At Virginia Buddhist temple: A monk arrested, worshipers banned from their parents’ graves, and a questionable loan

Wat Lao Buddhavong, a Buddhist temple in Fauquier County, Va. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Julie Zauzmer

CATLETT, Va. – The brightly painted temple nestled in the farmlands of Fauquier County has been a beacon to thousands of American Buddhists for decades, beckoning devout daily visitors and once-a-year pilgrims alike through its soaring red front gate.

But in recent months, the message coming from Wat Lao Buddhavong has not been one of welcome for some devoted members. Instead, they have received letters telling them not to set foot on the temple grounds – or else they face arrest.

The no-trespass orders are the latest ugly flare-up of a fight dividing the temple community, which centers on recriminations alleging misuse of temple funds. The dispute has led to the arrest of one monk and a criminal probe into others, and has kept worshipers from their congregation and even their parents’ gravesites.

What is clear is that leaders of the temple took out a $645,000 loan in the temple’s name – and that since certain community members started asking questions about what happened to that money, they’ve been getting no-trespass orders signed by Wat Lao Buddhavong’s two top monks.

Beyond that, almost all the facts are disputed. Who is sending the orders. What the money was used for. Who’s in charge of a religious institution that has been central to the Laotian immigrant community in the Washington area and across the country since the 1980s.

The dispute has been deeply painful for many Laotian immigrants like Mixay Panyasith, who has poured her time and money into this temple for decades. She was one of nine members interviewed by The Washington Post who received the no-trespass letters, including one monk who was eventually arrested for trespassing at the temple where he has worked and lived for 14 years.

“I’ve done so much for this temple,” Panyasith said. Just last year, she said, she donated a car for the temple to raffle off as a fundraiser. The gift was in memory of her late husband, who used to rush to the temple when the monks called for his help at any hour, even during his final illness. “I have no idea why [I’ve been banned]. I didn’t do anything wrong . . . I am concerned about where my money could have gone to, that I spent all these years.

The temple’s longtime leader is abbot Bounmy Kittithammavanno. But members say the charismatic monk, who draws worshipers from far and wide, is the spiritual head of the temple, while his vice abbot, Phonexay Mingsisouphanh, acts like the CEO.

Several members, including a monk who drove the aging Kittithammavanno to the bank at the abbot’s request, say that Kittithammavanno first learned about the $645,000 loan in this past fall, when he was trying to set up a new account for telephone service at the temple. To do so, he needed the temple’s tax ID number, so he went to the bank to ask for it.

There, a banker mentioned the large loan taken out in the name of the temple. Kittithammavanno, who is in his 80s, was alarmed. He requested bank records from the temple’s account, and turned them over along with other documents he found in the temple’s offices to a cadre of members who set about trying to make sense of the congregation’s finances.

Kittithammavanno is now on an extended visit to Thailand, several monks at the temple said, and cannot be reached.

Worshipers fill the beds inside the Wat Lao Buddhavong Buddhist temple in Catlett, Va., with offerings for the monks. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Julie Zauzmer.

As the members began poring over the documents, which filled four laundry baskets, they reached several worrisome conclusions. They accused Mingsisouphanh (who goes by multiple names, including Chandaphone Chakkavarro and other variations) and the temple’s lawyer, Ilene Tognini, of misspending the temple’s funds in numerous ways – paying for Tognini’s home in Florida, transferring money to a personal acquaintance of Mingsisouphanh and more unproven allegations.

Tognini declined to speak to a Post reporter, referring questions to another lawyer representing the temple, August McCarthy. McCarthy vehemently denied that Tognini spent any money for personal use, and claimed that a forthcoming audit from an accounting firm will demonstrate the loan was used properly.

McCarthy blamed the members who analyzed the financial records: “They’re people who are set on disrupting the business of the temple. They’ve made allegations of fraud which we’ve been able to determine are completely without merit,” he said. “It’s been difficult keeping the peaceful environment that Buddhists enjoy with these people, interlopers, whoever they are.”

McCarthy claimed that the members have stolen money from the temple, including someone breaking the lock on one of the many large donation boxes inside the pagoda, which he said he caught on video. He said he talked to county prosecutors about the theft.

Fauquier County Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jamey Cook said that the prosecutors’ office is aware of allegations of embezzlement at Wat Lao Buddhavong, and that Commonwealth’s Attorney Scott Hook will make a statement on the matter after court proceedings conclude in the trespassing case involving the monk.

Noumay Viriyaphanyo, a monk at Wat Lao Buddhavong, said investigators are welcome to look into the temple’s financial records. “I think they should look at it, clearly, who’s right and who’s wrong. That’s the rule of law,” he said. “That’s the way we’re living in the United States. We respect the law in the United States.”

Mingsisouphanh and Viriyaphanyo said in an interview with The Post that the loan was not used for Mingsisouphanh’s or Tognini’s personal spending. Viriyaphanyo said the money went toward leftover costs from a temple that Wat Lao Buddhavong built in India several years ago.

Viriyaphanyo said he would not provide documentation of that spending to a Post reporter, just as he had refused to provide documentation that would allay the temple members’ concerns when they brought up their allegations at a meeting this past fall. “We can’t show everybody the paperwork. We can’t show people who don’t know anything,” he said.

Many of the members who attended that meeting are the ones who have since received no-trespass orders banning them from the temple. They said they believe that Kittithammavanno either did not sign his own name or did not know what he was signing; but they believe Mingsisouphanh, who handles the temple’s finances, was behind the letters.

Mingsisouphanh said he never sent any no-trespass orders and does not know who did. Viriyaphanyo implied that someone else might be using the monks’ names. McCarthy said that Tognini sent them, with the monks’ knowledge.

At the same time, Viriyaphanyo said that the people who got the orders were causing trouble. “If someone comes to destroy your house, would you let them in?” he asked.

And though he told a Post reporter that anyone is welcome at the temple and the monks won’t call police if those who received the no-trespass orders visit, he also said he had not reached out to them directly to tell them that they are allowed at their house of worship. He suggested he might wait until Kittithammavanno returns from his trip to Thailand, or until the weather gets warmer and people have more interest in leaving their houses.

The no-trespass orders aren’t just coming from the abbots. In an odd twist, they go both ways. An attorney representing some members who have been banned from the temple and was not available for an interview, also sent at least one no-trespass letter to a temple member. The member continues to go to the temple to offer food for the monks, who have told him they won’t call authorities.

Of the orders signed by the two head monks, one went to one of their own clergy, a monk named Onla Inthichak who often drove the aging Kittithammavanno on errands. Kittithammavanno asked him to drive on the day that he went to the bank, so Inthichak was present when the abbot learned about the loan.

At the time, Inthichak said, he believed the financial records suggested criminal activity. But Inthichak did not go to the police to report his suspicion that someone was embezzling funds from the temple.

Soon after the bank visit, he got a no-trespass order mailed to him at the temple, where he lived.

The monks at the temple, as is customary in Buddhist tradition, do not take a salary. They live at the temple complex and subsist on donations from worshipers. Many members are in the habit of bringing meals they prepare for the monks on a weekly basis. On a recent visit, several beds were piled with items that worshipers had dropped off for their clergy, including a 14-piece porcelain dinner set.

Inthichak said he initially ignored the no-trespass order because the temple was his home and he had no other place to go. Then somebody called the police to report his presence at the complex.

Mingsisouphanh and Viriyaphanyo said they were not the ones to call the police, though Viriyaphanyo said Inthichak should have obeyed the initial letter: “Police give you a paper, you should follow the law, follow the rule. If you broke the law, you broke the rule.”

Inthichak was arrested and charged with trespassing on Sept. 5, according to police records. He has been staying with friends and spent one night in a homeless shelter. “It’s a very hard time for me,” he said.

His next court date on the trespassing charge is later this month.

He is one of many in the Wat Lao Buddhavong community who are missing their temple. Souksomboun Sayasithsena, who helped found the temple and has now been banned from it, described the temple’s creation as a haven for Laotian refugees who came to the U.S. in 1975 after the fall of South Vietnam. They had been American sympathizers, many directly working with the United States, and were forced from their homeland after communism prevailed. “The only thing they came here with was their life,” he said. “They needed a spiritual refuge here.”

Vaneta Sisoutho, another member recently banned from the temple, recalled that when she was making just $4 an hour as an assembly technician in 1985, she scraped together $500 to help the temple purchase its property. Over the years, she has volunteered to do everything from cleaning toilets to planting flowers. “We just donate, donate. We never ask. Because we want a temple,” she said. “In this United States, we have together only the temple. Refugees with their bare hands have nothing, only the temple.”

For the Sengkhyavongs, a Bristow couple, their roots run deep at Wat Lao Buddhavong, from their grandparents to their children whom they are raising in the Buddhist tradition. The no-trespass order that Watt Sengkhyavong received has severed that connection in the most painful way: The order banned him from visiting the line of memorial structures, called stupas, on the temple grounds, where his parents’ ashes are buried.

Watt, who recently earned his PhD in computer science, finds the subject almost too painful to talk about. He walked away while his wife, Vicky, an accountant, showed video of the day she and other relatives enlisted a monk to hammer away at the family’s stupa, whacking over and over until he dislodged their relatives’ ashes. The family eventually scattered them at sea, rather than leaving them in a graveyard Watt could not visit.

“That broke his heart. He wanted to go in for the final time. To say goodbye to your parents for the second time, and he didn’t get the chance to do that,” Vicky said of her husband. “What happened? How can they do this to all of us?”

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