The majority owner of Sofitel in Phnom Penh, Supachai Verapuchong, is promoting an exchange of Buddhist monks among five countries of Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar – with common Buddhist ground at Wat Thai Kushi Nagar in India.
Supachai, who regularly hosts groups of monks for special occasions at Sofitel’s Club Millesime in Phnom Penh, also serves as Secretary General of Bodhigayavijjalaya 980 Institute in Kushi Nagar, India.
In January, Supachai invited in a group of 14 monks from Thailand, in cooperation with Venerable Professor Preah Tepsattha Khy Sovanratana (MA), Vice-Rector, of the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University here in Cambodia, to pay respect to the monks and to help develop the “Sangkha” of monks across the borders.
Supachai and Sovanratana sat down for an interview about their common vision of bringing Buddhist monks together across the five countries.
“I’m in charge of the monk institute in India,” Supachai said. The institute hosts monks for Buddhist teaching at Wat Thai Kushi Nagar.
“We need to let people know we are in the same family and in all five countries we believe in the same values,” Supachai said.
In order to transcend each nationality with a common Buddhist tradition, Supachai said his concept is to have common ground in India for monks and Buddhists from all five countries.
“Everything is coming from what we think. If you think wrong, you talk wrong and behave wrong,” he said.
“This is why I want to work with people like Venerable Sovanratana,” he said.
Sovanratana says he supports Supachai in his vision to foster and promote Buddhist exchanges across the five countries.
In January, Supachai and Sovanratana brought in Samdech Tepvong, 82, the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia, and revered Buddhist monk, to pay respect to him.
Defrocked during the Pol Pot’s regime, Tapvong was re-ordained in January 1997.
“After the fall of Khmer Rouge, he was one of the seven monks who received ordination for the first time, and he was an important member of the group,” Sovanratana said.
Only two remain of the original seven ordained, another being Samdach Nun Nget, who is now critically ill with intestinal cancer.
Both Thai and Cambodian monks practice Theravada, the oldest surviving Buddhist branch. The name derives from the Sanskrit sthaviravada which means “the teaching of the elders” and is recognised by scholars as closer to the early practice of Buddhism than other traditions, such as Mahayana Buddhism.
“We in Cambodia and Thailand are very much close along with Sri Lanka and Myanmar in our Theravada traditions,” Sovanratana said. “The more we can get together, the more we can understand each other. I think Supachai wants to bring both Cambodian and Thai Sangha (community of Buddhist monks), closer and closer.
“My opinion is it is good to have these kinds of events so that the Sangha of both countries can interact, and have good opportunities for the Sanghas of both countries to get together as much as possible,” Sovanratana said.
Cambodian Buddhism went through extreme duress during the Khmer Rouge regime and the political differences between Thailand and Cambodia when Cambodia was part of the communist bloc caused further differences in Buddhism.
“I think Pol Pot did the most disastrous thing to Cambodian society in the sense that he went to the core of the social fabric. Buddhism used to be the backbone of the Khmer culture. Buddhism was promoted after Jayavarman VII and Theravada became more powerful and influential in Cambodian society. Theravada Buddhism has influenced every section of Cambodian society. We can see anywhere that even the official ceremonies functions, there must be monks there, from birth to death.”
Sovanratana said the Khmer Rouge could destroy things materially, but the inner part of belief in Buddhism remained.
Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Sovanratana said Thailand has assisted Buddhism in Cambodia in many ways.
“Starting from the late 1980s, Cambodian monks started to go to Thailand and take residence in some temples, and through this channel, Cambodian Buddhist monks came back and have done some activities to foster the growth of Buddhism. As we are neighbours, naturally the interaction between the two Sangha in Cambodia and Thailand fosters the growth of Buddhism in Cambodia as well.”
Sovanratana says the new Cambodian constitution has the space for Buddhism and is generously written that Buddhism is the state religion of Cambodia.
“Article 43 of the Cambodian constitution says it says that it is the duty of the state to protect and promote Buddhism. In general the leaders have been following this, maybe not to the extent they want.”
Sovanratana says Prime Minister Hun Sen himself has been generous when it comes to Buddhism.
“He has taken great care and concern about growth of Buddhism, and he personally instructs the minister in charge of religious affairs to perform more activities, and cooperate with Sangha and organise training courses.”
Sovanratana says that in Cambodian Buddhism, the lay people who are part of the temple committee, act some times as masters of ceremony.
“They understand the monks’ ideas. They are very important, and Prime Minister Hun Sen wanted that these men should be trained properly so when they would perform identical ceremonies
everywhere. The Sangha said this was good. We agreed there must be a general principle which we should all follow,” Sovanratana said.
He made the case for Buddhist ideas as beneficial for the problems of the Western world.
“In Buddhism wealth is not the only criteria to measure a man. Buddhism can offer not billions, but spiritually Buddhism can offer a lot. Maybe you get lost on the way, and Buddhism can make you
satisfied with what you have and provide certain comfort in spiritual development.”
Meditation in particular, Sovanratana said, can be beneficial for Western people in order to help them concentrate and calm down.
“This is sort of an antidote for tension and hardness of the modern world. It is a reality in modern society that people like to imitate others. They are tempted by the material development,” he said.
“That’s what has been happening in society all along, and Cambodian society is no exception, and it is now struggling to match with other societies in the region and the world. In this period of trial and error, people are not content with what they are and what they have, and try by all sort of ways and means to match with other guys. This is dangerous in Buddhist teaching. You run after all these material gains against the principle of the Dharma and violating the traditional patterns.”
Supachai agrees with Sovanratana: “With Buddhism you can find the balance of the middle way and harmonise your family. I am wealthy and have 4,000 employees, but it is not only about the money; in this life we need the spirit, which will never die. This is the core of the Buddhism, to understand the balance. The first thing you got to have is a good teacher training you. You cannot realise it by yourself,” Supachai said.