The Monks Who Forgot How

Temple at Ta Prohm (detail)

Temple at Ta Prohm (detail)

A thin thread of flute music cuts thorough the moist air and draws me deeper into the maze that is the temple of Ta Prohm. Great enigmatic heads with heavy lidded gazes and ironic smiles top the towering gates and stand as reminders of the grandeur of 12th century Cambodia. Archaeologists believe these giant heads, tall enough to see over treetops, represent both Buddha and the god-king who built this place. The stone statues were meant to remind the people who lived in the fragile wooden houses beyond the temple walls that Buddha and god-kings live forever.

On the map, Ta Prohm is just a small corner of the Angkor collection of temples in the Siem Reap province of northwestern Cambodia. Eight hundred years ago, however, 2,740 monks lived here supported by the inhabitants of 3,140 villages. Well, at least that’s what the stone-carved information left behind by the ancient Khmer says.

Whether or not its history has been exaggerated, this heap of stones obviously was a grand place. Evidence of past glory remains in rows of small stone meditating Buddhas and in the graceful poses of the Asparas, the Khmer Barbie-doll dancers eternally entertaining their lords on the temple walls. Even the rhythmic arrangement of the rooms and courtyards testifies to the high degree of aesthetic development of the Khmer kingdom.

The once sturdy temple — built to honor a ruler’s mother for all eternity — has crumbled under the slow, persistent force of nature. Living plants push aside man’s attempts to appear immortal. The heedless roots of the fig trees dig up huge blocks of stone, drape over walls and squeeze them out of shape. The relentless damp softens the earth from below, and vines wrap prying tendrils around the few carvings not carried off by treasure hunters.

Sweat coats my body. Where did the ancients get the energy to boost these gigantic blocks of stone, I wonder? Everything drips. My skin drips. The leaves drip from the trees. The air is so saturated that it cannot absorb even a few drops of perspiration. The great fig tree roots flow around the ancient stones. Frogs sing minor notes from puddles in the fissures between fallen blocks underfoot. It is easy to understand the Buddhist habit of acceptance. In this heat, one word suffices: “Whatever.”

Following the sound of the flute, I imagine I will find a solitary musical monk hidden under a fig tree. So it seems perfectly natural when I come upon a small man wrapped in a black robe. He sits on a stone bench in the middle of what was once a place of worship and is now a lush and puzzling ruin. With his bald head and large ears, his stooped shoulders and beatific smile, he might as well be Yoda. He holds out a tiny metal figure of Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu deity. When I take it, he extends his hand for payment. Is he a retired holy man? An aging student in black instead of saffron robes? And why is a Buddhist monk selling Hindu charms?

My Cambodian guide scowls from beneath his floppy brimmed straw hat.

“He should not be asking for money.” he says. “These monks have forgotten how to be monks.”

There’s a sadness in the statement. My usually optimistic and forward-looking guide mourns for a past when Buddhism was the center of the Cambodian soul and the Buddhist sangha was the center of Cambodian culture. Monks are expected to carry food bowls and bless those who give them basic sustenance. Now some monks hector tourists for money. Yoda selling Lord Ganesh is not the first example we have seen of this new attachment to worldly things.

The objection is not to the mixing of Hinduism and Buddhism. Historically, Cambodia’s Buddhism has been tolerant of other religions — in fact, much of the art around Angkor is of Hindu origin. But Buddhist monks traditionally were contributors to society, not sellers of trinkets.

The guide’s voice has jerked me back from the twelfth century to the Pol Pot time — that period in recent Cambodian history when out of a population of seven million, over a million died.

For most of the last thirty years it appeared that the treasure of Angkor would never again be open to the world. The yearly rhythms of rain, flood and dry seasons went on, but the sea of blood that washed over the country blotted out all normal life.

During the Pol Pot time and the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, a college diploma was a death warrant. There were no arts. No education. No technology. According to one source, of the 65,000 monks and novices alive in 1969, no more than 3,000 survived. Another source says only 500 monks made it. Two-thirds of the 3,369 temples standing in 1970 were destroyed and the rest were damaged. Is it any wonder that a once devout people drifted away from the strict practice of Buddhism?

In the past 20 years, a new constitution reaffirmed Buddhism as the official religion of Cambodia and the number of monks has grown to 50,000. But with the wisdom of elders gone and their temples and records destroyed, the education, morality, and practices long passed down through monastic instruction have had to be relearned. My guide was right: With institutional memory nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, today’s monks need to relearn how to be monks.

According to a U.S. organization called Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistance Project (KEAP), “The quality and standards of the Cambodian Sangha have remained low through the 1990’s given the loss of an entire generation of learned monks. Only some 20% of monks, the bulk of whom are under 25 years of age, receive some formal training, mainly from lay teachers whose qualifications tend to be rudimentary.”

After the 1993 U. N. sponsored elections, Western nations rushed in to help Cambodia modernize. The result has, again in the words of KEAP, “helped foster a growing culture of greed, corruption and licentiousness in a country whose social fabric remains frayed.”

Now the monks must relearn their role. In the past they were leaders of the people, social workers, psychologists, educators as well as moral guides. Today they are tentatively seeking their place in a modern Cambodia. They are reestablishing schools, but they lack education. A recent drive to reduce smoking enrolled monks to help. But nearly all the monks smoke. They are protectors of the monuments, but some have built unauthorized pagodas on the grounds of Angkor Wat, the most important building of Khmer history.

Standing in the quiet Ta Prohm courtyard, trying to locate the source of the flute music, I soak in the peace and wonder if the Buddhist monks of the 12th century felt the same tranquility. And I wonder if today’s monks will regain their central place in Cambodia’s society in time to mend the social fabric of this wounded country.

As I leave the complex, I see a young boy. In his bright red shirt and blue shorts, he’s like an exotic flower amidst the gray stones and dark green foliage. He is blowing gently into a homemade bamboo flute. It is the music of the future, echoing from the walls of the past. I want to believe that the Buddhist monks will relearn their role in society and help Cambodia win back its soul. The giant heads just keep smiling.

Vera Marie Badertscher is a travel writer living in Arizona.