Librarians in robes: the monks of Wat Muniransyarama

by Michael Huff

American Libraries

Vol.29 No.6 (June-July 1998)


COPYRIGHT 1998 American Library Association

            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 
            Khmer Rouge. 
            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 
            Mekong Delta. 
            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 
            wat library. 
            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. 
            Proscribing Print 
            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 
            the Web. 
            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 
            Theravada Buddhism. 
            * 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.