Wat Phothisomphan

Wat Phothisomphan (Phothisomphan Meditation Monastery)

Lying just beyond a small grove of trees on a busy stretch of SE 14th Street, Wat Phothisomphan serves as an idyllic home-away-from-home for many Laotian residents of Des Moines, a site for the practice of not only Theravada Buddhism but also Laotian culture. Wat Phothisomphan is not the only such home; nor is it the first. The first Lao Buddhist temple of Des Moines, Wat Lao Buddhavas, dates back to the purchase of land in 1983, not long after the arrival of the first Lao refugees, victims of the wars in Southeast Asia and subsequent communist takeover of Laos. The temple of Wat Lao Buddhavas was later completed in 1997, and the rest of the grounds in 1999. But due to the growth of the local Lao community and the desire for a meditation monastery, a second Lao temple, Wat Phothisomphan, was established in 2009. For many Lao residents of Des Moines, these temples serve as primary points of connection to their homeland, sites to practice their culture and their religion with the larger community. But for Wat Phothisomphan, there is additional emphasis on Buddhist meditation; indeed, this is the meaning of the Lao word phothisomphan.

Wat Phothisomphan’s buildings—a temple and a residence for the monks—date back to the early 1950s, when they were originally built as the Baptist Gospel Cabernet church. The church flourished for nearly half a century until its dynamic and charismatic senior pastor, Pastor Miller, passed away. Soon thereafter, its buildings were abandoned, eventually coming to shelter drug dealers and prostitutes. Years later, one of the men who now serve as a monk at Wat Phothisomphan, Ajahn Jackson, discovered the buildings, appreciating their untapped potential. When a mixed group of Southeast Asians and European Americans approached him about starting a meditation monastery, he suggested the abandoned church, eventually negotiating its sale from Pastor Miller’s daughter.

With years of hard work and lots of money, the Baptist church was slowly transformed into a Buddhist temple, eventually opening for services 2016. Although the community continues to meet weekly in the monks’ residence for dharma talks and chanting meditation, special monthly events are held in the spacious temple. The centerpiece of the room, resting on a raised platform at the head of the room, is a gleaming, gold statue of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. Just below and in front of the statue sit Wat Phothisomphan’s monks. From here, they transmit the message of the historical Buddha in what many argue is its original, Theravada form: the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five precepts, and the eightfold noble path. Dharma talks are often given both in Laotian (by one of the Laotian monks, typically the head monk, Ajahn Somphan) and in English (by the American monk, Ajahn Jackson). But chanting meditation happens in Pali, the language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. Most major celebrations—New Year and Magha Puja, for example—are also accompanied by Tak-bat, the Theravada Buddhist practice of giving alms to the monks (who cannot eat after noon).

Although relatively new, Wat Phothisomphan stands proud in the over 2500-year old practices of Theravada Buddhism, as well as in Lao traditions that in some cases are older still. It is indeed a home away from home, if not a plain old home.

Meeting Times

  • The community meets on Sundays, although somewhat irregularly. Smaller services are held in the monks’ residence next to the temple; larger, monthly gatherings occur in the temple.
  • Contact Kate Phanmaha (below) for more information.

Location and Contact Information:

  • 2560 SE 14th Street, Des Moines, IA 50320
  • Kat Phanmaha: katep919@gmail.com
  • Temple phone number: 515-619-9222/515-777-4348

Etiquette for visiting the Temple:

  • Remove your shoes in the main temple room
  • Avoid pointing your feet at the altar as well as the monks and nuns
  • Dress comfortably and modestly
  • Women should avoid direct contact with the male monks.

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Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)