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"I felt like I was giving him up to someone else"

"I felt like I was giving him up to someone else"

C HRISTIE Wallace watched and wondered as monks shaved the hair and eyebrows of

her 10-year-old son Zachary, and lead him calmly to a nearby room to change from

street clothes into saffron robes.

"It was very emotional," she said of

Zac's acceptance into a Buddhist pagoda on April 28, "it was like a parting. I

felt really like he had moved on, away from me, and that I was giving him up to

someone else."

Zachary had always been curious at the stories and

pictures his mother used to bring back from Asia, always asking about the monks

"who are these people, why do they shave their hair?"

She said he made up

his mind while still living in Sacramento, California to experience life in an

Asian pagoda, years before Christie's move in March to Phnom Penh to work at the

USAid-funded Court Training Program.

Zachary was at first refused

admission to the serene Kien Khleang pagoda because chief monk Auk Peo thought

his lack of Khmer would make the time too difficult and remote. Zachary's

persistence won out, and he was accepted onto a three-day course, with all the

relevant abstentions and expectations.

"The monks made me feel very

welcome, but I can't touch him, and can't hug him, it is like a right of passage

a mother has to endure," Christie said. "I feel very proud of him, but at some

point I realized there was part of him I have lost and I will never get

back."

"When his hair was shaved I saw the birthmark at the back of his

head that I had not seen since he was born. I remembered his birth, the

birthmark and these intense eyes looking at me, it made me feel like he was

1,000 years old. When he turned around and looked at me with those same eyes at

the pagoda, maybe that is the part of him I am losing."

Zachary's father

Roger, a judge, "has never been a spiritual person at all... but when I expected

resistance to what Zac wanted, all I got (from Roger) was encouragement," she

said. The couple also have a daughter, Katie.

Zachary - for this

three-day retreat, though he says he intends returning to the pagoda for three

weeks - had to bring an offering of a plate wrapped in cellophane, with

cigarettes, a lighter, condensed milk, incense sticks, tea, candles and a

monetary donation in an envelope.

"It was very beautiful, there was

chanting and incense and Zac had to chant in Khmer, renouncing alcohol and

promising to be celibate and the like," Christie said.

Zachary said he

slept and prayed with the monks on the first day. "They sleep a lot here," he

said. He walked with his teacher, Auk Peo, and said he knew what he had to do by

the monks showing him, without the need for talk.

"It feels so tight," he

said, rubbing his newly shaved head. He called his saffron robes "very

hot."

The ceremony was "really tiring, they made me sit like this for 20

minutes", he said, squatting awkwardly on the floor. "Then when we chanted in

Khmer I kept misquoting the words and we had to repeat it till I got it

right."

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