Preparing to graduate, Cambodian monk redefines life goals

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010
By Erika Hafer
Special to the Pirate's Log
(Student newspaper of Modesto Junior College, California, USA)

Muny Korn has much more than a degree to be proud about. Underneath his gown on graduation night, Korn will be wearing different clothes than he would have three months ago; underneath his cap, he will be wearing a different hair style than he would have three months ago, and on his feet he will be wearing a different type of shoes as well.

Korn came to Modesto Junior College as a Buddhist Monk from Cambodia in late 2004. The 27-year-old spent his first 21 years in Cambodia, where he joined the monkhood at 15. “Because my country is under poverty the life of most people isn’t that easy. We lack access to schools; we lack pretty much everything,” Korn explained. Following the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, which was defeated in 1979, Cambodia’s economy was devastatingly affected by a shortage of jobs and the lack of a properly educated workforce. Though Korn’s family were farmers, his mother, father, sisters and young brother remained poor. Korn says that becoming a monk was a way to escape the grip of poverty. He felt with joining the monk community, he would have more support and, in return, could live to support his family.

“Buddhism is a good way to offer opportunity. Most people want to become monks because they have nothing to do. They are poor. We get more chances now,” he explains.

Similar to the many reasons U.S. citizens join the U.S. military system, many Cambodian citizens find support, guidance and direction in the Cambodian religious system. The schooling and living expenses of monks are paid by the charitable donations of others.

Because Buddhism is an integral part of Cambodian culture (the majority of Cambodians are Buddhist), Buddhist monks represent honor and strength along with respected social status.

“It is important to know about our religion to know how to discipline ourselves, how to behave in society,” he says, acknowledging that these skills served him well when he became an MJC student.

There are ten basic rules to life as a monk, Korn says: 1) no killing, 2) no stealing, 3) no sex, 4) no alcohol or drugs, 5) no lying, 6) no dinner, 7) no perfume, 8) no gambling, 9) no sitting higher than a Senior Monk, and 10) no happiness for belongings. Not even “fibbing” is permitted. Monks are not allowed to eat after 12 p.m., because food may interrupt afternoon contemplation and prayer. Monks wear orange robes draped around them to distinguish their “homelessness” from others; they shave their heads twice a month, so as not to worry about style, and they wear sandals for simplicity even when the weather is cold. The goal in life, Korn says, is simplicity.

“We are different. We are called a homeless person…. How can we train ourselves?... We are supposed to live our lives with lay people,” Korn explains.

Muny was a novice monk for five years before his promotion to a senior monk at the age of 21. The same year, 2004, Korn, along with many monks from his community, moved to the U.S. as a mission to help the U.S. Cambodian temples with religious services. He was brought to Modesto specifically to help the Wat Cambodian Church located on Paradise Avenue, now relocated on Grimes Avenue.

Muny started attending MJC in order to study sociology. He said the change of atmosphere and culture was surprising for him and all the monks, but they knew that they were different and so were other people. He learned tolerance and acceptance of others from Buddhist teachings. On the basis of human existence, all beings are the same, he says.

Korn said that as a student, the Modesto Junior College atmosphere was very warm and non-discriminatory. “People showed curiosity, not discrimination.” But Korn couldn’t say that for non-collegiate Modesto. In 2008, the Wat Cambodian Church requested rights from the County Planning Commission to build a temple on Grimes Avenue. But the church was denied this request by the commission due to the concerns of “worried neighbors” over possible conflicts. It took the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors over a month to review the commission- denied case and override the building veto. The church was finally built.

“They [The County Planning Commission] voted against our request… We had nothing wrong with our regulations… They were discriminating against our people. Why did the commissioners not vote for us?”

Three months ago, Muny Korn took off his robe and sandals and replaced them with a cotton, collared shirt, jeans and a pair of Vans. He wore a ring on his right-hand finger. He had left the monkhood. Korn said it was a personal decision. He felt he could not go any farther as a monk; he had earned the merits of discipline.

“There is no expiration,” he says. “I knew how long I had been a monk in my previous life to lead me to this life, but I didn’t have a good feeling to go any farther.”

Muny had felt that what he had done as a monk before in his past life and in this one made up a satisfactory ending to his career as a monk. A religious ceremony based on the retirement of the robes was held for Korn to commemorate this event. He now bears two gold rings as gifts from his grandmother and aunt in blessing of his new life and his lives to come. With his goals of graduating this spring from Modesto Junior College and transferring to California State University, Stanislaus, he is focusing on his education. He plans to finish his bachelor’s degree, earn a nursing degree, and eventually bring his parents and siblings to the U.S.

Korn looks back at his monk experience now with great pride and appreciation, acknowledging that he grew in confidence and strength under the guidance of the Cambodian church. In the weeks to come, he will receive another merit of accomplishment as he is handed his diploma for an associates of arts degree in behavioral and social science.

Muny’s determination and radiance makes him a shining example of a Modesto Junior College graduate: a scholar with open ears, an open heart and a gallant stride.

“Never give up, whatever happens. Never give up hope, whatever happens. As long as we are still alive, we still have time to pursue our dreams. Do it with confidence, do it with a smile. We have a long way to go,” Korn offers.

The Modesto Junior College Graduation Commencement is April 30 at 6 p.m. at the MJC Stadium on East Campus. It is free and open to the public.


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