Occasionally, you’ll be driving on a very nondescript country road passing through rolling farmland that characterizes most of rural Minnesota, and come across something that takes you by complete surprise, making you almost break your neck trying to see it (or slam on the brakes if you’re like me). The Watt Munisotram is one of those places.
It’s the last place you’d expect to find the largest Buddhist Temple in the Upper Midwest. Set on a sprawling 40-acre campus surrounded by farmland some 30 miles south of Minneapolis, the Watt Munisotaram is as visually arresting as it is culturally significant.
The Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society was founded in 1982, although the temples we see on the grounds here were not established until the 2000s. At the Watt Munisotaram, you’ll find the original temple which is now used as housing for monks and priests, several smaller “stupas,” or shrines with relics of Buddha and his disciples, and the two-story Main Temple, with its shrine to the Buddha and vivid paintings of the stages of Buddha’s life on the walls.
Outside, there are several pavilions and landscaped grounds, with reflecting pools and other Buddhist figures, leaders, and historical figures. There were several new additions going up during our visit in October 2017 and construction workers onsite. The grounds are free to walk around and observe; they kindly ask you remove shoes and hats while entering the shrines and donations are encouraged. Much like Trinity Heights in Sioux City or Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, one does not truly need to be religious to appreciate or enjoy this amazing and peaceful place.
The shrines are all decorated in Far East Architecture, with gilded gold, dragons, lotus flowers, and rich colors. Buddha is depicted in his classic pose and the reclining Buddha, another iconic symbol that symbolized his ascent to Nirvana. Much of the text around each shrine is written in Cambodian, so it’s tough to get a grasp on what exactly you’re looking at, but this website details the statues and shrines very nicely, so you can always study up. Watt Munisotaram is found between Farmington and Hampton, just beyond the southern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Plan to spend a good hour walking the grounds and exploring the campus. The people are friendly and inviting; you may see monks walking the grounds and artisans working on new structures or landscapes. You may not know much about Buddhism, but there is no doubt this place will mesmerize you.
While in the area: Hot Sam’s Antiques in Lakeville and the remains of a WWII munitions factory in Rosemount aren’t too far away, and make sure to swing into Hampton just a few miles away to see some more roadside attractions as well.