Monday, 22 September 2008

A path toward enlightenment, an example for all to follow

By Julie Johnson
Record Staff Writer
September 22, 2008

STOCKTON - Gnorm Chap squinted as the hot morning sun rose over the roof of Wat Dhammararam Buddhist Temple. The light hit his face, then spread across the shoulder not covered by his saffron-colored monk's robe.

He fidgeted with a cigarette and a cell phone. It'd be another 100-degree day.

"I try not to think about anything," he said.

He sat still as it got hotter. Perhaps he waited for his mind to empty. Or perhaps he waited for the weekly call from his wife and children.

Chap is one of 11 monks who live at the Cambodian Buddhist temple on Carpenter Road just east of Highway 99. About half were monks in Cambodia and came to the United States to live at the Stockton temple. The rest grew up in Stockton and are continuing a family tradition.

"Like my father, he used to be a monk," Chap, 44, said. "So now I'm just like him being a monk. Just follow the generation."

Chap said his wife, Rose, cried when he first donned the rust-orange robe and shaved his head.

He had paid off the mortgage on their home in Holland, Mich. He asked his family to help support her and their five children. He had her cut off the long ponytail that trailed down to his waist.

"She said I'm going to be a monk forever. I said, I'm not," Chap said.

Chap and his fellow monks follow 227 rules to create a lifestyle that approaches how Buddha reached enlightenment. Most people can't afford the time or have the resources to live this austere lifestyle.

Monks serve as stand-ins, so to speak, on behalf of the rest of the community. They lead in religious practices but, more importantly, they represent the way people should live.

Because of this, it is an honor for someone in a family to live as a monk - even if only temporarily.

Chap committed five years to learning Buddhist teachings and living a monastic lifestyle. He has two more to go. Then he'll return home to his wife and children.

The practice is common among Cambodian men. A son will live at the temple for a few days or weeks after a parent's death. A student will spend part of his summer vacation at the temple studying Buddhism. It's an honor to the family when a man devotes a few years to living like Buddha lived.

Oeun Chin, a fellow monk, said it was a common way for parents to educate their children in Cambodia.

"The only education the parents could afford is to send their sons to be a monk," said Chin, 37, who has lived at the temple since he was 19.

Tony Son, a soon-to-retire barber at Clipper Town on Hammer Lane, was a monk at three different times during his life in Cambodia.

"You don't feel like it, you get out," he said.

For some young men in Stockton, it can be a temporary refuge from the reality of unemployment and gang culture.

Nhem Phang, who uses William as a first name, knew he wanted to be a monk when he was 12 or 13 years old. He entered the temple as soon as he got his high school diploma at age 18.

But after six years he wanted to use the Buddhist teachings that he had learned in ordinary life.

"Monks that are old when they're ordained, they have a lot of experience in life out there already," said Phang, now 27 and a medical supply manager at St. Joseph's Medical Center.

"For me, I don't have experience yet because I was ordained at 18," he said. "I was still a teenager."

The transition to life outside the temple was harder than Phang expected. He returned to the temple to sleep for the first two weeks after he left.

"It's too noisy out there, all the cars and all the sirens, the cops and kids running around," he said.

For Chap, the temple is a sanctuary from the stress of the outside world.

Chap's family moved to Stockton from Cambodia to escape the brutality of the Khmer Rouge when he was 16. He attended Stagg and Edison high schools, but didn't graduate.

"A lot of things happened, like, bad things, so I dropped out," Chap said.

He joined a Cambodian gang and, he said, just partied.

One night he passed out drunk and woke up to find the tattoo of a cross on his left bicep.

About 10,000 Cambodians live in San Joaquin County, and a disproportionate number of their youth are in gangs. The Stockton Police Department has documented about 400 Asian gang members, most of whom are Cambodian, according to Officer Pete Smith.

In Cambodia, children often drop out of school to help earn money for the family, said Matthew Lam, youth outreach coordinator for Stockton's Operation Peacekeepers, a city program that aims to help gang members.

The dropout rate for teenagers once they come to the United States is high, he added.

Lam said they struggle to learn English on top of placement tests and a whole new social culture.
"I used to hate going to my ESL class; I felt so discouraged," said Lam, 32.

"Back then, that was considered the dumb class."

Chap left Stockton soon after dropping out. He sold fish in Washington, painted houses in Boston and studied for an auto mechanic certificate in Michigan.

This wanderlust subsided after he met his wife, Rose, at a friend's party in Holland, Mich. They married and now have four children: Songha, 12; Sheyna, 10; Anna, 9; and Krishna, 5.

As best he can, Chap is still an active parent for his children. Even during morning prayers his cell phone is tucked inside his robe so he doesn't miss his children's weekly calls. He's the one teachers call when his oldest son, Songha, acts up in school.

"He don't listen to his mom," Chap said.

He hopes one of his sons will continue the tradition and spend some portion of time at the temple. He's got his eye on his oldest son, Songha, who he said reads any book he can get.

"When he get older, then I'll ask him to be a monk for a couple of years, couple weeks, couple months," Chap said. "If he don't do it, that's his problem."

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