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
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.
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
But some days Ung has no money and when begging does
not provide enough food for the monks, all go a little hungry.
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.
four of the nuns with whom she works are real "nuns."
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.