Revisit to a Cambodian Temple

August 16, 2016  •  1 Comment

Late 2011
 
The non-abating monsoon. It is tiring. A week of watching the rains come down, escaping from one town to another. Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville to Koh Kong, chasing the sun in the most futile way, like constructing preposterous plans to re-enchant a lover who has long since forgotten you. Most injurious to the ego -- the sun was not going to come out, not if I chased it to the furthest corner of Cambodia. I wondered, not for the first time, not for the last, what in the world I was doing. Lice. A fever. Falling down a flight of stair, a head cold in the monsoon, to boot. If I drank, I would get drunk.
 
Yesterday I packed my backpack again and came to Koh Kong through the vastly rich cardamom mountains, playground for pepper plantations and gibbons, and got high with the idea of doing a jungle trek, even with my extremely sore bum (from falling down the flight of stairs!). Elephants. Apes and monkeys. Maybe even tigers. I didn't have any delusions that I would actually see them, but to walk through a swatch of forest where they might've once breathed. . . This was enough for me.
 
"Don't know," Paddy of Paddy's Bamboo Guesthouse said. "Seven days of raining, trails are muddy. Leeches. Not enough people to do a trek."
 
"Oh," I said. "Okay."
 
Last night Paddy asked me if I wanted to accompany his family and two other travelers to the temple in the morning. They were going to make offerings to the monks for their loved ones who had passed. We were in the midst of the 15 days of the year when those who've died can be freed. The story goes like this: someone dies. They are locked away by a spirit, and it is only in a small window of time -- just fifteen short days of each year -- that they can be freed to continue on. It is only the monks that can free them. By being offered things, of course.
 
This morning I waited for Paddy at 8:00 a.m., just like he said. At 9, he met me in the courtyard of the guesthouse and said, "We not going. The rain."
 
"Oh," I said. "Grump."
 
So Paddy and I went over to his pub and hung out with his family and the two other barangs: Margeaux from France, and an older man, over sixty, I'd say, whose name I didn't catch. I liked the man, he was weathered and the folds of his face whispered "story-teller". He was English but had lived the last thirty years in Australia, before packing it up and coming to Koh Kong for good to be with the woman he's been with the "last twenty years," he said: a Cambodian who looked about my age. He and I talked about Australia, about crocodiles in Kakadu, and disgruntled Darwinian youth, and the sharks of Adelaide.
 
Mid-way through the morning the rains finally abated, and Paddy asked me if I was ready to go to the temple.
 
Goes without saying.
 
Six of us piled into a tuk-tuk, Margeaux and I and the women of Paddy's family. Paddy drove, and the English Australian and another young man followed on motos. We, all of the women, balanced between ourselves offerings: pineapples cut into spires and bottles of water and pots of rice. Margeaux and I huddled together though Paddy's relatives gave us the spacious side of the tuk-tuk and the four of them crowded onto the narrow bench. This gave me comfort in one way and discomfort in another. As the well-tended child of hard-working immigrants who was raised Catholic, I am prone to bouts of guilt. This is why Margeaux and I huddled, I suppose. We wouldn't dare touch the six inches of room on either side of us while the others were so crowded. I only felt better when we convinced them to let us put the pots of rice there.
 
"I haven't been to the market.  Have you been?" Margeaux asked.
 
"Yes," I said. "They have food, cleaning supplies, clothing.  Though not this kind of clothing Westerners like to buy-- " I gestured to my flowing hippie pants "-- but just regular clothes."
 
"Yeah, I know," Margeaux said.
 
"Okay," I said, unsure of what else to say since she already knew. I never know what to say to people who already know everything you tell them.
 
"I love Cambodians," she started again. "Such beautiful people. But they are so short; I wish I could find a man who was more my height."
 
Margeaux was a glamorous Amazon. An actress.
 
"They are beautiful, always smiling," she continued. "I really love them. They are very kind."
 
This is a sentiment I have heard often from travelers here in Cambodia, one I myself have repeated. And it's true, there is something about Cambodians - their smiles, I think. In my three weeks in this country, perhaps only one Cambodian made eye contact with me without following up with a smile. This may sound like you've heard it before, a cliché, but if you think about it, you'll know - it is a very beautiful thing, to smile.
 
"I think it has something to do with the history," I said, sharing the thought that had come to me a few days ago, while I was loving the verdant landscape through a bus window, catching snapshots of peoples' lives, planting rice in soil that might've once held land mines. "Lights shine most brightly in the dark. There are so many NGO's in Phnom Penh, you know. For women. Children. Land mine victims. There is something extraordinary about a time of recovery, of replanting. Patience and faith and tenderness. I think it is because of these things -- the war, the genocide, the land mines -- that Cambodia has come to flourish this way. People see suffering, and they are driven to somehow make it right."
 
"Hmm," she said. "I think they are just like that. Kind."
 
I turned and looked at the landscape instead, not knowing, again, how to continue the conversation in a way that would interest me. So it turns out, as it always does, that I have a lot to learn, too.
 
We arrived at the temple, greeted by sounds of chanting monks and fragrant incense. Margeaux and I followed Paddy and his family to the front of the room with only two walls, the English Australian and his Cambodian wife behind us. Paddy handed us each five sticks of incense, already lit, and motioned for us to sit with him on the ground, legs tucked under our bodies, feet not facing the altar.
 
He kept his incense between his hands and dipped his head three times to the floor, each time touching his folded hands to the ground.
 
And I thought, Praying. This is where beauty is. Talking to that which rouses one's curiosity so desperately; fervid devotion to the miracle of Life itself.
 
I followed Paddy, dipping my head three times to the floor. I did it exactly as he had, remembering how when I prayed in Bangkok, someone said to me, "You pray like the Tibetan Buddhists do," referring to the way I touched my forehead, my mouth, and my heart before bringing my head to the floor.  
 
I brought my folded hands close to my heart and closed my eyes. What was there to say? One word, because I didn't have a whole lot of them right now. Make that two words.
 
Peace. Please.
 
When I was finished, Paddy gestured that I should take my incense to large pot at the back of the room, which was filled with dirt and already held numerous sticks of incense. People planting their prayers, and I added mine for this time of replanting. The bald nun next to pot smiled and motioned to the donation box, and I melted in that smile, imperfect by western standards yet made of gold, and understood the exchange. Then Paddy and I headed back to the front of the room, and this time, with his family and the English Australian and Margeaux, sat in front of the monks. Feet not facing them, of course.
 
And in exchange for the rice and the spired pineapples and damp bills crumpled in a dish in front of their feet, the monks prayed for us, and for our deceased loved ones who would soon be leaving wherever it was that they had been locked away. And I remember that five years ago, I would've been the girl who snickered at the patriarchy, and been frustrated at the division of class. Too blinded by my pride to even realize that there is no situation within which magic cannot be found.  
 
And while pride is a demon with whom I still struggle, he is much meeker than he once was. So today, while I do not believe these perched monks are any more connected than any of us laypeople sitting six inches below them, I instead, once more, folded my hands in front of my heart and closed my eyes.
 
Yes, I will sit right inside this prayer.
 
When the prayer was over, the English Australian tapped me on the shoulder.
 
"I like Buddhism, but I think it is getting too commercial. It makes me a bit uncomfortable." He looked genuinely concerned. "It's a bit like people are relying on it too much. Relying on it to do things for them."
 
"I think," I said, clearing my throat. "I think it's just playing a role, you know? These are the things we do. We tell stories, all of us, a big mottled collection of stories. And each story is worthwhile and unique. I have mine, you have yours. And the beautiful part comes when we share them. It is a chance not only to create, but to express."
 
He smiled.
 
"I like that," he said, "But I just feel that people are relying on it too much, Buddhism, I mean."
 
And in that moment the monks started praying again. But what I wanted to tell him, the English Aussie, was that yes, we rely. But if not on Buddhism, then it would be Christianity or Islam. Or Facebook. Or horror movies. Or ayahuasca. And if it wasn't that, if we were to relinquish everything and just sit in a cave, then it would be that on which we relied. The cave. The meditation. The solitude. Even the loneliness, even the pride.  
 
These are the ways we choose to tell our stories.
 
I followed Paddy again to another room. It was stocked with food, and former Buddhist nuns with white clothing and shaved head sat on the ground. They were putting the food onto plates.
 
"Paddy," I whispered. "Is it okay if I don't eat? I had breakfast just before we left."
 
He smiled.
 
"Not for you. It for the monks to eat. You see there?" And he pointed to a long card table which held six or seven huge bowls of rice. "You put rice in every bowl. And you say a prayer for someone in your family who died."
 
And as I approached the table with the bowls, one person came to my head. One of the handful of souls that I've known who have traversed the line from body to no-body. From one thing to every thing. One person.
 
I scooped a spoonful of rice, a small one, so I would have enough to put into each bowl.
 
Kristal.
 
And again.
 
Kristal.
 
And again.
 
Kristal. Kristal. Kristal.
 
And when I got to the last bowl, I scooped my last spoonful of rice, just as one of Paddy's sisters said quietly, though emphatically, "No!"
 
Turns out I had missed the largest bowl, for which I was supposed to save the largest scoop of rice. But she smiled, and so did I, relieved that my unintentional faux pas didn't insult anyone, and that my intention was enough.
 
And we sat in front of the monks again, and I could see Kristal on a flower, a lotus flower, pink like a fiery sky. I kept her in the center of a flower in my hand, and held her up to the soothing song that was the prayer of the monks. And she smiled, in the way that she did, from that infinite source of generosity to which she had access. She told me that it was okay, that there was enough room for everyone on that flower.
 
And so I put them all there with her, Babcia and Dziadzius and Dziadzius, Mike and Simone and chimpanzee Dorothy and Molly, Tommy's dog who died that summer, and my uncles who died, and Troy Davis, even though I didn't know him. And in the center of them all, she sat in the center, her blue eyes shining, and smiling. Even her eyes were smiling.
 
I will sit inside that prayer.

Comments

Traci(non-registered)
Nice story. Left me in tears. It reminds me of when my family loaded up Kristal's ashes and took off in an airplane to distribute them over the mountain range that she requested. I was waiting at my great-grandmas old country store that long since had "new" owners, essentially waiting for my uncle to cone driving in so we all vould drive through the pass together. Just then i saw the airplane fly up the canyon. I knew it was time to get going. My uncle came shortly after and we all headed through the canyon in a mske shift caravan. The rest of our huge family was nowhere to be found. Not one vehicle. I looked up in the sky and there was also no longer an airplane in sight. "I missed it!, the spreading of the ashes from the airplane window". I was so sad,when i heard my sisters voice speak to me,"Its ok Traci,i wasnt there either". I felt a sense of comforting knowing i hadnt missed out,that she was with me there in the now, without boundries.

I wanted to share that because she spoke in that way to me too.

Xox hugs Traci Moon
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