(Extract from Spirit Worlds, my forthcoming investigation of Cambodian religion and belief, due out in October. This section describes the daily life of a monk).
Sothear is 27 and a native of Prey Veng province. He entered the Sangha when he was 14 because his family were very poor and could not afford an education for him. After graduating from Grade 12 (final High School) he moved to Phnom Penh and now lives at Wat Tuol Tom Poung near the Russian Market. This is how he spends his day:
The day begins at four in the morning when the drum wakes everyone for morning prayers. After that he studies or prepares for the day, and at around six he has a breakfast of rice-soup, eggs, and dried fish prepared by a daun chi. He takes this alone or with the monks who share his living quarters.
[NOTE: daun chi, or yeay chi, are the elderly ladies who live in monasteries – they wear black trousers and white shirts, shave their heads, and are not, despite common belief among Westerners, nuns.]
At around eight he goes out on his alms round. He visits shops and houses around Psar Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), collecting donations – these are usually instant noodles, cooked rice, and cash, and he has no control over what is offered.
He gets back to the monastery by around 10 or 10.30 because he has to eat by noon. When he first became a monk he found this the most difficult part of the life (“often I starved, and I ate a lot of sweets and drank coffee and soft drink to stop the hunger”), but eventually he grew accustomed to it. He prepares his own lunch, usually rice, noodles, vegetables and fruit, and perhaps some chicken or beef or pork purchased for him by the temple boys, using whatever was donated that morning, although the monks in the dormitory share what they’ve gathered.
Cleaning is usually done by a daun chi, but if no daun chi is available he does this himself after his lunch. He takes a nap, then does some reading to prepare for his classes at Build Bright University, where he’s studying IT, because his ambition is to work as a database administrator for an NGO or private company. Most of the cash he collects goes towards his university fees and travel to and from classes, although some is given to the temple boys to buy chicken or fish and essentials such as salt and cooking oil.
Photo by John Einar Sandvand
It was difficult to find a monastery when he first came to live in the city, because so many monks from the provinces want to come to Phnom Penh to study. The country monasteries have few monks, but the city monasteries are crowded. Wat Toul Tom Poung has three hundred monks, and the biggest, like Wat Ounalaom, Wat Mahamontrei, and Wat Botum, have a thousand or more. Nevertheless he considers himself lucky, because he doesn’t have to pay for his electricity and water and food as monks in some other monasteries in the city do.
“Buddhist monk Han Kimsoy teaches students–mostly orphans and other vulnerable children, many of them infected or affected by HIV and AIDS–in a school in the Beungkak neighborhood of Phnom Penh which is run by the Salvation Centre Cambodia, an organization that works with Buddhist monks and other activists to do education and advocacy and care for people infected or affected by HIV and AIDS.”
Photo by Paul Jeffrey, and please visit the website.
Sothear learned Pali and the usual chants in his village monastery in Prey Veng. This knowledge is essential, because he gathers with the other monks in the preah vihear on the holy days each month and on major festivals to recite chants. He also understands meditation, but only practices it on holy days.
Photo by John Einar Sandvand