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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Women seekers honor the dharma at Wat Butom

Women seekers honor the dharma at Wat Butom

Women seekers honor the dharma at Wat Butom

Anyone visiting any of Cambodia's wats is sure to have

seen Buddhist "nuns."

Dressed in white and black, older Khmer women live

and work in most temples.

These holy women play an essential though

back-ground role. Unpaid, they help out to honor monks, learn more about

Buddhism and accumulate merit for their next life.


Buddhist wats were the center of Khmer village life. Even today wats are not

just places of worship, religious teaching and contemplation, though these are

their primary functions.

They also serve as student dormitories,

playgrounds for children, foster homes for unwanted dogs and cats and sometimes

hospitals for the sick and mentally ill who have no place else to turn.

At a wat the transcendental and the concrete meet. Older women have

committed the balance of their lives to cook, clean, protect and allow monks to

withdraw from the mainstream of life.

Ung Yeem and Bon Seem live at Wat

Butom, located across from the National Assembly. Wat Butom is unique with its

varied and numerous stupas.

It is slowly being re-built after years of

abuse and disuse. Bon is a formal member of the hierarchy at the wat and Ung is

a volunteer who has created a niche for herself.

Ung, 44, lives in the

largest stupa at the wat, "protecting it" and "keeping it clean."


she has money, she cooks for the monks, preparing food for all those who have

not got enough through begging.

Ung says there are 86 monks of both

Theravada Buddhist sects - Mahalika and Thomayut - at the wat and all are

welcome to share the food she cooks.

Bon Seem, 63, also lives and works

at Wat Butom. With five other nuns she spends her time cooking, cleaning and

caring for the 40 monks of the Theravada discipline who are assigned to the


When she came to the wat she underwent a period of testing and

assessment. After learning everything a nun has to know she was accepted by the

head monk.

Ung may have the most interesting home in Phnom Penh. From

the outside, the stupa she lives in is magnificent. It towers a hundred feet

over-head, immaculate in white and gold.

Buried in its heart are two

larger than life statues which stand guard over numerous small passageways that

are inches deep in human ash and bone chips.

Ung says the ashes of Khmer

Kings are stored in the three hundred year old stupa.. The golden chalices in

which Ung says the "Royal Remains" were stored are now gone, and the ashes and

chips remain piled thickly in the low and intricately connected corridors.

Ung sleeps, unafraid, on a rice mat laid in the entrance of the stupa,

and cooks daily within its shadow.

Both Bon and Ung have withdrawn from

the normal flow of life to honor the monks. Ung is a widow, her husband died

during the Pol Pot regime.

Bon left her family behind to come to the

wat, she has four children, all but one, she says, is married.

Two of

Ung's three children are still single, she left them in 1987 to live at the wat

as it was just starting to be re-inhabited by monks.

"I came here to help

the monks and to re-build the wat," Ung says. Bon expects to spend the "rest of

her life" at the wat.

Bon Seem says life at the wat is difficult as

everyone is completely dependent on the generosity of people in the area to

provide food for monks.

The head of the committee of the wat disburses

10,000 riel to her each day for market purchases.

On only two days a

month she prepares food for 40 monks. On the other 28 days, she and the other

nuns prepare food for only two monks.

On both occasions they prepare the

single daily meal the monks eat. The other monks beg for food or go to Ung's

out-door "kitchen".

But some days Ung has no money and when begging does

not provide enough food for the monks, all go a little hungry.

Bon Seem's

primary concern is the welfare of the monks. The chairman of the committee of

the wat says that if there were no "nuns", then monks would have to cook for


But since they are not allowed to buy food they would have

to depend on begging.

Some monks said if that happened, they would

probably ask their students to help.

At Wat Butom, as at many wats in

Phnom Penh, students from the provinces live in dilapidated dormitories in order

to attend school.

There are as many as 200 students here, the monks say.

In addition, a small primary school lies on the wat's grounds.

Bon says

four of the nuns with whom she works are real "nuns."

They seem

distinguishable only in that they, like the monks in this order, are not allowed

to touch or use money.

Nuns are required to follow ten precepts; they

follow "ten disciplines."

Ung Yeem tries to learn more about Buddhism and

to live a holy life. She says she follows all of the "10 disciplines" except for

the rule of not handling money.

She says: "If I follow all ten

disciplines, there would be no food".

"Following the disciplines makes

the heart and mind clear and gives one sympathy for all living things," she


There are three levels: the "five disciplines," the "eight

disciplines" and the "ten disciplines".

Traditionally, children were

encouraged to practice five disciplines but this seems to be less and less


The five are: do not steal, lie, drink alcohol, or kill animals

and do practice celibacy.

Those who practice the eight also commit

themselves to go without evening meals, avoid dancing, not visit cinemas and

generally not got out.They are required to sleep on the simplest of low wooden


For the monk, the ten disciplines are just the first level of

religious commitment. They are the first things that novice monks, for example,

are required to do.


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