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Monk inspired to build giant Buddha in Florida

By Susanne Cervenka

Florida Today

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 1:29 p.m. MDT

Pairoj Kongkerd works on the Buddha he's building at the Wat Punyawanaram temple.

Florida Today

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MELBOURNE, Fla. — Pairoj Kongkerd wanted to thank the Thai community that allowed him to become the first ordained monk at Wat Punyawanaram, a little-known local Buddhist temple.

The 33-year-old monk expressed his gratitude by focusing on his spiritual leader — Buddha. The result? An almost 13-foot-tall statue of him carved from concrete.

Kongkerd is nearing completion on the Buddha statue, which he has worked on seven days a week for the past two months in the brutal summer heat.

"This is my teacher, and he is a great teacher," Kongkerd said as he took a brief break from the concrete carving. "When people see this statue, (I hope) they study about him and follow his heart."

Kongkerd said he first thought of creating the sculpture after he was baptized as a monk two months ago, which he had dreamed of doing since he was a child. But in the Buddhism faith, the community has to agree to allow a particular person to become a monk, he said.

"I appreciate the people's support for me to live a good life and to train my mind," he said. Kongkerd is getting help from a friend and local sculptor, Ron Turan, who has offered his artistic guidance along the way.

Turan, who was introduced to Buddhism while in Thailand during the Vietnam War, sought out the Melbourne, Fla., temple and became friends with Kongkerd during his visits.

"People don't even know this temple is here, let along this Buddha is being built," he said.

When Turan heard about the project, he offered his tools and showed Kongkerd tips he learned from his years of sculpting.

"I just sort of give my opinion. He's very skilled in his work on the Buddha. It's very authentic," Turan said. "He's going to complete it in as perfect a manner as possible."

The massive Buddha sculpture was built entirely on site. Kongkerd first chiseled the face, then hoisted it onto the torso, which is reinforced with metal and bricks.

Kongkerd isn't sure how much material was used in the structure. The temple bought bags of cement as they were needed using donations from the Buddhist community. In all, members donated $3,000 toward the Buddha.

Several local Buddhists dropped off contributions last week as Kongkerd and Turan worked on the sculpture.

"I'm happy with him. (The Buddha) is something for everybody in the community," said Pete Yuanglamyai, after giving the monk a donation.

It's a sentiment felt by many people who attend the temple.

Phra Sommai Thapramart, the abbot of Wat Punyawanaram, said, "It's good for the temple. It's a symbol of the god."