Photograph by Sou Vuthy/7Days
Monks in possession of mobile phones and wireless laptops are common in the cities of Cambodia. Some of them wear expensive leather sandals, contrary to a prevailing belief in Theravada Buddhism which holds that monks are supposed to walk barefoot.
In some extreme cases, head monks with rich sponsors or patrons travel in expensive SUVs driven by their chauffeurs.
Their living rooms are furnished with shining wooden furniture with intricate carvings and flatscreen TVs, while appointments with their followers are made over the phone.
When they are invited to give blessings, their chanting during religious ceremonies is often interrupted by the sounds of ringtones.
According to the statistics from the Ministry of Religion, there are about 4,400 pagodas and more than 50,000 monks across the country. Very few pagodas maintain a strict set of rules about the use of technology, and in a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist, the effects of globalisation have slowly seen these temples turn away from the quiet tranquility of tradition.
Located on the hills of Korng Chey village in Kampong Cham, the remote Preah Puth Khousnachar pagoda has bucked this trend and continues to operate in relative seclusion from the technological onslaught of the 21st Century.
Every year, hundreds of students cities and provinces around the country travel to Wat Preah Puth Khousnachar to become monks or nuns and learn the precepts of Buddhism.
Depending on their intentions, the typical period of training lasts between one week and three months. Some of the people who travel there become monks or nuns at the urging of their parents, while others believe that spending a period of their lives in a pagoda is a prerequisite for maturity.
“The pagoda was built in 2006 over a four hectare area,” says head monk Prum Sovong. “Most of the land was donated by our Buddhist followers.”
“In our pagoda, no monk is allowed to touch money or use electronic or other modern devices. We established a committee which is responsible for keeping money and managing the expenses, so all monks can fully focus on their religious studies.
Even nuns or laymen staying in our pagoda are not allowed to use mobile phones or watch TV, like they are in other pagodas. This strict rule is the core of our success.”
Not being able handle so much as a 100 riel note can make some of the pagoda’s monks feel uneasy, especially if they need to acquire medicine or other necessities.
“The pagoda committee keeps money and arranges daily food and beverages that is more than enough to everybody,” Sovong says. “In the pagoda we also have a doctor, so when people here are sick, they don’t have to go out and buy medicine from elsewhere.”
Outside of their studies, the monks at Preah Puth Khousnachar pagoda are encouraged to love nature. They help plant and take care of the trees growing on the compound.
The strict rules have fostered a positive and far-reaching reputation which has attracted monks and laypeople to the pagoda.
According to the head monk, there are more than 20 senior monks based in the pagoda. Every year, 300 to 700 people travel to Preah Puth Khousnachar in order to train as monks and nuns.
Chhorn Chhunlong, a former monk from the pagoda who studied there according to the wishes of his parents, said that he strict rules are hard to obey but he acquired a wealth of knowledge about life.
“At first, I used to complain to the head monk about losing my freedom,” he says. “As time went by, I tamed myself and learned a lot about the Buddhist advices. I’m so grateful.”
Kong Ratana, a villager from Kandal, also brought his 14-year-old son to become a monk at his pagoda.
“There are many pagodas in my hometown but I had to travel a hundred kilometres to come here, where the monks can live without the spoils of modern gadgets,” says the father. “It shows that they can stay away from greed.”
The pagoda’s head monk believes that the virtues of his strict regimen are self-evident to anyone seeking a respite from the perils of modern life.
“People who want to become a monk here, they don’t need to spend a penny,” says Prum Sovong. “The pagoda will cover all the expenses. All they have to do is to obey the strict rules and give up a greedy, modern lifestyle.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at [email protected]