A survey by the Ministry of Religions and Cults in 2018 says there are about 4,932 pagodas in Cambodia, including 563 ancient temples. There are also 68,654 monks who rely on donations and the collection of alms each day for their sustenance.
But one pagoda in Prey Veng province is moving with the winds of change to grow its food. And it has drawn the interest of people across the Kingdom for being a green space with a great variety of trees and vegetables planted and taken care of by monks.
Located in Senareach Udom commune’s Snay Proem village in Preah Sdech district at about a two hour drive on National Road 1 from Phnom Penh, Serei Sakor Daun Sdoeung pagoda was named one of the best Buddhist centres out of 500 pagodas in Prey Veng province.
Originally built in 1874, the pagoda was almost destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period. After the fall of the brutal regime, monks and villagers started working together to rebuild it from what was left.
The monks even planted over 3,000 trees in its surroundings and grew vegetables and rice to feed themselves. They practice an environmentally-friendly routine and are strictly forbidden from using plastic bags.
The sustainable practice was initiated by the pagoda’s chief monk, Im Teang, who believes that the tree has as much life as a human being.
“We value our life, and we should not hurt others. Even trees are living things and we should not harm trees or nature because they’re living things just like us. I love trees and plants,” says the monk.
Gautama Buddha conducted his first teaching and received enlightenment under the tree. Most of his life was related to the forest as it is depicted in many colourful paintings on pagoda’ walls and ceilings.
However, only some Buddhist monks engage in tree and vegetable planting. In some part of China, Tibet and Japan, Mahayana monasteries often carry out farming by growing crops or raising animals.
Like other Southeast Asian countries, Theravada monasteries in Cambodia mainly rely on donations because monks dedicate their lives to spiritual development.
Theravada monks still practice the traditional way of going around to collect alms, but the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic has presented a challenge to this practice, as Buddhist followers are told to stay home and some encounter financial difficulties.
The agricultural practice carried out at Serei Sakor Daun Sdoeung pagoda is seen as a good example of one that is self-reliant and sustainable.
Teang says monks at his pagoda have been farming and planting trees for some 10 years now, mainly due to health, economic and environmental reasons.
“I value spiritual and physical well-being and I believe that growing fruits and vegetables can contribute to both aspects of life. Growing organic vegetables helps monks and nearby villagers to be active through physical exercise as they sweat while working the land.
“Also, the pagoda doesn’t have to spend money to buy vegetable and risk consuming unhealthy foods.
“Some of the fruits and vegetables are considered not good for health due to the spraying of chemicals and other unethical agricultural production methods. When we consume such things, we face a higher risk of disease and end up spending lots of money on healthcare,” says Teang.
The pagoda’s vegetable garden is only 50m by 10m. But within the space, it has a great variety of fruits and vegetables including lettuce, morning glory, spinach, Chinese kale, eggplants, tomatoes, corn, lemongrass, pumpkin, fragrant coconut, water lily, bananas, jackfruit, mango, rose-apples and papaya.
Those are grown by using only natural fertilisers. “I think that growing organic vegetables is not difficult. The technique goes back to the early days of our ancestors.
“Growing and eating what you plant is good for health. When you’re healthy, you can study and work effectively. It is not for no reason that people say: ‘You are what you eat,’” says Teang.
Those who wish to learn how to grow organic vegetables are welcome to drop by the pagoda. The monks are willing to share their knowledge of organic farming.
This healthy practice has also inspired people in the village to grow their organic food. They learnt the farming techniques from the monks at the pagoda and now grow their food to support their families and even generate additional income for their families.
To help villagers grow their food, the pagoda shares some rice seedlings with the people when the rainy season starts. “We also prepare vegetable seeds for those who need them,” says Teang.
During the monsoon season, the monks also take turns working in the paddy fields to harvest rice. And when times are hard, the Serei Sakor Daun Sdoeung pagoda helps out by sharing its stock of rice and vegetables as a donation.
Teang says: “We have more vegetables and fruits than we need for our daily consumption. Our priority is to reserve them for nearby villagers. People who come from far away can also get food from the pagoda if we still have it in stock.”
Besides growing food, there are even flower gardens that Teang says act somewhat as insect repellents to keep pests from destroying their crops. Wild trees are planted and each has a signboard with its species written on it so that the people, and especially children can learn about forest plants.
“If we have to fell one tree, we should replant two. Trees provide a green canopy to the earth and other living things. They protect the earth from global warming,” the chief monk says, adding that the pagoda has been called the greenest Buddhist temple in Cambodia.
While its Facebook page has 11,000 followers, the chief monk was relieved that the pagoda was not crowded during the Khmer New Year period.
A note on its Facebook says: “You can come to the pagoda to pray and offer food to monks as a good deed anytime.
“But the most important thing is to value your health. I’m not disappointed to see fewer people coming. Instead, I’m happy that more Buddhist followers decided to stay home, maintain hygiene, and practice social distancing. Live long and do more good deeds.
“May all of the suffering, illness and fear be gone from the world.”