In August 2011, Khyentse Foundation awarded a grant to Santi Sena (Peace Army), a Cambodian Buddhist monks’ organization dedicated to peace, livelihood improvement, social justice, and environmental sustainability. Established in 1994 by Venerable Nhem Kim Teng, Santi Sena seeks to strengthen the quality of Buddhist education in Cambodia in the wake the Khmer Rouge’s erosion of the country’s cultural and religious heritage.

The KF grant has enabled Santi Sena to make significant progress on the Buddhist Primary School (BPS) Project , an endeavor initiated in late 2010 during the first meeting between Santi Sena and Lotus Outreach International, a secular nonprofit organization that is dedicated to improving the education, health, and safety of at-risk and exploited women and children in the developing world. “Lotus Outreach invited Santi Sena to a ‘get to know you’ in our office a couple of years ago, while calling for local Cambodian NGOs that we could partner with to implement rural development programs on the Cambodian-Vietnamese border” says Glenn Fawcett, director of field operations at Lotus Outreach.  “It was a pleasant surprise to find that Santi Sena was founded by an eminent Buddhist teacher and leader, just like us. I felt from the start that we might be able to find a group for KF to work with in Cambodia. We found that group in Santi Sena.”

Lotus Outreach and Santi Sena have since partnered in implementing a rural development program that builds the economic capacity of families whose children are vulnerable to trafficking, and Fawcett saw another partnership opportunity. Having spent time in Cambodia since 2004, he was “deeply concerned about the apparent lack of understanding of the basic tenets of Buddhism in the monastics I had met, and also the lack of understanding and interest in Buddhism of even the highly educated Cambodian youth, let alone at the village level—and Cambodia is, after all, a Buddhist country.

“I suggested to Sam An, the Santi Sena program director, that Khyentse Foundation might be interested in supporting a Buddhist project and that he should talk with his director, the Venerable Nem Kim Sen, about it.  We discussed our concerns about the condition of Buddhism in contemporary Cambodia, and eventually they sent us a proposal for the current project, which is materially supporting six Buddhist primary schools. They are also holding meetings with villagers to raise awareness about the importance and relevance of Buddhism and Buddhist tenets to Khmer (Cambodian) culture, and of course therefore to the people of Cambodia, especially in these times when endemic poverty and rampant materialism create tremendous stress on cultures and peoples.”

As of January 2012, the project has provided six model Buddhist primary schools in Svay Rieng Province. The schools serve 89 students with basic equipment such as white boards, markers, tables, desks, chairs, notebooks, and maps, as well as subsidizing the monthly salaries of 18 teachers, 13 of whom are monks.

Fawcett says, “While still in its first year, the program has achieved a tremendous amount. Once morbid, unpainted classrooms without desks or blackboards and very few text books have been transformed into clean, freshly painted classrooms with brand new desks, glass book shelves, and a full complement of Buddhist texts appropriate to the various levels and subjects being taught. Other texts cover secular subjects, such as history, geography, and Khmer culture, that are also taught as part of Buddhist primary school curriculum.

“Both teachers and students are obviously inspired by the bright, cheerful, and studious atmosphere that we have created in the BPS classrooms, and it’s notable that many nonmonastics from the community are also borrowing books from the library on both Dharma and secular subjects.”  (There are no other libraries in Cambodian towns and villages.) More than 1,200 books (more than 900 of them on Dharma) and a cabinet have been acquired for the library with KF funding.  The project also offers technical training in library management for the monks who oversee the classrooms.

To bolster support and awareness at the outset of the project, Santi Sena held three community consultation workshops, securing the cooperation of local pagoda management committees and most significantly convincing the Svay Rieng Provincial Department of Culture and Religion to pay the salaries of the BPS teachers throughout the province.  According to Fawcett, this means that “future funding for this program will principally be required for materials such as desks, books, and bookshelves, and efforts to strengthen the sangha.”

These workshops were also met with positive feedback from members of the community and resulted in the establishment of community savings boxes for each target area, as well as committees to oversee the use of funds.  Fawcett says, “It’s inspiring that even as poor as they are, the local villagers donated some $100 toward the program after attending meetings and seeing its importance and relevance.”

The funding from Khyentse Foundation has improved access to text books for teachers, students, and community members and has provided enough basic classroom equipment so that all of the six Buddhist primary schools have reserve budgets from their community savings boxes.