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Sounding on Cambodia for April 18, 2011

Happy Khmer New Year, everybody! សួស្តី ឆ្នាំ​ថ្មី! I’m a few days late of course, but my wishes are sincere for all of that.  May your upcoming year be full of health, success, happiness, and peace. I was not able, this year, to attend the awesome (and increasingly awesome) New Year’s events at my local Khmer temple – Wat Munisota [I can’t ever say that name without wanting to point out how fantastically funny and smart the namers were: Munisota means (in Sanskrit and Khmer): “That which is heard from the sage” (the Dharma), but of course, it also sounds very much like “Minnesota,” which was intentional. Brilliant, good humor], in spite of some excellent invitations.  But I’m hopeful I might be able to make it to the Madison temple‘s New Year celebration this coming Saturday.

In this week’s Sounding on Cambodia, I talk about:

  • The 36th anniversary of the Fall of Phnom Penh, April 17, 1975 [The picture above is Lon Nol Buddhist-inspired propaganda which characterizes the communist insurgency as Vietnamese anti-Buddhist monsters, defeated by the power of Nang Thorani’s hair in the scene of the Buddha’s enlightenment].
  • “Aid to Cambodia Rarely Reaches the People it’s Intended to Help,” by Joel Brinkley, and a review of Joel Brinkley’s new book, “Cambodia’s Curse,” by Elizabeth Becker
  • PM Hun Sen rumored to have lung cancer – no confirmation
More after the jump…
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Khmer New Year at Wat Munisotaram

Welcome to the year of the rat.
angel holding a rat (year of the rat)

Down in Hampton, Minnesota, Khmer New Year was celebrated in style, in spite of the bitterly cold weather and, yes, occasional flurries of snow. Not as big a turnout as I would have expected on a nice day, but the temple was crowded. We decided not to march outside around the vihear, but inside, which worked out well. There were chayyam dancers, Brahma’s angel daughters, and lots of cameras. A few select photos are below the break. Go to the flickr page to see more.

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Anumodhanea Wat Munisotaram Ban Bañjoh Sima Haoy!

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, (បុណ្យ​បញ្ចុះ​ស៉ីមា – 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!!!)) Continue reading

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Wat Munisota

We finally made a trip to Wat Munisotaram in Hampton, Minnesota. I’ve been back in the US for far too long to have not made this trip – it’s only 45 minutes from the Twin Cities – but can truly and honestly excuse myself on the basis of schedule.

At any rate, it’s an exciting place – with the near-completion of the new and traditionally-style Vihear at the top of the hill, it will be one of the most ‘Cambodian’-appearing of the Cambodian Buddhist Temples in America, and must stand as a particular point of pride for the Khmer community in the area.

I have no idea how they managed to raise the money for this – there’s a pretty small local population – but it cost a pretty penny. It’s gorgeous though, and the group I went with had a good experience and learned a lot.

Some quick shots:

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