The third monk’s tale

monastery cat_DSF4805(This is the third monk’s tale because there are two more before it – it’s an extract from my forthcoming book Buddha and Naga, which is sort-of due out in October this year).

Wat Koh on Monivong Boulevard is one of the oldest monasteries in Phnom Penh. Founded by King Ponhea Yat in the early 15th century, it was destroyed in the 1970s and rebuilt in the 1990s. Its claim to fame is that the abbot has made it a refuge for stray and abandoned house pets. This is entirely in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching of compassion for all living creatures, but I know of no other monastery that does it. Wat Koh has an even more notable eccentricity: the monks are forbidden to go out on the alms rounds in the morning, and the laypeople have to come to them instead.

Reach Kim Sam is a monk at Wat Koh and a graduate of Buddhist High School, which means that he is proficient in both Pali, which he began learning in Buddhist primary school, and Sanskrit. His studies covered both grammar and scripture and took up five hours a day, two in the morning and three in the afternoon.

Vipassana, he says, is not meditation, as it is carried out under the guidance of a teacher; true meditation is done in solitude to calm the mind and reflect on what has been done during the day, and to discover whether one’s actions have been positive or negative.

The aim of the monastic life is to escape dukkha (see page XX). Every human experiences dukkha because in life we meet problems, and these are dukkha. Sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, bereavement is dukkha, death is dukkha. Even those things we think are not dukkha, contain it. A couple who marry and have children will have happiness, but they will also have unhappiness, because every act contains dukkha in some measure. This was the beginning of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of reality.

Yet despite this we should not refrain from action. Consider the man who sees a child in trouble in the river. The child calls out for help. The man can swim and could save the child, even though he knows that doing so will lead to dukkha. Can the man do nothing? No, because doing nothing is also action. He must save the child, because not to do so would be a lack of humanity. Perhaps the child has rescued the man in a previous life, so rescuing the child will be a return of merit for the one who once saved his life.

People are born with the kamm (negative energy) they have accumulated over the sum of their previous lives. Bap is what they add to it in this life. If a thief steals and is arrested, that is bap. If the thief is not arrested it is because he has accumulated bonn (merit) in previous lives, but eventually, if he continues to do evil, his bap will come to outweigh his bonn.

A monk is not selfish. He is motivated by compassion, just as was the Buddha. This compassion is exercised primarily on behalf of humans, but not solely, for animals are also living beings. The abbot’s concern for animals comes from his understanding of the Buddha’s teachings regarding compassion.

It was the abbot who decided that the monks of Wat Koh should not go out into the streets in the mornings to gather alms. He did this because many monks in the city collect alms at places where monks should not be seen, such as markets and beer-gardens, and even massage parlours. In crowded residential streets they enter apartment buildings where women dry their underwear, and at restaurants they stand outside in a manner that approaches moral blackmail. For this reason the abbot decided that laypeople who wish to support the monks of Wat Koh should bring their donations to the monastery, alowing them to gain merit while protecting the morality of the monks and the reputation of the Sangha.