A Discussion with Samdech Preah Abhisiri Sugandha, Maha Sangharajah Thipati Bour Kry, Great Supreme Patriarch of Dhammayut Order of Cambodia
November 15, 2012
Background: During the July 31, 2012 WFDD workshop on religion and development in Cambodia, the patriarch spoke with participants, including Katherine Marshall, Jenny Cimaglia, and Laura Hodges. The interview reflects the patriarch’s comments and exchange on why and how religion, especially Buddhism, matters for Cambodia’s development. He recounted his background and reflected on why he became a monk and why he loves Buddhism, including his choice of the Dhammayut order (which he now heads). He describes the tumultuous years of the Khmer Rouge and the challenges of rebuilding monasteries and above all education and educational institutions in Cambodia following his return in 1991. He stresses that there is no one right religion, that all religions share common insights and goals. He described the many development activities in which he is involved, notably working to combat HIV and AIDS.
We extend our sympathies to you and to Cambodia's citizens on the death of the King Father on October 15, so long a symbol of Cambodia's culture and values and a trusted leader.
Thank you. It is a great loss to the nation.
Why and how did you become a monk and how has that shaped your life?
I became a monk in 1963, right after I graduated from high school. It is something I chose with my own heart. No one forced or encouraged me and indeed, when I told my family of my plan they thought I was crazy. They asked, why not finish your education, get a job, and make money? I was so disappointed at their refusal that I was ill, lying on my bed, weeping and refusing to move. When my family realized that I was so committed they relented, though they stressed that if I was to become a monk I must take it seriously, that it was a decision for life, not a temporary vocation. And since I became a monk I have not regretted it for a single day. During the terrible days in 1975 (as the Khmer Rouge took power) I was at the French Embassy and they urged me to take off my saffron robes but I refused. If I die of cold that is fine, I said, but I will not let go of my saffron robe.
As I was deciding as a young man to become a monk I spent time at the pagoda we had attended, which followed the Mahanikay tradition, which is one of the two strands of Cambodian Buddhism, as part of the Therevada strand of Buddhism. I was not happy with what I saw there at the pagoda. Monks were playing foolishly like children and I did not think that was right. I therefore looked at different pagodas and my family encouraged me to go to see a pagoda following the Dhammayut tradition (this tradition was brought to Cambodia by our king around 1856-57). I found one in the Dhammayut tradition (also written in English as Dhammayuttika Nikay) and the monks there emphasized the importance of knowledge and of virtue. So I joined that pagoda and that has been my tradition ever since.
I loved Buddhism as a young man and I love it still today. At first my understanding was not complicated. The principles were simple. But as I grew in age and wisdom I came to a far richer understanding of what Buddhism means and the depth of its teachings. Even though I chose to join the Dhammayutt tradition, I have never separated myself from others, Buddhist or other faiths. In Cambodia when I am invited by the Mohanikay tradition to come to pray I can go to their pagodas and I can also pray in Dhammayutt pagodas at another time during the day. In Paris, I was invited to go to the Cathedral and they asked if I minded, and I answered, of course not. And when I went to a meeting at the Vatican I was sleeping in a room with many pictures of Jesus Christ and they asked if I minded and I answered, surely not. I was received by the Pope at the Vatican, with other religious leaders. There is no contradiction, no problem. There is no confusion within my own mind.
During the Khmer Rouge period (1975-79) there was no religion allowed in Cambodia. There was no Buddhist practice, pagodas were destroyed and monks were killed. So Buddhism had to be reborn in Cambodia after 1979. It happened very slowly. The Dhammayut tradition was formally recreated only on December 7, 1999, as before then, the Mahanikay and Dhammayut were joined together by King Sihanouk who was then the leader of Cambodia.
In 1980 I founded the Wat Khémararam Pagoda in Paris. It was the first Cambodian pagoda in Europe and it was a place where there was chanting for refugees. When Prince Sihamoni (now the current Cambodian king) became a monk in France, I was asked to lead his initiation ceremony in Wat Khémararam Pagoda and was his teacher there. Then in December 1991, I was the only monk to accompany King Sihanouk and the queen, Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the ambassador of China, on the plane that took us from Beijing to Cambodia. The king called me whilst I was in France and asked me to come to Beijing to join him. So I agreed to go. In 1987 I had been appointed by King Sihanouk to be the president of Sun Dai, as president of the Democratic Republic of Cambodia (as it was known then). I was appointed to be supreme patriarch in 1991.
I have spent most of my time in Cambodia since I returned in 1991. I am very proud to be in the Dhammayut order and we have succeeded in rebuilding the tradition. We went from zero to over 200 pagodas and from only one monk to 2,760 (not counting those from the last rainy season census). I was at Wat Onolom Pagoda in Phnom Penh for some months, but am now based here at the Svay Popel Pagoda which is also in Phnom Penh.
How do you relate to the Cambodian government?
I have had close relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen and he has supported our work.
For the prime minister’s birthday recently, he reminded me about what had happened 21 years ago. I was preaching in the Royal Palace, to a number of important people, and they gave money (because preaching is a way of fund-raising). After I finished preaching I offered the money that we had collected to the prime minister. He was very excited, and said that it was the first time that any monk had given all the money raised from preaching to him. After this, he agreed to support the reconstruction of our pagoda and building the Preah Sihamoni Raja Buddhist University (PSBU) here at Wat Svay Popel.
What are the differences between the two orders of Cambodian Buddhism?
These divisions are normal in religion. There are such divisions in many religious traditions—Sunni and Shia in Islam, Catholic and Protestant, in Christianity, and also the Orthodox. In Buddhism you have the two main schools, Mahanaya and Therevada. You have to know the history of the development of the tradition to understand why there are differences and what they mean, but every religion has its divisions. And even under the umbrella of Buddhism in Cambodia there are many other branches. The Mahanikay and Dhammayut traditions in Cambodia are the result of different histories, tracing their lineage to different paths. The Dhammayut tradition places a special emphasis on learning and on care for the tradition. But we work with the Mahanikay tradition.
How do you see relations with other religious traditions?
I see no contradiction at all in there being many different religions. There is no problem. I have no conflict or confusion in myself in respecting and learning from others. What is important is not what the religion says, but what is inside our hearts. And no matter what happens or what they believe or are taught, people must live together. The earth does not belong to a single people or person. It belongs to every person who lives on the earth. Religions reflect the history of the world. Buddhism and Hinduism are very old and Buddhism emerged from Hindu traditions. In the same way Christianity grew from the older tradition of Judaism. There is the Old Testament and the New Testament. Islam drew on many of the same traditions and in many ways is not unlike Christianity. And today Buddhism is also reforming and changing, taking from different traditions.
We have to adapt. My colleague here, this monk, is a scholar from China. When he is in China he wears thick clothes and a cap because it is cold, but here he wears the saffron robe of a Cambodian monk and shaves his head. When I lived in France, I wore a cap also because it was cold. It is in some way like fashion and the outer trappings are not very important. But fundamentally we are all one family.
You can be religious but that does not say that what you do is right or wrong or that you know the difference between right and wrong. We know that it is important not to kill but people still do killing. These ideas and rules come from what is important to people because they are made by and created for people. That means we need to focus on people. Buddhism is a religion that is about goodness in people. You should do good, and that applies to the rich and the poor. No one can free you from guilt except yourself.
The Buddha was not a god. He was just a teacher, a very wise teacher. He came to understand important concepts. His message was that you must think and study. That is why literacy is so important. You must study to be enlightened. No one can have an absolute interpretation. I use my preaching and study from there. We must study the Dharma. The Buddha never said, “You have to follow me,” or learn from my preaching. His preaching and ideas have been developed by many others, so that it represents a wisdom worked out over thousands of years.
There are no pictures or statues of the Buddha when he was alive or for centuries thereafter because he would not allow anyone to make a statue of him. The first images were made 400 years after he died. Alexander the Great liked the teachings of the Buddha and ordered that a statue be made, as well as a house that he thought the Buddha would like. Today there are thousands of images of him. But no one knew what he looked like. That is why there are so many different images and shapes of the images of Buddha. He spoke to and still speaks to ordinary people and taught them and their imagination is reflected in the images.
What are the works of your order?
We have many educational facilities here. In 1993 we started with a primary school, then a high school in 1997, and the Buddhist University in 2005. The University was inaugurated by the king, and Prime Minister Hun Sen also came (he had provided a lot of support for construction). But we have much work still to do.
We are working on HIV and AIDS. In 2000, I came to the White House in Washington when President Clinton had a meeting on HIV and AIDS with religious leaders. We currently teach about HIV and AIDS and we provide rice and small funds to families. As soon as the ARV drugs against AIDS were available we began to distribute them and support the families of those who were receiving them.
We are also working to end domestic violence, and provide loans for small business. We educate people who are involved in drugs, against heroin, and we are part of the anti-tobacco, anti-smoking campaign and we also give bicycles to children so they can get to school.
We have been involved in ecumenical and interfaith events. That includes work with ARC (Alliance of Religions and Conservation) on the environment and with UNDP also. One project there is supporting the protection of fresh water dolphins in the Mekong River, working with WWF (World Wildlife Fund).
We are working to satisfy the needs of people so that people have the benefits of a higher living standard and also a spiritual life.
What does Buddhism mean to you?
I love Buddhism. To me it is like rice. You cannot live without rice. Why is rice important? Because you will die if you do not have it. People need food for their emotions and spirit also. So people need to be fed. They also need to have satisfaction for their emotional needs. And beauty, beauty is good and makes sense of it all. Touching and feeling are not beauty. You cannot live without the four; eating, touching, feeling emotion, and feeling beauty. These are the basis of knowing the difference between right and wrong, the difference between something that is not delicious and something that is delicious.
In Communist countries there is no religion—in North Korea, Vietnam, Korea, they tried to wipe out religion. But they developed an ideology that was supposed to replace religion. In China it was the Red Book. In western countries today, people claim that there is no God, but people still do humanitarian and charitable work. In many ways these are the same things as religion. Because no one can live without religion, as living without religion is like losing one component of life.
There are Buddhist cultures in more than 30 countries today. The world has opened to many forms of religion because everyone wants peace, happiness, and harmony. We must be mindful of our own faiths, but it is time to work together. We do not know what the Buddha was really like. We do not know what God looks like. Nor do we know what Jesus or Allah looked like. But we believe in the reality of rocks and stones. We can live in the present together and agree on living with patience, tolerance, and compassion.