Buddhist monks in Thailand, Cambodia alter ritual during Covid-19 pandemic

Buddhist monks in Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia have altered their rituals during Covid-19 pandemic as many religious rites are being changed or cancelled to limit the spread of virus. As worshippers in the region mark holidays, monks have been forced to change their religious routines.
Monks are venturing out from Bangkok’s Ladprao temple to collect alms amid the Covid-19 pandemic as fewer of the Buddhist faithful visiting pagodas to make donations, ccording to monk Phra Surasak Suthanto.
But other daily rituals, religious rites and holiday celebrations are being adapted, restricted or cancelled for now, Surasak said.
“We still receive alms in the morning but we wear face masks. When we give blessings, we have to keep a distance of around a metre or two,” he said.
In Buddhist-majority Thailand and neighbouring Cambodia, monks say the Covid-19 pandemic has forced many to alter their usual routines and religious practices. Group prayers are limited and large gatherings to mark religious holidays have been cancelled or restricted, including this week’s Visakha Bucha Day, which commemorates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
“The only thing we still do is funerals,” Surasak said, adding that even the length of funeral ceremonies has been cut down.
“We tell people who attend funerals to wear face masks and monks also wear them when we have to pray,” he said. “Both sides are protecting ourselves.”
While monks are often called out to bless new homes, businesses, marriages or even rid places of evil spirits, those jobs outside temples have nearly all been cancelled, according to Surasak.
Ordination ceremonies have been cancelled or postponed, he added.
In mid-April, Thailand’s Songkran New Year events were also cancelled, and the Prime Minister’s office issued official guidelines to limit social interactions during Buddhist ceremonies.
Under the directives, marriage ceremonies must limit the number of people taking part in traditional water blessing ceremonies. A tradition where guests form a parade for the bride and groom, as well as general celebrations, are prohibited.
On Wednesday, for Visakha Bucha, Thai officials urged citizens to avoid temples and observe the national holiday via live online broadcasts of the ceremonies. But temples are not completely closed and devotees are still allowed to make offerings to monks.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, hundreds of monks and laypeople – many wearing face masks – marked the holiday by visiting pagodas, according to monks at two temples in the capital Phnom Penh.
Seng Somony, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Cults and Religion Ministry, said the public was allowed to visit pagodas, with no set limit on the number of people entering, but they had to maintain a 2-metre distance from others, wear masks and not stay long after leaving their offerings to monks.
But at Wat Ounalom, Venerable Try Thaney said he saw few people practising social distancing.
“Like today, most of the pagodas in Cambodia, monks are sitting near each other and I think maybe because of the less cases in Cambodia,” Thaney said, noting that the country currently has only two active cases.
Thailand has reported about 3,000 Covid-19 infections and 55 deaths in total, while Cambodia has confirmed 122 infections – none in the last three weeks – and zero deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In April, while staying at a countryside temple in the central province of Kompong Thom, Thaney said he and other monks did not hold any religious ceremonies for the Khmer New Year festival.
Some Buddhists visited the pagoda to offer food and earn merit, but they did not stay as long as worshippers normally would due to the fear of transmitting the virus, he said.
“I really hope that Covid-19 will be out of the country soon,” said the monk, who is also a student at a Phnom Penh university and taking classes online while the campus, like schools and universities nationwide, is closed.
Venerable Sarin Samnang, another monk who lives at Wat Sompovmeas in the capital, said since no new cases have been announced in Cambodia for weeks he has stopped wearing a face mask, even though he knows a “second wave” of infections could occur.
His chief monk had directed them to keep wearing masks and continue practising social distancing, but on Wednesday, Samnang said more than 100 people visited his pagoda for Visakha Bucha, with most wearing face masks, but not all.
“There are unlimited numbers until [they] fill the temple’s area,” he said.
Asked earlier how he would mark the holiday, the monk said he would join the pagoda’s celebration if there were not too many people in attendance.
Otherwise, he said he had another plan. “I will just stay in my room.”