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Buddhism at root of university's success

Buddhism at root of university's success

When a determined group of classmates from the Pannasastra University of Cambodia

set out to promote Buddhism through weekend get-togethers, they had no idea where

their energy and enthusiasm would lead.

What started out as a small grassroots effort to provide courses in Buddhist morality

has evolved into a full-fledged school where 600 students receive a free education.

The school, called Buddhist Morality Education Centre (BMEC), no longer focuses solely

on religious studies. The curriculum includes courses in English conversation, grammar

and translation, Japanese, Mandarin, human resources, general accounting, and, of

course, Buddhist morality.

BMEC is staffed entirely by volunteers; eight of its teachers are college students

and five are Buddhist monks.

The school is located in Tuol Tumpong sangkat but has branches in Kampong Speu and

Kampong Cham. Students are mostly local high-school-aged youth who heard about the

center by word of mouth.

"Friends told me they had a free program," said Khem Sara, a 23-year-old

who has been studying English at the Tuol Tumpong center for three months. "Now

I understand a lot, but before I had never studied English. I hope to continue studying

in the future."

Some students are so inspired by the center that they hope to work there in the future.

"When I study at [BMEC] I feel happy. ... I want to teach here," said Leakena,

20, who has been studying English and Chinese for two months.

Currently, 600 students are enrolled, but Ieng Erya, chief of BMEC's communications

department, says the school has provided free education to more than 1,000 students

in less than a year.

In June 2004, Sam Syann, the director of BMEC, started teaching Buddhist morality

at Wat Botum Vadei with a group of classmates from Pannasastra University of Cambodia.

Originally they called the group the Center of Buddhist Sunday because the founders

were only able to offer classes on weekends.

After three months of teaching at the temple, they rented the Tuol Tumpong building

in an effort to increase their accessibility and appeal. Synann paid the first month's

rent, and they borrowed supplies from Wat Botum Vadei for the first two months.

BMEC now has its own books, furniture and computers, thanks largely to donations

from overseas Khmers and the local community. The Yuang-Kuang Institute for Buddhist

Studies and Zhe Kuang temple, both located in Taiwan, have reportedly donated $280,000.

Some in the Buddhist community have expressed concern about Taiwan's degree of involvement,

fearing that they might have undue influence on school policies, but Synann is emphatic

that this is not the case.

"It is not only Taiwan who supports the center, but others like America, South

Korea and so on. ... The government and most of the monks support what we are doing,"

he said.

Thanks to the support, BMEC now has a savings account and plans to expand to Kandal

province. The main building will cost an estimated $474,000, and the 3-hectare plot

of land will cost up to $120,000. BMEC has $190,000 earmarked for the university

project and is seeking additional sponsorship for the remaining funds.

The proposed university will provide free tuition and study materials, as well as

subsidized housing. Synann said students will come from rural areas and if fund-raising

efforts are successful, the university will also be able to provide them meals.

The focus of the university will be on Buddhist philosophy and literature, but there

are plans to guide students in small-scale, income-generating enterprises as well.

The university will provide some raw materials which students can then use to make

souvenirs. Any money they earn through this initiative can be kept or put into the

school bank, and the earnings will be turned over to them when they graduate.

While it may seem odd for a religious school to assist students at making money,

Synann explained that the idea was inspired by current students' poverty upon completion

of their studies.

"Our students [at BMEC] leave school with knowledge but no money," said

Synann. "This way, BMEC students can have money and knowledge."

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