Vandong Thorn runs Buddhism for Social Development Action (BSDA), an NGO created and run by monks from Wat Nokor Bachey in Kampong Cham. He spoke to Nathan A. Thompson about leaving the monkhood, or sangha, after 20 years, being a famous smot singer and what he thinks about the monks who march with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
What was it like to leave the sangha after 20 years?
Monks have to follow 227 rules so it’s nice to have some breathing space. I can now ride a bicycle or a moto, which is forbidden for monks. I miss living closely with my brothers and teaching the novices but it is still possible to practice Buddhism without being a monk. Of course, I find it difficult sometimes because laypeople can cheat and fight over self-interest but . . . what is it they say? You can’t change the world in a day. So all I can do is start with my own behaviour.
How have you involved your pagoda in running the NGO?
We established BSDA in 2005 when the local community criticised the monks at my pagoda. They said that the monks preach altruism but don’t practice it. Deeply hurt, seven monks and I founded BSDA, financing it privately until international donors came on board. Today, the monks volunteer in both practical and management roles. They are effective at raising support from the local community, who love our projects, but sometimes their responsibilities as members of the sangha suffer. I experienced this when I was a monk – I broke the rules by spending too much time travelling abroad to meet with donors.
What do you think about the monks who protest?
The head of the Cambodian sangha has long been associated with the CPP. But how can he stop the young monks from protesting with the CNRP and garment workers? I think the head of the sangha should be neutral and allow monks to make up their own minds. I think monks should demonstrate for human rights, justice and to protect marginalised people. By fighting for these things the young monks are following the Buddha’s teaching. But they must be careful that their involvement does not damage the fabric of Cambodian society. It is time for the Cambodian sangha to call on both parties to negotiate a peaceful solution.
How is your NGO influenced by Buddhism?
Most important to BSDA is the practice of metta [compassion] as opposed to friendliness based on self-interest. Practicing metta stirs up feelings of love and kindness which grow and ultimately overcome all economic and social barriers. Metta is the heart of what we do. To me, it makes sense to be a Buddhist NGO working in Buddhist communities because the people we help feel ownership and are proud to be benefitting from us. Most Cambodians are proud of their culture and they want NGOs to respect their religion.
Do Cambodian NGOs function better than their foreign counterparts, in your opinion?
I have a great deal of respect for the Western NGOs and I can’t generalise as they vary. The success of their work depends on leadership, approach and accountability. Whatever the Western NGO, they spend plenty of money on staff, overheads and expertise. They are always highly trained and provide needed skills and knowledge to Cambodia, but the high cost of their human resources means they have less money to spend on helping the community.
Part of your work is to help people affected by drugs in Kampong Cham. How do you go about this?
Many young unemployed people in Kampong Cham become addicted to drugs like glue and methamphetamine and it is part of BSDA’s mission to help them. We provide harm reduction services such as HIV/AIDS prevention, self-help groups and counselling. We hope that they will eventually find good jobs and be able to move away from addiction.
Finally, you are also a famous smot singer – can you tell us more about that part of your life?
Smot is a religious Cambodian song [comparable to Christian hymns]. It is to inspire people to follow Buddhism and provides a welcome break from long sermons during religious ceremonies. I was trained when I was 13 and became famous throughout Cambodia because I have a suitable voice for smot. I love traditional music and found that I could play the roneat ek (Cambodian xylophone) without being trained. I was a natural. My favourite songs describe the life of the Buddha and the good character of his parents.