Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Khmer Connection

“Why Cambodia?” was the first thing my aunt wanted to know, “Do you know anyone there?

I had asked her whether she would look after our dog while we would go on a year-end holiday. Typical long-haul destinations for Tibetan families in the West include India, Nepal and sometimes also Tibet. Usually “vacation” means visiting relatives, going on a pilgrimage or attending a Kalachakra teaching. So my aunt was justifiably curious why we chose to spend our vacation in an alien, far-away country without a personal connection.

Finding a last-minute, affordable vacation at the end of the year was hard, and finding one that would also satisfy the differing requirements of our three-generation family was even harder. In the middle of winter, our children craved for sunshine and beaches, their granny associates real vacations with bargain hunting in multi-storied malls, and the parents? Our idea of an ideal holiday was to experience “culture.” And that ‘s when we settled on Cambodia, a place without the usual obligations that come with a “visiting-relatives-in-another-country-holiday” - even if that put a significant dent into our finances.

Among our first sights was visiting the royal palace in Phnom Penh, a major attraction for tourists and locals alike. That morning many school groups were visiting along with us. The king’s grand residence with a complex of temples and buildings located inside a huge compound, is a peaceful oasis in the heart of this bustling city. Although he is popular his subjects also worry about the future of the Cambodian monarchy because at age sixty plus the king – a professionally trained, Czech-educated ballet dancer – was still single and without an heir.

The Cambodian royal palace appeared to us like a smaller replica of the Thai royal palace in Bangkok. We couldn’t tell a difference in the architectural style. As in the Thai palace, the focal point of visitors here was the temple of the Emerald Buddha erected by a former Khmer king inspired by a similar one in Bangkok.

Temple of the Emerald Buddha at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh (rear view)

I remembered the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok vividly. People from all over Thailand flock there to pay their respects. That’s why I always think of the Emerald Buddha as some sort of “Jowo of Thailand”. When I visited many years back with a Thai friend, the monk on duty, puzzled over my body-length prostrations, asked me where I came from. He understood when I said “Tibet”. In Cambodia few people have heard of Tibet. Even “Dalai Lama” isn’t a household word in this Buddhist country.

But one thing at a time: We flew to the city of Siem Reap in the north, the starting point of our exploration of the famous temple ruins of Angkor which are considered so important they are displayed even on the Cambodian national flag. The ruins rise in the middle of nowhere from a thick, lush, green jungle like in some old black-and-white Tarzan film. Only to behold them was worth the long journey. Originally built by Khmer kings in the 9th century to worship Hindu gods such as Shiva and Vishnu, Mahayana Buddhism became the state religion later with the temples replenished as Mahayana Buddhist sanctuaries. From the 9th to the 13 century Cambodian kings fashioned themselves as benign Chakravartins or universal Buddhist rulers modelling themselves after the 3rd-century Indian emperor Ashoka, who was instrumental in spreading Buddhism in India and to Southeast Asia.

Bayon Temple, Cambodia
At the Bayon Temple for example, gigantic faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara or Lokesvara as he is known in Cambodia, gaze from high stone towers into all four directions. The facial features of Lokesvara are modelled after the beloved Buddhist ruler Jayavarman Vll of the 12th and 13th century. He was a central figure in the massive construction and public works that took place during those early times. The gigantic faces on those stone towers reflect the expression of the benevolent king who cares and ensures justice for all in his dominion. Tibetan Buddhist culture assigned the role of Lokesvara to the person of the Dalai Lama, who traditionally has fulfilled the role of a worldly and religious king in personal union. I guess the Bodhisattva is a convenient format for rulers because unlike a Buddha, who no longer takes rebirth, Bodhisattvas appear in human (and other) forms while content-wise they are quasi-Buddhas .

Frequent invasions from Thailand weakened the political and military power of the Khmer empire and gradually Theravada Buddhism took hold and became the official state religion with Pali, the language of the Theravada canon, replacing Sanskrit as the official Buddhist language. Subsequent Khmer kings abandoned the northern region around Angkor and moved their capital further south to Phnom Penh along the Mekong to be closer to maritime trade and cultural exchange with the rest of Asia.

The ancient temples of Angkor were never deserted however. When the French “discovered” Angkor in the 19th century, they still found Buddhist monks and nuns living there. And even today amidst the stampede of thousands of photo-strapping and selfie-stick-slinging tourists onto Angkor every day, here and there in a niche one can find a monk or a nun guarding a small altar where the rare believers can silently pay their respect and receive a blessing in form of a red knotted wristband similar to the “Jendü” or “Sungdü” Tibetan pilgrims are given by their priests to be worn around the neck.

The conceptual layout of Angkor’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is modelled to reflect the Hindu cosmos with Mount Meru at its centre and the four continents encircling it – which is actually very close in resemblance to the layout of the Tibetan Mandala as I discovered in Taking The Essence. In fact, the ground plan of Tibet’s first monastery, 8th-century Samyé is also laid out precisely with this idea. Here are two pictures from the Internet in comparison:

Aerial view of Angkor Wat

Samye Monastery, Tibet

Besides the hundreds of temple ruins of which we could only visit a handful, there are also many contemporary Buddhist temples all over the country. Of these, a visit to Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh remains most memorable. Behind the main temple is a small, unassuming shrine with a statue of the Enlightened One said to contain an eyebrow of the man Siddharta Gautama himself. In fact ounalom means “eyebrow”, I learned. Did the emissary sons of Ashoka bring the holy relic to this country?

The Cambodian monk at the “Eyebrow Temple” poured some holy water into our palms, just as Tibetan monks do to pilgrims. Then he signalled us to drink from it and distribute the rest over our face and hair – again just like the Tibetans do. And finally he began to mumble something while patting our hands with a peacock feather. Out of the blue I understood his words!

During a “Buddhism for kids” camp back home, the Lama taught the children to recite the Refuge Prayer in Pali. He said it would connect them with every Buddhist from any corner of the world no matter what nationality:

Buddham saranam gacchami.
Dhammam saranam gacchami.
Sangham saranam gacchami.

Wat Ounalom, Phnom Penh
Those were the exact words the Khmer monk muttered! Sangye la kyapsu chiu, Chö la kyapsu chiu, Gendün la kyapsu chiu. They were really praying the same way we did. – Of course intellectually I have known that all along but to actually feel how the Refuge Prayer connected us with the Khmer monk was moving. Wat Ounaloum that morning was a home coming.

Another intriguing event was a musical we attended at the National Museum. Every evening, Plae Pakaa, a troup of young artists dedicated to Cambodia’s performing arts, stages different shows. Many artists, dancers, painters and musicians were killed during the horrific reign of the Khmer Rouge. So this group works to revive the country’s performing arts. The show was accompanied by live music on traditional instruments such as the Marimba-like Roneat and included traditional as well as new Cambodian dance numbers. The play capsulated many values Cambodians cherish.

Besides the exotic beauty of the play and its bewildering sounds, the revealing part were the frequent invocation of “karma”, the law of cause and effect during the course of the play. “Karma brought the couple together; “Karma” causes their separation; may “Karma” bring them together again in the next life. Karma is omnipresent and believed to shape human existence and potential.

Plae Pakaa Cambodian Living Arts: Mak Therng's wife Pangkyia is abducted by a vicious prince. The commoner fights royalty to get his wife back. He wins justice but at a high cost. It's all considered Karma.

The importance of classical Indian thought on Cambodia is unquestionable and one of the reasons why we were able to connect to Khmer culture. Tibet too looks up to India as the spiritual abode and source of wisdom. Rgyadkar phagspa’i yul is a popular poetic Tibetan reference for India meaning “Land of the Perfect”. It didn’t take them an army to win Tibet and Cambodia over. India never had to colonise or force Tibetans and Cambodians to adopt its spiritual culture. Both chose Indian spiritual ideas by themselves, because the value was obvious. But the admiration for India excluded the social baggage of the caste system that pervaded Indian society. “Perfect” then is only valid with reference to the Buddha’s teaching. And after Buddhism declined in India it was Buddhist "copy cat" countries like Cambodia and Tibet who single-handedly ensured its continuous relevance.

India also left deep imprints on the language. Most of the time, Khmer to us was an amorphous mass of indefinable, nasalised sounds. Discerning where one word begins and the next starts was forlorn. Only here and there were we able to recognise a word but we quickly discovered that those words were always either Sanskrit or Pali. It would seem Khmer largely “copy-pasted” Indic terms and even educated Cambodians like our guide were so used to them that they no longer recognised them as borrowed terms. The Tibetans on the other hand put in a massive effort to translate the whole Buddhist canon and terminology from Sanskrit into Tibetan, inventing a complete lexicon and eventually creating a comprehensive repository of Buddhist thought. This gigantic project executed with single-minded devotion, skill and methodology was so successful that most Tibetans probably have the reverse problem of no longer recognising that these words and ideas actually came from India. In both the Cambodian and the Tibetan case the linguistic presence of Indian terms – in their original or in translation – has become self-understood in the native language.

As much as we enjoyed travelling through Cambodia, the country is not all sunshine and roses. Invaded on and off by the two larger powers in the country, Thailand and Vietnam, colonised by the French in the 19th century, occupied by the Japanese during World War ll, dragged into the Vietnam War and later suffering at the hands of the communist Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had its share of turmoil. We tried to shield the children as best as we could from this side of Cambodian history by skipping the visit to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which figure prominently on Cambodian sightseeing tours.

More as a footnote: There are Khampas in my dad’s Tibetan hometown today, who say they fought for China against Vietnam. I never knew how to historically contextualise this event until I learned more about Cambodian history. Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which was supported by China. In response China then attacked Vietnam to supposedly free Cambodia. I suspect that it must have been this Sino-Vietnamese War from 1978 to 1979 where Tibetan soldiers were fighting on the Chinese side. I have no clue how many participated and perished in this PLA operation.

The consequences of Cambodia’s violent past are still visible everywhere. There are many people who lost a limb due to a landmine and one can’t help but notice that there are hardly any older people around. An entire generation is missing. Considering the short lifespan of the Khmer Rouge, the number of regime-related deaths on a per capita basis is said to be among the highest in recorded world history. From 1975 to 1978 one in four Cambodians died, that is over a million people. Our young guide lost his father and our driver adopted orphaned children. Cambodian bookshops are full with gruesome testimonies of survivors.

Floating village along the Tonlé Sap River

There is also widespread poverty and minimal health provisions in the countryside as well as the so-called “floating village” that we visited along the Tonlé Sap River in the Mekong Delta. With tourists paying 40 USD per person for a three-day ticket to the Angkor Park and millions visiting every year, it makes one wonder where all the revenues from tourism go. Disapprovingly our guide grumbled that the money does not benefit Cambodians but flows to Vietnam. Whether that is true or not we cannot tell but it seems unclear where the income is reinvested. And this is a park on the UNESCO World Heritage list where one would expect that it is professionally managed.

These days the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is celebrating his 30th year in government. He came to power with support of Vietnam when they defeated the Khmer Rouge. But Hun Sen was a former Khmer Rouge himself before he defected to Vietnam. Although officially outlawed in 1994 there are many former Khmer Rouge leading undisturbed lives in the army and the government. Meanwhile the Cambodian opposition is trying to work for a less corrupt government, which would focus on improving health and basic education. But it seems they are intimated by arbitrary arrests and torture. Also land-grab on a grand scale to expand the infrastructure or to rent to local and international corporates, is said to scare many Cambodian farmers. The recent discovery of significant oil reserves in Cambodian waters in the Gulf of Thailand then is probably a mixed blessing. If used wisely these revenues would vastly improve education, health and create jobs. But if corruption and intransparency continue to dominate nothing much will happen to improve people’s livelihoods.

Before we went to Cambodia it was an alien, unrelated place. The things happening there were far removed and didn’t concern us. Our attitude was marked by indifference precisely as the Lama always points out: We categorise the world into those we like, those we dislike, and those we don’t care about because we don’t know them. But after we experienced Cambodia a little, it feels more familiar and closer. We now take a personal interest, even seeing many cultural, religious and historical parallels. And the difficult times Cambodians faced in their history puts into perspective the way we perceive our own Tibetan situation. We have begun to recognise ourselves in the other. There is a Khmer connection now.

Orkun Kampuchea!
Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet

Sunset over Crab Market, Kep Beach,
Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia

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