temple in August 2019 to elect a new board. Despite this vote, the original board of directors retains legal control.
Shortly after that vote came a trial, competing trespassing orders, multiple criminal charges, and most noticeably, a barrage of angry feelings and rumors widely shared on social media.
Most online publications accuse the current three-member board of directors of some form of corruption or fraud. Some images circulating online have been manipulated to depict acts of violence against one of the temple’s senior monks, although this is not representative of the bulk of the messages shared. The temple recently hired a private security company to screen visitors out of concern for the safety of the monks.
No court has ruled on allegations of misconduct by those who have administered the temple since 2006, and the only legal challenge against the current council, a lawsuit alleging a wide range of misconduct, has been dropped. this month. Current board members categorically deny any wrongdoing or mismanagement, and say they are committed to publishing regular and comprehensive financial reports and moving to new temple leadership in response to community concerns.
Criminal charges were filed against three people – including a monk – who were allegedly involved in actions to replace the board of directors. This week, the temple filed a civil lawsuit against six people who the lawsuit said collectively caused $ 1.25 million in damage to the temple’s reputation.
The struggle for control includes longtime members of the community, especially those who were involved in the initial fundraising to build the temple in the early 1980s, and who feel they should have a formal role in the process. temple management.
Also involved is a younger generation of Lao Americans, now middle aged but generally more educated and more assimilated into American culture than the first large wave of Lao immigrants after the Vietnam War. They feel the time has come for temple governance to represent them and their worldview.
Current temple leaders have said they want to move to a board that reflects the desire for a more participatory governance model. Neither supporters of the temple leadership nor its detractors show that they are prepared to give up their positions. The global reach of the conflict, thanks to social media, makes reconciliation all the more difficult.
The current board of directors
Three elder monks, whose legal names are Bounmy Kittiphanh, Phonexay Mingsisouphanh and Southalovong Boutah, have made up the board since 2003.
In 2006, Ilene Tognini was added to the board of directors. In the current uproar against the temple leadership, much of the anger is directed specifically at her; an online petition to remove her from the board had over 1,100 signatures as of February 12 (another active online petition against Mingsisouphanh had nearly 800 signatures)
Tognini is a lawyer and until recently a long-time resident of Fauquier County; she now divides her time between Florida and Northern Virginia. Not having been raised as a Buddhist, she came to the temple in 2000 “as a neighbor,” she says. “The monks welcomed me and I kept coming back. Since then, she has personally embraced Theravada Buddhism. She said that Kittiphanh and Mingsisouphanh are the godparents of her children, and she has photographs of the monks in her home celebrating her children’s birthdays and other ceremonies with them. When she enters the temple, she performs the ritual of bowing before the monks before speaking to someone else. “I am a servant,” she said of her role in the temple.
Explaining his addition to the board, Tognini said that “the two older monks go on an annual pilgrimage to India, and if anything happens you need two people. [to establish a quorum], so they asked me to be on the board. It was simply done to facilitate their wishes. Since then, she has provided advice and administrative assistance to the board, but still relies on senior monks and only acts with their knowledge, she said.
A new organization, Lao Global Heritage Alliance, was established in October 2019 as an alternative to the organizational structure of Wat Lao Buddhavong. As of January 31, the LGHA said it had nearly 100 paying and voting members and nearly 200 non-voting members. Its leadership is largely made up of those who participated in efforts to replace the Wat Lao Buddhavong board in August 2019.
An LGHA representative said the organization represents the “majority [of] members of the Laotian community in Northern Virginia and much of Maryland. The organization is raising funds to hire a lawyer and “expose all the facts about the past and present activities of the WLB Board of Directors.” More than 100 people attended a “town hall” on January 25th organized by LGHA. The crowd cheered the speakers denouncing the current leadership of Wat Lao Buddhavong, especially Tognini.
In an effort to allay concerns about temple governance and finances, the temple has compiled years of financial statements – including an independent review by the accounting firm PBMares of the temple’s finances since 2015 – and administrative documents and records. legal documents and posted them on a public site. website. Tognini said that in the future, the company will file IRS Form 990 every year, an action that is not legally required for religious organizations.
The temple directors also said they were determined to move to a new leadership, but that transition must be done in a legal and open manner that is true to Lao tradition and protects the assets of the temple. “The board is – we’re so dedicated to creating a transition board,” Tognini said. “We want to choose leaders who will be faithful to the customs and values [of Theravada Buddhism]. “But, she stressed,” it will be done legally, with respect [with the law] and faithful to the traditions of Buddhism. It will not happen through extortion and threats. “
All parties who spoke to Fauquier time says a peaceful resolution is their ultimate goal. At this point, however, many people with connections to the community now have little confidence in the leadership of the temple.
“In my opinion, the temple can reach out to us, talk to us and have a dialogue,” Souksomboun Sayasithsena, one of the first trustees of real estate purchased in 1988 on behalf of Wat Lao Buddhavong, said in a February statement. . 4 interview. In 2010, he received a temple trespassing order for allegedly starting a petition denouncing the two senior monks, a charge he denied. He said he did not return to the temple until the August 26, 2019 emergency meeting called on behalf of Kittiphanh.
Tognini said the board is more than willing to have a constructive conversation with members who want a change. She added that temple leaders have tried to reach out to opposition leaders, without much success. Even people who have received no-trespassing orders, she said, are “welcome to come to the temple once this issue is resolved,” noting that despite the conflict, the temple remains open to the community and continues to operate normally.