Coffee, Cigarettes, and Conservation with Khmer Monks by Nat Smith
Having never been to a Buddhist temple, I entered the gates the Khmer Temple in Can Tho expecting to admire the architecture, snap a few photos, and be on my way. I walked past the two-story buildings and ascended the steps to the imposing temple. Some other tourists milled about the grounds and construction equipment buzzed incessantly, building a new monk residence according to the sign. Inside the golden and red temple, the air was thick with incense and the lights were dim. Stares from the numerous and varied Buddha figures seemed to demand supplication. Tourists like me took pictures, locals approached the holy statutes and bowed in brief, silent ritual.
After I finished looking at the shrine, I returned to the courtyard and poked my head into the building on the left. A shaved-head, orange-robed monk spotted me. I thought he would usher me out, but in slightly broken, yet enthusiastic English, he greeted me and insisted I take a seat. He asked where I was from, brought tea, and joined me in the sitting room. I learned his name is Kim and told him I wanted to learn about Buddhism, thinking he could give me a lesson in the Dhamma. However, Kim pulled out his iPhone, lighter, and Hero cigarettes showing one would be pressed to say he had taken renunciation seriously. I tried a few questions about sutras and meditation, but he either didn’t understand me or wasn’t interested in talking about what I thought he had devoted his life to. He told me he quit his job marketing for a grocery store to become a monk to learn English and planned on “giving up the robe” as soon as he was more fluent. Like many Khmer men, the monastery was his best path to education. Knowing English would be helpful to further his career in business. The irony of becoming a monk for financial reasons seemed completely lost to him.
Kim relished the opportunity to practice English with a native speaker. The language barrier presented a few issues, but with the occasional help of Google Translate, we were able to understand each other. I gave up my questions about his faith as he inquired about my university studies, home in America, favorite foods, and other cultural small talk. He used his smart phone to show me pictures of his dream motorbike, favorite Cambodian music videos, and his nurse girlfriend waiting for him back home. We became quick friends and I visited the temple everyday while in Can Tho. Kim always stopped sweeping or taking pictures with tourists whenever I strolled through the gates. Monks can’t eat after noon, so Kim compensates with tea, excessively sugary coffee, frozen milk, and chain smoking, totally willing to share with me. The way he nonchalantly flicked his butts onto the courtyard tile didn’t cease to surprise me.
My trips to the temple were more of a lesson in modern Khmer culture than the ancient teachings of the Buddha, but that changed when Kim introduced me to his Master, Venerable Tran Sone. The Abbot, a fluent English speaker, appreciated my desire to learn and invited my entire group to their evening chanting session with the promise of tea and conversation afterwards. Most of my classmates accompanied me to observe the sacred ritual. We were welcomed to the normally locked, ground floor of the temple. The most holy room in the complex, its shrine was even more impressive than the one upstairs. We sat cross-legged on mats and listened to the Abbot lead the other monks in Pali chants. They began by getting on their knees and bowing to Lord Buddha, forehead to the floor, acknowledging the truth of his teachings. Then they raised their heads and the rhythmic, soothing chant began. The first part of the recitation was a blessing for all living creatures, the second was a dedication for the deceased.
We were led from the shrine into the sitting room where I first met Kim. Venerable Tran Sone cheerily entertained all our questions, giving us a crash course in Theravada Buddhism. He focused especially on meditation and the importance of mindfulness, not just for Buddhists, but anyone seeking to improve their lives. He elaborated on the two types of meditation. The first is concentration meditation, where one tries to empty their mind and focus on one thought to achieve a state of Zen; it is the form most westerners associate with the practice of meditation. The Abbot preferred the other kind, mindfulness meditation, where the practitioner lets his or her thoughts flow freely trying to be aware of every element of their being and surroundings. The two forms can be used separately or in conjunction, whichever works best for the meditator. He emphasized Buddhism is a highly personal religion, the only wrong way to do it is by leaning towards extremes. The middle-path or one of moderation in all things is the way to enlightenment.
If there is one teaching of in Buddhism that needs exported to Western culture the focus on moderation would probably be the best. It is especially relevant when looking at the pressing issues of climate change and environmental degradation due to our short-sighted excess and materialism. The first precept of Buddhism is that you cannot intentionally harm any living being. In the modern era that has directly translated to Buddhists leading conservation efforts. Our first destination after leaving Can Tho, the Bat Pagoda in Soc Trang, is a perfect example. The flying foxes native to the Mekong Delta were being hunted to the edge of extinction. The fruit-eater’s habitat was being systematically destroyed to expand industry and agriculture. Fortunately, the grounds of the temple contained a forest of large trees protected from logging. Now hundreds of bats spend the day roosting in the trees on the temple grounds, a sanctuary from opportunistic hunters. Without the refuge of the centuries-old pagoda, Vietnam may have lost the amazing creatures.
I came to Vietnam hoping to learn about the environment and climate change, only with some inspiration from Jack Kerouac did I decide to delve into Buddhism. I had no idea I would discover such a strong connection between the two. I think I discovered it because Buddhism can easily be conformed to the individuals’ needs. Venerable Tran Sone practices through the traditional path of a pious monk. Kim uses the monastic order to educate himself and pursue his career ambitions. I plan to use meditation to grow compassion and self-awareness. It is not a faith focused on worship, but on self-development. There are many ways to cultivate a connection to nature the Bat Pagoda showed Buddhism can be quite effective. The American conservation effort needs a spiritual fervor, an unshakable passion, to motivate us to preserve the beauty of the natural world for the next generation, or perhaps just ourselves – in the next life.