With his olive skin, red robes, bald head and skinny frame, the Venerable Vira Avalokita looks like an ordinary monk at first glance. But his round, light blue eyes betray his American roots. Born James Beard to a protestant family in the Northwest, Avalokita was ordained in 1987 in the Koyasan Shingon Japanese Buddhist tradition. Upon arriving in Cambodia in 1997, he devoted his time to Phnom Penh’s Municipal Referral Hospital, where he helped establish an HIV/AIDS clinic. In the early 1990s he published several books at the University of Washington, and is currently working on a book about Buddhism and behavioral psychology. Bennett Murray talked to the American monk about his life in Cambodia and his relationship with Cambodia’s Theravada Buddhist Community..
How did you get into Buddhism and become a monk?
I was always interested in Buddhism. Ever since I was small, my family would take me to Chinatown and my family would gravitate to a statue of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion. When I was 15-years-old I had a statue of him in my room.
Half of my family was Japanese, and they had converted to Methodism from Buddhism when they came over.
I became Buddhist in 1978 after being a minister of a Methodist church for 10 years. I still consider myself a Methodist minister.
You can be a Methodist and still be a Buddhist - although I’m not sure what the conservatives would say about that.
I went to Koyasan, a mountain near Osaka, in the later part of the eighties, and I was ordained there in 1987.
Why were you ordained?
Just to practice Buddhism and help people. Understand, ordination in Buddhism is not the same idea as it is in Christianity. All Buddhist ordination is that you go to a group of five monks, they question you and give you commission. There is no special empowerment or special thing that is given to anyone. It is a recognition.
How did you come to Cambodia?
I knew monks at a Khmer temple in Takoma, Washington. There was a money and sex scandal going on at the time, and I was there because I was the only one who spoke English and could explain things to the court.
I met someone there who had just built a health centre in Phnom Penh. At that time I ran a program that helped people with AIDS in Seattle, and I had experience in nursing, so I went to Phnom Penh. At first I had my clinic in Wat Botum, but in 1998 I set up my clinic in the Municipal Hospital.
Tell us about an ordinary day in your life.
I start my trek at six in the morning. I go to Psar Kapko. I have about 20 people I see, who have known me for 15 years and give me alms. In the afternoon I read and I write.
Now that I’m retired, I live off social security in my own house. I don’t live in a pagoda with other monks.
What do you do with your alms?
I share the alms I collect. I used to go down to the riverside before they chased all the children away, and I’d give them food. Someone asked me, are you trying to feed the children? And I said, I’m not feeding them, I’m sharing with them. These people think, they’re not my relatives, why should I help them? I help in the hospital, I pick up the sick off the street, I help the children, I feed the hungry. Why should I do this? Because of brotherhood.
Are Cambodians ever surprised to see a white monk?
Yes - they say, ‘you’re the first barang I saw who was a monk!’ But I tell them that there are three million, sign-on-the-line Buddhists in America, and another 10 million who practice it. That means we have more committed Buddhist practitioners in America than in Cambodia.
Have you known other Western monks in Cambodia?
In 1998, one American and one Briton got ordained, but they didn’t stay monks. The thing is, you can become a monk and not do anything, take pictures and your certificate, take your robes off and open a guided meditation business in America, and charge $60 an hour.
Do you think you will stay here the rest of your life?
I don’t know, depends how long I live. But, I don’t really care. This is better than the 10 feet of snow I got when I lived in the United States.