Monastic Education


After decades of living in isolation and experiencing unspeakable horrors in the 1970s, it is vital for emphathic outsiders to help Cambodians re-affirm their self-esteem and cultural-spiritual identity as a basis for facing the outside world with all its opportunities and pitfalls. For an essentially village-based Buddhist society whose sense of life means participating in a moral-cosmological community, renewing Buddhist standards lies at the heart of the recovery process.

Meaningful progress in Cambodia is not only a function of the material "development" promoted by the international community, but also of expanding the moral compass of the country. Most Cambodians looked to their Buddhist wats and Sangha, who had been regenerative forces following crises in the past, to again assume a natural leadership role. It is telling that wat structures, not state structures, emerged spontaneously from the rubble of the Khmer Rouge years.

But the education of a new generation of monks that resumed on a modest scale in the early 1990s was hampered by a lack of qualified teachers and administrators, most of whom were liquidated during the Khmer Rouge period.

KEAP has sought to play a role by focusing its efforts by supporting monk education through scholarships for monk students, assisting gifted monk teachers, and helping raise standards at the Buddhist University.

Scholarships for Monk Students and Laywomen

Since 2002, KEAP has provided annual scholarships to monk students at the Preak Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University who have demonstrated high academic potential, a commitment to monastic life, and financial need. The project was piloted with the Zen Community of Oregon in cooperation with KEAP's local partner, the Buddhist Association of Cambodia (BAC), which maintains offices next to the university. The modest monthly stipends to monk students has not only enabled students to better focus on their studies, but has also given them a moral boost. The program grew from two monthly stipends of $15 over ten months in 2002-03 to 24 scholarships of $30 per month during the 2012-13 academic years. (The aim is to provide at least one half of what is needed for a monk student to survive.) Since 2011, the program has sought to expand coverage to include 10-precept nuns under the age of 30 with secondary educations. The current cost of a one-year scholarship for a monastic student is $320, which includes a $20 administrative fee shared by the BAC and KEAP. To sponsor a Cambodian monastic student, click here.

The success of this project led the Khyentse Foundation to invite KEAP in 2006 to provide competitive post-graduate scholarships for monk graduates of the University to study in Sri Lanka. Until 2012, there were no possibilties for monks to study beyond the first degree at the Buddhist University in Phnom Penh. In 2007-08, the program sent two former KEAP scholarship recipients to study for an M.A. in Buddhist Studies at the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka. In 2013, there were six students receiving support, of whom four were on track to receive terminal degrees not only in Buddhist studies but also Pali & Sanskrit.

Improving Standards at the Buddhist University

The Preah Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University in Phnom Penh was the first institution of higher learning established in Cambodia. The then King Sihanouk founded the University by statute in 1954, with classes commencing in 1959. It was forced to close during the civil war prior to the Khmer Rouge take-over of the country in April 1975 and did not re-open its doors until 1997. It then took another ten years for the University to obtain official accreditation by the state. In 2009, Vice-Rectors Vens. Khy Sovanratana and Yon SengYeath, who received their BA and MA degrees in Buddhist studies from Sri Lanka, were given a reform mandate to bring the University to levels comparable to other Theravada institutions of higher learning in the region. In addition to scholarships, KEAP has from time to time honored gifted teachers at the Buddhist University with one-time cash awards supplementing their meagre salaries. We have also assisted in the procurement of learning materials and, in 2013, facilitated the work of KEAP volunteer Dr. Ian Harris, a scholar of Cambodian Buddhism, in strengthening the University's capacity. For Dr. Harris' report on this mission, click here.

Cirriculum Reform

The Ministry of Religious Affairs in cooperation with the Sangha is seeking to reform the primary, secondary, and tertiary monk education curricula, which are based on outdated 1960s content, syllabi, and methodologies. An initial partial reform already implemented has marginally increased time for Buddhist studies by reducing the earlier emphasis on the hard sciences. Commissions for each level seek to work with national and international Buddhist monk education advisors. The Ministry has repeatedly welcomed any suggestions, facilitation, or support of this process by KEAP.

Education for Nuns

Doun ji, or lay devotee nuns, who observe the eight or ten Buddhist precepts, are found in or adjacent to many wats in Cambodia. They are usually elderly women, many of them widows who have raised families and who wish to repair to the wat to prepare for death. A small number are younger and have a life ahead of them. KEAP has found that the nuns as a rule are more mature, meditative, and serious about the Buddhadhamma than the new generation of young monks. Since October 1991, when KEAP sponsored and brought Khmer Buddhist nuns and laywomen in the refugee camps to the "First International Conference of Buddhist Women" held in Bangkok, Thailand, KEAP has assisted and facilitated initiatives to improve the status and role of nuns in Khmer society. The greatest needs expressed by nuns are for Dhamma study groups, and KEAP has encouraged and supported this process mainly by providing Dhamma books. With proper facilitation, these study groups can over time also become resources or foci for temple-centered social services such as temple-based day care or pre-schools (allowing mothers, women heads of households in particular, to learn or do productive work). Nuns can also provide counseling for destitute women, prostitutes, or those afflicted with mental trauma. KEAP seeks support for local Buddhist NGOs and associations to implement this process with facilitation and montoring by local KEAP staff. Since 2007, KEAP has been supporting the work of a nun's center in Wat Poveal in the northwestern provincial capital of Battambang.

Self-help Community Development

has been promoted by Buddhist temples in Cambodia and neighboring Theravada lands for centuries. Recent field research led by Dr. Walter Aschmoneit, working through the German development agency GTZ, and American cultural anthropologist Dr. William Collins of Phnom Penh's Center for Advanced Study has re-affirmed the existence of these hidden, informal structures of temple-connected community development in Cambodia. This people-centered development model stands in stark contrast to the monetized economic and industrial development models that began to be imposed on the country -- in part through the training abroad of national ÂŽlites, in part by the international donor aid community -- following World War II. Although the importance of the social and cultural aspects of development are being gradually recognized since the mid-1990s by several United Nations agencies (including the World Bank), the realities of "globalization," "liberalization," "privatization," and "consumer" trends tell a different story. These trends (and pressures) serve to reinforce a development pattern that benefits rich individuals, transnational corporations, and first-world countries at the expense of the poor while simultaneously undermining the natural and socio-cultural environments in which rural people, still the bulk of the populations in countries like Cambodia, have lived and pursued meaningful livelihoods.

There are several Buddhist-oriented, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Cambodia who have emerged in the 1990s that seek to renew historical forms of self-help development that benefit people, in particular the most needy, at the community level. Among these are Samakithor (Dhammic Solidarity) and Buddhism for Development in northwestern Cambodia and the Self-Help Project in Kampong Thom province north-central Cambodia. Two of the three NGOs recently localized from international agencies and are now struggling to work on their own as training and community development facilitation organizations. Samakithor in particular has developed and used training modules and worked with monks and laypeople in two northwestern provinces in wat-connected community development. The three training cycles for these modules are "Community health, water, and sanitation," "Village economic and social development," and "Natural preservation and cultural development." Samakithor has also conducted functional literacy programs in "Buddhism and community development" for female heads of households in 11 temple community learning centers while helping these temples provide day-care facilities for the pre-school children of the participants. KEAP seeks to offer these and similar initiatives in Cambodia assistance with which to continue and expand their efforts.

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KEAP sponsors a number of scholarships for young laywomen, part of our long-term goal of sponsoring nuns. Currently, most nuns are older and, even among the very few younger nuns, few if any have completed secondary education. Needless to say, encouraging and supporting young women to study Buddhism is an important part of Cambodia's spiritual and cultural renewal. Read more...