Monks Ko and Socheal

Enlightenment is a sweaty endeavor. Countless awakened ancestors have lost countless beads of sweat with a zafu clenched between their thighs. In the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, however, it is unwise to engage in such endeavors when the sun is at its peak. So when I happened upon Ko and Socheal, two monks living in a small Wat on the outskirts of Ream National Park near Sihanoukville, Cambodia, they were relaxing on hammocks in the shade.  But, excited by the prospect of speaking to a foreigner, they braved the sun to take me on an impromptu jungle trek. Along the way Socheal, 24, routinely crouched down and pulled his robe up over his head for cover, dripping sweat and reconsidering the worth of such an excursion. Meanwhile, the younger Ko eagerly asked me questions about America.  “Michael Jackson…dead?” Yes. “Aww, Cambodia love Michael Jackson.” Then he began to rattle of song titles like they were monk vows.  

After a ten-minute climb we came to a clearing. A stream trickled over large boulders to a pool where naked boys frolicked in the water. Some of them were young monks, but robeless they were only distinguishable from the villagers by their freshly shorn hair. They leapt off of a ten-foot high cliff into the pool below, bellowing with delight. On this sweltering day, at this hour, no other activity seemed as important. Ko, taking off a layer of his bright orange robes and wrapping the rest up like shorts, took a plunge over the cliff as well. I splashed cool water on my face and neck and showed the enraptured boys videos of them jumping of the cliff moments before. Before heading back Socheal asked me, “Sit mountain happy?”  Happy indeed.   

On the way down I was given a brief tour of the Buddha hall, empty at that late afternoon hour. Further down the hill, by a reclining Buddha statue, elderly laypersons sat in the shade, accepting donations for red “good luck” strings to be tied around the wrist. I kneeled before Ko, who, with an affable smile on his face, closed his eyes and chanted a verse for me. It had taken until the sun started to dip over the horizon, but here was a glimpse of something more overtly spiritual.  Monks will be boys, and monks will be monks. Sit mountain happy in the heat of day, a verse as the sun starts to descend.

The Theravada school is sometimes pejoratively referred to as the Hinayana, the Lesser Vehicle. Lesser Vehicles—the longtail boats of the Mekong river or the ubiquitous village bicycles—will get you to your destination, only at a much slower pace. But when the sun blisters everything it touches, and you have countless lifetimes to reach the other shore, who cares about speed?