Inside The Temple Grounds
02-Feb: 2015



I entered Wat Pippitharom through the entrance off of Street #3. I turned from the grease and litter-stained street, passed in front of an ancient moto driver and walked through the gate. There is a tangible and immediate shift in atmosphere once inside a temple, though the landscape is often incoherent and akimbo. No predictable pattern and in this wat, like nearly all of them, the main temple was shuttered, locked and looking decidedly off-limits. Besides the central temple it was the monks robes, hanging to dry on makeshift clotheslines, that were the telltale evidence that this was indeed an inhabited Buddhist pagoda. As usual, there were no monks around, or rather, their population was sparse and it took me a while to spot one.

I'd seen a monk earlier this morning, doing his alms round and stopped in front of a hardware store, reciting scripture, while an offeree bowed low with his hands clasped in front of his eyeglasses. The monk, according to specification, was both barefoot and looking detached toward the bowing devotee. Monks are supposed to conduct their rounds barefoot, a sign of their renunciation, and they are not supposed to thank donors for food or other offerings, but to simply accept, without judgement, and if nothing is given, to accept that too. They are supposed to inhabit a mindful and quiet dignity, which is what many of their 227 rules of conduct are supposed to foster. This is why it is always a bit unsettling to see monks punch each other. I've seen this a number of times, a young monk slugging another on the upper arm, a spontaneous burst of affectionate teasing, an understandable expression of young male testosterone but still odd coming from a monk.

Monks are not the only inhabitants of the temple. Many lay people are there, too, some of them poor squatters or old woman who have become nuns, called dounjii, and not nuns in the technical sense since they are not ordained (ordained orders of Theravada nuns died out many hundreds of years ago). The dounjii are most impressive: devout, humorous, friendly, doing work all through the day such as cooking for the monks, washing their dishes or keeping the temple grounds free of litter. Frequently schools are found within the temple grounds, and Wat Pippitharom seemed to have one too, though small. I didn't see the schoolchildren but their bicycles were parked outside the schoolhouse, old bicycles like the ones used in Beijing or Hanoi before capitalism took over, innocent looking one-speeds parked upright and gleaming in the hot sun.

The grounds of the temple occupied an entire city block, de rigueur and thankfully free of signage, cell-phone shops or other commercial activity. And many trees around. Some of them bodhi trees. Some trees immense, huge canopies above dusty courtyards and the buildings monks live in. Some of the monk quarters quite elegant with French influence, including one I saw in this wat with grey shutters over the windows.

I was in another temple last night, Wat Kandal, monks at sunset raking leaves and shoving them onto a small bonfire. Thick smoke from the musty leaves rose and met what was left of the sunlight, smoke and shafts of sun mixing into an iridescent and slightly ominous haze, an activity that seemed both pointless and mesmerizing. One does not often see older monks on the temple grounds. The most senior monks were killed during the Khmer Rouge era and the monkhood has still not recovered from the loss of those who could train the younger generation. Plus most men disrobe after a few years as a monk.

I left Wat Kandal and once outside came across dozens of uniformed children performing synchronized judo moves on the banks of the Sangker River. Wat Kandal, like Wat Pippitharom, was both open to the world and closed from it, certainly a kind of sanctuary, as one would expect.



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This is one of a series of essays under the overall title, Cambodia 2015. - Bill Scheffel

What Makes Something "Cambodian"?

Durian, Food of the Future?

A Morning Walk

The Cambodian Market: Wheel of the Quivering Meat Conception

Inside the Temple Grounds

Inside the Chinese Shrine

Inside Saigon

Inside Level One

Inside Hanoi

Buddhism and the Khmer Rouge