A researcher conducts a study on the role of Buddhist monasteries in Cambodian society and he finds out that the pagodas remain the places of learning and scholasticism where the study of subjects such as literature, mathematics and art have traditionally been advanced.
The research has been conducted by Hem Lach, research officer at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, who has written about the role of the pagodas. His research focused on the practice – once widespread in the Kingdom – of sending school-age children to be educated by monks and nuns which creates a virtuous circle wherein some of the children become monks or nuns themselves out of gratitude towards their parents and monk educators for providing them with the opportunity and the means to study.
“Today, although our country has entered the modern era in many ways, a large number of our schools are still located in the pagodas, which means that education here is closely connected to Buddhism,” said Lach.
He also mentioned in his writings that if there were no pagodas then Khmer literature would have disappeared during Cambodia’s periods of intense upheaval, which is why pagodas are considered “places for safeguarding a literary culture that could be preserved from destruction and then reintroduced into regular Cambodian life”.
‘Brightest light of a nation’
Interestingly enough, similar theories have long been advanced about the role of Christian monasteries in Europe in the preservation of key texts and knowledge from cultures such as the Greeks and Romans long after those empires ceased to exist, so it makes sense that in Cambodia pagodas would have played a similar role.
“Literature is really the brightest light of the nation. Without national literature, the nation will gradually decline. That is why people say that Buddhism is a religion that helps preserve the national literary culture,” he said.
From 2015 to the present, young students and monks between the ages of 7 and 15 have studied Khmer, Pali and English literature at Sirisakor Daun Steng Pagoda in Preah Sdach district, Prey Veng province.
Venerable Im Teang, chief monk of the Pagoda, told The Post that he established the classes after realising that the children in the village were illiterate and did not attend school regularly. He built classrooms, where he himself teaches.
“Most of the parents are poor and do not pay much attention to the value of education, and some of the children are growing up illiterate, so I gathered them at the pagoda and began to teach them myself,” he said.
Because he himself was the child of a poor family and had struggled with his parents’ lack of education, he hates poverty and unnecessary ignorance. He tries to help the children of poor families, believing that he understands their miseries because he was once in the same position.
“I have nothing to offer these children other than knowledge, but this knowledge will help improve their lives and those of their families – as well as society,” he said.
Venerable Im Teang holds classes from 7 to 10 am and from 2 to 4 pm every day, teaching Khmer, English and Dharma. 60 per cent of his teaching focuses on Khmer literature.
“The Khmer language is the basic foundation of our heritage and the younger generation must understand it. Today, I have 14 young students who come to school regularly. After they have been studying with us for a while, I invite them to become novice monks. Once they are monks, they are easier to manage than laymen,” he said.
The establishment of classrooms in pagodas makes a great contribution to society by simply sharing knowledge with children, and venerable Tieng would like every pagoda to build classrooms like his. A number of monasteries have already built classrooms and hold lessons on a regular basis.
‘Pagodas play central role’
Prof Prak Samphors of the Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University said that monks have played an important role in Cambodian society since ancient times. Although the monkhood was heavily targeted by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, they returned to serve the Kingdom. He said the presence of monks gives hope and comfort to Buddhists. They help not just with mental stability and calmness, but have contributed significantly to countless social, humanitarian and rescue work. No matter the circumstances, the monks are always close to the Cambodian people.
“The pagoda still plays a central role in Cambodian society. There are three important aspects to the work of a pagoda. They provide morality training for children, which means they will grow up to be responsible members of a progressive society. They also pass on the importance of preserving traditions, which means that monks become an important driver in promoting conservation and development,” said Samphors.
The second point he raised was how the pagoda is an important place to cultivate internal unity, because when children get together, they communicate with each other, so they understand and support one another better. The third point, the core, he added, is the preservation of literature.
“The role of the monks and their pagodas remains invaluable,” he stressed.
After deciding to send her son to study at Sirisakor Daun Steng pagoda, Suon Yat, 50, noticed that her son had changed and now read and wrote a lot.
She said that at first she was not interested in sending her children to study at the pagoda because she wanted them at home to help her with her work, but because he asked so many times, she relented and let him go.
“I find it strange. He can read a lot more than he could when he was just attending public school. He started going to the pagoda whenever he had time off from school. After a few months of study, he developed a real passion for learning and says he is motivated to keep studying,” she said.
Yat’s cousin, Sant Mer, encouraged her granddaughter to study more with the monks. She said she wanted her granddaughter to be more literate, so we would have a chance at a brighter future and a better job when she grew up.
“I want my granddaughter to be a good woman, a good Buddhist and have a positive influence in our society,” she said.