Sex and the Single Monk

In 2011, a community of Buddhist monks in Lowell announced plans to build one of the largest and grandest temples in the country. The $10 million structure would signal that the city’s Cambodian Americans had at last entered the mainstream. Then came accusations of financial impropriety and political backstabbing. And then came a secretly recorded video of a monk having sex.

By | Boston Magazine |
lowell monk sex video scandal

In September, a CKBM temple fundraiser drew demonstrators. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

Just as was alleged in the email that appeared days after the sex video, Men accuses Cheng Leang of making the video. She told me that the Venerable Sao Khon had provided Leang with $5,000 worth of video equipment, to document CKBM events. Men, whose first language is Khmer, told me that she doesn’t care about the stares she gets these days around town. “I been through a lot of difficulty in my life, go through divorce, escape, running before get to freedom in this country,” she said. “This is not the first for me, getting attacked. We don’t want to fight our own people, for what? We escaped from the war.” But that didn’t mean she was going to just accept what happened without fighting back, she said. “If somebody take picture of your naked body and send out to the world, you feel the same thing,” she said. “I do a lot of meditation first before I decide this.”

Men insisted that she never had any inappropriate contact with the Venerable Sao Khon. Referring specifically to the allegations of Sankim, the former CKBM driver, she laughed. “It’s not true,” she said. “People can say anything they want. Let them come to court and testify. This is just talk.”

Men’s suit alleges that Cheng Leang made the recording and that he and another monk left it at a shop owned by Sovann Khon, a wedding photographer who is also being sued by Men and who is not related to the Venerable Sao Khon. When I asked Khon about that version of events, he told me that Leang entered his shop in late March and showed him the video. He said the monk told him that he was upset about what was going on at the temple, then left without giving him the video or a copy of it. Khon insisted that he’d played no part in distributing the DVD, but said that he, too, was troubled by it. “This is life and death,” he told me. “If this happens in Cambodia, the monk and the lady could be dead. But in this country, we have the law. Still they ruin our culture and tradition. People may not believe anymore.”

 

On May 1 of this year, Cheng Leang sat in his saffron monk’s robe in the witness stand of a Lowell Superior Court chamber. James Boumil acknowledged Leang’s Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, and then hurled the question: “Who made the tape?”

But before Leang could answer Boumil’s question, the judge, Christine McEvoy, advised him that it would be best to have his own attorney. Leang, who speaks fluent English, had come prepared with a 13-page document titled “Humble Request to Dismiss the Case,” but owing to the judge’s warning, he opted not to read it. I later reviewed a copy of the letter, which Leang filed with the court. In it he denied the charges in Men’s suit, and wrote that he had considered Men his “big sister.” She handled nearly every detail of his life at the temple, including his immigration documents. When the sex video surfaced, according to Leang’s letter, he, Kimteng, and Men met with the Venerable Sao Khon to strategize how best to explain it to “the Khmer community at large.”

After that, Leang wrote, Men had him fly to Los Angeles and stay at a temple there. In the letter, Leang seemed to struggle with the question of why Men would include him in the conspiracy. He speculated that the suit was Men’s way of getting rid of him. “Will they deport me back to Cambodia and never let me come back to serve my beloved Buddhist Khmer Americans in the ‘Land of the Free and Home of the Brave’ ever again?”

Leang’s letter was his last statement on the case. By all accounts, Leang is still in town—but there are conflicting reports of whether he has rejoined the CKBM fold. Repeated attempts to contact him were unsuccessful. If he did make the recordings, his motives are unclear. The audio recordings, which have received much less attention than the sex video, capture a series of conversations between a man and a woman who appear to be Leang and Men—they refer to each other by name. The audio creates the impression that Men had a relationship with Leang that was both intimate and stormy.

“You’re hurting me…You know that I suffer a lot,” the woman says at one point. The man says, “Stop being mad.”

Much of the time the woman is lashing out. “You hang up on me one more time,” the woman says, “there’s going to be big problem.” Later she says, “When I first did your paperwork when you first came to the United States, you remember what I say?” Then she switches to Khmer: “I said whichever monk that hurts the Buddhist monk community, I will be the one who steps on his throat.”

 

The CKBM continues to promote the temple project. Samkhann Khoeun regularly reminds the viewers of his show on Lowell’s community-access television channel that some people still owe money for Buddha statues. But the CKBM faces a daunting task in raising the $10 million. Since the sex-video scandal, attendance at its events has reportedly dropped off precipitously.

Meanwhile, some of the men targeted in the lawsuit have joined with local artists and professionals to form a new group, the Khmer Cultural Council. The group’s goal is to promote a Cambodian-American identity that goes beyond religion and the old political divisions. The KCC hopes to provide a counterpoint to the CKBM, and Sam Meas says it has plans for a cultural center and temple of its own in Lowell.

On September 1, the CKBM staged one of its first public events for the Vatt Khmer in months. The turnout, about 200 people, was respectable enough, but the event, which marked the arrival and dedication of the first 1,250 Buddha statues, underscored just how far the CKBM has to go to make its temple a reality. By that time, there were supposed to have been orders for 21,000 of the 84,000 Buddhas.

Across the street, the KCC held a demonstration. “We want to deprive them of the potential opportunity to scam people,” Meas said. “A lot of the victims of the Khmer Rouge, they don’t like confrontation. The CKBM were hoping that we’d just go away and people would forget. But we’re not going away. Anytime there’s a religious event, a fundraiser, we’ll be there.”