An honorable action: WOHS student’s journey to become a monk

An honorable action: WOHS students journey to become a monk

Ben Sanders

Sr. Nolan Leak turned on his electric razor. The low buzzing hum grew louder as he mustered up the courage to remove his own hair. 

   Today, Leak would go to a second home—his temple. Here, we would undergo an experience that would change his life forever. 

   For Leak, this temple has been a home for him since he was little. To find refuge from the Khmer Rouge civil war in Cambodia, Leak’s parents and grandparents fled to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand. To come to the United States, Leak’s family took a rigorous exam and passed a background check. Soon, Leak’s parents both got sponsors to come to the United States. Leak’s dad came to Albuquerque, Nevada, and his mom settled down in Atlanta, Georgia. 

   Despite Leak’s parents living in completely different parts of the United States, they soon met each other in Long Beach, California. Then, they settled down in Holland, Michigan, where they started a family. 

   While they left the persecution and genocide, they also left behind a part of their family’s culture. They soon found themselves far from any comfort of home. 

   One place, however, helped Leak and his family continue to celebrate their culture and traditions. 

   A bright white fence intertwined with yellow and pink flowers surrounded the sign that said, “Cambodian Buddhist Society of Michigan.” Here, Leak’s family celebrates their culture and religion through prayers and special celebrations.

   Despite these trips to the temple, Leak still felt some uncertainty with his culture and religion. However, he would soon go through an experience that would change his life.

   Tragically, Leak’s grandmother died last summer. Leak didn’t know what to feel. 

   In Cambodian culture, a family member usually volunteers to become a monk after the passing of a loved one. Leak, never completely feeling connected to his grandma because of the language barrier, volunteered. Leak would now take a temporary vow to become a monk for a week. 

   Lok Samuth, a monk at the temple, described the story behind this tradition, “Becoming a monk after someone has passed has to do with a long tradition, dating back to the Buddhist day when Buddha was a King. Because he always stayed in the palace, he never witnessed a sick person, old person, a person who died, or a person who was a monk.”

   Every three months, however, Buddha would go out to the nearby park and witness these events happen. He started to question. 

   Lok said, “He then asked the guard what the purpose is of being a monk? The guard responded and said the first objective of being a monk is to avoid old, sickness, and death. When the King understands the guard’s answer, he realizes he wants to be a monk.”

  That night, Buddha left behind his family and entire kingdom to become a monk. 

   Leak’s story parallels that of Buddha’s. For Leak, volunteering himself to become a monk helped him grow spiritually.

   The reality of becoming a monk set in the morning of the ceremony. Leak had to prepare himself, “First, I went to my uncle’s house to shave everything above my shoulders (head, eyebrows, and facial hair).”

   Leak then made his way to the temple. A trip so familiar to Leak as a child now seemed completely different. Today, Leak would solidify his connection with his grandma and the temple.

   Once Leak found his way inside the temple, the ceremony began, “My uncles and I recited a lineage. Then, we were issued monk’s robes. We recited an oath and passages in Khmer, Cambodia’s native language. We devoted ourselves to a simpler lifestyle away from any materialistic view.”

   For Lok, his purpose in becoming a monk was very similar to Leak’s. As a child, Lok lived in a province where only the temple gave education, “That is why my mom and dad allowed me to become a monk, to learn different things including language. Traditionally, parents are proud that their children become a monk because to them it’s an honorable action.”

   For Leak and Lok, becoming a monk helped them learn more about themselves and their traditions. 

   For the next week, Leak would live with the monks at the temple. Every day, Leak started his day at five in the morning to say his morning prayer. From then to noon, Leak would have his only chance to eat. Leak would then spend the rest of the day meditating, learning about his culture and Cambodian traditions, and praying. At five, he would say one last prayer for the day.

   Lok mentioned how Leak’s behavior that week paralleled that of a person who has been a monk for a long time. 

    Completely different diets, sleep schedules, and daily activities gave him a new perspective on life. 

   “At first, it feels easy being a monk, but having to devote yourself to this lifestyle was difficult. I kind of strayed away from social responsibilities and towards self-enlightenment, more of a day-to-day thing. I didn’t have to plan out my schedule, I was more focused on knowledge and wisdom.”

   Leak recalls a specific time during that week when he felt spiritually moved, “The day we cremated her, I had to recite a speech talking about being grateful for her. I began to cry just because I felt more connected with her than ever.”

   For Leak, his journey carries a large spiritual meaning. “It gave me a deeper perspective on life and connected with my grandma and grandpa through my culture and language.” 

   Leak stressed the importance of the monks at the temple and his uncles in supporting him through his journey. Without their support, Leak wouldn’t have been able to become a monk.

   Nolan’s mother described her perspective when Leak became a monk, “It was an unexpected thing for me and Nolan. It was part of the culture for one of our kids or grandkids to do for our grandparents or parents passing away. Leak decided to volunteer himself to become a monk to express his gratitude for his grandma and her merit.”

   She also mentioned, “Nolan is the kind of kid that shows a lot of caring and is kind-hearted. He loves to volunteer and help others when needed. He likes to keep busy. He’s the kind of kid that always puts others first.”

   “I am very proud of Nolan for volunteering himself to become a monk during that period of time. I never thought he would do it. I was very impressed and shocked at the same time.”

   Leak’s journey of becoming a monk has helped him solidify his beliefs in his culture and traditions. Overall, he says that his experience has made him grow spiritually, “When we put ourselves in new situations, you find more about yourself and who you can be.”