Librarians in Robes: The Monks of Wat Muniransyarama

Article excerpt

IN VIETNAM'S MEKONG DELTA, MONKS PRESERVE TRADITIONAL KHMER CULTURE AND PROMOTE LITERACY

Once, very far away and very long ago, a powerful king from the West met a wise monk from the East. To test the monk's wisdom, the king posed many difficult questions: Why do good people sometimes suffer while evil people sometimes prosper? How can we know what truth is? How can there be rebirth without an eternal soul ? He asked many such questions. To each, the monk answered with brilliance and serenity. After their talk, the king left his throne and joined the monk in teaching the Middle Way.

This conversation of 2,000 years ago between the Bactrian King Menander and the Buddhist monk Nagasena was recorded in the Milindapanha, or The Questions of King Milinda. Today, this classic text of Theravada Buddhist literature is yearly brought to life in the ethnic Khmer villages of Vietnam's Mekong Delta. During the New Year celebration in April, one monk from a local temple will take the role of Menander, another that of Nagasena, and the two will recreate parts of the discourse for the Khmer community.

Within this traditional culture the monks are the spiritual leaders of their society, and as such they take on many roles. Storytelling is but one of the many responsibilities of these ochre-robed men. Others include teaching the Khmer writing system to the community's children and young adults, preserving manuscripts in their monasteries, and collecting Khmer language print materials. As scholars, the monks have been given cause to reflect on the state of intellectual freedom in the recent political milieu of Southeast Asia. And finally, the digital information revolution has excited the curiosity of some of the monks, who recognize its potential promise. Insofar as they act as the information providers for their community, Khmer monks share many of the same duties and concerns held by the library profession around the globe.

Since October 1997, I have had the opportunity to explore a part of the world of international librarianship in the homeland of the ethnic Khmer. Working as an ALA Library Fellow at Can Tho University, in the heart of the Mekong Delta, I have been assisting my Vietnamese colleagues in designing and implementing a library automation system and network, tasks that are much the same as my responsibilities at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia. What expertise I have had to offer to the Vietnamese librarians has been enthusiastically received, and in return I have come to know as friends some of the most gracious and courageous people I have ever met in my life. The experience has been nothing short of extraordinary.

The richness of this adventure grew even greater when I became acquainted with the Khmer monks of Wat Muniransyarama, the Temple of Intelligent Light. Since I became their next-door neighbor in downtown Can Tho, I have since spent many evenings in their company, sipping tea and learning about the Khmer way of life. Some of the monks and many of the Khmer students who attend the university study and speak English. Given their eagerness to improve their listening and speaking skills, I am never without opportunity to engage them in conversation. Through my talks with the monks and the laity and through my observations of their roles, I have been given much to reflect on regarding service to one's community.

The ethnic Khmer are the indigenous people of the Mekong Delta and Cambodia. Estimates of their population in Vietnam vary from between 1 to 3 million. Though the Vietnamese did not begin settling in this region until the 17th century, there are some Khmer settlements that have been continuously occupied since at least the 11th. An agricultural society, the Khmer are known for being skillful rice farmers.

At the center of all Khmer communities is the wat, both temple and monastery of Theravada Buddhism. By supporting the wat's monks, the laity contribute to the making and sharing of communal merit; the monastery in turn serves the community, in part by serving as a center of learning. …