In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Heng Monychenda, director of Buddhism for Development, discusses the importance of Buddhism in Cambodia’s development. Once a Buddhist monk for 17 years, Mr Monychenda says both Buddhism and the Buddhist leadership model are very important for building a better Cambodia and its social development.
KT: Buddhism is a religion, not a science. How can it contribute to an entity’s development?
Mr Monychenda: First of all, we must understand the relations between philosophy and technology. Technologies allow people to create ships, planes and so on. However, any technology is influenced by a philosophy. In the Western world, people learn about Socrates, Plato, and Karl Marx and so on. In term of Buddhism, technology is something that people find later, which means principles come first. One Buddhist principle says, “The people’s wellness is a ruler’s top priority”, implying a Buddhist leader cares about his people or subjects and will do anything for their happiness.
KT: How do you define happiness in Buddhism?
Mr Monychenda: Happiness, in term of Buddhism, is very simple. It is the four Buddhist gems: Longevity, Nobility, Health and Strength. First, no matter who or where people are, they want to live long lives. Buddhism has principles that help people live long and happy lives, such as to stay away from alcohol. Then, it is Nobility, which means wealth, but not greed. Wealth allows people to be good-looking and to have fun. But, wealth is meaningless if you are sick or do not have the strength to spend it. Also, to be happy is to avoid financial debt, according to Buddha. A happy person is a person who does not owe another anything. A happy community is also a place where people do lawful work to make a living. All of these are the principles of development.
KT: Today, how can a ruler lead a country by relying on Buddhism?
Mr Monychenda: In the world today, everyone is speaking of democracy. Democracy is good, but it is not perfect. Meanwhile, leadership in Buddhism circulates the concept of supremacy. Yet, this religion teaches that rulers have to be self-aware and make the decision based on people and respect the rules of laws. A good ruler must do whatever he or she can, whatever ideology he or she follows, to bring happiness to the people. This is the core of the Buddhist leadership model. In Cambodia, more than 90 percent of the population is Buddhist. It is important that rulers have to uphold the Buddhist leadership model to satisfy them.
KT: Cambodia has been a Buddhist country for almost a millennium. However, the Kingdom has encountered wars, both civil and international. Some even say that Cambodia is poor because it is Buddhist. What do you think about that?
Mr Monychenda: First, we have to look into our history. During the 11th century, Buddhism first gained huge influence under the reign of King Jayavarman VII, one of the greatest Khmer kings. He created a rich and prosperous empire. We can say that Cambodia was a developed country at that time because the ruler was ruling based on Buddhism. The bas relief at Angkor Thom temple complex, built by King Jayavarman VII, depicted the daily life of the people rather than Hindu gods or myths. It is one of the legacies that prove that the king prioritised the people. His words on inscriptions in every hospital he built are, “the people’s misery is my sadness”.
In the post-Angkorian regimes, however, the rulers had not really cared about the people. King Jayavarman IX (1327-1336) even tried to make the nation Hindu again. Such reform could be described as the transformation of decentralisation to centralisation, which weakened the country. We have had internal conflicts because the rulers did not follow the Buddhist leadership model and cared about their happiness rather than the people’s happiness.
KT: Should Buddhist monks be involved in politics? What did Buddha say about that?
Mr Monychenda: Buddhist monks’ involvements in politics are not new, nor are they happening only in Cambodia. They are a group that can effectively affect politics in Thailand. In Sri Lanka, monks can even be members of the Parliament. In some countries, Buddhist monks have joined freedom movements. However, Buddhist texts say they cannot do that. Buddhist monks are even forbidden to give blessings to soldiers. But, Buddhism is always closely connected to societies. For example, we had the anti-French “Umbrella War” in 1942.
KT: How can Buddhism contribute to economic growth?
Mr Monychenda: We have been working so hard to promote Buddhism, but we also recognise the importance of economic growth. However, what kind do you prefer? One resulting from exploitation and illegal businesses or one created by everyone’s hard, bona fide work. Buddhism prefers the latter.
The Buddhist dharma educates people to be honest and industrious. Being rich, according to Buddhism, is not bad, but what makes you rich is very important. If you exploit others for your own personal gain, that is greed. Buddha wants people to be wealthy because they work hard for it. Buddhism also teaches people to be thrifty and modest no matter how rich they are.