The Noble Eightfold Path.
In one of the most powerful scenes of The Killing Fields, a film about the Khmer Rouge dictatorship of Cambodia in the late 1970’s, the main character Dith Pran falls into a hidden pit as he is attempting to escape his captors. In the pit are thousands of decaying bodies of Cambodians who have been executed by the murderous regime, one of the hundreds of ‘killing field’ pits where over two million Cambodian bodies were discarded.
I was deeply moved by that film, and by another one called Swimming to Cambodia, which was actually a filmed monologue by Spalding Gray, an actor in The Killing Fields. Both movies speak to the brutality that often falls upon ordinary, innocent people as they become pawns to political and military forces over which they have no control.
In Swimming to Cambodia Spalding Gray speaks of Cambodia prior to 1965 (and the neighboring Vietnam War) as a “fantastic land of peaceful Buddhists…where 90% of the land was owned by the people; it was earth, it was dirt, but it was THEIRS, and it was good. And they knew how to have a good time. They knew how to have a good time getting born, a good time growing up, a good time going through puberty, a good time falling in love, a good time staying in love, a good time getting married, a good time staying married, a good time having children, a good time raising children, a good time growing old, a good time dying...”. But the poison of the war infected Cambodia when the US decided to bomb suspected havens for the North Vietnamese army just inside Cambodia for over five years, eventually giving rise to its own home-grown Cambodian ‘red-neck’ murderer named Pol Pot, leader of the communist Khmer Rouge. Spalding continues: “So five years of bombing, a diet of bark, bugs, lizards and leaves up in the Cambodian jungles, Pol Pot’s education in Paris environs in strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau, and other things that we will probably never know about in our lifetimes - including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America - set the Khmer Rouge up to commit the worst auto-homeo genocide in modern history.”
The gentle nature of the Cambodian people, and the true stories of Cambodia’s suffering drew me to visit this small nation as the last stop on my tour of Southeast Asia. In particular I decided to visit an ancient site of religious devotion and aspiration in this country: Angor Wat and its neighboring Buddhist/Hindu temples.
My knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism is not deep, but in my own spiritual quest that I have pursued since college, I have often sought to find the connections between those religious traditions and that of my own Christianity which I continue to explore. This Buddhist nation and its religious monuments give me the chance to ponder from a different perspective the right way to live, and the ultimate purpose of our lives.
For the last three (hot, humid) days, I was guided through 10 of the most significant temple ruins that have astounded and inspired millions of people since the 9th century. The Angkor Archeological Park, a World Heritage Site like the Great Wall of China, is over 400 square kilometers and contains the remnants of the millennium-old capitals of the old Khmer Empire. The Khmer people were and are the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia. In the park are dozens of Hindu and Buddhist temples, and they display the dominant role of religion, philosophy and spirituality in the lives of both ordinary and royal Cambodians over the last millennium. It is impossible to understand modern-day Cambodia and the character of its citizens without attempting to learn about this most important aspect of their lives. Angkor Wat is the largest and most well-known of the temple ruins, but it is not necessarily the most impressive. In fact, it was sometimes the smaller, less visited temples that had the greater effect on me.
Siem Reap is the nearby small city that functions as the home base for visitors to these fantastic architectural specimens, and it has grown enormously as the ruins have become a must-see visit in Southeast Asia. Their popularity is the result of a ‘rediscovery’ of the site after Pol Pot and company were finally driven out of power and the Kingdom of Cambodia was restored (around 1993). For many years the ruins were neglected, and the surrounding jungle did what nature always does—began to take back even mankind’s most impressive marks upon the earth. In the last 35 years, there has been much restoration of the ruins, but some of the natural invasions have been left alone for all to see. (The movie Tomb Raider was filmed at one of the temples overrun by the jungle.)
I took many photos of the ruins, but like the pictures so many people take of their visits to theGrand Canyon, it is nearly impossible to capture the astonishing structures that dominate your field of vision. And of course there is the annoyance of everyone taking photos in every direction at every moment, often without even really taking in the reality that sits in front of their faces. For that reason my tour guide (personal tour guides are very inexpensive here) brought me to the ruins at times when the big crowds of visitors were absent, which usually meant towards the end of the day. I wanted very much to have an experience with the ruins themselves and the ghosts that linger among them. I wanted to understand---as best as I could---the motivation and belief that underlay the sweat and tears expended by the builders of these edifices so long ago. And I wanted to know how all this related to the suffering brought on by Cambodians of more recent years.
It was a good move. It was less chaotic and stifling, and at times I had whole sections of the temples to myself (and my guide). I was lucky to have Sam Art as my guide. He revealed to me that he had studied for 8 years to become a Buddhist monk, although in the end he decided to forgo the celibate life and marry. He and his wife have a beautiful little baby daughter. Because of his need to make money, Sam Art had to leave them in his home town 6 hours away. He only gets to visit them twice a year. ( I learned from him how poor this nation is, but more about that later.)
Sam Art explained to me the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, including the Great Chain of Causation, which speaks about the interconnectedness of all things; The Three Signs of Being, including the role of suffering in our lives, the permanence of Change, and the illusion of the I ego; and The Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. And the idea that Charity, Compassion, Sympathy and Equality are all benchmarks of good human living. Within the temple ruins Sam Art showed me how each of these ideas was illustrated, and how they were practiced by those who called themselves followers of the Buddha.
I was fascinated to also learn of the life story of Buddha. I had some general knowledge of him, but I discovered more details, and there is an amazing parallel to the story of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order of which I am a member. I was reminded of a lecture I sponsored a few years ago in the residential college which I directed, in which one of our great Catholic scholars remarked that both Jesus and the Buddha taught many similar things, that the Beatitudes of Jesus are in great harmony with Buddha’s teaching and vice versa, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha ever set out to establish a religious structure after their deaths.
Sam Art and I had some very good discussions—about much more than the ruins. We talked about the difficulty of his life, especially the poverty that he has always known, and the separation it has caused in his own new family. We spoke about his dreams for the future---perhaps to have his own tour agency, or to establish a small store to sell food goods in his village. We also talked about what it meant to be a good man: to be truthful, compassionate, charitable, to live rightly. When I left him, I felt as though I had spent time with a brother, despite the enormous differences in our worlds, ages, and life work. I am sure that I will recall our conversations for many years to come. And I wish him well, one brother to another. I know that is how we are meant to be with each other everywhere.
In a nation that has known so much suffering, I believe there is much that can be learned about how one might live rightly. And perhaps the time will once again come when our Cambodian brothers and sisters will teach us "how to have a good time getting born, a good time growing up, a good time going through puberty, a good time falling in love, a good time staying in love, a good time getting married, a good time staying married, a good time having children, a good time raising children, a good time growing old, a good time dying...”.