Monks here and there
While the military are shooting and gassing monks and civilians in Rangoon, here in Cambodia the picture is somewhat different. All appears to be well, the monks are cheerful, and no-one is protesting or getting shot. Cambodia has a motto – Nation, Religion, King – and yet no-one seems to get that worked up about it. The King’s face adorns every shop wall, and most places also have a small shrine, but get talking to the average Khmer and Religion or King will be the last thing they mention, certainly to an outsider. This place is no model democracy, but people here seem to be happy enough, and sometimes give the impression that they would do anything for a quiet life.
The brand of Theraveda Buddhism practised here is socially aware, not prosletysing, just getting on with it and doing its bit. I live next to Wat Bo, a pagoda and monastery, and nearly every day I hear chanting and worship. The chanting sometimes sounds like a cattle auction, and the other day I even imagined I heard someone chanting “The line broke, the monkey got choked, and they all went to heaven in a little row boat”, but I enjoy it.
Walking home through the pagoda you find elderly ladies curled over behind various obelisks, mumbling into the smoke from incense sticks on the ground, while the teenagers here all appear to be speeding around town three to a moto. I spoke to one young Khmer who told me he had briefly served in a monastery, but it was to keep his parents happy. Monks seem to be religious enough for everybody, allowing them to do their thing day by day without prostrating themselves at regular intervals. It might be over-romantic to call them the nation’s conscience, but not a million miles away.
Becoming a monk may be because of a desire for cheaper education, enlightenment, or moderation, but the monks in Rangoon have formed a focussed political movement when most people in Burma are too terrified to do anything to oppose the junta. The fate of the monks in Rangoon reminds us that all of the monks in Cambodia were wiped out during the Khmer Rouge period, Pol Pot (despite having formerly served in a Buddhist monastery) seeing them as part of a dangerous intellectual class. In enough numbers, whatever colour the robes, monks seem to be rather good at getting attention.