by Hoang Trung Hieu
|For many young Khmer men the pagoda is like a second home.
|A Khmer monk studies Khmer scripts at a pagoda.
|Young Khmer monks also attend normal classes at school.
Thach Kim Minh is a border guard in Kien Giang Province.
Not everyone knows that Minh, a Khmer man, was a monk for several years at a pagoda in his home village.
"Thanks to my time studying at the pagoda, I know everything related to the traditions and culture of the Khmer community, and I am respected," he says.
For his work in the border area with Cambodia where there are many Khmer people, his knowledge about Khmer culture and lifestyle helps Minh excel in his work, and he is often asked to interpret in dealings with Cambodian partners.
"For young Khmer men, pagodas are like a second home," he says.
The south-western provinces have large communities of ethnic Khmer people. In some villages, especially in provinces bordering Cambodia like An Giang and Kien Giang, the Khmer account for 70 per cent of the local population. Khmer people who have lived in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta since before the 17th century predominantly practise Theravada Buddhism.
Traditionally, young Khmer men from 12 years upward must study to become monks.
The Khmer consider it a social obligation for boys. Staying in the pagoda is not an excuse to escape from life, but an opportunity for them to learn to become responsible adults.
As a Khmer saying goes "When men live, they stay in pagodas; when they die, their bodies return to the pagoda", so the pagoda is the focus of their cultural and spiritual values.
The Mekong Delta has more than 440 Khmer pagodas, and each has at least 5-10 monks who are local villagers, and some have even 60-70.
Local people often hear the monks chanting, and at dusk, the sounds of the monks practising their lessons they have learnt during the day ring out.
In addition to learning Buddhism, many monks have to go to school during the day.
They try their best to study the development of society while maintaining their Khmer cultural identity.
This practice is to fulfil the filial duty of a good son - as understood by many, but this way of understanding is not enough.
Taking the cloth is also the path to knowledge, as they learn and practise to become observant Buddhists who can be useful for society.
In the past, the majority of Khmer people were illiterate because schools did not teach Khmer scripts. Only the monks were literate and understood ethnic and cultural traditions, as well as religious ceremonies.
According to monks, a mature Khmer man must understand these cultural and religious values.
The longer the time they spend at the pagoda, the wider their education is, so after leaving, they are respected by others.
Taking the cloth is not only to show gratitude to parents like many people still think, it is like going to school to become a good person who can help others, according to Venerable Danh Ut in Rach Gia City, Kien Giang Province.
"Only when people have a full understanding of our ethnic culture, will they behave in an appropriate manner that is worthy of the traditions of our ancestors, and this means they are dutiful to their parents."
Traditionally, the boys are sent to pagodas for a time before officially becoming monks. It is a probation process to help them get used to their new environment. During this period, the boys learn the Khmer language and some basic rituals and customs.
After this apprenticeship, the novices are ordained.
Before the boys leave home, their parents hold a ceremony to communicate with their ancestral spirits and relatives. The Khmer call this "the blessing ceremony" which is a mandatory ritual.
The ceremony may be a large event, or a low-key ritual, depending on each family's conditions, but they all invite monks to chant, worship Buddha, and choose a religious name to allow the boy to join the religious precepts.
Every year, this ceremony is usually held on the occasion of Chol Chnam Thmay (the Khmer New Year). The boy says goodbye to relatives and friends and has his hair shaved. Then he swaps his trousers for a sarong, and replaces his shirt with a white cloth hung from the left shoulder to the right, which shows that he has given up the non-religious world.
The next morning, another ceremony is held during which the boy stains his teeth before leaving for the local pagoda accompanied by his family bearing offerings.
After receiving approval from the head monk, the boy is permitted to wear the order's robes and promises to officially follow Buddhist teachings. There is no set time the boys are expected to stay at the pagoda, but they traditionally spend around three years there. During that time, they rely on food donations from the public, which they repay by spreading the word of Buddha to popularise the religion and help others.
Monk Thach Chanh Da from Bupharam Pagoda in Hung Hoi Commune, Vinh Loi District, Bac Lieu Province is a shining example of studious monks.
With a sense of hard study and self-improvement, Da, 24, is highly valued by a lot of monks at the Khmer pagodas in the province.
In 2010-2011, he won a provincial award for mathematics and was selected to sit for a prestigious regional level exam. He has just graduated from high school with excellent marks, according to Van Hoa (Culture) newspaper.
Maths teacher Lam Van Chuong, who is also head teacher of the monk's class, says: "Apart from his intelligence, Da is serious, hardworking and industrious. Since he has the will to overcome difficulties, I've volunteered to train him for his university entrance exams free of charge."
Da recently passed an entrance exam for the Can Tho University of Medicine.
Many people ask Da how he can be such an exceptional student with all his religious responsibilities.
The monk replies: "In our pagoda, the senior monks are always very interested in our studies. They create the best conditions for us to learn."
Along with learning about Vietnamese culture, he is also fluent in the Khmer language. Each year, Da is rewarded by the pagoda for his excellent results, and frequently praised by Most Venerable Huu Hinh and Venerable Tang Sa Vong.
Da says: "I am very grateful for the special care and attention they have bestowed on me, and I have vowed to try my best in my studies so that I don't betray their belief."
In the past, Khmer youths who did not study Buddhism were considered ungrateful to their parents, and often struggled to find wives. Young Khmer women preferred young men who had carried out their duties and knew how to behave as men, with knowledge that earned them respect from society.
"Today, pagodas still have a certain social position. At present, we monks still study in an effort to keep pace with social development," says Da. — VNS