Teach this triple truth part 2: A generous heart

This is my second post about the Green Umbrella organization and KKS primary school.  In this post, I want to reflect upon our encounter with a deeply moving and inspiring man, Venerable Sokrath Hour, a Buddhist monk and social activist.  This post will surely swerve into the dangerous terrain of exalting a man I really do not know that well.  So be it.  His story and living life story are inspiring.  I could use some inspirational leadership just now.

At the end of our stay at KKS, we purchased a “Sokrath monk doll,” produced by Putsor community members working for a social enterprise project of Green Umbrella.  Although it felt a little like buying a celebrity bobble head, we were nonetheless excited by the doll. The doll is a little keepsake of a great story.  I chided Sokrath a bit about having a doll named for him.  He laughed, and said that he originally asked if it could be just called the “monk doll.”  No such luck said the project manager.  A cute doll is just cloth, but a doll with a story has sales appeal.  Good marketing!

Sokrath with the “Sokrath doll”

We bought one, I love it.  It came with a little scroll filled with teachings from the Buddha.  I’ve been ruminating on them ever since, finding hearty food for thought.  I’ll pepper this post with a few of my favorites.  Saying that Sokrath lives by these teachings is a bit like saying that a songbird performs a commute from summer to winter.  Still my favorite:

Teach this triple truth to all:  A generous heart, kind speech, a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.

– teaching of the Buddha

My understanding about Buddhism and mindfulness is about as deep as a kid’s wading pool, so I encountered Sokrath’s worldview from a beginner’s mindset, bordering on childlike naivete.  I’m not even very spiritual or religious:  when I jump up looking for a higher plane of existence, I rather quickly find myself on the other side of the parabola, landing with a thud on the very firm Earth.

However, I can be shaken by a generous heart, kind speech and deliberate action.  Sokrath shook me.  After school each day, Sokrath invited us to walk through the Putsor community with him.  He often walks, enjoying the movement, the fresh air, the sunsets, and the chance to greet people from all walks of life, and hear people’s stories.

Sokrath walking.

No one saves us but ourselves.  No one can, and no one may.  We ourselves must walk the path.

– teaching of the Buddha

I must admit I have a little bit of a foot fascination.  I always check out people’s shoes, their feet, the way they lay their pads upon the Earth.  Sokrath wears good flip-flops – as bright red as Lady Gaga’s lips.  His walk is all his own though.  His every step was deliberate and stretched out, as if savoring a visit with a long-lost friend.  He firmly planted his heel, then his weight glided onto his forefoot.  But before his toes made contact he would stretch them out in three directions – left, right and forward.  Like a yogi making space between his joints, he performed toe-mountain pose with every footfall.  And though every step was extended, maybe even slow, his pace was not.

Walking the countryside

We walked the main street, the temple, and paths through the countryside.  We walked past shopkeepers, large flatbed trucks filled with workers returning from the factory (with an eerie similarity to trucked livestock), countless children, land owners, and the forsaken people living on canal, living on nearly nothing.

Have compassion for all beings, rich and poor alike, each has their suffering.  Some suffer too much, others too little.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath listening.

Midway through one of our walks in the countryside, in a ramshackle sprawl of shacks next to the canal, we stopped at the most permanent looking of the buildings.  There were some items for sale.  Sokrath spoke to a woman, and she went into the back room, emerging with a bulk order of little chip bags, maybe 60 or 70.  For the remainder of our walk, we distributed little packets of crisps to every child we could find.  Whether dirty or clean, homeless or homed, clothed fancy, poor, or not at all, every child was noticed, beckoned and instructed to say please and thank you!

While we distributed chips and greetings to gleeful, grubby and grateful hands, Sokrath spoke to the adults.  He spoke with the same concerned tone to all – the shopkeeper, a farmer, a grandma with stained teeth.  Always a few words, a pause and a listen.  Sometimes they would laugh gently together. As people spoke their minds, Sokrath listened and acknowledged their stories.  Afterwards he shared some with us – hungry children, a half-hearted explanation for why a child did not attend school, a tale of young child’s death when the local hospital would not see him because he was “too poor.”

Mia and Porter had stayed behind exhausted after a day with the kindergartners.  When we returned to the boarding house, Sokrath produced the last two bags of chips for them.  I was moved by his compassion for every kid.  But, I was also a bit embarrassed that they needed a firmer reminder of their manners than the canal kids.  Kids are kids!

True love is born from understanding.

–  teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath acts.

Sokrath’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty.  When he first arrived in the Putsor province, he told me that he thought this little slice of Cambodia was fine, no problems.  Then he walked off the main path and saw how the poor lived.  He asked about them, he heard their stories.  Then he acted.

An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.

–  teaching of the Buddha

He started Green Umbrella in 2013, one of the rare Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) founded and run by a Cambodian.  Through Green Umbrella, he started a school for selected K-4 kids, an English language school for all public school kids, football (soccer) teams for older kids, and a social enterprise project for community members.

His efforts are not without challenge and failure; he shared some of his frustrations with us.  One, for example, is with the community embrace of Buddhism.  Sokrath told us a few times that Buddhism is about action, not words.  But, he worried that people in the community treated the religion as a title, rather than a philosophy. According to Sokrath, this is a challenge because there is no social structure like church (or synagogue or mosque) for Buddhist people to study and practice Buddhism together, to align their actions with the teachings.  “I am a Buddhist” does not mean that “I live according to the teachings of Buddha” just as “I am a Christian” does not mean “I live by Christian values.” Too true, too true.  I saw the mirror in his words, reflecting on my own footsteps.

On one of our walks, I was marveling at how he could give so much.  “Didn’t he need time for himself?”  Amy, knowing a bit more about Buddhism than I, perhaps asked a more appropriate question,

“How do you have time to meditate?”

He answered (and I am fully paraphrasing here), “Yes, that is difficult, but necessary.  I do it in the evening before bed.  It helps me reflect on what I did well, and what I did poorly.  What else I can do?  Plus, it helps me clear my mind for a good sleep.  I try also to meditate in the morning, but usually I hear the alarm, and decide I am too tired!”  He laughs.

As someone who has recently been encountering sleeplessness, I should heed, no seek out, this prescription.

  If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.

– teaching of the Buddha

Sokrath the inspiration

In my normal American world of teaching and investment advising, I often look for the self-interest that drives behaviors and decisions.  I feel as though incentives and penalties warp the landscape so dramatically, that I doubt the motivation of anyone.  Sokrath seems to hover over this landscape, truly marching to an altruistic drumbeat.  I believe this is why he is inspiring others.

Dinner with Sam, from KKS, and other volunteers Kim and Francie

He inspired his friend from university, Sam, to join his efforts to build a school.  Sam is the director of curriculum, and the English language school for all Putsor kids. Fourteen Cambodians are working at the school; the teachers earn less than they could at public school (a Cambodian public school teacher earns around $200/month).  His organization inspires volunteers from around the world.



Sokrath inspires youth.  While we were there, we met another volunteer named Kimcheong (Kim).  Kim grew up in Northern Cambodia.  She is amazing – filled with love, good humor, and thoughtful reflection.

Kimcheong, or Kim.

When she was in middle school, she decided that she wanted more than her village school could offer.  So she studied for, and received, a scholarship to attend high school at United World College in Singapore.  She graduated last year, and has plans to attend university in the United States. Right now, she is taking a “gap year” to travel and serve in her home country.   For three months, she is volunteering at KKS to help build school programs, and to create a workshop (conference) for Cambodian youth interested in service and leadership.  Much of the reason she decided to stay at KKS was due to Sokrath.  Kim’s service was inspirational to us.  She seems to know much more than her 18 (19?) years would suggest.

Sokrath hopes to inspire more Cambodian youth to learn and give back as Kim is doing.  His vision is that KKS students will learn the skills and principles to go on to higher education.  They will want to give back, bringing new vision, ideas and businesses to Putsor.  They will help lift the community and break the cycle of poverty for many people.  Sokrath’s vision is lofty, but his path is tactile, and his smile is full of compassion.  His is leadership that I choose to be inspired by.

 Work out your own salvation.  Do not depend on others.


– teaching of the Buddha



Author: johnchesbrough

I am a dad from Bellingham, WA, excited to share our family adventure through Asia. I like to play in the mountains and wood, with my family, my dog, and with numbers.

14 thoughts on “Teach this triple truth part 2: A generous heart”

  1. Thanks so much for the grounding and inspiring story. I needed the reminders of ways to see the world day to day and so welcome a positive leadership story. Walked by your house today. All looks great. Let us know if you want us to check on anything.


    1. Thanks for keeping track Lyndsey, and for the comments. It’s great to hear a two way conversation!

      The Chesbrough are traveling Asia! To share in our stories, check out our blog. Google: “Cheeseburgers in Asia blog.”



    2. John – that is a stunning picture of Sokrath with the doll.. a beautiful, simple illustration of a beautiful, “simple” man. What an inspiring encounter (I can also just see his feet!) Love the post… love you all!!


  2. Johnny Boy, a wonderful and inspiring story. You have been blessed to have met such an amazing human being . In your travels, as you know, Amazing people meet Amazing people, just sayin!! Love to all


  3. John,
    I really appreciate your writing and the gift you give to all of us reading this. What an inspiring, fully human being. The simplicity of love and compassion in action has inspired me. He was very fortunate to meet you all as well….


  4. Great post John! I’m being challenged in a similar way by a book titled Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks your Comfortable Christianity by Jen Hatmaker. I’d rather be learning through experience as you guys are! In many ways the quotes by Buddha are so similar to the TRUE teachings of Jesus, i.e., get off your butts and DO something for the poor and oppressed! SHOWING people church rather than just inviting them to one.


  5. John…You have a talent for writing. Do I see a book in your future? I love seeing in my mind the trek you are on, your descriptive narrative is amazing . Such a wonderful experience for all of you. Safe travels nephew!


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