For all Cambodians, 2020 has been a difficult year characterized by the battle between the nation and COVID-19, an invisible enemy that has today claimed 1.81 million lives worldwide. The year also saw Cambodia face one of the worst socio-economic calamities in its history, with millions of people suffering. In an exclusive interview with the Khmer Times, Venerable Khim Sorn, head of Phnom Penh’s municipal monks, said that Buddhism, the religion adopted by 90% of the population, can help the Kingdom and its people through this difficult time.
KT: Overall, what are the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Buddhism in Cambodia, including on Buddhist monks and monasteries in the Kingdom?
Venerable Sorn: Obviously, the coronavirus has caused a terrible financial crisis for Cambodian citizens, most of whom are Buddhists and supporters of local monasteries and that means the monks are also hit hard. Meanwhile, massive gatherings at the pagoda for Buddhist rituals and festivals have been banned most of the year, following guidelines from the Ministry of Health. Monks across the country also live in fear as they have to go out to ask for alms or give sermons at rituals such as funerals.
However, as disciples of Buddha, we have done all we can to help the country and the people through this difficult time. For example, in March of this year, all of the Kingdom’s pagodas held simultaneous ceremonies in March to pray for blessing and protection as countries around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
KT: What is your opinion on the government’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country, in particular the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Cults and Religions?
Venerable Sorn: I think the ministries have done a very good job of containing the virus in Cambodia, as there have been no deaths here and no outbreaks from religious sites such as pagodas.
According to the explanation of Buddhism, the virus is one of the sufferings we face as human beings. Buddha said, “Life is suffering,” and therefore people must learn to understand that it is part of the cycle of life.
KT: The pandemic has not only affected people’s livelihoods and well-being, but also their mental health, as many have lost their jobs and businesses while others have to be separated from their families. Does Buddhism offer them a method to alleviate this mental burden?
Venerable Sorn: Buddha said, “Nothing lasts forever. He also says that “excessive thinking is the main cause of unhappiness. They shouldn’t continue to regret what is already lost or panic because life is always changing and they will never know what will happen in front of them. Instead, they should stay calm and protect themselves because someday it will be gone, just like other crises of the past. As long as they are still alive and well, they can always start over to bring back what they have lost.
KT: What role do you think monks should play in helping people in their communities in the midst of the pandemic?
Venerable Sorn: As disciples of the Illuminated, monks, who are familiar with the teachings of Buddha, have a very important role to play in helping members of their community through this difficult time. They must educate people on the right paths guided by Buddha so that they can take care of their physical and mental well-being. Additionally, as influential individuals in their communities, monks should include education on good hygiene and other preventative measures in their sermons to instruct and remind people to protect themselves and others from the deadly virus. . They must also lead charitable movements to help disadvantaged people, who must survive during this difficult time. Buddha wants people to be kind and to help each other.
KT: What message do you want to send to our readers as the whole world celebrates the arrival of the new year?
Venerable Sorn: On behalf of the Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia and all the monks of Cambodia, I wish everyone a Happy New Year to come, full of luck, good health and prosperity.
Our traditional beliefs dictate that Buddha blesses people with happiness and he will protect us from contracted illnesses, especially the coronavirus, which is currently causing misery around the world. But, he only helps those who helped themselves first, which is why people should always protect themselves while relying on Buddha for spiritual support.