Sophal became a Buddhist monk because it was the only way for him to gain access to education. Coming from a poor familiy, he grew up as one of seven children. All of his older siblings dropped out of school because their parents were unable to support them through graduation. Sophal joined a local pagoda at the age of 13 and became a monk, in order to have an opportunity that his siblings didn’t receive.
It is a common practice in Cambodia for poor children to approach pagodas for help. They join the monk community at an early age and partake in Buddhist customs in return. These customs include living a modest lifestyle. Donationa are given to the pagodas by local community members, which allow students to attend school and have their basic needs, like meals, met for free.
However, living as a monk brings a lot of religious responsibilities, strict rules, and societal expectations, which are often difficult to follow – especially for those who didn’t become monks out of a deep appreciation for their faith, but much rather because it was the only way for them to have a roof over their heads.
Read Sophal’s story in his own words below:
I am Sophal. I am 20 years old and my hometown is a small village in Kampot province. I would like to tell you about my life story.
My family is very poor. I have 6 siblings. My older brothers and sisters never went to high school, they had to drop out of school and find work to support our parents. Now they are working but their income is very low. They cannot support me because they have to provide for their own families.
My parents are very old and they cannot work hard. My mother’s hands have been paralyzed since she was a child, so she cannot lift anything.
These are the reasons why my younger brother and I had to become monks when we were very young so that we could continue to go to school.
Coming back to my story, my brother and I lived at a pagoda in Kampot for many years and eventually graduated high school. Then it was my dream to continue my studies to get a Bachelor’s degree. I was allowed to move to a pagoda in Phnom Penh and got a stipend from the Prek Leap National Institute of Agriculture so that I don’t have to pay for tuition. Unfortunately, however, the pagoda that I lived at was extremely far away from my school. It was very expensive for me to commute. In the first two years of my Bachelor’s program, my family tried to cover the costs of my commute, and I also had a lot of online lessons, so that I didn’t have to physically study at school. However, this year my university opened again and I was challenged once again.
As a monk, I was neither allowed to ride a moto or a bicycle myself nor was I allowed to be a passenger on a moto. The only way that I could commute to my university, which was 9 kilometers away from my pagoda, was by tuk-tuk or taxi. This costs 10$ a day simply for transportation and there was no way I could afford that because as a monk I didn’t have any money. I was very worried that I would have to drop out of university because of this.
At that time, I approached this NGO and spoke with Julian. I was very happy when I received the news that we would work on a good plan together that will allow me to continue my studies.
Thomlang – Cambodian Youth Support decided to support Sophal and thereby prevent him from dropping out of university. However, instead of covering his high transportation costs, we opened his eyes to another solution. Since Sophal does not practice Buddhism out of religious commitment, but rather as a means of life, we offered to enable him in leaving the monk community and assist him in moving closer to his university. This means that he will no longer have free accommodation at a pagoda and meals, but it will allow him to focus on his studies and his professional development.
Read Sophal’s thoughts about this life-changing decision:
I was a monk for 7 years. In those 7 years, I was able to go to school and I also had to study a lot about Buddhism. I was very happy to be a monk because I got a lot of knowledge and advice from the older monks. We learn important lessons about morals and life values.
However, there are many things in the outside world that we never learn about at pagodas. The life of a monk is very different from the life of an ordinary person.
When this NGO told me that you will support me with living in a rented room close to my university and that you will provide for me every month, I was very excited. This NGO enabled me to stop being a monk and leave the pagoda after 7 years of my life.
I had a Buddhist ceremony on February 16th to officially leave my community. The monks blessed me and wished me well for my new life. I am looking back on many great memories as a monk, but I am much more excited for this new chapter in my life as an ordinary student.
Without your support, this would not be possible for me. You all help me to continue my studies at university.
In the end, I want to say that I am very thankful to all of you for helping me to leave the pagoda and study at university.
You changed my life forever.
I wish you all the best and that God takes care of you!
Be sure to return to our website later this month to read the second part of Sophal’s story about his Bachelor’s degree!