Bishop Michael Ingham has been in Russia and
Well, I’m finally in
Being the Tropics, darkness falls promptly at 6:00 pm, so it was quite an experience venturing out into the dusty town where there are few street lights, no road signs, open fires on the sidewalk on which local people cook, potholes galore, tuk-tuk drivers hailing you every moment “where you wanna go, sah?” and dark tin shed stores lit only by a meagre light bulb. My first impressions were of villages in
First to be killed were teachers and intellectuals, as well as any political opposition, and as a result there was hardly any leadership left in the country when the fighting stopped – only in 1998. Today over 40% of the population are children, and 60% are under 25 years old.
The temples of Angkor in Siem – a UNESCO World Heritage site – provide
This is the place the American movie star Angelina Jolie made the movie Tomb Raider and decided to become an ambassador for children for the UN, adopting a Cambodian child. There seems to be no resentment here towards that. Good karma for the child, my guide said.
It was also once the centre of the proud and powerful Khmer Empire, a kingdom encompassing what we now call
Angkor Wat is basically an archeological site in process of slow restoration by UNESCO, but it remains a major spiritual centre for millions of Buddhists. There is also a strong prayerfulness about the temple. It invites contemplation and devotion. Among the ruins one comes across small shrines to Buddha lovingly tended by gentle men and women who invite you to pray and meditate there. As I have done in many places of worship, Christian and other, I stopped to say prayers at each stage through the site, climbing slowly to the pinnacle at the very top of the temple.
The idea of pilgrimage is to undertake a physical journey with a spiritual purpose. It usually involves some hardship, or at least concentrated effort, and is centred in prayer and devotion with the aim of drawing the soul closer to God. Pilgrimage usually contains the notion of stages, or small destinations, as part of a greater plan of approach. One finally reaches a physical goal, but the real purpose is the spiritual destination of God.
Standing in the quiet space of Angkor Wat, at a high vantage point of peacefulness and calm, looking out over the countryside of a ravaged and brutalized nation, I found the presence of God. There is a universality to God’s compassion that seems nevertheless to distill in certain places and moments, and this is certainly one of them.
Buddhist monks rise in the darkness of the early morning to pray at the temples and shrines, and to receive gifts of alms and food from the people. The monastic life in Buddhism may be temporary or permanent, depending on the individual. At one time, every Cambodian male spent some of his life in a monastery, either a few months a year, or a few years at a time. Nowadays, things are changing, but it is still a common phenomenon.
The monastic life is rigorous. It is an immersion experience in self denial and abandonment of worldly things. Monks don a saffron robe, leave personal possessions behind, enter a community, or wat, and learn the hard lesson of suppressing all desire for self in favour of compassion for others and meditation upon truth. There is a regimen of prayer and chanting, reading and hard labour, throughout each day, and it begins every morning when monks go out into the streets to receive food for the day from the people.
Imagine, in modern
The whole country is populated with small household shrines, as well as grand public monuments, devoted to the worship of Buddha and his 8-fold path of spiritual enlightenment. Great public respect is shown to monks. It is common to see these little wayside shrines decorated with flowers, and with small items of food, as people show their devotion to their spiritual Master. It is a natural part of life for Cambodian people.
There is much to be learned here about simplicity and hard work. How faith and life are not separated but conjoined in a spiritual unity of hard realism and deep belief. It would be too easy for us Westerners to dismiss this as the product of poverty, or ignorance, or lack of sophistication in a largely rural nation. We, who are blinded by affluence, and excess, are the ones who believe ourselves to be poor. We are never satisfied with what we have. But here in Cambodia one can see small children frolicking in dirty rivers, parents doing backbreaking work to feed their children every day, the enormous machinery of poverty rousing itself every morning to try to stay alive another day, and all of it without complaint or bitterness, all of it accompanied by prayer, devotion, and the profound spiritual virtues of compassion and cheerfulness.
I have visited many
Of the dozens at temples in this remarkable area, some are dedicated to Buddha, some to the Hindu god Siva, and others to Vishnu or one of his many incarnations (Rama,
Perhaps, as I discovered in
Or to put that another way, when our particular civilization comes to an end, as all of them do in time, eclipsed by some new empire and worldly power, it will be important to keep alive the flame of our particular faith, not necessarily in grand buildings and monuments, but in the hearts and minds of faithful people, so that we will have something truly rich and lasting to bequeath to those who follow us down the centuries.
This is the gift and legacy of
If you click on Projects and choose New, you can read the background to “Loss of Innocence”, a special documentary that is screening on Thursday, Dec. 7th at 10 pm on CBC Newsworld's program "Correspondent." The founder of Ratanak, Brian McConaghy, is a forensic scientist working with the RCMP in Vancouver and he will be one of the 3 people featured in this documentary.