Oh My Buddha!

This is what my most recent tuk tuk driver said to me as I was bargaining. I got the price I wanted but also found out it was lower than I should have paid. Bit of a win(cheaper)/lose(I’m a jerk) there.

Anyway, that’s not what I’m writing about. Recently, Ruth and I have taken to watching BBC documentaries during our lunch break.
Ruth (British accent): “What do you want to watch? What theme. Something historical? Something culturally relevant…?”
Myself (Really American): “Is there one on meth? I’ve heard there are a lot of good documentaries on meth.”
Ruth: “………. How about one on Buddhism.”
Myself: “Ok yeah that would be good too.”

We ended up choosing one called “The Life of Buddha”. I had known vague bits about the Buddhist religion; probably the same things everyone knows. It’s peaceful. There is no “want” (??????) I knew the Buddha had different forms. I knew Monks practiced the teachings of the Buddha. I knew it was present in everyday life here in Cambodia. That’s about it. I didn’t know anything about the history of the religion. I’ll try and give you a quick recap of a 20 year journey.

Buddhism started with the birth of Siddartha Gautama, who came to be the Buddha. It has been adopted by many different cultures, has many different interpretations, and is seen as many things; a religion, a philosophy, a psychotherapy. What makes it so different is that what the Buddha discovered is scientifically true. All-encompassing, it is also a very accessible religion. It is often seen as a therapeutic way to deal with the everyday struggles of life.
The Buddha’s father was a chief, and therefore the Buddha lived a childhood of luxury. His father wanted Siddhartha to follow in his footsteps and become chief as well, so Siddartha was kept in the palace and was rarely allowed outside. When Siddhartha was allowed to partake in a festival at the age of 9, he noticed a plow cutting through a field. He then noticed a bird eating a worm as a result of the plow. If the farmer had not been plowing, the bird would not have gotten the worm. He realized everything is connected, and that all actions have consequences. Siddartha grew up, and was finally allowed to leave on his own. He went on four journeys and noticed things that had been kept from him his entire life. Among these were aging, sickness, death. He continued on, determined to find his own answers to life’s suffering.
Ultimately, Siddartha discovered the Middle Way. It is a sense of mindfulness that neither ignores the body, nor tries to muster it. It is an awareness of self; the goal being a state of wisdom and everlasting bliss called Enlightenment. He realized if we can remove desire we can remove dissatisfaction and suffering from our lives. This insight was the birth of Buddhism.
Cambodians practice a specific form of Buddhism called Theravada Buddhism. Theravada is said to use the oldest recordings of Buddhist texts as its core foundation, but has developed many more diverse traditions and practices over its long history of interactions with different cultures. It is ever changing.
I like the thought of that. A religion collecting and evolving; not in a way that tarnishes the tradition, but in a way that embraces all of the differences among people and cultures that follow its teachings. Learning this, I was distinctly reminded of the Cambodian lifestyle; the effortless calm and way of being that tends to not worry about the little things, but welcomes all, living at a pace that is neither rushed nor still. The Middle Way; it’s clear the Buddhist religion is engrained in the culture. Buddhism is the religion of Cambodia with 95% of the population practicing. It’s evident everywhere. From the small shrines outside each shop, home, and school, to the wonderful smiles and personalities of everyone I meet. The philosophy, outlook, and practice are always weaving and mingling- inextricable.
I thought exploring a Wat, or Buddhist Temple, would be an interesting thing to do post-documentary. So today I visited Wat Ounalom located near the Royal Palace of Cambodia. This Wat is the seat of Cambodia’s Mohanikay order, which is one of two sects of Buddhism, making it the most important wat of Phnom Penh and the center of Cambodian Buddhism. I chose to visit Wat Ounalom because it was severely damaged during the Khmer Rouge Regime. Statues were broken or thrown into the river as a demonstration that Buddhism was no longer a driving force in Cambodia. It has since been restored, and I like the idea that it, like the rest of the country, had made it through such a terrible time and was slowly rebuilding.

The wat was not what I expected at all. I pictured one, maybe two temples that I would pay to see. I walked in through the gate when I arrived and it was like entering a small village. The monastery was really rather large and I was able to go where ever I liked. In traditional Cambodian fashion, it was a very welcoming place to be. I visited a couple temples and then explored the living quarters. I learned that even when monks fail their schooling or leave the monastery, they are accepted back whenever they want, over and over again. I passed a group of monks eating at a restaurant there, and painfully refrained from taking a picture. I’m not sure if it’s old fashioned or even true, but I was cautioned against taking pictures of Monks because of their belief that photos steal the soul- something along those lines. I erred on the side of caution and just walked by smiling. They smiled in return. Thinking about it now I really should have asked one of them for more information about the place. Next time.

It was lovely seeing this part of the culture. I witness snapshots of it in everyday life, but seeing an actual place of worship felt like a necessary and respectful thing to do to further understand where I am, and the people I’m surrounded by. Cambodians are wildly accepting and kind. They have been nothing but friendly since I stepped off the plane. My experience at Wat Ounalom felt like seeing the roots from which the kindness and hospitality I’d experienced everywhere else had grown. Ironically it was entering the wat, which I saw as a literal separation of religion from culture complete with a high-fenced boundary, that helped me see how entwined the two really are.

On a trip to Kampot, our taxi driver pulled over at one point to give a small donation and say a prayer at a Buddhist shrine on Bokor Mountain. I remember thinking how much I agreed with that act. It showed such simple respect and appreciation for the world; respect and appreciation that, according to the Buddhist teachings, will come back around in a positive way. All of our actions have consequences. What a beautiful practice to live by, and what a beautiful outlook that has created an environment that I am very fortunate to be a part of during my stay in Phnom Penh.

Thanks for reading! Pictures are a collection from the orphanage and Wat Ounalom.

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