It was a constant sort of hum-chanting that filled the room with a warm, radiant vibration. Four monks, ranging in age from about 20 to about 60, sat on the floor of our large conference room. Shrouded in large pieces of orange or red fabric, they chant-hummed in a harmony that seemed to swell through the room like sweet incense smoke. My knees hurt from kneeling on a reed mat. I was lost; the language was foreign, the moments of bowing strange. I felt terribly out of place.
On Thursday of last week our office had a blessing. Here in Cambodia, inviting a local monk to come to your office or home to bless both your person and your space is a common practice. Monks are everywhere; their bright orange and rich red robes stick out. They ride on the back of mopeds, they wander around markets, and yesterday I even saw a monk using the internet. I don’t know exactly why I find this weird—I mean, I am going to become a minister, yet I use a computer every single day. Perhaps it is because for me, Buddhism is still a mystical religion that has—until Thursday—stayed hidden in the pagoda.
I have never before traveled to a country in which Christianity was not the predominant religion. Guatemala is still mostly Catholic and Europe is Christian of some flavor or fashion (mostly). So even if the form of Christianity practiced differed from my frozen-chosen Presbyterianism, it was still Jesus on a cross, Mary the mother of God, and the three-in-one trinity that I could recognize. But here in Cambodia things are different. Here, boys and men dedicate themselves to strict ascetic lifestyles relying on aid from the community to help support them as they pray and study. They cover themselves in kashayas, or long strips of saffron and ochre fabric, and shave their heads. They serve as religious instructors, community leaders and organizers, and—what we would think of in the Christian sense—as ministers. There is a meekness and humility about monks that is in sharp contrast to the often over-the-top charisma of Christian leaders and a sense that monks work hard to balance the need to withdraw from the world in an effort to attain enlightenment and the compassion to remain rooted in their communities as servant leaders.
In the work we have done with IRD thus far, monks, nuns and achars (local religious leaders comparable to deacons) have been sought out to help spread the public health message. At our very first day on the job, we attended a ceremony honoring the women who had participated in our “Model Mothers” program, which teaches and encourages good hygiene, sanitation, and proper nutrition for children under 5. For many of these women, what they are being taught—like breastfeeding from birth through at least 6 months—goes against what has become the social norm. A monk sat in the first row, his orange kashaya vibrant against his dark skin, and spoke about how important nutrition and sanitation is to healthy families and communities. His presence was a blessing in many ways. The community looked to him for guidance and was encouraged by his support of the work IRD is doing.
Turning to these religious leaders to get the message about public health out is an important way to connect to this culturally distinct country. Last week, I watched as wandering monks stopped outside shops and residences, and said a few words. Some folks would come out, give them a small donation and then kneel while the monks chanted a blessing over them. (Buddhist chanting, by the way, is not the peaceful, harmonious chanting of Anglican evensong or Benedictine-style monks; it is a strange nasal, off-key kind of chant that cannot be mistaken for anything else.) Sitting in on a religious ritual brought into sharp contrast how different Buddhism is from Christianity. And yet, there was something familiar. Maybe it was the way we all hold our hands, pressed together for prayer. Maybe it was how, at the end of the ceremony the monks used bundles of leaves to sprinkle water on the kneeling crowd, much like the sprinkling of baptismal water on Easter. Or the way these Buddhist families welcomed us and care for us the same way Christian families back home would have. For all the remarkable and beautiful ways that we are different, in the human way we are the same.
After all, the Buddha says: “Consider others as yourself.” Dhammapada 10:1, while Jesus reminds us: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:31