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Monks explore Buddhist morality of surfing cyberspace

Monks explore Buddhist morality of surfing cyberspace

Only a few years ago, Khy Sovanratana had to write all his correspondence by hand, tediously scribbling letters to friends and colleagues around the world.

That was before Cambodia's monks got wired.

Now Sovanratana, a monk at Wat Mongkulvan, can log on, quickly peck out a message and send a Yahoo e-mail in minutes. Like a growing number of the country's holy men, he's discovered the value of the net.

"Now is the modern time - monks can check the Internet also," said Thacch Sovath, a monk at Wat Toul Sangke. "Buddha said the monks can learn anything, if they learn in the right way only. We don't want to break down the Buddha's rules."

Despite the government's recent call for the public portrayal of monks doing traditional activities, many monks believe the Internet has a place in Buddhism.

Not all laymen are so sure.

"I used to think it was disrespectful to Buddhism for monks to use the Internet," said Chea Mengleng, whose family owns Fastnet, a café particularly popular with monks. "But now I'm happy to see monks can learn about the world and do research."

Though their saffron robes dot shops throughout Phnom Penh, monks tend to cluster in specific venues. Fastnet is one. When the café opened four years ago, it had only a steady handful of monk customers - now more than 20 come each day to check e-mails, search the web and use Internet phones.

"They very much love monks here," said Sovath, who passes up shops nearer his home to visit Fastnet. "They give us special discounts and drinks."

As Sovath composed a Yahoo e-mail, Mengleng's aunt brought the monk free iced coffee, bowing and offering the traditional sampeah.

Meanwhile, Meng Saran, a monk from Wat Botum, was teaching his layman friend how to set up an e-mail account. Though they floundered at first, spending around 30 minutes inspecting various aspects of the Yahoo home page, the two made fast progress once other patrons came to help.

"I forgot my computer studying book at home," Saran admitted shyly.

As the monk steadily moved his cursor around the page, English terms - "user ID", "compose", "check mail" - littered his stream of Khmer instructions.

Selecting a password reminder for his friend, Saran chose the question, "What is your pet's name?"

"Cow!" the monk decided, with a loud chuckle.

Registration complete, Saran carefully spelled out the new username and password on a scrap of paper, giving it to his friend for future messaging.

"I don't know very much about computers," he said, "but I still like to help people learn."

Though Saran and other monks said they have often been criticized for using the Internet, they insisted that computers and Buddhism aren't mutually exclusive, as long as users have the correct motivations.

"In Buddhism, there is no clause saying monks should not use modern devices," Sovan-ratana said. "Buddhism is more concerned about morality. If you use a modern device and the end is destructive, especially to your own morality, you should refrain from doing it."

Though now an e-mail junkie, Sovanratana said he felt strange when he first logged on in the late 1990s. At the time, he was living in Sri Lanka and had never even used a typewriter.

"It was the first time I typed something," he said. "Most people in Cambodia didn't have typewriters - only officials and government officers."

Unfamiliar with computers, Sovanratana asked his friend, a Vietnamese monk, how the device could keep track of his


"I said to him, 'I don't understand, where do they store my e-mail address?'"

His friend's response: "It's in the sky, in space."

Sovanratana soon reconciled the convenience of Internet use with Buddhist teachings.

"When you drop something and it breaks, in Cambodia we say 'Anichcha,' which means 'impermanence,'" he said. "The nature of the world is always changing."

That includes technology. As long as monks use the Internet for semi-scholarly purposes - e-mail, news, researching Buddhism - it's spiritually acceptable. Most monks confine their Internet use to exploring sites like CNN and Radio Free Asia, Sovanranata said.

Of course, there's always a temptation to stray from the academic.

"I see other monks play chat, and I want to play too, but I don't know how," Saran said. "I try again and again but fail all the time."

So, like many monks, he spends his online hours reading about the Buddha's teachings. He doesn't understand why any laymen would object to that.

"When people see monks in an Internet café, they may not know what they're using the computer for," Sovanratana said. "Even if others don't trust, monks should be confident if they're using it for the right purposes."

Son Niset, 17, high school


It reminds me of the Brahmanist story Reamker, where the people learned to fly. Today, when the monks use the Internet, they do not fly with their bodies, but they fly with their minds. They have learned a new skill just like the people in the ancient story. I think this is good for Buddhism.

Hing Sroun, 14, bookseller

I never talk to the monks, but I see them go to use the Internet a lot. I think it's good because they need to contact their relatives in the provinces just like everyone else. It would be wrong for monks to sing karaoke, because then they would see sexy ladies. Internet (at Fastnet) is okay because they only see foreigners and the boys running the shop.

Helge Flard, 25, Swedish NGO worker

I was a bit surprised when I first came to Fastnet because it was like ancient tradition fused with modern technology. It was an odd site. It didn't seem disrespectful to Buddhism, just unusual - definitely not something you see in Europe.

Tuch Heng, 70, sells flowers, incense near riverfront

I've never seen a monk myself use the Internet, but I think it's wrong if they do. It's disrespectful to Buddhism. Even when the monk walks on the street, he shouldn't use flip-flops. Buddha walked to the forest and didn't want to wear shoes because he was afraid to step on ants or other insects. It disrupts nature.

Samdech Preah Poithi-veang Nun Nget, 80, first vice Supreme Patriarch of the Mohanikay order

I have never used the Internet, but it's bad if the monks use it for the wrong reason - if they watch pornography, singing and dancing, something that gives them physical pleasure. Writing letters for communication is okay, but no love letters.


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