One of the first units that SFS Cambodia students undertake for the Environmental Ethics and Development class is an exploration of cultural norms and the Cambodian ethical framework. This provides a basis for examining environmental ethics scenarios throughout the remainder of the semester. Central to this exploration is learning about Buddhism and the role of the Buddhist monastery and Sangha in society. We visit a monastery in Siem Reap and the students have the opportunity to hear a guest lecture from a monk. Sitting in the large sala facing a Buddhist shrine and surrounded by imagery depicting the lives and stories of the Buddha, students learn about the links between Buddhism and morality and connections with the environment and environmental protection.
Students hear about the focus within Theravada Buddhism on self-development and learning, the importance of the dharma and concept of karma. The tenets of peace, compassion and loving kindness are shared along with the Buddhist precepts and importance of respect for parents, elders and the Sangha. All of this is imparted in the spirit of knowledge sharing across cultures and to provide insight into the core cultural values of Cambodian society which influence perceptions of right and wrong.
Often the venerable guest lecturer shares a story from the life of the Buddha that highlights the syncretic nature of Buddhist and spiritual beliefs in Cambodia – the intertwining of animistic tree spirits and Buddhist tevada. Before we depart the sacred space in which this class takes place, the students receive a ceremonial blessing to wish them good fortune, successful studies and a safe and prosperous stay in Cambodia.
Students are often awed by this experience and come away with a deeper appreciation of and understanding for Cambodian culture. The rich visual and olfactory cues within the monastery flood the senses and leave a strong imprint on students.