Librarians in robes: the monks of Wat Muniransyarama
by Michael Huff
Vol.29 No.6 (June-July 1998)
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Library Association
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
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.
As religious practitioners and scholars, Khmer Buddhist monks have
faced much persecution and suppression in recent history. During the
brutal reign of Pol Pot in the late 1970s, Cambodian monasteries
were destroyed or desecrated, and monks were murdered or forced to
leave the order. Some of the greatest collections of Buddhist
literature in the world were burnt or otherwise destroyed by the
In Vietnam from 1975 until 1986, the government actively suppressed
the practice of religion, and many leaders of all faiths were sent
to re-education camps. However, since 1986 the Vietnamese government
has eased its social restrictions, and once again the wat are openly
acting as the vital centers of the Khmer communities throughout the
Before 1975, over 100 monks were associated with Wat Muniransyarama.
Today there are only 10, most of whom have joined the order in the
past decade. Their work begins at 5 a.m. when they rise for prayer
and meditation. The majority of the rest of their day is devoted to
study, teaching, and the performance of sacred rites within the
Khmer community. A central part of all of these activities is the
To the side of the central shrine room, some simple wooden shelves
with glass doors house just fewer than 100 volumes and manuscripts.
Though small in size, the collection is vast in significant content.
Its core is the Pali Canon, the complete scripture collection of
Theravada Buddhism. Preserved in its original language, this
collection is also known as the Tripitaka, or Three Baskets,
referring to its three sections: Vinaya Pitaka, the Basket of
Discipline, or rules of monastic conduct; Sutta Pitaka, the Basket
of Discourse, or the dialogues and teachings of the Buddha; and
Abhidharma Pitaka, the Basket of Higher Teachings, or Buddhist
metaphysics. Through the access provided by the monks, the teachings
in these books, written in both Pali and in Khmer transliteration,
have provided guidance to the Khmer community for many centuries.
The collection also consists of a number of palm-leaf manuscripts.
The format of these documents is unique to this region of the world.
Using techniques developed in Burma, a monk will write a verse or
teaching from Buddhist scripture on pieces of dried sugar-palm leaf
that measure about a foot long and two inches wide. A metal stylus
is used to inscribe the text on the leaf, breaking the layer of
cutin. Dye is then wiped across the leaf, staining the incised
letters. Not only is the work exacting manually, but the monk also
uses an archaic script when transcribing the text in this manner. In
a day's time, a monk may only be able to complete two leaves. Each
leaf is pierced through the center, and the completed manuscript of
20 to 30 leaves is bound by a single loose loop of string. Often
used in sacred rites or healing ceremonies, these handwritten texts
help to preserve an ancient art and an enduring way of life.
Another concern of the monks is literacy among the Khmer people.
Teaching the skills of reading and writing to Khmer children is
recognized as essential to the preservation of their culture in
Vietnam. According to statistics compiled by UNESCO in 1990, only
36% of the Khmer population in Cambodia was literate. While many
Khmer in the Mekong Delta can read and write in Vietnamese, it is
only through the efforts of the monks that literacy in their mother
tongue is being promoted outside of the monastic community.
One obstacle to accomplishing this goal is the acquisition of new
Khmer print materials. While the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture and
Information publishes some materials in the Khmer language, it also
requires a lengthy review process for any materials imported from
Cambodia. According to the government, this effort is to prevent
"cultural materials unsuitable to Vietnamese society" from entering
the country. The bureaucracy involved in the review process
effectively deters anyone from trying to import print materials
legally, and the situation has left the monks vexed.
Though it would also involve some red tape, local publication of
documents in Khmer script is a possible solution. Even so, the
problem remains of where to find a Khmer typesetter. After the monks
mentioned this dilemma to me, I e-mailed my colleague Chris Glover
of the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in Virginia, and asked
him to see what he could find in the way of freeware Khmer fonts on
Within a few days I had the makings of a Khmer desktop publishing
outfit on my laptop. Soon I was teaching basic word processing at
the wat in the evening. Some of the monks had already learned basic
computer skills at local schools, but everything had been done in
Vietnamese. Not only have we worked on the design and editing of
documents in Khmer, we have also begun to explore the creation of
online hypertexts as a way of indexing the collection in the wat
In teaching the monks, I have also become their student. With their
help, I am learning both the Khmer script and the fundamentals of
conversation. That many of the monks can speak in Khmer, Pali,
Vietnamese, English, and French has both humbled and inspired me.
They are determined to teach not only their community, but like
Nagasena with Menander they wish also to provide Westerners with
information about Theravada Buddhism. They too understand the need
for a global reach and that it can be attained through a local
touch. It is all part of their commitment to service.
Even an ethnic minority community in one of the most economically
disadvantaged regions of the world has the equivalent of the local
library. The Khmer people support the wat, and part of what they get
back is the assurance that the knowledge about their ways of life
will be maintained and made available to them. Telling ancient
stories, preserving manuscript archives, teaching literacy skills,
discussing intellectual freedom, learning diverse languages, and
exploring new information technologies are all some of the ways the
monks of War Muniransyarama fulfill their obligation.
When Nagasena met Menander, every question had its answer. As
Ranganathan invited our profession to remember, every book has its
reader. Whether we work for municipalities or universities or law
firms or hospitals or public schools, to bring our communities
together with the information they seek is the responsibility we are
called upon to fulfill.
Amidst all of the technological change and management issues and
budget battles, this call to service is what unites our profession.
As long as we never lose sight of this goal, I believe we need not
worry about obsolescence; after all, service to their communities
has sustained the Theravada order of Buddhist monks for 2,500 years.
Pinpointing Vietnam: Wat Muniransyarama Library
* Contains the Pall Canon, the complete scripture collection of
* Includes a number of palm leaf manuscripts, unique to this region.
* Hopes to develop new Khmer-language print materials.
MICHAEL HUFF, computer services librarian at the Central
Rappahannock Regional Library in Fredericksburg, Virginia, is an ALA
Library Fellow at the Central Library of Can Tho University in
Vietnam, where he is helping to design and implement a library
automation system and network.