Nearly 2,000 Vietnamese Buddhists crowded into the modest grounds of the Buddhist Congregational Church of America Sunday for a birthday party. It was Buddha's 2,533rd birthday anniversary.

Hundreds of children played games, ran through aisles of seated adults and wreslted over what used to be flower beds. Some adults quietly listened to speeches in Vietnamese and English while others called out excitedly to each other and visited with long-lost friends.

But Buddha's birthday was just one of several events marking the day. Church leaders laid the foundation stone for a new pagoda (temple) on the present church grounds and Vietnamese Buddhist monks from all over the world met to choose a new supreme patriarch. The supreme patriarch, the authority figure on theology, was still in Vietnam and unable to communicate with other leaders since the Communist takeover in 1975.

Later that day, it was announced that Thich Tam Chau, a monk who heads Buddhist groups in France and Canada had been chosen as the new Vietnamese Buddhist supreme patriarch.

Throughout the long ceremony and speeches the 19 monks and one nun from around the world sat quietly on the elevated platform at the sides of the ornate altar. The nun was almost indistinguishable from the monks, all of whom had shaved heads and wore orange, yellow or brown robes.

During the religious ceremony, they gathered around the altar with its painting of Buddha as a child to chant a eulogy on the life of Buddha to the accompaniment of a gong and drum.

From morning until almost midnight, women at one side of the grounds cooked and sold a variety of rice dishes, spring rolls, sandwiches and sweets.The aroma of food frying in electric woks blened with the incense burning at the altar.

Passerby leaned over the hedges to see the colored lights, spotlights illuminating brightly painted scenes from Buddha's life, and the women, who wore their graceful ao dais (traditional dresses with silts to the waist, worn with white or black trousers underneath).

Despite several blaring amplifiers, the family reunion atmosphere of the day nearly drowned out the speakers at times.

Clearly the highlight of the celebration came later in the evening when the Pham Duy Family Singers sang English and Vietnamese songs about their homeland. The family, now living on the West Coast, was a favorite of many in the crowd when they were still in Vietnam.

Many of the families came from as far as Florida and Ohio for the day's festivities. Hai Nguyen, 23, drove a car full of relatives from Pittsburgh for the celebration. "This is the closet pagoda to us," he said. "There are only about 1,000 Vietnamese in Pittsburgh, so we don't have our own temple.

"The old people feel at peace when they come in and worship Buddha," said Nguyen, whose family escaped on a shuo just days before the fall of South Vietnam.

"I've been coming here [to the Buddha birthday celebration] for four years," said Thanh Luu of Alexandria. "We just got out of being refugees four years ago and come here every Sunday and on holidays.

According to Dr. Thich Giac Duc, president of the Buddhist Congregational Church in America, his temple at 5401 16th St. NW is the only Vietnamese Buddhist temple on the East Coast. Other places Vietnamese Buddhists gather to worship are only chapels. Due to the numbers of Vietnamese refugees entering the United States, there is a sudden need for more temples.

Although the Mahayana sect of Buddhism (most Vietnamese are Mahayan) recognizes the eighth day of the fourth lunar month as the birthday of Buddha (which fell last Friday) it can be celebrated anytime between the eighth and 15th day, when other sects observe Buddha's birth. CAPTION: Picture, Jeannie Nguyen celebrates Buddha's birthday with a balloon as others seem in a more somber mood. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post