Sundays are usually pretty crowded at Wat Mongkolratanaram, Berkeley’s Thai Buddhist temple, but this Sunday there were more people than usual.
After 25 years at 1911 Russell St. – where on Sundays Thai cooks donate and serve traditional food at affordable prices to raise money for the temple – the Thai community unveiled and dedicated its newly-renovated temple.
“We’re celebrating our 25th year in the Bay Area,” said Doug Coffee, a temple volunteer who lives in Fairfax. “We bought an old Victorian home and got permission from the city to upgrade it. We have spent over $600,000 in renovating this house and making it the way it looks right now.”
In January 1999, the city approved the temple’s petition to substantially renovate the building, so it could be made an authentic ubosoth, or Buddhist temple of worship. The renovations were completed this year.
The house’s look from the outside is ornate with gold adornments that front the peaks of this Victorian, and are probably not what the original designer envisioned.
But out on Russell Street – with people walking their dogs and toting their Sunday morning coffee, wondering what all the excitement is about and finding young, luminous Thai monks wrapped in bright or burnt orange saffron to tell them – somehow everything seems to fit.
“You see a lot of people here today, all the parking out front’s gone, and it’s all for this celebration of the 25th year,” Coffee said. “We’ve got the high ambassador from Washington coming here today. The mayor of Berkeley will be here today. Members of the Thai embassy in L.A. will be here today.”
Coffee estimated that there are more than 60,000 Thai people in the Bay Area. “At one time or another everybody comes to this temple,” Coffee said.
Congregants and visitors filed into chairs set beneath a tent for the outdoor ceremony, and after the ribbon cutting. There was Thai classical dance, authentic traditional food and desserts, and lots of liveliness throughout the day.
Alison McKleroy said she thought the day’s festivities were terrific, but not so unlike the other Sundays she’s come to the temple.
“The place is always full and kind of magical,” McKleroy said. “I’ve been coming here for six or seven years. They have this every Sunday, and it’s the best Thai food in the Bay Area.”
It’s usually a word of mouth sort of thing, McKleroy said.
“It’s always fun to ask other people, ‘How did you hear about the Thai temple?’ You’re always introduced by a friend, and as soon as you come, you want to take all your friends and at the same time, keep it a secret.”
There are other opportunities, Coffee said, for members of the public to gain something from what the temple offers.
“They teach Thai every Sunday and they teach the children how to dance,” Coffee said. “We have classes going all year round, and the teachers are all volunteers.”
Though most of the people you’d see at the Thai Buddhist temple on any given Sunday are volunteers or visitors, you’ll also find its modest leaders walking around quickly and gently, smiling.
“The monks are the leaders of the temple,” Coffee said.
The five monks who presently reside at the temple live in the small, garagelike buildings out behind it. Their stomachs are usually as bare as their heads, since their daily fast begins every day at noon and lasts until the next morning.
Sunday is the day they lead the Thai Buddhist community in religious celebration. The feast every Sunday, to which all are invited, is a way of welcome.