Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest: Co Lam Pagoda

An impromptu Vietnamese folk music concert at Seattle's Co Lam Pagoda

Tucked behind a McDonald’s and kitty corner to a Circle K, the Co Lam Pagoda is almost hidden from view until you’re right in front of it. Then, suddenly, it jumps out at you. Impish, smiling dragons stand at the gate, and the temple doors are decorated in gold and fiery red. A stone statue of Richard Nixon stands in a garden that runs along the side of the temple.

The Co Lam Pagoda is one of the biggest Vietnamese Buddhist temples in Washington State. It’s in South Seattle, in a neighborhood that, according to the US Census, is one of the most ethnically diverse zip codes in the entire country.  A grocery store across the street bears this out: The signs for special promotions are written in at least five different languages: Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, English, and Amharic.

Sometimes, the best stories come from just knocking on a door, and going in to discover what’s inside. That’s what happened to me one day, after a story I’d planned to do for KEXP suddenly fell through...

Listen now:

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Watch a slideshow:

Master Kim and I became friends, and I went back to visit with him several times before I left Seattle. He even started sending me text messages, which I loved. There’s something really great about getting texted by a wandering monk. It just doesn’t happen every day.

He wanted my help translating poetry he’d written in Vietnamese. So, I’d go to his house, and we’d sit together at his kitchen table. He’d read his poems out loud to me in halting English, while I typed and edited. Not surprisingly, all the poems had Buddhist themes, things like impermanence, being in the present moment, mindfulness, and opening the heart. One of the lines went, “Life is just a dream.” I told Master Kim that we had a children’s song with that same line in it. He grinned at me, and then started singing, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” in a loud, clear voice.  It was my turn to grin.

You can visit the temple, too. They have services (in Vietnamese, but really beautiful even if you don’t speak the language) on Sundays at 11am, and people will greet you with open arms. The Co Lam Pagoda is located at 3503 S. Graham Street in Seattle, Wa. Tell Master Kim I sent you...

Listen to additional audio:

The full temple ceremony:

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Folk music/flute:

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Folk music/moon instrument:

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Produced by Julie Caine, 2011 AIR Live Interactive Resident. Editorial oversight by Kevin Cole. Engineering assistance by Matt Ogaz. Additional editorial assistance by John Abramson. Live Interactive is a collaboration of KEXP and AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, with financial support from AIR members worldwide, Recovery.gov, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.

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