Prey Veng province
As sunlight filters in through the gaps in the wood floor, an elderly monk at Wat Chrey, a pagoda about two hours from Phnom Penh, gazes into the “Blessing Book.”
It’s a school notebook with red hearts and roses on the cover. Handwritten in English on the first two pages are the names of people from other countries and their requests.
The first request came from Leslie in the United States, who wanted to find love. The others came from Australia, from people who needed benedictions on the births of their children, good luck in finding jobs and starting businesses, or courage in the face of an illness.
The names found their way to Cambodia thanks to a new website, OrangeRobes.com, that made it possible for monks at this pagoda to sell blessings online. Created at the end of July by an Australian couple who used to live in Cambodia, the website allows people to purchase a blessing via PayPal for nine dollars. The money is then used for humanitarian projects, according to the creators of the website.
“We’re not asking for hundreds of dollars, it’s nine dollars—and that’s not even a cup of coffee and cake,” said Simone Low, a stay-at-home mother who made the website along with her husband, Adrian Low. “Now globally people can be blessed by a monk and not have to go to Cambodia to have it done. The people who receive the blessings are happy, and the monks are happy.”
Low got the idea for the website after receiving a blessing from a Catholic nun in Ireland on her own wedding day. She said it was “a lovely gesture” that made her and her husband feel special. Now she is still happily married and has two children.
At Wat Chrey, 79-year-old head monk Ten Yon, who sits on the pillow in front of the notebook, can’t read the names—he does not speak English, has never used the internet and does not even have a cellular phone. He is more used to blessing devotees in person—by splashing water into their faces while chanting in a sacred Buddhist language.
“I just do a good luck blessing for all the people in the book,” he says. “I don’t know specifically what the blessing is for.”
OrangeRobes.com made $400 in the first month after being launched, according to Low—and the pagoda received $180 of the total. The money is helping the monks pay for an extension to their community hall, which will include the wat’s first ladies room. Until now, nuns and laywomen had to run into the bushes to relieve themselves—they are prohibited from using the monks’ bathroom.
“The people who sent money can know that we used the money to build our pagoda. We can take pictures and show them how we used their money,” Yon said.
An additional $200 from OrangeRobes.com was donated to the Cambodian Retirement Village, which Low said provides shelter, food and basic medical care to five impoverished elderly people at Cham Bak village of Prey Veng province.
Many of the elders at the village lost their children or spouses during the Khmer Rouge regime, according to Kim Vuthy, who established the retirement village about a year ago. Until the seniors came to the village, they had to beg for food from their neighbours. Low and Vuthy also said that the retirement village has a library with books in English and French.
In addition to this, Low said that the funds raised by the website will be used to build a toilet and dig a well at the primary school near Wat Chrey. She said the school, that has 200 students, has no toilet or running water facilities.
But where is the money from the website going?
Low has not visited Wat Chrey or the Cambodian Retirement Village herself. She runs the website from Australia, wires the money to Cambodia and relies on her friend Mao Savin and his niece in Cambodia’s Prey Veng province to deliver the cash and the blessing requests to the monks in person.
However, during a visit to Wat Chrey in mid-September, a reporter observed that the primary school already has a working water pump, which was built through assistance from UNICEF, as well as a toilet.
During the visit, the reporter saw that the Cambodian Retirement Village, which is about 30 minutes drive from the pagoda, did not house five elderly residents, as Low said, but only one woman. There was no library and no cook, and a padlock was hanging on the door of the toilet.
The one woman who was staying at the retirement village appeared to have been left to take care of herself.
“I don’t have enough rice to eat, so I have to sell cakes to the children in the village to make money to buy rice,” said Pring Am, 67, who uses a walking stick to get around.
Vuthy confirmed that he received a $200 donation from OrangeRobes.com, but said that the money was used to purchase fertiliser for the rice fields—rather than to buy food directly for the elderly people. Meanwhile, he had to send the four grandmothers away because he had no money to feed them, he said.
“After we harvest it, we will use that rice for the centre,” he promised. “We feel that [$200] is not enough to try to make our centre sustainable by itself.”
Low was surprised that the money was spent for fertiliser, but said that she still believes in OrangeRobes.com.
“There are always going to be some communication and cultural issues, but at the end of the day, we still want to support these projects,” she said.
Meanwhile, despite the good intentions of the Australian couple, officials at the Ministry of Cult and Religion are not applauding the initiative.
Say Amnann, the director of the Department of International Cooperation at the Ministry, said a website that sells blessings goes against Buddhist principles.
“Blessing is not a means of business, it is a duty of monks,” he said. “We cannot charge people for this kind of service. It is totally against the will of Buddhism.”