By Gea Wijers
Special to Khmerican
Amsterdam, the Netherlands – For most of the year, Venerable Song lives in his apartment on the grounds of one of the most prominent pagodas in Phnom Penh. From his home at the wat, he conducts his meditation sessions, performs Buddhist ceremonies and directs local building projects.
His charity projects are aimed at the most elementary of needs, such as water sanitation and the construction of schools and hospitals. Generally, they are financed by overseas communities of Cambodian French and Cambodian Australians. He also works to raise awareness about the value of the ideas of the Dhamma, the message of Buddha, in France and Cambodia. Venerable Song supports an educational NGO and has taken up several advisory functions awarded to him by (inter)national NGOs, donors and the Cambodian government. He is chosen on the basis of his independent position in the Buddhist hierarchy as well as his international expertise.
Song´s ambition is to restore the practice of Cambodian Buddhism back to its unpartisan, neutral origins. He seeks to use Buddhist religion as a standard for ethical behavior in politics and society. Song is a very busy man who frequently mentions that he needs to make more time for reflection and contemplation. But, he then immediately adds, the work demands him.
Twice a year, Song returns to France. For several months, he then resides at his other home near the pagoda of a Parisian suburb. This is where his religious association is based, where he has had close ties ever since the beginning of his ordination. This suburb is the base from which Song counsels Cambodian communities in France and other European countries, serves as the leader of a French Buddhist organization and travels to perform various ceremonies. His efforts to establish connections between international networks for fundraising and working for the institutional reform of religion in Cambodia certainly make Song a transnational entrepreneur and a “circular migrant.”
According to Song, it is the confidence in his non-corruptability and his neutrality as a Buddhist that have allowed him to play many roles in France, Cambodia and with the United Nations. His good reputation made him a popular intermediary, free to talk to people at many levels of society. In this role he was often mentioned as “independent” in French interviews and in relation to the hospital in a provincial town in Cambodia. This hospital was built with overseas funding and provided with equipment by a Lyonnese NGO in cooperation with the Lyonnese medical sector. Song appreciates the efforts of these overseas Cambodian communities, the French and others, yet also expresses his conflicting feelings about their motives. On the one hand, he is thankful for their financial support to Cambodia. On the other hand, he does believe that more than money is required: overseas Cambodians also need to return and show their commitment to Cambodia.
Song was born in 1947 as the oldest son of a farming family. As he remembers, his father had also spent a respectable amount of time in the pagoda and was often asked for his advice by the community. With his family’s support and external funding, Song was able to pursue an extended higher education at Buddhist schools and university in both Cambodia and France. After serving as a “pagoda boy” (helper in the local temple) in 1956, he first had the chance and support to attend the École Primaire Bouddhique de Paris. In 1960, he returned to Phnom Penh to attend the Lycée Bouddhique while also attending classes at the Université Bouddhique. Song is appreciated by many within France, but also in other European Cambodian communities as one of the few Cambodian Theravada Buddhist monks in Europe when they were not able to reconnect to their homeland during the Khmer Rouge takeover (1975-1979).
The need to conduct traditional ceremonies in those times of despair was high, and Song was often called upon to take official roles. In this way, he would become a well-known figure within European Cambodian communities, and he has continued and extended this transnational position from the pagoda in the Parisian suburb. There, also, his association was refounded under the auspices of the widely revered Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda. The association with Maha Ghosananda has earned Song some notoriety in both Cambodia and other countries.
After spending two years in Australia, Song returned to Southeast Asia in 1988 to work for UNTAC and UNBRO (the United Nations Border Relief Operations) in the Thai border camps. There too he worked with Maha Ghosananda at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation (CPR) and with the Dhammayietra Association for the establishment of a prominent peace movement as well as an approach to Buddhism focusing on peace and loving kindness. The expression and teachings of this stance bears many transnational characteristics. Its visions and line of reasoning are still visible today in the meditation sessions and the contributions Song makes to international conferences and NGO meetings. At the time, these works did not go unremarked, and the UN is very aware of the importance of Buddhist involvement in the repatriation of refugees and the reconciliation of political parties in Cambodia.
Song was asked to play a leading role in the UNBRO meetings and to help put in place the planned projects and programs for the reconstruction of Cambodia. He declined a prominent leadership position but was deeply involved in repatriation projects from 1990-1992, a period he recalls as his “return to Cambodia.” From that time on, he continued to be part of the reconstruction and reconciliation projects. In his experience, this is quite a political position as the PRK/SOC governments in Phnom Penh do not support religion as an inherent part of their new socialist society.
Despite his impressive reputation, as confirmed by the interviewees and literature related to this study, and a long list of projects achieved, Song does not perceive of his work as a vocation. Nevertheless, on the institutional reform of Cambodia, Song has some clear visions that are very much related to education. According to him, education is essential if the country is to progress in an ethically responsible way.