The Maha Ghosananda Childrens Learning Center at Wat Poveal

Head Nun Ly Savy and Head Monk Ven. Suon Chheoun of Wat Proveal

Cambodian head nun Ly Savy is a natural leader with a vision. Dounji Savy is both gentle and, unlike most nuns, a determined and tough-minded leader.  She has worked diligently to bring the Dhamma to young people and sister nuns since becoming a Buddhist nun more than two decades ago. She has guided and provided material support to school children from poor families unable to send their children to school. She has been doing this informally for many years at her nuns center at the south end of Wat Poveal, which is known in Cambodia as an important learning center wat (temple-monastery). 

The late Bill Scheffel, who served as KEAP's executive director, with Dounji Savy and a student she was supporting.
The late Bill Scheffel, who served as KEAP's executive director, with Dounji Savy and a student she was supporting.

Her vision is to revive a tradition of Buddhist wats in Cambodia to help the vulnerable, in this case primary school-age children unable to attend school. For centuries into our time, wats have served not only as moral and spiritual centers but also places of community-based learning for laypeople and as social safety nets for the vulnerable young and old. Wats exist in a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship with the communities they serve and sustain them.

This tradition was shattered during the social upheavals of the 1970s and 80s. Buddhism became a target for destruction by the fanatical Khmer Rouge and repression by the successor regime. Of the approximately 65,000 monks and novices in Cambodia at the start of the civil war in 1970, only an estimated 3,000 survived to re-ordain in 1980s. A quarter of Cambodia’s population perished in the 1970s. America’s carpet-bombing of the country during the civil war contributed in bringing the country down the path to destruction. Since the 1980s, in a period of revival and rebuilding driven by the villagers, the tradition has been met with indifference by an international development aid community devoted to modernizing Cambodia. The recovery and revival has been slow and arduous as a new generation of monastics seeks to recalibrate their moral compasses and renew their obligations to their communities and the Sangha.

Dounji SaVy in her regular Dhamma travels in the province became aware of the many primary school age children from very poor or broken families in Cambodia who were unable to attend school. Many of these children were put to work or sent away from home for lack of food and resources to sustain them. Some wind up as quasi-orphaned street children begging for food and veering toward a life of glue-sniffing and petty crime.

International organizations, UNICEF in particular, often working in partnership with international or local NGOs, and numerous well financed foreign religious missions have engaged in redressing the problem of at-risk children in Cambodiai. Apart from informal initiatives, little has been done in this field by indigenous Buddhist institutions since the dislocations of the 1970s. Before the massive social upheavals, the Buddhist wat structure had been in the forefront of helping the neediest and most destitute members of Khmer society.

With support from the head monk at Wat Poveal, Ven. Suon Chhoeurn, Dounji Ly Savy has set aside a plot of land at the nuns center to serve 40 at-risk primary school age children (20 boys, 20 girls), allowing them to receive a public education in the context of a Dhamma-based education. The children will be cared for by a team of younger nuns at a dorm & learning center facility dedicated to the memory of the spiritual leader of Cambodia Buddhism, Venerable Maha Ghosananda, who passed in 2017. Maha Ghosananda was KEAP’s honorary founding patron. He led annual Dhammayietras, Dhamma pilgrimages, throughout the country in the 1990s  as a way of ushering in an era peace and reconciliation among the people of Cambodia. Dounji SaVy came to know and walk with Maha Ghosananda through the Dhammayietras. 

Most Venerable Maha Ghosananda, center, leading the first Dhammayietra in 1992.
Most Venerable Maha Ghosananda, center, leading the first Dhammayietra in 1992.

Dounji SaVy is  addressing a need for local Buddhist institutions to re-engage in the social sphere, in this case providing and caring for at-risk children otherwise unable to attend school. She is an example of such care taking place on an informal, individual level, but much of it is undocumented and unrecognized by aid organizations. In her vision, Buddhist wats are being invited to expand informal activities to an institutional level. The Maha Ghosananda Children’s Dhamma Center at Wat Poveal can if successful be replicated at leading wats in other provinces. Revitalized Buddhist wats as local cultural and spiritual institutions can through socially-engaged Buddhism play an instrumental role shaping the future of Buddhism in Cambodian society. This local initiative, with the help of child sponsors,allows for vulnerable children from poor and broken families to receive a basic public education with their peers in the spirit of Dhamma-based learning. Such a local initiative will reinforce the country’s Khmer and Buddhist cultural heritage.

The goal of the project from KEAP’s perspective is to assist Khmer-Buddhist wat communities restore a tradition of serving as social safety nets for the most vulnerable and destitute members of society. We are responding to head nun Ly SaVy’s request for assistance in establishing a home & learning center for vulnerable children at a famous learning center wat in Cambodia. The main objective of the “Venerable Maha Ghosananda Children’s Learning Center” at Wat Poveal is to offer needy children the opportunity attend local public school, receive a Khmer-Buddhist moral upbringing, and benefit from extra-curricular training in practical skills leading to right livelihoods. Another objective is to raise the social status and role of Buddhist nuns in Cambodian society. Their responsibilities in managing the Children’s Learning Center (CLC) and its program of activities will address and serve to strengthen that objective.

The 40 children in the program at any given time will receive sustenance – food, shelter, moral & personal guidance − from a staff of younger nuns while attending the local primary school. The public school is located in the adjacent Wat Por Knong less than a 10 minutes’ walk from the CLC. The program will be financed through child sponsorships, with donors paying two dollars a day, $60 per month, in monthly recurring payments to support a child. Head nun Ly SaVy vision’s for larger institutional approach to the problem is based on her years of experience in caring for koun komprea, “orphans” (an “orphan” may have one or both parents alive who are unable to care for them). She has been individually assisting an average of six children in any given year.

The nuns running the Maha Ghosananda Children’s Learning Center will receive backstopping support from local KEAP staff working out of an office donated by the Battambang branch of Cambodia’s Buddhist University. The university administrators have been our partners in the undertaking with Wat Poveal. Overall responsibility for the CLC lies with the head monk of Wat Poveal, Ven. Chhoeurn. The project has received the blessing of the head monk of Battambang province (mekon) and the approval and support of the Provincial Religious Affairs Department. A constituency of community support needed for implementation has come together for this project.

Working through a local partner, the NGO Samakithor (Dhammic solidarity), KEAP has since 2009 provided support to improve the nuns’ center facility at Wat Poveal. Donors mainly from Asia made it possible to upgrade the main building with electricity, municipal water, and a roof to protect the building from water damage during the rainy season. Donors have also provided needed nutritional support (rice) for the nuns as well as the reprinting a meditation book used by the head nun in her instruction. In 2014, Samakithor oversaw a landfill operation to raise the level of the land at the nuns center to alleviate flooding problems at the end of each rainy season.

Dounji Ly Savy with Mr. Sun Sorn of Samakithor.

The building cost estimate of the CLC is $204,000 for a facility that consists of a single-story building resting on pylons with boys’ and girls’ wings; a separate washroom structure; and a support building (kitchen, storage, library/resource center, first aid room, and office).

Doun ji Ly Sa Vy
Doun ji Ly Sa Vy

See Doun ji Ly Sa Vy on YouTube

Dounji ("nun" in Khmer) Ly Sa Vy

​Dounji (“nun” in Khmer) Ly Sa Vy, is the head nun of Wat Proviel. A good-humored and fiercely determined woman, Doun ji has been a nun for over twenty years, walking with Maha Ghosananada and knowing him well. She exemplifies the spirit of faith and determination that is found in the women of Cambodia, especially the elders, and it was in fact nuns and laywoman who proved to be Maha’s most devoted, enduring and courageous followers (the walks passed through mine-fields and active battlegrounds and several marchers were killed by crossfire).

Like Maha Ghosananda, Doun ji Ly Sa Vy has a step-by-step vision for peace, in her case buidling the Preah Maha Ghosananda Children’s Learning Center, the first such institution of its kind in Cambodia, a school that would empower younger nuns to be teachers, and thus elevate their role in society, and to serve one of the most vulnerable populations of Cambodia, the poorest children of the nearby countryside.

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