When a high school teacher asked Thongkhoun Pathana about his goals, Pathana answered without hesitation: "I want to become an architect and build a Buddhist temple." At the time, he didn't realize how prophetic that statement would be.
Pathana, now a fifth-year student in the School of Architecture, has not only designed his first Buddhist temple, he is also the project director and will oversee the building's construction. In addition, he is the youngest member of the board of directors of the Watlao Buddhovath of Rhode Island, the Buddhist community building the temple. The community, established in 1986, is located in Smithfield, Rhode Island; its congregation is composed of 6,000 Laotian Americans residing in the state. Pathana also directs the community's Sunday school and is intimately involved in developing new programs and services for Laotian youth through the community's Southeast Asian Cultural Center.
Along with juggling a full courseload at SU, the Dean's List student usually spends several hours a night tending to his temple responsibilities via telephone, e-mail, and fax. During semester breaks and summer vacations, he logs 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, working on Watlao Buddhovath projects.
For Pathana, the temple is simply a physical manifestation of his deeply held religious values and beliefs. In helping to build the temple he is also helping build a community steeped in the traditions and culture of his homeland. The temple serves as a gathering place where members regain their sense of cultural identity, family, and community values; learn leadership skills and self-confidence; and study the teachings of Buddha. "In Laotian society, family and community values are very important," Pathana says. "To understand the needs of a community, you need to understand its social and cultural condition."
Pathana sees a strong analogy between his work in the Buddhist community and his architectural studies. Architecture is more than designing buildings, he says. Architects must understand their clients' needs and the role of the structure in their lives. Architects also follow a code of ethics and professional conduct, which outlines their duty and obligation to serve clients and design safe structures. "My studies at SU have taught me the art and history of architecture," Pathana says. "I have learned how to interpret architecture and how to design something meaningful using theories, ideas, and metaphors."
School of Architecture student Thongkhoun Pathana designed a Buddhist temple for the Watlao Buddhovath of Rhode Island community and is directing plans for the temple's construction. Pathana is a member of the community's board of directors and is dedicated to preserving Laotian culture.
Pathana's odyssey began in 1995 when he spent the summer as a volunteer assistant to the Venerable Bounthanh Prasavath, the master monk at Watlao Buddhovath. When the monk asked him about his college education, Pathana told him he studied architecture and explained what architects do in this country. "He then told me to design and plan a Buddhist temple that represents traditional Buddhist architecture," Pathana says.
Working closely with the master monk, Pathana completed the preliminary drawings that summer. The temple project got off to a rather bumpy start when a fire destroyed the community's Sunday school building that fall. Replacing the building became a priority. "We could not have accomplished our goals without teamwork," Pathana says.
As the Sunday school building nears completion, planning for the temple continues. Temple construction is scheduled to begin in 2000.
Pathana's dedication and commitment have not gone unnoticed. After he graduates from SU in the spring, he plans to work on designing and building Buddhist temples for communities in St. Julienne, Canada; Louisiana; and Rochester, New York. "It is honorable to give something to the community," he says.