He made his way across campus, from his office in the library to a business management class.
The day was a sunny one, a few clouds in the blue sky. His stunningly orange garb and shaved head stood out in the sea of the nondescript grays and blues his fellow college students wore.
Somnieng Hoeurn is 26 years old, a Buddhist monk who is far from his temple in Cambodia. He came here to learn at St. Ambrose University, to become a better leader for the 368 children he and his fellow monks feed, teach and love like parents in one of the poorest regions of the country.
He is living with the dentist he met more than one year ago, a man who came to Hoeurn’s temple to learn more about Buddhism. A longing to return to Cambodia is tempered only by Hoeurn’s yearning to learn more.
“I miss my kids so much, but I have
to be patient. I dream of them many
times,” Hoeurn said.
Old and young
Perhaps it was the Buddha statue his grandmother kept in the curio cabinet.
Jon Ryder, 47, lives outside of LeClaire, Iowa, and practices dentistry in Davenport. He can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in Asia. His major at Augustana College was Asian studies.
So when he saw on ad on the Internet asking for dentists to come to Cambodia and volunteer time, he decided to pack his suitcase and go.
When he and his son landed at the airport after a two-day journey, Ryder was given a short tour, then whisked off in a van to a remote area of the country to begin work. Over potholed roads and past rice paddies and houses on stilts, the van traveled, pulling up to a cement building.
Inside, Ryder found a table and a chair.
So with a woman holding a flashlight, using the medications and sterilized tools he carried, Ryder began pulling teeth.
“You just work until you run out of sterilized instruments or it gets dark,” he said.
During that first trip, Ryder heard of a monk who spoke English at the local temple, or pagoda. The monk was Hoeurn.
“He is old and young at the same time,” Ryder said of Hoeurn. “He took us into his room. He had a syllabus of what he was going to share with us over the next three or four days. He’s a very good teacher. It was just like we’ve known each other for a long time.”
Meanwhile, in the early morning and late afternoon hours, Ryder pursued his other passion: photography.
He took all sorts of photos, of young and old people, of symbols and places.
“The architecture is absolutely beautiful, but the most beautiful thing is the faces, smiling faces in the midst of all that poverty.”
The children especially touched his heart.
“Here are all of these kids who have nothing,” Ryder said. “This is the new generation fighting for their country.”
Ryder calls the collection of his photos “Generation One.”
‘Understand the heart’
Pol Pot called the beginning of his reign in 1975 “Year Zero.”
During his rule of torture, starvation and poverty, 1.5 million of the 7 million people in Cambodia died during his rule of torture, starvation and poverty.
Hoeurn’s region was particularly hard hit, one of the poorest of the country.
Born in 1980, Hoeurn was sent away from his family when he was 4 years old. His mother had married a “cruel man,” he said, who was an alcoholic gambler who physically and emotionally abused the family.
The family who cared for him taught him to respect monks, to take his hat off and bow when he saw them on the streets.
Hoeurn returned to his mother and stepfather at age 14 when his adoptive family planned to move to another region. His father had been killed by his stepfather. Hoeurn’s ability to go to school ended when his family could not afford the $5 “payment” a teacher required for him to pass a test.
Hoeurn begged his mother to allow him to join the temple, a place revered because of its roots in education, to begin the journey to becoming a monk.
He asked once.
He asked a second time.
She feared him leaving, she told him, because he helped her make the sweets she sold for less than $1 a day to support the family.
He asked a third time, one evening when the work was done. She said yes and took him the next morning to the pagoda.
“She was in despair for our future, and was working so so so hard for us, so that is why I love her so much,” Hoeurn said. “She is a best mother of mine, she is my Buddha.”
Two years later, the 16-year-old became a monk. His new life was formed by his old.
“I know, I understand the heart, the feeling and situation of the poor. All these things were marked so deep in my heart. However, for me that is OK. I do not think that many other vulnerable children are as lucky as me today at all and I do know many lovely innocent kids lose their hopes, warmth of feeling and opportunities because of the ignorance, poverty, corruption, domestic violence of the others.
“I am so disappointed, so sorry and worry so for that. I wish, I pray for all my 368 kids to be as lucky as me today.”
Back to Cambodia
Ryder boarded a plane on Thursday to Cambodia, his fifth trip to the country. An exhibit of his photography in two cities there will raise money for a charity in Hoeurn’s region.
Ryder’s first trip there, he admits, was because Cambodia was an exotic locale, a good place to photograph while volunteering.
The reason for his return again and again is different.
It’s the people.
It’s one little girl, Theary, who makes his heart break, whom he hopes to bring to the United States someday. With parents who forced her to beg on the streets, Theary now lives with Hoeurn’s sister. Ryder pays her expenses and the $80 a year which allows her to go to school.
And finally, it’s the hope of bringing attention to how “we all suffer the human condition.”
“We get so complacent in our lives, get mad because the battery in our iPod breaks. Looking at life through another is a constant eye-opener,” Ryder said.
Hoeurn will return to Cambodia in June. The $9,000-a-year program he oversees allows the children to attend school, ensures they have access to some health care and feeds them and their families. The requirement for families to receive food is that their children attend school. The rule prevents families from sending their children out to beg.
Until he returns, Hoeurn uses e-mail, a cell phone and an Internet voice system to lead his project, called the Life and Hope Association.
Ryder calls him a “high-tech monk.”
Hoeurn’s mother is now a nun, living in the nunnery next to the pagoda. She fled from her abusive husband, coming out of hiding only after his $600 debt was paid. A woman from Australia, whom Hoeurn calls his adoptive mom, pays the $50 a month she needs for her living expenses.
Hoeurn hopes to earn a scholarship and travel back here to earn his bachelor’s degree, then eventually a master’s degree.
On this trip, he is taking two classes in business and one in literature. A room in the library is set aside for studying.
He teaches a meditation class at the Davenport School of Yoga.
“College here is so great, so amazing,” he said. His professors and classmates are “so friendly and helpful to me.”
“I have been here for such a very short time, but I have learned a lot and I do know that it is changing me, gradually, dramatically from day to day.”
He is troubled, he said, because he must take time to eat, he said, though monks eat only one or two meals a day and never after noon. “I wish I should have more time.”
He hopes people see this message in him: “Don’t waste your life. Don’t be a slave of materials. Don’t live for dying. Please take all the advantages of your materials and great opportunities to make the world smiling, happily smiling. There are so many things that we must do, and are waiting for us to do.”
Ann McGlynn can be contacted at
(563) 383-2336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Location: Southeast Asia, surrounded by Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and the Gulf of Thailand
Size: 69,898 sq. miles
Of note: One of the world’s poorest nations; about 95 percent of the people are Buddhists
THE CAMERA’S EYE
A photo collection by Davenport dentist Jon Ryder that depicts the growing pains of a nation will be featured in two shows in Cambodia in April and May. One hundred percent of the print sales goes directly to Angkor Participatory Development Organization, dedicated and committed to alleviating poverty and community social ignorance through the promotion and coordination of sustainable community development. To view the slide show, go to: jon ryder.com/generationone.html.
For more information about Hoeurn’s pagoda and Life and Hope Association, go to www.watdamnak.org.