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Lawyer takes close shave with Buddhism

Lawyer takes close shave with Buddhism

L OCATED just a stone's throw from the noisy and bustling Olympic Market in

central Phnom Penh, is an oasis of calm and peaceful respite where the rhythms

of life are dictated by the sound of a bell, and practices and norms inculcated

over hundreds of years. One can escape the noise, confusion and complications of

everyday life and return to a simpler, more contemplative

existence.

Where is this idyllic place? That is for the reader to find

out (and it's not too difficult to discern), for seek and ye shall find (but

wait, I'm mixing religions here). This is where I escaped to last month when I,

an American lawyer and a Khmer American friend, Samati Siv, became novice

Buddhist monks for three days.

Why would anyone shave his or her head

(and eyebrows), take vows of piety and renunciation and be inducted into a whole

new realm of religious traditions and practices? Losing one's hair was a small

price to pay in order to be inducted and study under the Supreme Patriarch of

Cambodian Buddhism, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and Peace March Leader, Maha

Ghosananda. Moreover, what better way to try to understand the psyche of the

country and the people than through its religious traditions, for "to be Khmer

is to be Buddhist." There are, of course, Khmers who follow other religions;

however, Buddhism has played a central role in Cambodian society, serving as a

blueprint for everyday life, moral structure, a guide for family life, a basis

for national holidays and cultural events, and a foundation for social

policy.

On the appointed morning, Samati and I presented ourselves at the

Dhammayietra Center for Peace and Non-Violence. After a brief meeting with the

Great Joyful Proclaimer (the Pali meaning of Maha Ghosananda), where prayers and

traditional offerings consisting of, among other things, incense sticks,

cigarettes and condensed milk were made. We then proceeded to the temple's

courtyard where a barber did his best to re-do our "do" a la Yul Brenner and

Michael Jordan. Next came the formal induction ceremony. After learning how to

do the saffron robes (not an easy task), Samati and I recited a dozen or so vows

of renunciation and revered Buddhist precepts, (in English since both of us were

poor Pali scholars) and instantly, we became a very small link in a long chain

of Cambodian traditions. Most Cambodian men, at some stage in their life, aspire

to become a monk for three days, three months, three years or a lifetime. In one

fell swoop (actually, several swoops of the scissors), I went from being a mere

lawyer to a monk. An honored member of society looked upon by the laity as

upholding the moral standards of society. What a tremendous honor, one Samati

and I took very seriously.

Over the next three days, life took on a

comfortable cadence. Up at 4 am to the sound of a bell, hung on a Boddhi tree.

Pali chanting and recitation in the main temple with the younger monks until 6

am. Breakfast was served at 7.15 am. My only regret from this experience was

that we did not go out with the other monks on their daily alms rounds. To do

that would require a longer stay of three months. After breakfast, we would

return to the main temple to mediate, pray, read, relax or converse with the

other monks. They seemed delighted by the presence of in-Wat counsel for their

English lessons. Lunch was prepared and taken at 11.00 am and no further eating

was permitted after that. Afternoons were spent largely like the mornings.

Catching up on sleep was an unexpected benefit to my three day stay. In the

early evenings, after a long day of planning for the Peace March, Maha

Ghosananda would undertake his famous walking meditations, whereby we would

circle the main temple compound, struggling to keep up with our leader, lost in

mediation.

Three days of reflection and meditation enabled me to

gradually see many things in a different light. For example, in the West, wisdom

is seen as something that comes over time, with experience and age. A

compassionate person is one who's benevolent, understanding and kind. However,

it took me this reflective period of time to see the powerful connection between

the two, when these qualities are aligned.

Maha Ghosananda said: "Wisdom

must always be balanced by compassion, and compassion must be balanced by

wisdom. The balance of wisdom and compassion is called the middle path and we

cannot have peace without this balance." To illustrate, he related the following

story:

An old farmer found a dying cobra in the field. Filled with

compassion, he picked it up and nursed it back to health. One day the cobra bit

the old farmer killing him.

The farmer used only compassion without

wisdom. A cobra is a dangerous animal and must be nursed back to health with

caution and then separated from man. Compassion without wisdom can cause great

suffering. Wisdom and compassion must walk together. There must be a balance in

the two.

And so went three contemplative and restful days in the spring

of 1994. Was I reborn a Buddhist? Not quite. A lifetime of Catholic upbringing

is hard to suddenly discard. However, over the past weeks since I left that

peaceful wat, my interest in Buddhist philosophy and ways has grown, (as has my

hair), and I look back on those three days as a special time and place, where I

may have, ever-so-briefly, bridged the gap from attorney to monk.

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