A Discussion with with Peter Gyallay-Pap, Executive Director of Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistance Project
November 1, 2009
Background: This exchange with Augustina Delaney in Phnom Penh was part of a WFDD review of development and faith in Cambodia; it was supplemented by an email exchange with Katherine Marshall. The interview focuses on the history and evolution of KEAP's work in Cambodia and its role in helping to restore the Buddhist culture and institutions after the Khmer Rouge period. More broadly, it explores the continuing challenges to Cambodia's Buddhism as it is confronted by both politics and modernization. Gyallay-Pap describes his own work in Cambodia and his motivation for working in the Southeast Asia region, long after his experience as an American soldier during the Vietnam War. He also recounts his role in the Dhammayietra.
How did you get interested in Cambodia and the refugee camps on the border? How did you end up working there?
Had I not served with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, in an area of the Mekong Delta that happened to be mainly ethnic Khmer, I would not have ended up there. There are some two million Cambodians still living in southern Vietnam, an area that was part of Cambodia until Vietnam spread southward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When I got to my infantry unit, they saw that I had a background in writing and photography in both high school and college, so they put me in a combat writer and photographer’s slot. As long as I was writing stories and producing pictures, I was pretty much left to my own devices. I saw the war from the top level to the grunts in rice paddies. It was just astounding how we came to a non-Western country with our Western mental baggage and thought that things would work the same way that they did in Europe during World War II.
In reflecting on my Vietnam experience, I soon realized how the Americans ran roughshod over a very sensitive, ancient culture without even realizing it. It dawned on me that Americans would never get to first base in the war there until they had a grasp of the psycho-cultural dimension of the conflict. And yet they would never do that because they lacked the necessary tools. They thought largely in mechanistic terms. I realized at that point, or maybe afterwards, that a Westerner like myself could never fully understand another culture.
How did I end up there? I resigned from a teaching job in the U.S. at the time of my divorce in 1987, and something, it was really an inner voice, told me to return to Southeast Asia. I asked where there was need and subsequently prepared myself for work in the Khmer refugee camps. Apart from reading and research, I worked on resettlement of refugees in western Massachusetts with Lutheran Child & Family Services. They sponsored many Cambodian families, and I thus developed contacts with the Cambodian community. Then I returned to the region in the late 1980s on study trips to the camps strung along the Cambodia Thailand border. In 1990, I went there on a permanent basis until the refugees, actually at that time called displaced persons, were repatriated to Cambodia by the UN in 1992-93.
We did some training work in the camps, working above all with the Buddhist wats [temple-monasteries] there; there were at least 14 when I was there. We also provided them with Khmer Buddhist texts, audiocassettes, and video tapes, some of which we produced working with senior Khmer monks living in the U.S. and Canada. As for the training, we worked with monks and lay people on Buddhism and community development skills based on their own traditional Buddhist self-help principles. The deputy director of the UN Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) Patrick Van de Velde, a Belgian, heard about and visited our training workshops. He later offered to include our program in the European Commission’s rehabilitation program for Cambodia which he was charged with setting up. Between 1992 and 1995, the effort focused on the two provinces where most of the returnees would settle, Battambang and Pursat.
In preparing myself psychologically to work in the refugee camps, I knew I would never understand Khmer culture, but thought if I could try to do so as much as possible on their terms, as they see themselves or wish to be understood, then I might come half-way to an understanding. That’s really the key. That made it a lot more fun too because I was learning and listening and marveling, not playing the role of a Western “expert.”
During my two years in the camps, some family members and friends said I was overly altruistic because I was giving up so much. In fact, those two years were the greatest gift I ever received in my life. It was a high living, if vicariously, on a dollar a day for food.
Was KEAP the organization you worked with at that time?
Yes. Actually, I worked as a volunteer with KEAP and subsisted on a monthly living allowance of $240 provided by COERR, the Catholic Office for Emergency Relief & Refugees, an NGO of the Catholic diocese of Thailand that had a large presence in the camps. They offered me an arrangement whereby I taught my field, international relations, at their two para-universities in Site 2, the largest of the camps, and could spend the rest of my time working for KEAP, that is, helping with Buddhist revival. I couldn’t believe the foresight and understanding of this international team of Jesuit fathers who were running COERR in the field at the time. If a history of the border camps is ever written, they would come across as legendary figures for their incredible devotion and service to the Khmer without a hint of proselytizing.
I had founded KEAP in 1988 with a few professors of Buddhism in the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. For the first decade we were a joint project of two tax-exempt non-profits, the Khmer Studies Institute in Connecticut founded by Cambodian refugees and the American Institute for Buddhist Studies in Amherst, Massachusetts. We became our own 501c3 educational non-profit after I returned stateside in 1999.
In 1992, with the repatriation underway, we shifted our work from the camps to Battambang, in northwestern Cambodia, to set up the training project I mentioned earlier. Because KEAP had an American registry, we had to find a European NGO to implement the project. In 1991, I had a brief consulting stint in Cambodia with the French NGO, Partage avec les Enfants du Monde (Share with the children of the world). They had established a school support program in Cambodia and were closely tied to the Cambodian Sangha. Partage reengaged in Cambodia from the 1980s, a time when there were fews NGOs in the country and the Sangha was still tightly controlled. I met Pierre Marchand, Partage’s founder, who had worked with Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn’s orphans’ project during the Vietnam War. Thich Nhat Hanh as you may know was so influential in promoting engaged Buddhism. Anyway, I took a leave of absence from KEAP and Pierre agreed to channel the EU program funds through Partage. The European Commission official allowed KEAP to play a supporting role by subcontracting with Partage to provide educational materials, in this case Buddhist texts, texts on Khmer culture and community development, and various medias. As the camps were closing, KEAP acquired nearly 20,000 reprinted and some original texts, most of them produced in the camps by the Japan Sotoshu Relief Committee and the International Rescue Committee. We proceeded to distribute these materials to wats, many of them through the Partage project, as a way of encouraging the wats to recover, or rediscover, their traditional function as community learning centers.
Partage worked in 64 communes (sub-districts) in the two provinces. We developed and conducted three 2-month training cycles on “community health, water and sanitation,” “village economic and social development,” and “natural preservation and cultural development.” The second month of each cycle had our all-Khmer staff (senior staff were our border camp veterans) backstopping the participants in their respective communities as they shared and processed what they had learned with other villagers and monks. Each village/wat community was represented by four participants: two monks and, in most cases, the village headman or deputy, and a primary school teacher—the natural leaders of a community. With the aid of vans that served as mobile libraries, these multi-day gatherings took place in the participating wats.
Each van—there were two working in each province—was equipped with four folding libraries made of wood that opened up with shelves to hold about 40 books; and a PA system for playing audio and video tapes.
The work had an impact. Each participant group generated numerous projects and activities in their communities aimed at improving the quality of life. By working through the wats, with the monk participants really guiding the process, I think we had advantages over the other 10 or so European NGOs in the EU program whose methods were not necessarily based on working through the local culture: villagers’ participation was high and seemed less forced or obligatory; and I would say there was a higher level of trust by working through the wats. Some monks were more adept than others in mobilizing the villagers to form working groups for projects. They worked on rebuilding or improving the tertiary roads linking the market, the wat and the school; on rebuilding or improving the small bridges over these roads; and digging and constructing community ponds or wells. Our staff, and I myself, helped the participants find the material assistance needed, such as laterite and tools for the roads, building materials for the bridges, concrete rings for the wells, and so on, from other NGOs, the UNDP, and Danaid in particular (funded by the Danish development agency). Our own work focused only on so-called human resource development, training, and education, not material assistance.
Other memorable self-help activities that mushroomed at the time were savings—credit groups, or village banks, along with rice banks. I recall that by 1995, there were more than a thousand village banks, run mainly by women, that had formed They met each month to save a small amount of money (the funds were kept in the wats) before enough capital was in hand to make loans to members, one or two at a time. More than a few members invested to set up a vegetable stand on the road or in the market. The interest on these loans was, of course, substantially lower than the going rate among (mainly Chinese) moneylenders. After village banks functioned on their own for at least six months, we acquired a fund from the EU that added capital to them to make loans for larger projects. We encouraged projects that benefited the community, such as community stores (co-ops), village health clinics, and community pre-schools located in the wats.
We naturally encountered problems along the way. Villagers worked freely and for the most part with no qualms through the wat structure, knowing they were making merit, an important Buddhist practice. But on a few occasions, we received reports of complaints. Villagers would look down the road to the next village, say, and see the World Food Program (WFP) doing the same thing, but people there were being paid for their work through the WFP’s Food for Work program. There was thus a small discrepancy: here was our program, trying to foster traditional self-help activities, while the WFP next door was conducting a donor-driven, pay-for-work program. We also received flak from a few NGOs, including one in our same EU rehabilitation program, for not following the Grameen village bank model, which I found to be a more mechanical and less culturally embedded model. Another problem encountered was that our Partage program was overfunded. We had surpluses each year. Staff received generous salaries and over time became more, not less money-minded (that is, service oriented). So we found ourselves in this funny paradox. Our NGO staff, who by virtue of working for a foreign NGO had elite status in the society, were preaching local self-help principles while being entirely dependent for their own livelihoods on a foreign organization. Given all these tensions, I was nonetheless surprised at how much was accomplished. By design, the project localized into a Cambodian NGO called Samakithor, which translates to Dhammic solidarity. It is still up in Battambang today, struggling, led by an executive director who was on our staff back then.
What is KEAP’s primary focus today?
KEAP seeks not to implement projects, but act as a bridge between donors and local projects in Cambodia. Working on a small scale, we raise funds, which come mainly from Buddhists abroad, and perform a monitoring and facilitating role on the ground.
Education remains the main mission. An important part is a scholarship program for monk students at the Buddhist University, monks in their second, third, and fourth years, who have demonstrated academic potential and financial need. We look for those who have a monastic commitment. The majority of monks at the Buddhist University are from the provinces, and in some cases, their home or native wats have the wherewithal to support them. Our local implementing partner is the Buddhist Association of Cambodia, which is located right across from the university. They give the monks a monthly stipend of $25 over 10 months, which defrays their learning and living expenses. There are 13 monks this year; last year we supported 16. It depends on how many sponsorships we’re able to raise.
As there are no possibilities for monks to continue with Buddhist studies above the B.A.-equivalent level in Cambodia, we teamed up with the Khyentse Foundation in San Francisco to provide post-graduate monastic scholarships, in this case for graduates to study in Theravada Buddhist higher learning institutions in neighboring countries. A monk who returned from Sri Lanka last year is now teaching Buddhist philosophy at the Buddhist University, another is heading the Buddhist high school in Kampong Cham province. A main reason for being here now is to recruit and select two new monk scholarship recipients.
I particularly wish we were able to support more research, through the Center of Advanced Study, which I helped to set up in 1996, on the role of monks in Khmer society. The issue of monk involvement in, and disengagement from, society is a fascinating topic.
What are other KEAP initiatives?
We are supporting a nun’s center in Battambang at Wat Poveal, Cambodia’s most renowned learning center wat; first Buddhist lycée was established there in the early 1950s. When I worked with Partage, we used that as our training facility, and we were able to restore several buildings as we needed them to lodge our participants and for the training. We were able to use international donor funding on these grounds to restore religious structures in many wats in our project area. It was an anomaly, but it worked, hopefully for a more lasting good.
The nuns center in the southern part of the Wat Poveal compound was important one before the civil war began in 1970. It reopened in 1995, with its main three-story meditation pavilion and kutis, rooms where monks or nuns stay, inherited from the Partage program. When we first came upon it in 1992, a local told us that it had until recently been used as quarters for Vietnamese soldiers. The center been struggling since 1995; they’ve received little support from the Association of Nuns and Laywomen.
The head nun at Wat Poweal is exceptional in my eyes. What I like about her is that she has a certain bearing that you can see in people who lead a spiritual life. She is very smart. She learned as a four or five year old from her mother how to meditate, and has been on that path all her life. She is now about 65. She has had a lot of instruction and practice, so much so that monks come to her for instruction in meditation. I am putting a lot of my bets on her.
Our idea is to first upgrade the facility. We helped bring in electricity and pipe in municipal water. We found support from Buddhists in Singapore to build a roof so the building will no longer sustain water damage during the rainy season.
Are the Buddhist nuns in Cambodia ordained?
The nuns here are officially lay devotees; they are not bhikkhunis, the equivalent of monks, who are bhikkhus. Bhikkhuni ordinations died out more than a thousand years ago, but there is a movement afoot, through INEB [International Network of Engaged Buddhists, based in Bangkok], Sri Lankan Buddhists, and Venerable Yos Hut here in Cambodia, to promote the ordination of women again. At least one Thai woman has been ordained, Maechi Varangghana Vanavichayen, whom I first met in the early 1990s when she was teaching at Thammsat University. She was ordained in Sri Lanka, but the Thai Sangha is turning their back on her as is much of the society too. It’s going to be a long, uphill battle, but a corner has been turned.
Most nuns in Cambodia—it’s hard to say how many there are, maybe between 10 and 20,000—are older women in the last stages of their life. They want to retire, prepare to die, and make merit by serving the monks. However, in the refugee camps and other places around the country, I see younger women too—some may be widows. But there is concern for younger nuns, for their safety and security and so on.
What makes the nuns interesting is that they are more serious about the Dhamma compared to the monks, most of whom are very young and doing a two to three year rite of passage, in many cases making merit especially for their parents, before disrobing. Nuns are not only older, but more mature and devoted. They are a very under utilized resource here, especially for women and children living with trauma or stress. The nuns’ center and association in Siemreap is by contrast very strong and has some good outreach activities. But overall, the nuns are an untapped resource.
Does KEAP have any initiatives focusing on education for younger children?
A fourth current program is helping a retired couple run a school for vulnerable children through their informal community-based organization called Amnoy Tean, or “dana offering.” (Years ago, they considered but decided rather emphatically not to become another local NGO). In 2002, we made an arrangement with a wat in Siem Reap whereby they provided land in the wat compound in exchange for KEAP raising the funds to build a one room school there with electricity. Amnoy Tean would run the school for five years with diminishing KEAP (and other outside) support and increasing wat and community support, after which the wat would take the program over completely. At least one monk there made a commitment to teach English and Buddhist morality.
Although this couple (the husband is a retired schoolteacher) spent years after the mid-1990s quietly making merit on their own by feeding and teaching Buddhist morality to street children in various wats, I had the idea of locating this school in a wat, as a reminder that the wats had over the centuries served as a social safety net for the neediest and most destitute members of society. Hopefully having the school for vulnerable children there would rekindle and revive that traditional practice.
But running the school in the wat proved challenging. Amnoy Tean was always under pressure to spread the “benefits” beyond the school. (We in fact were only able to provide a small fraction of what the school needed.) To make matters worse, the monks started fighting over money tourists donated at a shrine of skulls and bones in the wat. (The site of the wat, completed in 1998, was on a killing field.) It was big time money because tourists would pass by this wat on their way to see the nearby Angkor temples. Each year I visited, the parking space accommodating the buses and vans had grown larger. Anyway, the head monk, who has since left, basically told Amnoy Tean, and me, “Why is KEAP asking us to pitch in when they have so much money; if there is an international organization behind this school they should be paying us instead of asking us to commit our resources.” That was their logic, perhaps understandable from their point of view. At the end of the fourth year, shortly before the new schoolyear was to resume, the head monk informed Amnoy Tean that the building for needed for use as a kuti, or lodging for monks, in effect closing the school down.
The couple has continued the school at their chamkar, which is a piece of land next to water used for growing fruits and vegetables. They had always wanted to run the school there. It’s running more smoothly and peacefully, serving as before up to 30 kids from very poor families. Many of the parents are living with or have died of HIV/AIDS and were unable to send their kids to school. The objective was not to create an alternative school, but to mainstream the kids into the local public school. The idea at the wat was to take them for a year or two, help them get them on their feet, teach basic numeracy and literacy, along with Buddhist morality, and provide them with clothes, school supplies, some nutrition, helping prepare them for school. Now, all the kids are actually in school, which is located right next to the chamkar, while receiving these value added services that keep them from falling through the cracks. Because of overcrowding, primary schools run on two half-day sessions. Amnoy Tean would alternate between receiving afternoon session kids in the morning and morning session kids in the afternoon. They basically mentor and tutor the students, and continue to provide at least some nutrition, if not a lunch, and 200 riels (about five cents) to give to their teachers. Without that money they can’t attend school. It’s a form of unofficial institutionalized corruption, given the extremely low salaries, around $30 per month, that teachers receive.
So the project does achieve the program’s central objective, which is to provide the support necessary for the children to be able go to school while helping acculturate them in their own Khmer-Buddhist heritage. When I was there last week, the kids were knocking on the gates before 7 o’clock. It was incredible. I have rarely seen such bright eyes or enthusiasm or smiles that were spontaneous, playful, and sincere. They started with Buddhist chanting and after the first break in the instruction, they sat for a few minutes of meditation. If you look on our website, the pictures tell the story. There are pictures like this all over Cambodia, but with a difference: the sponsors or organizations are more frequently than not Christian missionaries with their hidden, if sincere, agendas. It’s sad that so few other Buddhists are engaged with children who are vulnerable or clearly in need of support. In fact, Amnoy Tean’s kids and parents have been targeted and some weaned away by well-oiled operations, mainly by Korean Christians, involving van pick-ups and showing the kids a good time as a means to proselytize. They apparently don’t even give them proper instruction in school subjects, much less in Buddhist morality.
Why does KEAP focus on educating Buddhist monks in Cambodia?
One of the greatest challenges in Cambodia in my opinion, perhaps the single most important need, is renewing the standards of the Sangha as a basis for renewing the society and restoring self-esteem among the Khmer people, 95 percent of whom are or claim to be Buddhist. I realize I’m virtually alone among westerners involved with Cambodia who say this, but I think it’s true. Most Khmer who went through the holocaust remain to varying degrees traumatized and tend to believe that what happened to them in the 1970’s was their fault. Many of those born after the 1970s and 1980s, especially here in Phnom Penh and some other urban areas, seem lost or equally disoriented, if not demoralized. They’re certainly mesmerized by western consumer culture. This is against the backdrop of a social reality where the monastic culture here, as I mentioned earlier, remains an integral part of Khmer culture. Restoring standards in the Sangha essentially boils down to providing monks with good Buddhist education so that they can provide the moral and social leadership most of the people still expect or at least hope for.
May I ask if you are a Buddhist?
Let’s put it this way: I am pro-Buddhist and I participate. Apart from seeing myself as a Buddhist in Cambodia, I sit and practice Vipassana meditation, if not on a rigorous or regular basis. I think all great religions, at least those with long lineages, have intrinsic worth, are good and true. The same goes for indigenous belief systems, the primal religions. What people sometimes do with religions, whether for political or other questionable power purposes, like fundamentalism, is another story. I myself come from a nominally Christian background, born and raised in Europe of a Finnish Lutheran mother and Hungarian Unitarian father.
What did you witness on the revival of Buddhism after the Khmer Rouge period?
Well I wasn’t there in the 1980s, so what I know is what I’ve been able to piece together from research and interviews. Right after the Pol Pot regime was driven out by the Vietnamese in 1979, it was wat structures that spontaneously remerged in the country to begin the reconstruction process, not state or party structures much less outside help. This happened even though 99 percent of the monks had been killed or forcibly disrobed and the wats and Buddhist statuary damaged or destroyed. But as wat buildings were among the largest and most sturdy in the countryside and towns, and centrally located, many were sequestered for pigsties, communal kitchens, storage, mandatory communal meetings, and, not least, as torture and execution chambers.
This initial period of recovery, and Buddhist revival, was led by surviving wat committee members, the lay elders and wise men. In the eyes of the Khmer, if you don’t have a wat, you don’t have a community, so rebuilding the wats was a first priority. The response of the people, the villagers, was incredible. Here were people who had just gone through a holocaust and yet they were providing dana [charity] to their wat—really as an act of self-restoration! Even in the early 1990s, when the massive infusions of international aid started to pour in and villagers started getting some trickles of microcredit, many simply turned the money over to the wat; that was the normal thing to do, causing perplexity and frustration for the donors.
The wat-led reconstruction process was apparently so successful that even the PRK [People’s Republic of Kampuchea] government, as it got on its feet, began to give them resources, including for public works projects outside the wat. What was paradoxical here was that the central government derived a part of its resources, maybe a large part, I don’t know how much, from taxing the wats! It also sent a signal to the communist government that this spiritual power, as an independent force in society, represented a potential political threat. It was thus important to control it. Apart from the wat tax, which was really detested by the locals, party members forced themselves into the wat committees to influence or take over the reconstruction process. To contain the number of monk ordinations, a decree was passed that limited a wat to no more than four monks. There were nonetheless reports of many so-called unofficial monks. Buddhism and the Sangha [community of monks; in practice the Buddhist hierarchy] thus began to be co-opted if not repressed. By 1985 or earlier, the power of the party-state over the society was more or less complete.
In 1989, the Vietnamese troops departed as a condition for kicking into gear the international community-led peace process for Cambodia. Restrictions on Buddhism were lifted and the Sangha began to re-acquire a certain life of its own. Following the Paris peace agreement in 1991, UN troops and personnel basically ran the country in 1992 through the election of 1993, which it organized. I did witness that, and the grassroots-led Buddhist revival in those years.
After the 1997 coup d’état by the old reorganized PRK elite, to oust the royalist party that won the elections, there were mass monk-led demonstrations protesting the unfairness of the September 1998 elections. Whereas the international community, suffering from donor fatigue, called the elections free and fair, most people knew the outcome was the result of intimidation and manipulation by the state apparatus, really nothing new in modern, that is, post-World War II, Cambodian political history. Since the late 1990s, there has been a gradual retightening of the political screws on society, including and especially the Sangha. The one thing the government fears, and it's not confined to this particular government, is a strong Sangha that serves as a moral check on abuse of power.
And now another invasion, this time of consumer capitalism, has wreaked a kind of havoc in the country. There have been material improvements, but mainly in the urban areas. The health and education systems have improved with international assistance, but not dramatically. Phnom Penh certainly looks cleaner, if not nicer. There’s a measure of security and stability that had been so lacking in recent decades, but I wouldn’t describe the social and political climate as healthy. Money is so important (hey, what else is new?), people especially in urban areas are chasing it and the gadgets it buys. Apart from the sex and drug trafficking industries, you’ve had the plundering of the country’s natural resources by the elites. One of the biggest problems in recent years has been land grabbing, which displaces thousands of local farmers. And political power is once again more than less centralized. There’s a certain sense of social consciousness among a few local NGOS, but their voices, like that of the Sangha, are muted. People basically don’t know what to do in this climate other than to lay low and make do as best as they can for themselves and their families. The question, can there be more to life than that, is a question, in fairness, that’s not confined to Cambodia.
The west in general, and America in particular, has always taught us that if there is a problem, pour money on it. Yet the best foreign aid that Cambodians, still disoriented as they come out of an unbelievably troublesome period, can receive doesn’t have to cost a red penny. What they need are friends with empathy who are able to tell them that they and their culture are good and true and beautiful, who can say that what happened to them was not their fault but the result of ideological proxy wars from the outside. The truthful nature, clarity of mind, and insights of Buddhism can certainly help in this process.
Do you think that a stronger Sangha network could provide that kind of support to the people of Cambodia?
The infrastructure and human resources are there to a great degree, and things are probably happening informally as they always have been, but the conditions for a vibrant Sangha playing a strong social role are not there. There are more than 4,000 wats in Cambodia, and they are physically close to the people. But the politicization of the Sangha since the late 1990s has led to tensions between, and within wats, as they are expected to toe the political line. There’s a certain demoralization within and resulting further weakening of the Sangha. The potential is always there; like the papacy, the Sangha from an historical perspective really thinks and acts in terms of generations and centuries as governments and leaders come and go. The challenge for Cambodians lies in improving the quality of the Buddhist message and calling.
Let's remember, the generation ruling the country today came to maturity in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most sinister periods in modern Khmer history. Many of the leaders have been able to drop or temper the mental baggage of that period, a few perhaps less so. The extent to which they are genuinely open and receptive to Buddhism is an open question. They were shaped, after all, by a very secular instrumentalist mindset. There has always been a tendency, at least in the modern period, for the power holders to use the Sangha to gain legitimacy for their rule. The current elites are no different and perhaps more adept at this than in earlier times. They more or less consciously manipulate Buddhism and even royal symbolisms to legitimize their rule. For example, as soon as the then prime minister knew that the Vietnamese troops were going to leave in 1989, one of the first things he did was go to his native wat in Kampot and prostrate himself in front of the head monk. It was an unheard of action for any communist, admitting and apologizing, as he did, for the government’s errors in the past. There was certainly a link between the Vietnam leaving the country and the power brokers knowing that the ensuing power vacuum meant having to court Buddhism to maintain and solidify their rule. An article in the Far Eastern Economic Review reporting on the event at the time that was aptly titled, “‘Look, We’re Buddhist!’”
How do you see the challenges of education? How is religion relevant?
There are issues for the state schools that arise from the fact that Cambodia has accepted the western notion of the separation of Church and State, which of course has no meaning in the Khmer cultural context. When Cambodia acquired its independence from France in 1954, the international community, willy-nilly, pressured the country to scrap its Buddhist educational system, which was in no manner then discriminating against non-Buddhists. The country’s primary school system had been run and taught by monks in the wats, a system the French helped to upgrade after earlier failed attempts to destroy or supplant it. Since the 1950s, the education system entirely secularized and adopted western curricula.
And of course, during the decades of communist rule, any form of religion was sheer anathema; during the Khmer Rouge years, all forms of religion, not just Buddhism, were physically extirpated. In the late 1990s, when I worked with UNDP as the environmental education advisor, we came up with materials using a Buddhist framework that the people could readily understand and relate to. But a couple of officials in the Ministry of Education, who received their post-graduate degrees in communist Vietnam, edited most of that stuff out. The international community, which more or less continues to run on European time, reason, and logic, continues to operate on the “principle” that Buddhism in Cambodia is nothing but a “religion” that has no place in public education. The school system remains basically secular to this day, which is really an unexamined assumption.
At this point in time, do you think it is possible for the Sangha network in Cambodia to become less political? How would they go about doing that?
As I mentioned before, it’s probably a good idea to take a long view and hope things will change for the better. It’s really in everyone’s best interests. Let me cite two examples of how positive change can come about.
Venerable Maha Ghosananda was the spiritual leader of Cambodian Buddhism until his death in 2007. Although it’s really not for any mortal to say this, he was an arahant, or Bodhisattva in the Mahayana tradition, one step below a Buddha, someone who is totally egoless, unattached, and non-clinging. He transformed many of our lives through his example and his sheer spiritual presence. He was KEAP’s honorary founding patron, as he was based in western Massachusetts at the time KEAP was founded. The woman who ran the refugee resettlement office where I volunteered, she was a pastor’s daughter who had traveled with Maha to the refugee camps in the 1980s on family reunification visits. She introduced me to Maha in 1987. When he returned to Cambodia, to later lead the Dhammayietras, Maha was not interested in starting a social movement, much less a political one. His message was simple and pure: peace and reconciliation, even with one’s so-called enemy. This allowed him to maintain his complete freedom from everyone, including the Sangha, even though the King gave him a very high title—maybe third or fourth in the Sangha—back in 1994. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times in the 1990s. He’s certainly a non-threatening model that anyone and everyone, including non-Buddhists, can emulate.
The second example is a former high official of the PRK regime whom I’ve known since my first visit to Cambodia in 1991. He was then vice president of the PRK National Assembly (actually, the country had been renamed the State of Cambodia, or SOC). I think he was previously the head or a deputy of Renakse, which was the communist mass organization responsible youth, religion, and sports. From the beginning, I found him to be a very thoughtful, intelligent, and intellectually honest person, and very knowledgeable about Buddhism. He helped us get official approval for and always encouraged KEAP’s work. In his retirement today he spends most his time translating Dharma texts from English into Khmer. In my last meeting with him, he spoke about the country’s Buddhist association, arguing that they were making a fatal error by focusing their activities on old people instead of the young. As a member and former official of the government party, his example is an encouraging sign to say the least. There are no doubt others like him both inside and outside the government.
Maha Ghosananda ran the Dhammayietra, the annual peace marches through Cambodia. Can you tell me more about that?
Actually, the only time I saw a slight expression of annoyance on Maha Ghosananda’s face was when people called the Dhammayietra a “peace march,” a term basically taken from left-wing peace demonstrations in the West. Dhammayietra literally means “pilgrimage for the truth” (the truth being the Dhamma), a phrase Khmer people can understand and relate to. Maha also liked the English term “peace walk,” which suggested what he intended: walking meditation. Two American disciples once put together his recorded sayings in a book published by Parallax Press at the time of the first Dhammayietra in 1992. It was aptly called, “Step by Step: Meditations on Compassion and Wisdom.”
The first walk in April 1992 started in the camps in Thailand and ended in Phnom Penh on a Buddhist holy day, Visakh Bocchea, in mid-May. Its purpose was to heal the divide between the hundreds of thousands of border camp Khmer and the Khmer living in Cambodia.
I took Maha Ghosananda around to all the camps, including the Khmer Rouge camp, to recruit monks for the Dhammayietra. The current government, which has always been CPP-led, was always concerned about the potential power of the whole Dhammayietra thing. Sev Vorn has been organizing it since Maha Ghosananda had to retire around ten years ago.
I talked to one of the main donors last week when I was in Bangkok, a big businessman before he turned to the Dhamma, now getting his Ph.D. in Buddhist studies from Mahedon University in Bangkok. He told me that now the Dhammayietra is almost completely foreign-funded, mainly through him. I know the first several Dhammayietras were virtually self-financing, because the monks went around with their alms bowls and the tens of thousands of people we touched along the way would give dana. The monks would collect the money and go ahead to the next stop to buy the food for the walkers. I don’t know when that stopped, but I was sorry to hear of the change because it makes the walk much more dependent on outside funding. And people are increasingly frustrated at all the little obstacles and roadblocks the authorities are putting in the march’s way. Two years ago they weren’t even allowed to walk; they were driven around in trucks. As I said, there is a gradual tightening of the screws, and it is even being applied to the Dhammayietra.
Do you think that by educating more monks, you will be encouraging more monks to be socially engaged? Is that your aim?
It is. I think it is part and parcel of what it means to be a monk, although there is always a fine line that is difficult to demarcate. According to a strict interpretation of the Vinaya, the monastic discipline, the first of the three books of the Tipitaka (the Pali canon), proscribes, that is, prohibits direct monk involvement in society and politics. Monks, forest monks in particular, were directed to follow the life of the ascetic virtuoso on the path to Enlightenment. Yet from the very beginning, when Theravada Buddhism established roots here in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it spread as a grassroots movement linked to, and in a common bond with, the villagers. What ensued was kind of a symbiotic relationship between the people and the monks: the people fed and supported the monks, but in return the monks were obliged to provide moral guidance, education, and other forms of assistance. Theravada wats had a strong social and cultural function, transmitting the language and culture of the local people. They were not only the symbolic but also the physical centers of the community, provided for the basic needs for the poor and destitute, the vulnerable young and elderly. They were able to do this because everyone donated, gave dana as part of their practice of Buddhism, with the rich providing more than the poor in a system that was a form of income redistribution. The Sanghas also served as a kind of moral check on the political abuse of power, although how broadly, deeply, and consistently this was true in the Theravada countries is not historically clear. But if all of this, taken together, is not engagement, I don’t know what is. That said, what I find fascinating and paradoxical is that villagers as a rule favor monks who follow the strict, the ascetic, not the social activist, path. They prefer to see the latter as a kind of indirect benefit of the former. It boils down, I guess, to the law of karma.