Sitting on the floor with a white board propped up next to a statue of the Buddha, student Pen Sila leads the 10-minute chanting of the dharma and meditation with 12 classmates before lessons start.
“Chanting the Buddha’s dharma is beautiful and helps clear our mind. Since I have been studying here, I have learned to chant a few Buddhist lessons,” 18-year-old Sila says.
The centre that Sila comes to every weekday is Buddhism for Education of Cambodia (BEC), a Battambang-based organisation run by a Buddhist monk that aims to promote morality and wellbeing in its students.
The project works mainly with young people, prisoners, impoverished elderly people and orphaned children.
“Our main projects focus on promoting social morality via education in social and religious studies, as well as wellbeing via charity work,” said Hak Seang Hai, who founded BEC in July 2012.
Seang Hai believes monks have an important role to play in educating the general public on gratefulness and promoting social morality.
“If a monk offers advice – like to avoid mistresses, alcohol and gambling – it can be influential because monks model this behaviour both inside and out,” he said.
Seang Hai became a novice monk in 1996 in Kampong Thom province at the age of 11. In 1999, he left for Battambang province to study at a Buddhist school, before spending many years abroad travelling and studying Buddhism.
“In 2006, I won a scholarship to study for a bachelor’s degree in Myanmar for three years. Then in 2010, a Buddhist institute based in the US was seeking educated monks to study there. I then also won a scholarship to study in Sri Lanka for my Master’s degree in Buddhism. It was only in 2012 that I came back home and decided to run an NGO,” he said.
Located in a modest home on a hectare of land featuring beautiful gardens, a library, three open-air classrooms and a makeshift radio broadcasting studio, BEC currently runs five community programmes.
“We have five long-term programmes; youth education, prisoner education, Buddhist dharma broadcasting, help for the elderly and poor, and supporting orphans,” said 34-year-old Seang Hai, a monk at Wat Kampheng pagoda.
BEC works with two state-run schools – Wat Kampheng Primary School and Wat Kor Secondary School in Battambang town – where volunteer Buddhist monks teach morality, gratefulness, traditions and customs to children.
Seang Hai told The Post: “We conduct workshops around the country in both universities and high schools. We explain about gratefulness and offer advice on how to change negative behaviour.”
In addition to spiritual guidance, BEC distributes some 20,000 notebooks to impoverished children during workshops each year.
Also of note is BEC’s education programme with inmates in Battambang prison.
“Previously, we taught only male inmates in prison. But recently we’ve been allowed to provide Buddhist teachings to both male and female inmates,” he said.
Seang Hai said he has noticed a positive change in the behaviour of many inmates through Buddhist teachings like meditation and chanting dharma.
“Overall they have made huge changes. People in charge at Battambang prison said they’ve seen changes in inmates’ behaviour, so now they allow us to teach both male and female inmates and have added more sessions,” he said.
“When they are released, they always come to see our volunteer monks to show respect and gratefulness for teaching them.”
BEC also offers English and Chinese language lessons, as well as Buddhist dharma in Khmer and English so all people may learn about Buddhism. It also operates a radio channel broadcasting Buddhist teachings everyday and a show on local TV from 5:30am to 6:00am each Saturday.
BEC also helps build homes for the elderly and offers them support by providing daily essentials.
“Some elderly people live alone or with their grandchildren, so we offer food and money monthly,” said the monk.
BEC is largely funded from individual Cambodians, both locally and those who live overseas. Each year BEC holds fundraising events in Phnom Penh and overseas to continue their programmes.
BEC is located in Wat Kor district’s Kampong Sema village, Battambang province on the road to Banan temple.
For more information, you can visit their Facebook page (@Bec.organization) or telephone them directly (017 446 263).