A generation mindful of ancient traditions

The crowd at Wat Langka’s meditation sessions includes NGO workers, ambassadors.
The crowd at Wat Langka’s meditation sessions includes NGO workers, ambassadors. PHA LINA

A generation mindful of ancient traditions

When Hang Soviet was a boy, he loved to sit with his grandparents and listen to Buddhist lecturers speak on the radio.

He believes it is in his nature to be calm. Since childhood, he has always liked to spend time alone.

But it wasn’t until his second year of university in Phnom Penh that the contemplative young man discovered mindfulness meditation: the deceptively simple act of focusing on the here and now.

How to keep your mind on breathing in and out, or focus on the way your heels interact with the ground when you walk – it’s not as easy as you think.

Now 25, he carries the title of Youth Empowerment Senior Assistant at the NGO Youth Resource Development Program. He is also a loyal attendee of meditation sessions organised by an NGO.

It is one of several classes that cater to enthusiasts of mediation, which is attracting a young fanbase.

After years of being seen as the territory of the elderly, monks, nuns, and foreigners, meditation has become popular among Cambodian students and teenagers looking for an escape from school work.

At Wat Langka, where meditation classes have been held weekly for 20 years, senior monk the Venerable Yos Hout says in recent years the crowd has become increasingly mixed.

“No one is the owner of feelings. Ambassadors, NGO workers, tourists, students, doctors and businessmen come here to meditate, regardless of religion. Why? Because they want to reduce their stress and be at peace.

“Before, there were a lot of foreigners, but now there are many Cambodians,” he adds.

Meditation classes at SmallWorld. Chhunny is in the centre. PHOTO SUPPLIED
Meditation classes at SmallWorld. Chhunny is in the centre. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Young people, especially university students, come because they want to feel confident ahead of exams and lessons, according to the monk.

On Monday, Thursday and Saturday evenings between 6pm and 7pm at the Wat’s sessions – which have been included in editions of the Lonely Planet – mats are laid out for 50. Often, many more turn up. They spill out onto the balcony.

On a recent evening, one of those on the mats was Kong Sovannara, 26, a university student who has attended classes at Wat Langka for two years.

“As humans, we are burdened with problems, so we need to find a peaceful place,” he explains.

It’s just as well.

Studies have shown meditation can have a positive impact on health.

It can make smokers more likely to quit, can treat post-traumatic stress, and, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, improve your memory in old age. One study even suggested it had a link with better genes.

“It’s not New Age nonsense,” Herbert Benson of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston told the New Scientist, after the genes study was published in May this year.

Noem Chhunny would agree. During his 16 years as a monk in Thailand, he meditated in a group of 700 and discovered that it had certain health benefits.

“I was sick at that time,” says the 31-year-old NGO worker and meditation enthusiast. “After three hours of meditation I felt better, and I started to practice it every day, so I become a strong and confident person.

“People use sleeping pills when they have insomnia, but it’s a bad habit. Meditation is good medicine, and important for mental health.”

The Wat at Oudong mountain, where meditation sessions are held. HENG CHIVOAN
The Wat at Oudong mountain, where meditation sessions are held. HENG CHIVOAN

It was Chhunny’s search for a peaceful place that brought him to Phnom Penh’s Small World, a cosy workspace for students and entrepreneurs of various kinds in the capital.

He thought it would be a suitable spot for meditation classes.

In December 2011, he started some. They proved hugely popular with students, attracting some 20 young people, who came several times a week for the hour-long sessions.

While Chhunny’s other work commitments forced him to stop the classes in March this year, he hopes to renew them soon.

Sitting on a wooden chair in Small World, under a picture of a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and with a smile on his face, he is the picture of serenity.

“Meditation is a system which teaches you to understand how to have mental quiet and see things as they really are,” he says.

Chhunny tells his students how to meditate in four different positions: sitting, lying, walking (that’s where the heels come in) and standing.

When he first started the classes, he said, he came up against questions: the students thought meditation was for the religious or elderly. But then they started coming in droves.

Why? Like millions all over the planet, Cambodian young people feel oppressed by work and exams, according to Chhunny. .

“In the city, young students face many problems, and they don’t do anything besides watching TV and playing on the Internet. So they want to find a quiet place to feel good and communicate with each other peacefully,” he says.

Touch Sopor, 22, and one of the devotees of Small World’s meditation classes, says her view of the pasttime has changed.

“Before, I thought meditation was for religious people, but it’s not – it’s useful for releasing stress, feeling good and sleeping well without medicine.

“It is good for young people to manage their feelings.”

Since classes stopped, she has taken up meditation at home for 10 minutes each day.

Chhunny, meanwhile, promises to start his classes again. His goal is to open his own public meditation centre, and organise sessions in the provinces.

“I think at the moment there are mediation classes at Lanka pagoda, Oudong mountain and in Battambang, but if there are more, they would be publicised if the pagoda, monks, youth and media cooperated with each other,” Chhunny says.

In the meantime, students can make the trip to Wat Prang, in Oudong town, where classes are held daily.

Tang Kimheang, 68, is the nun who hosts them.

Each day, from 2pm to 5pm, some 50 students come from surrounding villages and further afield, including foreigners and students between 10 and 30 years old, she says.

During the dry season, meditation retreats are held in the forest for 10 days, and young people from the provinces come to spend most of the day there, eating just one meal.

Students come to meditate because they are stressed by their families and studying, says Kimheang.

“They come here to release their bad feelings – to be quiet. When they meditate, they feel relaxed and can control their temper.”

As young people navigate life in modern Cambodia, Small World’s Chhunny agrees he would rather see them choose meditation over TV, music and alcohol.

“The more the modern world progresses in term of material wealth, the more mental development is required in term of spiritual wealth.”

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