The first nun’s tale

yd3c1439A nun (daun chi) presents food to a monk. Photo by Nick Shippen, travel writer and photographer – part of a photo-essay on nuns and their relationship to the monkhood in the context of Angkor and the tourist industry.

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Women who wish to follow the Way face a major obstacle: there are no nuns in Theravada Buddhism. I’ve called them nuns for convenience, but ordination in Theravada has to be part of chain stretching back to Buddha, and the chain for nuns died out long ago. Women may, however, become helpers to the monks and follow the eight precepts rather than the ten. These women are called yeay chi or daun chi – yeay and daun are both terms of respect for an older woman, with daun chi being more formal.

_DSF1987Chan Sopheap started living in Wat Phnom Orderk (“Turtle Mountain Monastery”) in Battambang province when she was not yet twenty years old. This was in the time of Lon Nol, who overthrew king Sihanouk in 1970. Not many years later the Khmer Rouge took control and sent her to a labour camp. After the Khmer Rouge were driven out she returned to the monastery in Battambang and lived there until she met the man who was to become her husband, a former monk who had been forced out of the Sangha by Lon Nol. (Lon Nol, concerned that too many potential soldiers were escaping conscription by putting on the robe, had decreed that no one under fifty could be a monk).

For the next twenty-five years Sopheap lived with her husband and children in Battambang and later in Siem Reap. About 2006 or 2007 she became very ill, and her husband agreed that she should return to Wat Phnom Orderk, where their second son was a monk. “By serving the monks as a daun chi I would build up kamma to overcome my illness.”

So she went back to Turtle Mountain, serving the monks and studying the Way, until her daughter asked if she would come with her to Phnom Penh where she wanted to do a ten-month course at the National Institute of Education. Naturally she agreed, as she could not send the girl to the city alone. She originally intended to take a room for the ten months, but rents in the capital proved too expensive and so, with the help of the abbot of Turtle Mountain, she obtained permission from the abbot of Wat Lanka to stay in this, one of the most prestigious monasteries in the capital.

I asked Sophea about the spirits, as I was curious to know what an intelligent and learned woman would have to say about the spirit world.

“Boramey and neak ta are not part of Buddhism (preah put sassana). These things don’t exist. Spirits come from Brahmanism (prumman sassana), which is all about the unseen. Brahmanism is about magic. I know of some people who came and asked a monk to sprinkle their new motorbike with holy water for good luck. That same day they were killed in an accident on the way home. Who can believe this? No pure monk will do this thing with magic water. Buddhism is about good and bad deeds. Your lot in this life reflects your deeds in your previous life. Everything that happens to you is due to the karma that you’ve built up in your previous life and this one.”

Sophea will return to Battambang when her daughter’s course is finished. The daughter will probably stay on in Phnom Penh as a teacher, and after a few years will apply for a scholarship to study for a Masters degree in English in Australia.

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Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds, an investigation of religion and belief in modern Cambodia – due out in October.

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2 thoughts on “The first nun’s tale

  1. I have asked a few people to explain this belief, that what happens to you in this life is related to how you were in your previous life. There are so many financially well-off people in this country who are not doing the right thing in this life, so how is it that they were allegedly so “good” in their previous life? As yet, I haven’t received a clear response, just silent contemplation of the question…. It contributes to a lot of prejudice too, eg the stigmatisation of disabled, HIV+ and unwell people.

    • So far as I can tell it works like this: Being born into a wealthy family is a sign that you accumulated merit in a past life, as is being born into poverty but managing to become wealthy. If you then act badly, you run down your karmic bank-balance and risk being born into a “bad” next life, but there are ways to offset this, such as donating to monasteries (have a look around the monasteries and ask yourself where all those new buildings come from), supporting Pchum Ben as a donor (Pchum Ben is extremely expensive), supporting ordination ceremonies, and so on – most of these involve donation to the monastery or to religious ceremonies.

      A certain Ta Mok, a monk at Wat Mohamonseri, used to upbraid his fellow monks and tell them that the money being donated to the monastery should be given instead to the poor (giving to the poor generates a little merit, but not nearly as much as giving to the monks). He failed to make an impression on the brethren, left the monkhood in disgust, and became Brother Number 5 in the Khmer Rouge.

      But don’t judge too harshly: in the Middle Ages the Church was very big on encouraging donations to Christian monasteries and to the Church in general, and I believe contemporary American evangelical preachers are often not averse to the odd gift.

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