Some Fear Secular Subjects Dominating Buddhist Education
Venerable Chom Roune Sac dreams of becoming a diplomat one day.
Sitting in his small dark room in Wat Ounalom, the 24-year-old monk is longing and earnest as he describes how he left his family in Takeo eight years ago in hopes of bettering his education and financially supporting his parents.
The monk, now studying at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka on the grounds of Wat Ounalom in central Phnom Penh, said he was encouraged by colleagues who, after finishing Buddhist secondary school and disrobing, were able to find well-paying jobs in the lay world. One friend is now an accountant at Pochentong Airport, another works for an NGO.
“It’s my lesson to follow them,” he said, his table piled high with the English-language books he reads in his spare time between his Pali and Buddhist philosophy lessons. “It’s equal opportunity for everyone.”
Chom Roune Sac is just one of many monks who seek help from wats across the country. With the paucity of public schools in the provinces, the wat, with its free food and lodging, a traditional refuge where boys from poor families can improve their lives, has adapted to fulfill the educational needs of monks living in a world that now places a premium on intellectual qualifications.
At the same time, however, scholars of Cambodian Buddhism say the present state of religious education in the country is rudimentary.
Recent efforts to make monk schools the educational equivalent of secular schools has stirred debate among scholars, with some questioning why the Ministry of Cults and Religion seeks to increase secular education when it doesn’t have enough funds and trained personnel to provide adequate religious education for all monks.
Hean Sokhom, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Study who published a paper on the revival of monk education two years ago, said the educational changes have decreased emphasis on spiritual development, making it even more difficult for monks to fulfill their traditional role as Buddhist authorities and community advisers.
“Buddhism in Cambodia, it’s not the same as before Pol Pot’s time,” he said. Hean Sokhom said he was worried because, due to the lack of proper Buddhist education for monks, villagers no longer go to the head monk of the local wat to solve their personal and community problems as they used to.
“The new monks, they don’t know about Buddhism. So how can people come to ask about psychological troubles? If monks have no knowledge, in Cambodia there will be no Buddhism, only wats.”
On one hand, the reestablishment of the foundations of Buddhist practice after the Pol Pot regime attempted to wipe out all forms of religious life has been encouraging. The first Dhamma-vinaya and Pali grammar schools (now called Buddhist primary schools) reopened in 1989. And in 1992 the Ministry of Religion was reestablished to construct new wats and fund monk education. Today, there are 46,000 monks living in 3,610 wats, according to the Ministry of Religion.
On the other hand, the annihilation of experienced and educated monks between 1975 and 1978 has left the present, predominantly young, monkhood without educated mentors and role models. Nearly all religious books were destroyed, making religious instruction today an ordeal.
Venerable Oum Soum, inspector general of Buddhist High Schools, however, disagreed with Hean Sokhom’s pessimistic assessment of monk schools. He insisted that the added secular subjects are a praiseworthy change, an improvement from those classes the monks of his generation attended during the 1940s.
“When I was young, there weren’t many schools like today, where I could study math, science, foreign [Western] languages,” he said.
Reforms in the 1960s added secular subjects to monk education and made monk schools the educational equivalent of secular schools. But the changes but had little time to take root because of political upheaval. Thirty years later, they have been re-introduced, but the reforms, while broadening the monks’ education, have created an educational system in which studying Buddhism plays a decreased role in the lives of the monks.
It has long been Cambodian tradition that a son become a monk for varying periods to honor his parents, gain merit for his family and learn Buddhist ethics to guide his social behavior after disrobing. Only a fraction of monks remain permanently at their wats.
But according to Dok Narin, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Religion, now monk schools aim not only to instill Buddhism in monks, but actually attempt to increase graduates’ employment prospects in the lay world.
Dok Narin said the vast majority of monks continue to disrobe after their education. He said the Ministry of Religion has funded the Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University for precisely this reason.
“The university was started because 90 percent of the people in Cambodia are Buddhist. We want to improve the monks, improve Buddhism. Also, when monks become civilians, they need to have skills in order to become leaders,” Dok Narin said.
However, the move to add secular education has perhaps backfired in terms of retaining and preparing monks for long-term monkhood.
The current curriculum for the first year of Buddhist high school, for example, includes nine hours a week of Pali (the language in which Buddhist scriptures are written) and Buddhist doctrine and morals—and 18.5 hours of general subjects such as English and biology.
Meanwhile, partly because the Ministry of Religion cannot afford to fund more than a handful of institutions, it is difficult for monks to qualify for and obtain even secondary education. According to Deputy Director of the Buddhist Institute Him Saith in September, a “good number” of Cambodian monks are illiterate. A report compiled by the Ministry of Religion, listed 247 Buddhist primary schools in the country, enrolling 7,157 students last year. But there are only four Buddhist secondary schools in the country, two of which are in Phnom Penh. For the 1997-1998 academic year, the secondary schools enrolled 600 students.
The Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University, with about 80 students, is only in its second year of operations. The start of the university’s current year has been plagued by high absentee rates by both the students and the teachers—the students, fearful of the reprisals due to the participation of monks in the September pro-democracy demonstrations, the teachers because of inadequate pay, according to one university instructor.
The plight of the Buddhist school teachers also highlights the lack of qualified monk-teachers. Most monks are instructed by paid lay teachers. For instance, the Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University has about 20 instructors—only two of them are monks, Sri Lankans who teach Sanskrit. One of the Sri Lankan monks also teaches at Phnom Penh’s Preah Suramarit Buddhist High School, where he is the only monk instructor.
Concerned about the “low levels of Buddhist education,” Dr Hema Goonatilake, a Sri Lankan scholar of Buddhism, with the financial aid of Sri Lankan temples, established the Buddhist and Pali University to help “teach the essence as well as the dissemination” of Buddhism. The English-language university, which opened this year, teaches Buddhist doctrine and history.
According to Goonatilake, Cambodian monks’ unfamiliarity with Buddhist scriptures has led them to a deeper, even more serious problem—difficulty in comprehending the significance of the religion itself. This has reduced Cambodian Buddhism to a hollow, ritualistic interpretation, she said.
The three Sri Lankan monks who form the entire faculty of the Buddhist and Pali University (and include the two who teach at Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University), said that while Sri Lankans and Cambodians belong to different sects of Pali-based Theravada Buddhism, they have not yet gotten to the point where education about sectional differences matters.
“People, lay people and monks, don’t receive adequate knowledge of dharma,” said Venerable Panna Tissa, one of the university’s instructors, referring to the basic body of Buddhist teachings, “I have come across monks…they have memorized the Pali texts, but they do not know their meaning.”
As for the monk students, while appreciative of the Buddhist instruction they received at the university, some seemed as interested in practicing English with the Sri Lankan monks as in learning the actual Buddhist precepts they were taught.
After one of Panna Tissa’s evening classes recently, a group of seven monks gathered near the doorway, lingering. Asked whether they would have attended the university had the classes been taught in Khmer rather than English, the monks laughed uncomfortably.
“No,” said some under their breaths.
Later, Chom Roune Sac, one of their classmates, tried to put an optimistic spin on things when asked if he felt the future of monkhood was endangered by a potential brain drain of its most educated monks.
“There will be a lot of good monks [to replace the current abbots after their deaths],” he said, speaking of Cambodian monks he heard were studying abroad in London, New Delhi, and Sri Lanka.
But as for himself, echoing the sentiments of a dozen of other monks interviewed, monkhood seemed to have become as much a career choice as a way of life. He said he would remain a monk and become a Buddhist instructor—but only if he could not get a lay job.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Khuy Sokhoen)