Tun Sovan greeted his friends and Buddhist followers with a smile.
The long-serving Washington Khmer community leader recently retired from his community leader role after some four decades of public service.
About forty Buddhist monks from across the United States joined more than 100 of the Buddhist teacher’s followers, former colleagues and friends this week to express their appreciation for Sovan’s dedication to the Khmer community in the Washington metropolitan area and to congratulate him on his appointment as president emeritus of the Cambodian Buddhist Society.
Well-wishers paid their respects, offered cards and gifts out of respect for his 40 years of service.
Venerable Ouk Chan Han, the head monk of Vatt Buddhikarama, a Maryland Buddhist monastery, said Sovan had helped the community tremendously.
“He has dedicated his knowledge to build humanitarian and social work, and importantly, in Buddhist teachings. He has done so much from his heart,” he said. “Tun Sovan is one of the rare persons we all should respect and pay gratitude to.”
While working for the federal and local government in the Greater Washington, DC area, Sovan volunteered his time, participating in civic groups promoting Buddhism, religious dialogue and immigrant rights.
He officially retired from the US Equal Opportunities Commission in August.
Under Sovan’s leadership, the Cambodian Buddhist community in the region has expanded its facilities, cultural activities, and finances. He was instrumental to the creation of Vatt Buddhikarama, the first Cambodian Buddhist temple in the United States.
“Without your leadership, I don’t ever think the stupa would have been completed,” said Se Kim Tan, a member of the Cambodian temple council. “You are a great person that I’ve worked with, [you’re] intelligent and kind. It’s an honor to work with you.”
Joined by his wife, children, and grandchildren, Sovan received blessings from the Maryland Governor’s Office, as well as non-profit organizations and other minority communities, including the Thai, Burmese and Nepalese communities.
Khin Swe Myint, a representative of the Burmese Buddhist community, said she respected Sovan for his dedication to Buddhism and civil society.
“He means a lot to me, to us, and to Buddhists,” she said. “He has done so much for Buddha Sasana and he’s done so much for the Cambodian monks, and in general for all Buddhist people. I am very, very proud of him.”
A letter from 21 Buddhist temples in the Washington area highlighted Sovan’s “pioneering efforts to ensure that Buddhism is represented in the inter-faith meetings and gathering across the DC area and the world”.
Mindy C. Reiser, vice president of Global Peace Services (GPS) in Washington, DC said Sovan played a major role as a board member of GPS in promoting peace through Buddhist teachings.
“He has, also together with the monks, played a very important role in sustaining global peace services. It has been in his Buddhist thinking and practice that he has given us enormous help. We are enormously grateful for everything that you have done. We couldn’t really be an organization really, without you,” she said.
Born in Battambang in 1940, before the civil wars, Sovan completed high school in Phnom Penh in the late 1950s. Later, he received a scholarship from the United Nations to pursue a master’s degree in the in 1962. Before the Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, he was teaching at various public universities in Phnom Penh. He and his family escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide when he accepted an opportunity to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Tennessee.
Sovan said the praise he had received was “beyond words”.
“Hearing the head monk describe me as one of the most respected individuals means so much to me, and that encourages me to stay involved with the community in promoting the Buddhist faith.”
The 78-year-old community leader added that his retirement means a new generation of leaders can take on his passion and continue to build the community.
“I’m going to continue to support and nurture our new leader, who is one of the most respectful and capable leaders. We all should support and help him grow,” Sovan said.
The newly elected president, Ngov Sopheak, also speaks highly of Sovan and his dedication. “He is such a great person. He would come to work at the temple, regardless if it’s lunchtime. He has spent countless hours of his time in our society.”