Dharma bum: a year in a pagoda

by Nathan A Thompson, Phnom Penh Post, 3 May 2013

Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- When I was asked to give a gift to the head of the Buddhist temple where I would spend the next year, I expected to hand over symbolic lotus flowers or pricey Western goods. Sarong, my host, pointed to two dusty cases of Red Bull. “That’s what the monks like”, she said.

<< Photograph: Scott Howes/Phnom Penh Post
When Nathan A Thompson swapped his stress-packed life in the UK to live for a year with monks in Takeo province, he expected to immerse himself in a stark way of life. The reality was rather different. Here, he reveals what it’s like to forsake everything you know to live in a temple.

My new housemate, Sareun, sat cross-legged, his face hard-set. He was swathed in orange robes and had a scar that bloomed from voice box to shoulder. I sat on the floor with my legs swept to one side and bowed three times. I raised my gift in his direction, and he took it without comment. In the renunciate life of a monk, the odd can of Red Bull can provide quite a kick.

Three weeks previously, I had been trapped in the longest, darkest winter the UK had seen for years. I worked in overdrive to gather enough money to fund the first few months of a new life I had planned, thousands of miles away.

A freelance writer, I took every job I could get; I churned out content on everything from hotels to sofas. Two days out of every fourteen were spent in bed, glassy-eyed with exhaustion. As soon as I felt better, I hunched back over my laptop in the winter twilight, tapping away, pulled by thoughts of Cambodia.

I planned to live in a rural village and volunteer for a new NGO. For months at a time, I would be the only foreigner there. Like many over-stimulated Westerners, I had romantic notions about Eastern spirituality. I started my days with some meditation and yoga postures. When Sarong’s email told me that I would be living with monks, I was thrilled.

I arrived in a tuk-tuk packed with bags, boxes of books and my bicycle. We rattled through the temple entrance guarded by two Angkor warriors in peeling paint. We passed the small reservoir and the assembly hall. The hall is two storeys high and is large enough to accommodate all 200 families in the village on a celebration day like Khmer New Year. The courtyard beyond the hall was surrounded by houses painted blue, white and yellow.

Centre stage was Sareun’s mansion, which loomed yellow and gold in the sunlight, two giant storeys with huge pillars that supported the balcony.

I stumbled out of the tuk-tuk wanting to get into my room as quickly as possible. Then I met Sareun for the first time, cigarette dangling from his lips.

My first surprise. “The Buddha never said we couldn’t smoke,” he told me, speaking through a translator, on my second day at the temple.

Sareun’s headshot is framed along with other unsmiling heads of his order in my room. Every day he is surrounded by friends – men who are now grandfathers. They sit outside his grand stone house on the slatted wooden platform talking and joking. The young monks scurry past his gaze clutching Dharma books, their eyes downcast.

When he was ordained as a monk in 1979, after the colossal destruction of the Pol Pot regime, there was, he says, “no other kind of education available”. He learned the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha – from a man named Hing Ngat, who escaped the regime.

Sareun’s decision to become a monk was prompted by contracting tuberculosis and cancer following the Khmer Rouge years. The diseases left him a curious legacy. “If I have sex I will die – the doctor told me. So I decided not to get married and focus on learning the Dharma. I want to follow the Buddha’s teachings and be a saintly person.”

At first, he lived in a palm leaf cottage on the site of Wat Baray, which was then a brick-strewn crater. One building remained, and he began to use it to teach Dharma. After Hing Ngat died in 1988, Sareun succeeded him as head of the temple. It has taken 30 years for him to rebuild the fishscale roofs and pink and yellow buildings – most of the work funded by donations from the local people. The monks who live there now are mostly teenagers who come because Wat Baray has a good reputation as a place to learn both Buddhist scriptures and English.

I was given a room at Wat Baray in Sareun’s stone house with cool tiled flooring. It’s unusual for a Westerner to live in a temple. The few NGOs that work with temples have separate accommodation for staff. The NGO I work for is founded by a woman whose family is from the village, so it was no problem for her to get the monks behind her project. Buddhist temples exist for the benefit of the community and often have people staying there. Anyone in need is welcome: orphans, people with disabilities, friends and family – they must, however, be male because monks are celibate. I make a monthly donation to cover my costs.

My first few days were fraught. I had to learn to eat egg fetuses, sleep on a straw mat and wash in a giant bucket next to a hole. Not everyone was immediately welcoming. On my third day at the Wat, I needed a knife to peel a mango. I approached the kitchen, where the 70-year-old Yay Nath, a shaven-headed nun, sat among stained cauldrons and pots. She sounded like an army major shouting at a group of sloppy recruits. “Knife – what is?” I mumbled pathetically, trying to sound amicable. She unleashed a battery of angry-sounding syllables. I didn’t return for two weeks.

When I did, she fed me roasted banana and told me her story. She’s been a nun for 24 years. “After my husband died, Sareun asked me to come and cook for the monks, and I was happy to volunteer while my son supports me financially.”

She hopes that through service she will be reborn into a good life. “I don’t want to reborn underground or as a ghost. If I cultivate good virtue in this life by serving the monks, then I will be reborn as a human or a heavenly being.”

Buddhists believe that the type of mind we posses when we die determines our reincarnation. If the mind is pure, the positive vibrations lead to rebirth in a human or heavenly body. Bad vibes lead to hell. 
It’s not easy keeping the mind pure.

“I wish the Buddha would have allowed us to eat dinner in the evenings,” teenage novice Nam Soukhaine told me on an empty stomach one evening. Buddhist scriptures stipulate that monks should not eat after noon. At the temple, they have breakfast at 7am and lunch at 11am.

At 16, Soukhaine is only required to learn Dharma for three hours a day, as opposed to the seven hours put in by his older peers. He hopes to leave the monkhood when he turns 20.

“For my parent’s generation, you had to be a monk before you could get a good job like doctor or policeman. They wanted me to be a monk because monks have fine accents and virtuous characters.”

Some monks exemplify the virtuous ideal more than others. Every so often, a report pops up about wayward behaviour: recent months have seen pagoda chiefs defrocked over singing, drinking and cavorting with women at karaoke clubs. In recent years, there have even been reports of sexual assaults carried out by monks.

“These bad monks join the monkhood for their own gain,” said Sambo, the ex-monk who teaches Pali, the ancient language of the Buddhist scriptures.

“They create fake building projects and ask for donations; sometimes they buy a gun illegally and use it to rob rich people. It is mostly a problem in the city; because there are so many monks there, it is difficult to control them.”

“But the monks at Wat Baray have an excellent reputation,” he added, laughing.

In the evenings, the television casts a glow on the white-tiled walls. Sareun watches Chinese and Korean kung fu films, sitting with one leg thrown over the arm of his mahogany recliner. The young monks guiltily abandon their studies to watch.

There is a debate within the Buddhist community over how much television and internet should be allowed in a temple. So far, no dictum has been reached. Keo Vichith from the Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistance Project, who was a monk for 10 years, favours the middle path.

“It depends how the monks use it; if they are watching TV or using their iPhones for educational purposes, that is OK because monks should not be isolated from the issues that are important to people,” he told me.

At Wat Baray, Sareun does not allow the young monks to have iPhones for fear that they will waste too much time.

As time wore on, I began to let go of my expectations of temple life. The strict regime of work, exercise and meditation that had led to burnout in the UK was no longer needed because, for the first time in my life, I had enough money. I bought a moto. I swam in the reservoir with the children, their dolphin-like movements interrupted by the “Pwchaar” noises of a mimed gun battle.

I have also witnessed incredible compassion. One day, we felled a small tree for firewood and came under attack from a colony of ants. While I slapped and cursed, the monks were calmly picking each ant from their skin and placing them back on the tree scrupulously, following the Buddhist precept to “harm no living being”.

Another day, the monks dragged me to the reservoir in the Wat - a lush patch of water with an island in the middle – with the words, “Come quick. You must see, you must see.” A huddle of children were watching something in the water. It had the head of a dog with the skin of a frog. Two yellow reptile eyes. Everyone was still.

As it moved towards the stone steps that lead into the water, the outline of a shell and two flippers became visible: it was a narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle, one of the most endangered species in the world. Sareun adopted two from the 100 Pillar Pagoda in Kratie province, home to the Mekong Turtle Conservation Centre. The kids threw rice in the water and prehistoric jaws opened and slammed shut. The two turtles are just some of the menagerie of animals that bark and scratch around the pagoda. “I hope these turtles will survive with Buddha’s blessings,” Sareun said.

Not all the monks will stay for long.

One young man who recently left the monkhood lives in a nearby village. Now that his arranged marriage to a Cambodian-American woman is secure, his parents are barely letting him leave the house. He is their ticket out of poverty. (He did not want to be named in case it affected his application for an international marriage licence.)

“I want to be a monk forever because everything the Buddha said was right,” he told me, as generations of cats, chickens and dogs flowed in the dust around our ankles.

As we talked, his teenage sister rode in with a smile; you’d never guess she’d cycled and sweated 16 kilometres to attend school. “It’s a shame I have to get married,” he said wistfully. “But I can’t go against my parents wishes.”

He is 20, athletic and handsome. “The body is a very ugly thing. It is full of sweat and waste. Only crazy people like their bodies; the Buddha teaches us to not care about the body or property.” Reluctantly de-robed and dressed in jeans and a grey zip-up hoody, he sat in a hammock strung between two concrete pillars that support the wooden room he shares with his parents and sister.

“I miss living in the pagoda because all my friends are there.” He gave a pained smile. “We would talk about the Dharma, and I would learn so much.” In order to cheer him up, I Googled pictures of his new home: Atlanta, Georgia. He looked at the twinkling skyscrapers. “Wow.”  

On my way out, I thought about what awaits him in the US and if his earnest Buddhism will survive an encounter with hyper-consumer culture. In my room at the temple now, the only thing that remains from my old life among the skyscrapers is my to-do list – meetings, work, gym sessions. Underneath are many sheets of blank paper.

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