Bishop Michael Ingham has been in Russia and Cambodia during his sabbatical this fall. He will be back to the diocese for Advent. A letter from Russia has appeared on the website; this is his account of Cambodia. (The pictures are by the Bishop.)
Well, I’m finally in Cambodia, one of the main goals of my sabbatical. Having read so much about it, studied and researched the place, I was still surprised at the fairly harsh reality of life for people here. It’s more Africa than Asia, economically speaking. As the plane from Bangkok dropped down over the town of Siem Reap, all I could see were tin shack homes sheltering in trees and thin ribbons of motorcycles moving slowly along red dirt roads. There was no city to speak of.
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 Ghana I have visited.
Cambodia has had a desperate and terrible recent history. It got caught up involuntarily in the American War against Vietnam (next door) when Viet Cong guerrillas moved through their borders to hide from US assaults. The Communist infiltration eventually produced Pol Pot, one of the worst criminals in world history, who murdered over two million Cambodians (out of a population of six million) and drove the rest into abject misery.
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 Cambodia’s major source of foreign income. Like all tourist developments, it’s a mixed blessing to the country itself. It brings jobs and foreign currency (the bus boys and waitresses in this hotel are all from villages around here, happy to be working) but also corruption and excessive profits by a few.
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 Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. From the 9th to the 15th centuries it was ruled by Hindu and later Buddhist kings who united the territory between India and China, and fused their religions together too. Indochina, as the French later called it, was the home of a proud and powerful civilization. One of its world legacies today is the network of magnificent temples built by the kings to honour their own divinity. The centrepiece is the majestic temple of Angkor Wat.
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.
Cambodia is very poor. The gross national income per capita, according to the World Bank, is $320 per year. What this means, in human terms, is a low life expectancy and a lifetime of hardship. In the midst of this, they are a religious and deeply spiritual people.
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 Canada, a vocational Christian life in which one left one’s job, home and family, for several months a year, shaved the head, and relied totally for food and sustenance on the gifts of strangers in the early morning darkness. This is the monastic life here. Buddhist monks are sustained by the generosity and faith of a desperately poor people.
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 Third World countries over the years, and always I ask myself, who is rich and who is poor? Does my life – with all its comforts, privileges, investment plans and pension schemes – make me as happy as these people I see living with almost nothing? I do not wish to romanticize poverty – that would be a great betrayal – but merely to ask whether wealth is in the end a material or a spiritual matter. Does not our own spiritual Master ask, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and to lose their soul? All religions, in their unique and particular ways, teach the necessity of the gradual relinquishment of illusory things, the abandonment of false attachments to that which cannot save the soul or bring genuine happiness.
Cambodia is a place where different religions have collided and feuded – mostly unknown to us in the West – and where they have also achieved a kind of spiritual synthesis. Hinduism spread here from India, Buddhism arriving afterwards, and even Islam from the Cham Kingdom in what was later called Vietnam. Christianity came with colonialism but, as in most parts of Asia, remains numerically small even after a century and more. The temples of Angkor are a testimony both to the depth of religious devotion throughout the ages, and to the adaptability of religions to each other as changing times made necessary the accommodation of beliefs to human needs.
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, Krishna, etc.) The predominant Hindu religion gave way to Buddhism in the 14th century, largely though the decision of a king, but in practice they have adapted to each other in practical terms despite clear differences in teaching (Hinduism is polytheistic, for example, where Buddhism holds no belief in a supernatural divinity). Whatever their faith, people get along.
Perhaps, as I discovered in Russia in quite a different context, human hardship makes theological differences a matter of lesser importance. There are some lessons to be learned here by us in the affluent West, where religion is in decline, and where we have a tendency to react to this situation with theological fragmentation and internal dispute. Maybe the long term hope for Christianity, in the northern hemisphere at least, is the eventual collapse of our Western economic empires.
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 Angkor. It has survived the turmoil of human savagery and indifference. It stands today a testimony to the enduring power of faith and spiritual commitment, and it calls out to people of all faiths to do the same in their own unique way for this generation and the generations to come.
+ Bishop Michael
NOTE: Bishop Michael’s trip to Cambodia may have you thinking about the country. The Outreach Committee at St Clement’s, North Vancouver, supports an organization working in Cambodia, The Ratanak Foundation (www.ratanak.ca
). ("Ratanak" is the Khymer word for precious stone or gem, and was the name of a young girl who inspired the creation of the foundation.)
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.