That’s right, everybody, there’s a new Khmer Vihear in town – it’s beautiful, on top of a hill surrounded by farmland, in traditional Khmer style of modern building materials, has an ‘activated’ Buddha image, an abbot and a few resident monks, and as of today, a fully active and installed sima (boundary).
Every temple requires a boundary – at least around one building, which is the location of the regular mutual and public confession sessions. In these sessions, the collected monks at a local hermitage gather together to chant, collectively and in unison, the 227 ascetic rules (the monastic code, essentially). They are also supposed to confess if they have transgressed any of these prior to the group chanting of the rule. Punishments or restrictions are also meted out, according to settled Vinaya tradition.
The maintenance of a sacred ascetic discipline is not often the most interesting of subjects for Western students of Buddhism, who are more often drawn to the doctrinal or even, of late, the ritual. Very little work has been done on the Vinaya. (That said, the work that does exist on Vinaya is most commonly exceedingly excellent, and very rarely read). However, among the Buddhist laity in Southeast Asia, it is the adherence to this ascesis which qualifies monks, more than any other qualification, as valid fields of merit. Without this ascesis, monks are frauds. Beyond the personal human tragedy involved in living life as a fraud, it also makes the monk a fradulent means of creating merit.
Given this emphasis, it is perhaps not at all surprising that the singlemost important community ritual in Cambodian Buddhism is widely considered to be the Bun Bañjoh Sima Ceremony, (បុណ្យបញ្ចុះស៉ីមា – The Meritorious Boundary Foundation Ceremony, or Sima Ceremony) in which the necessary Sima installation is performed, and the confession and public recognition of a community’s morality is publicly acclaimed and validated.
And it was with great pomp, fanfare, and acclaim that Wat Munisotaram in Hampton, Minnesota, today completed the final day of their four-day Sima Ceremony. They join a select group of Khmer Buddhist temples in the United States, but even rarer is the existence of a new Vihear (central shrine, and in modern times, the location of the confessions, hence the site of the sima boundary) in traditional Khmer style, made out of modern materials. I made a previous visit with a class of mine, and had a wonderful time in the aloneness of the area – it was just us and the monks for miles around. More than a bit different from today! (( purists beware! This is not an art history blog! I refer only to the fact that the temple is shaped roughly like a Khmer Buddhist temple and attempts to follow some basic rules of form!!!))
Unfortunately, and opposed to what I had been informed would be the case, Cambodian Buddhist Patriarch, Mahasangharaja Tep Vong, was not able to join the festivities. The day was a success in spite of this.
To start with, and before I engage in what I think of as my ‘Bun Banjoh Sima Ceremony checklist of requirements,’ which rounds out this post, let me show you how this temple started, architecturally, and where they are now.
This is, I believe, the earliest prayer hall they had, and the first building aside from the converted house in which the monks and a few prayer/meditation halls are housed. The new letters say, “Rest Hall!”
This, on the other hand, is the new Vihear (picture from previous trip). Quite a difference.
Okay, now, here are a few things (some reverential, some less so) that made today’s ceremony not only a great success, but distinctly Khmer:
1. Enormous numbers of cars, neatly and efficiently parked in rows, in unused nearby farm fields?
2. Beautiful outdoor shrine closer to the gate, around which cars are also neatly parked?
3. A beautiful new vihear building, in which the upstairs shrine, normally closed, is open for entry, prayer, and viewing?
4. The downstairs, where the stones are actually installed, should also be open, and be outfitted with mats, refreshments, and a great new altar. Yes?
5. Was there a great number of monks, and excited people from near and far? Was there an assembly tent?
6. Were there tents surrounding the vihear selling all manner of wares?
7. Even Amulets?
8. No really, all kind of wares? Even criminal biological (wild animal) trade?
9. Were there apsara dances?
10. Were some people armed?
CHECK (you’re looking down the barrel of a toy handgun, in the vihear)
11. Was there a full set of 9 sima stones, hung in place from a single piece of timber over the sima holes? Had each stone been festooned with amboh thread, covered with yantras, and had everyone thrown money, perfume, notebooks, makeup, combs, and other symbolic goods into the holes?
12. Did the central stone site (called the indakil stone) become an early site of gathering, jostling for position, and loud joking?
12. Was this all because of the amboh thread that was about to be cut and competed for?
13. Was it well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit? CHECK.
14. Did it pour in a dramatic thunderstorm? CHECK.
15. Did someone faint and did five elderly Khmer seriously and studiously coin her? CHECK.
16. Was there an absolutely wonderful sense of community? CHECK.
17. Did the monks harrass the acaars during the performance of the acaar’s duties, as part of the traditional and often hilarious buddy-rivalry between lay leaders and robed leaders in the male Buddhist roles? CHECK.
18. Did the acaars constantly cut into the monks’ less formal moments of chanting with funny interjections like “O, do we really need to do this 108 times? I want the amboh already!”? CHECK.
19. Did everyone laugh at this? CHECK.
20. When the chants right before the cutting of the sima stone thread happened were being set up, was there a lot of very loud, public joking?
21. Immediately after the sima stone thread was cut, was there a mad dash and grappling session for the thread? And did some people immediately start running away with their thread? And did others grab a huge hunk and immediately start giving it all away?