An imposing Buddha, haloed by a luminous rainbow, sits cross-legged, hands clasped, gaze turned towards the ground. In Évry-Courcouronnes (Essonne), the largest pagoda in Europe is affiliated with the Vietnamese “Khanh-Anh” branch of Buddhism, which claims more than 40,000 followers in France. Surrounded by two towers, the 550 m2 prayer room can accommodate 1,500 people during major ceremonies, such as this weekend.
Everyone is indeed preparing for the most important event of the Buddhist calendar: the feast of Vesak (read the markers), celebrated on Sunday June 11 in this branch of Buddhism, in the presence of the president of the Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation unified in Europe , the Very Venerable Thich Tanh Thiet, but also civil authorities and leaders of other local faiths.
The Vesak is far from the only occasion in the year when the pagoda is full. Ceremonies take place every day, but it is on Sunday morning that it brings together the most people, hundreds of people. All then have lunch of traditional vegetarian dishes in a large room. Difficult to get a seat without a reservation. Because it is a place of worship, but also of sociability. A space where the faithful can find their community, obtain information and speak Vietnamese.
“There are two categories of people, those who come first for the ceremonies and those who come for the meals, the games, the parties…”, confirms Venerable Thich Quang Dao, 61, who has been in charge of the pagoda since 2015. About 5,000 people regularly attend the temple. Among the faithful, many are of Vietnamese origin, some born there, like Venerable Thich Quang Dao himself. There are also mixed couples, like Tuy Lan and David, who met about twenty years ago. “We have been coming more often since 2012 and the death of my father”, indicates this physiotherapist, who came to France because she was unable to continue her studies in her country.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Vietnamese refugees joined France. This is the case of Van Tan, a 53-year-old monk. He himself first fled to Hong Kong, before joining Norway where his religious vocation was revealed. In 2022, he joined the eight other monks and nuns of Évry. They live there year-round, surrounded by a dozen lay people. All together, they take care of the place, prepare the meals and the ceremonies. At the end of each ceremony, the faithful go to a second room, for a tribute to the ancestors. Thousands of photographs of the deceased in the pagoda are displayed on the wall. Every Sunday, a prayer is given in the name of the deceased of the week.
Marc, a former police commander, got to know the community when he escorted the Dalai Lama when he came to the pagoda in 2008. Since then, he has been protecting the place. “I have already reserved my funeral urn,” confides this robust man, who wears a Jerusalem cross on his middle finger. Indeed, the ashes of the deceased are stored in one of the two towers.
Marc is not the only “White”, the community is far from being folded in on itself. Karl Dirat, the mayor of Villabé, a neighboring town, is often invited to speak at the end of the ceremonies. The Venerable and the aedile also collected donations for Ukraine. In 2022, four freight trucks headed for the country at war. Integrated into the territory, the pagoda is appreciated in Évry-Courcouronnes, a multicultural commune renowned for its large-scale places of worship. “Here, what is precious is the understanding between the different religions”, underlines Najwa El Haïté, the deputy mayor. Many remember the peace march organized following the 2015 attacks. Venerable Thich Quang Dao had walked hand in hand with the main religious leaders. “The pagoda is a place of worship that opens up to the city,” she confirms.