From bellydancing to Buddhist dharma

From bellydancing to Buddhist dharma

At just 26 years old, Nath Keo had developed a case of ennui. Despite a successful multi-faceted career as a belly dancer, pop singer and occasional author of mystery thrillers, Keo was decidedly discontented.

Plagued by what he described as an "empty void inside," Keo, a Khmer-Canadian performance artist recently returned to Cambodia, turned his back on dancing, singing and scribing, and has taken action to address his spiritual needs.

"I have vowed to be a monk for at least one full year," Keo said. "It is the right thing to do at this stage of my life."

As incongruous as it may seem, Keo told the Post that trading Canadian stadiums for Buddhist chants at Wat Tuol Towng in Banteay Chakrey, Prey Veng province, was a natural step.

"My father spent many years during his youth at Wat Tuol Towng," Keo said. "Much of my reason for committing to the monastery was to pay respect to my parents."

Born in Kav Lan refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thai border, Keo left Cambodia and has been living as an aneakajun - the Khmer word denoting an expatriate Khmer - in Canada ever since.

Some observers report that the term aneakajun has negative connotations in Cambodia. According to the stereotype, an aneakajun lacks understanding of their cultural heritage - specifically the ancient traditions of Buddhism.

"Many Khmer children abroad forget about our religious heritage," Keo said. "But it's harsh to say Khmer children raised abroad do not understand their own culture."

When Buddhism is removed from daily routine, children do not grow up with an instinctive understanding of their religious heritage, Keo said.

"Look at the practice of moving into a new home," he said. "In Victoria, we throw a party, we don't invite monks to give chants and blessings as is the case here in Cambodia. Buddhism is not visible in most Khmer-populated communities."

Although this means many young expatriate Khmers are unfamiliar with the rituals and practices of their native culture, Keo - seemingly drawing on Buddhist philosophy - suggests such aneakajun "have been chosen to be ignorant."

Keo's choice to immerse himself in his religious heritage was not a career-oriented decision. But he does hope to write his second book about his experiences as a monk.

His first book entitled, Bada, a fictional mystery thriller released in Canada in December 2005, had a first print run of 3,000.

Most of Keo's current responsibilities - teaching English to young monks and fundraising work for the pagodas - present few problems. But the mammoth task of learning the Buddhist rules and verses has proved more difficult.

"I may be thin but I eat a lot," Keo said. "In Buddhism, we cannot consume anything after noon apart from water. This rule, one of around 227 in total, is the hardest to abide."

© 2024 Phatry Derek Pan