Voorhees’ first Cambodian Buddhist temple works towards fruition

Although the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple broke ground last summer, it does not have an official end date.

Monk Muni Rath stands in a garage used as a temporary medication space while the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, which will be the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in Voorhees Township, gradually builds up along Haddonfield-Berlin Road.

Hidden behind overgrown weeds along Haddonfield-Berlin Road, monks garbed in burnt-orange robes roam an empty plot of land sparsely populated with bulldozers and Buddhas.

With a makeshift wooden archway and a garage borrowed for meditation, the sight serves as a skeleton for the 17-acre Khmer Temple under the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, a Buddhist order originally based in South Philadelphia.

Monk Muni Rath founded the Philadelphia temple, currently located at the corner of 6th and Ritner streets, when he relocated to the city from Massachusetts in 2003. Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Rath, who has been a monk since the age of 12, journeyed to the United States in 1998.

After starting the Santivana Temple in Pelham while still in high school, Rath moved to Philadelphia for college. Since monks are prohibited to drive, Rath sought a city that offered public transportation, allowing him to appropriately commute from the temple to school.

Since its founding 14 years ago, the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple has attracted a congregation of more than 3,500 and acts as a place of worship for many of the 20,000 Cambodians living in Philadelphia, according to the Historical Society of Philadelphia.

However, many of those templegoers are from South Jersey, according to Rath, inspiring the expansion of Preah Buddha across the Delaware River and into Voorhees at 1234 Haddonfield-Berlin Road. This will be township’s first Cambodian temple.

In 2014, the religious order went before the Voorhees zoning board, seeking variances to build the temple, according to the Courier-Post.

After nearly two years and almost $500,000 worth of paperwork, according to Rath, construction broke ground in July 2016. While the architect is from New Jersey, the man behind the temple’s artistic elements is from Cambodia. Some of the construction workers are local volunteers.

The monk claims residents have been positively reacting to the gradual growth of Preah Buddha Rangsey.

The Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, which will be the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in Voorhees Township, is gradually springing up along Haddonfield-Berlin Road.

“(The local community) is happy. Not just Cambodians. Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and some American people,” Rath said. “We have a lot of American people visit this temple, and they’re happy to have a temple here where, in the future, they can come to practice meditation and culture.”

The end date is tentative, as the funding’s construction is based upon donations. Right now, the land is only occupied by four monks living in a house on the property.

Extracted from the mindscapes of Rath and his fellow monks, the master plan is a visionary yet traditional topography of Buddhism. But the intricate design encompassing a landscape of buildings and botany will not be confined to religion.

“The temple is not just a place of worship,” Rath said. “The temple is a community center for Cambodian people.”

The blueprints project a grand gateway entrance, which gives way to a narrow path weaving several yards back into the woods. Along the road, which will be lined with statues of seven-headed dragons, wanderers will come across a golden fountain before reaching the two-story worship building, intended for meditation and morning and evening chants. The structure’s exterior will include both Cambodian and American flags waving in the wind. There will also be stadium-style steps leading up to the entrance, which can be used for seating during outdoor entertainment.

Venturing past the worship building, the path eventually leads to a ceremony building, which will be used for dining and special celebrations.

Encircling the primary path, people will stumble upon meditation gardens peppered with statutes embodying the pages of Buddhist scriptures. As this idea enters its infancy, there are currently sculptures of impoverished, rawboned men on the grounds outside of the garage, alluding to the four sights of Buddhism — an old man, a sick man, a corpse and a monk.

Statutes representing the four sights of Buddhism at the construction site of the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple, which will be the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in Voorhees Township.

“The four sights are how Buddha found out the truths about human beings,” Rath said. “He was enlightened on the truth of suffering.”

Although the temple will naturally echo Buddhist ideas like the four sights, Rath hopes it will serve as a haven where people of all creeds, colors and religions can come to seek harmony through mutual understanding.

“Even if we don’t reach out to people about what is Buddhism, we can have this place as an example of peace,” Rath said. “The teaching of the Buddha is not really about religion but about living. Anyone can practice this, even if they are Christian or Hindu or Muslim … just to lead a good life of happy and peace.”