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Top monks and AIDS

Top monks and AIDS

Dear Editor,

In my opinion, the materials, published in your newspaper about disagreement between

top monks on their attitude to HIV/AIDS education and treatment (Post, June 9) and

about the head monk at the Prey Veng pagoda highlight only the particulars of a global

matter-the problem of modernization of Buddhism.

The Cambodian Sangha is facing an eternal question: it is seeking to find the golden

middle between the unchangeable tradition and transformation, as both of these factors

provide its unconditional authority in society. The situation is complicated by the

so-called negative experience of the Khmer Sangha in previous years.

Let's turn back to history. After obtaining independence in 1953, Buddhism being

an official religion and adopted by the constitution was an important part of the

national ideology.

It was actively used, when formulating the program of the development of the country,

"The Khmer Buddhist socialism". The Sangha was cooperating with the government

in traditional fields-education, public health, social cultural sphere, but the Sangha

wasn't taking part in political activities.

The role of the Sangha in the political life of the country was defined not by direct

participation in carrying out certain secular political programs, but by its capability

to legitimize it and thus to create a favorable political climate around those programs

for their successful implementation by the authorities. It acted as a stabilizing

element in society both on macro- and micro- levels.

According to traditional views of Khmer society, the monk, leading a so-called Buddhist

way of life, gives Khmer peasants the opportunity to "earn religious merit",

to fulfil his religious duty and it gives a feeling of calm, certainty, and harmony

of life.

After the coup d'etat of March 18, 1970, and the establishment of the military regime

of Lon Nol, the "forced" drawing of the Sangha into political life began.

It became that very social institute that was used by rival political parties for

the accomplishment of their secular goals. Part of the Sangha began to cooperate

with the army, and supported the slogan of "religious war" put forward

by Lon Nol.

The politicization of the monks led to a split in the Sangha, the reduction of its

prestige in society and its incapacity to play a traditional stabilizing role.

This led to unexpected consequences: the degradation of the moral level among the

members of the Sangha, a decline in the authority and prestige of monks in the eyes

of the people, and degradation of discipline in the Sangha.

Khmer agrarian society was far from ready to accept all the forms of modernization

of Buddhism. The Sangha ceased to be an institute that provided stability and continuity.

It created a favorable psychological climate for the establishment of the Pol Pot

regime, who rejected all spiritual values.

Under the regime of Pol Pot the Sangha was abolished, monasteries were closed and

cults were strictly forbidden.

After the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea was formed in 1979 Buddhism was restored,

though there were certain restrictions on the Sangha's activities. Age restrictions

on ordination in the Sangha were introduced, the activity of the cult was under strict

control of the state. The clergy were used for propaganda purposes.

Since 1993, with the restoration of the monarchy, new opportunities are opening up

to resume the Sangha's traditional role of ethical mentor.

Life is putting new challenges before the Sangha, especially connected with the spread

of AIDS. The Sangha has to react in this or that way.

The Venerable Tep Vong thinks that strengthening of the Sangha's position in society

can be achieved by following traditions and thus barring involvement of monks in

fighting AIDS.

The Venerable Samdech Sangha-reach Bour Kry doesn't exclude the possibility of monks'

involvement in new spheres of secular activities, especially in fighting AIDS.

Each of them is willing to find an answer to the main question - how to preserve

the prevailing role of the Sangha in Khmer society.

However, Buddhism in its turn also has to undergo further reformation and reinterpretation

in accordance with the realities of new times if it wants to hear its echo in the

minds and souls of coming generations.
- Professor Nadezhda Bektimirova, Moscow State University, Russia

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