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When the City Sits Still: Meditation Communities in Phnom Penh

August 10, 2012

I was a little overwhelmed by the prospect of living in the city of Phnom Penh after experiencing Cambodia primarily in its rural eastern province of Kratie. I thought perhaps meditation would be a practical tool to assist in the transition, so I began to look for places to learn the techniques and history of the practice.
Meditation is a vital practice towards enlightenment in Cambodia’s most prominent tradition, Theravada Buddhism. Because meditation emphasizes self-liberation through individual efforts, monks in the Theravada tradition are given a flexible schedule that leaves time for gaining wisdom and insight for enlightenment through meditation.

However, few people actually meditate or study meditation in Cambodia since the dissolution of the monastic community in 1975 during the Khmer Rouge. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Cambodian Buddhist Institute was a leading center in the region, though documentation was destroyed and the deep understanding of Pali and Sanskrit has been lost. Despite attempts to invoke and improve monastic learning, Cambodia does not have a wealth of meditation centers and—unlike most other Southeast Asian countries—there are currently no living meditation masters. Yet, serious efforts to reinstate Buddhist knowledge and meditation practice continue and I wanted to explore the variety of opportunities still offered to meditate.

My search began with a visit to Wat Lanka, situated in the heart of Phnom Penh on the busy Sihanouk Boulevard. Its central location makes it a convenient venue for meditators, with regular sittings taking place every Monday, Thursday and Saturday from 6pm until 7pm.

As the sun was sinking, I arrived and was greeted by a middle-aged monk. He gave me a book to read about Vipassana meditation and a chance for a few questions. After a quick flick through the book, I took off my shoes, left my bag at the door, and went to my cushion pre-arranged on the floor of the pagoda facing the Buddha.

I am no stranger to sitting in pagodas; however, it was distracting to be surrounded by so many expatriates among the gaggles of white robed Cambodian nuns and lay women who had left their daily routines. It was also intimating to observe many people in correct, upright meditation postures, whilst I struggled to remain comfortable, focusing on my breath. Unfortunately, the attempt to focus on my breath was made problematic by the biting of mosquitoes, leading to increasing discomfort. The meditation ended after an hour, signaled by a small bell. I gave my donation and moved my non-responsive legs from the awe-inspiring setting inside the pagoda back into the city chaos. I concluded that while this solitude within the city and opportunity to meditate undisturbed alongside others in a shared stillness was very important, the meditation lacked direction except for a small book on Vipassana meditation.

So I continued my search, stopping next at the Phnom Penh Raja Yoga center in a quiet but central residential area of the city. Raja Yoga is part of a global organization called the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (BKWSU) with 8,500 centers world-wide. It describes itself as ‘an ancient yoga for modern times,’ facilitating a process of spiritual awakening to help individuals re-discover latent positive qualities within and strengthen their inherent worth. New students are offered five free lessons that provide an introduction to consciousness and self-realization, the eight powers of Raja Yoga, the law of Kama, reincarnation, and the understanding of what it means to live a spiritual lifestyle.

The work of the BKWSU is based on the principle that “spiritual knowledge is a basic right of every human being.” Regular meditation sessions are thus offered on a donation basis in an aim to offer development of one’s individual spiritual potential free of charge and regardless of age or background. Their meditation encourages the relaxation of the mind and nurturing of a healthy balance between inner and outer worlds by “coherently explaining the nature of the soul, God, time and Karma” and promoting “spiritual understanding, leadership with integrity, and elevated actions towards a better world.”

The experience was a stark contrast to Wat Lanka. Instead of meditating alongside others, one goes individually to the five consecutive sessions, occasionally seeing someone leave or arrive. I took note that these individuals were predominantly expatriates; however, there also seemed to be an interest amongst the Khmer community to learn meditation techniques.

After a friendly conversation with the meditation instructor, we entered a meditation space with a tapestry of a brilliant red sunrise with a pinprick of light in the middle. I could sit either on a chair or on the floor, as there is no particular seating posture in Raja Yoga. A 30-minute guided meditation tape-recording began and the teacher sat opposite me as he observed my meditation. This was then followed by a short discussion. Raja Yoga meditation is conducted with open eyes because the eyes are the windows to the soul, and also provides the analogy that the mind is like a container in which we must put positive thoughts and remove negative ones. Through meditation, we give space between our thoughts in order to achieve this.

I completed the five introductory sessions and enjoyed learning about the history and teachings of BKWSU. However, I did not feel that this style of meditation was suited to me, seeming closed to more in-depth discussion.

So I continued on to my next option, a Sunday meditation group.

Following the directions I had been emailed, I arrived at a dark staircase in a housing complex above shops and restaurants. I began to feel slightly out of place and wondered if I had the right address. However, I was soon amazed to find a third floor apartment with a small Japanese Zen rock garden in the entrance and a cool, white open room tinted by aqua blue window frames. The room was surrounded by trees and looked upon a spectacular view of the national museum. A Buddhist nun named Beth led a group of approximately 25 people in elementary breathing instructions. I joined them and then she corrected my sitting posture. We chanted in Pali the Homage to the Buddha and the Three Refuges to begin the 40-minute meditation: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma (the teachings), and I take refuge in the Sangha (the community of practitioners).” The group meditated together for 20-minutes until the bell rang to signal the start of a second 20-minute period. Participants could change between sitting and walking meditation at this time. This was followed by a Q & A session on meditation, Buddhism, teachings of other traditions, and even life in general! Beth responded with a humor and grounded experience which resonated with us. There was then time for informal conversation between participants, creating a warm and welcoming community with tea and cookies. Donations were collected for Beth’s Buddhist chaplaincy program, ‘Brahmavihara Cambodia’, which works with Cambodian AIDS patients.

The space is not only aesthetically beautiful, but also enables everyone to be themselves. Attendees are free to choose their style of meditation and everyone is encouraged to bring their own practice and object of meditation. If an individual desires guidance, Beth’s knowledge and experience provides assistance. The door is open for all of those wishing to enter and I left with a smile, knowing that I had found the porridge not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

I introduced this Sunday meditation group to a friend on a similar search to find a meditation space in the city and his reaction was similar to mine. He commented that it was a wonderfully relaxing, communal space, with the chance to ask questions and receive structured support.

We decided to continue our exploration into possible ventures to find places for meditation outside of the city. I also have thought about trying to bring the experience of meditation learnt at the Sunday meditation group into my own home. I see glimpses of this possibility but am still unable to conduct a more regular practice. My friend was kind enough to sympathize that at the moment, he too is unable to meditate at home: “It would be great to meditate, even for just ten minutes, but I get home and find something else to do!”

We are used to speedy and busy lives. My friend commented that when he came to Cambodia, he had been annoyed by his Cambodian friends who seemed to sit watching the rice grow to observe change at a very subtle level. He questioned why they were not instead reading, or enacting change! When living in the villages in Kratie, I too rebelled against being told to just sit still and rest. Like a child, I needed to keep moving as I did in my life back in England. But since embarking on this mission to meditate, we have both gained an appreciation for stillness, as the simplest of points sometimes take the longest time to sink in.

My friend and I realized that there was more to our curiosity than coping with the transition of living and working in a Buddhist country, far away from our normal routines. We desired a practical tool for continuing on our own life journeys.

It is one step towards enlightenment, one step at a time.