This blog post has been bubbling away in my head and heart for a while. I think it’s now percolated enough to pour out but I’m not 100% sure, so apologise in advance if it is garbled in nature.
Many of you will know I have a fairly strong interest in spirituality, meditation and tuning in to my own and others energy as a source of health and wellbeing. Borne in part due to an almost constant struggle with my mental health throughout my adult life, but truly becoming a fundamental part of who I am following on from my experience last year at F*ck It in Urbino, Italy. During that time I attuned to myself, my energy, feelings and emotions that I have previously never experienced and for the first time in my life started to understand people’s belief in God or as I prefer to think of it – a higher power.
Sometimes all of this hippy, dippy sh*t scares the bejesus out of me, but mostly it helps me to just be in a world full of just do which can only be a good thing.
Around 94% of the Cambodian population are Buddhist and before arriving here I relished the opportunity to live in a community where my burgeoning beliefs could be nourished and nurtured on a daily basis.
Since being here though, things have not quite transpired that way and I have found myself questioning the beliefs and associated behaviours of some of the Buddhists of my adopted homeland.
A few weeks back now I was honoured to be invited to attend the Annual Asian Economic Community International Buddhist Conference, hosted by the Cambodian Non-Profit Organisation Buddhism for Education of Cambodia (BEC). This organisation is doing great work to spread moral values and social welfare within schools, prisons and vulnerable communities in Battambang Provinc.
Over 900 people attended the event, mainly from Cambodia but with representatives from all of the ASEAN nations as well as a spattering of us representing the rest of the world. A challenging and thought provoking programme had been developed for the day with prominent academics, Buddhist monks, NGO representatives and consultants invited to speak. The assembled audience were dressed in their finery and showed immense reverence as the day started with the procession of the venerable monk to his seat on the stage. Attention was paid to the opening speeches (they were long and there were a lot of them so fair play there) and then we got down to the programme proper.
What struck me at this point was a large proportion of the audience’s seeming inability to engage with the Buddhist concepts being discussed. Most notably for me (probably because it was delivered in unaccented English that made it easier to understand) was an exercise in the practice of Metta facilitated by an American coach currently living and working in Sri Lanka. For me this was an interesting challenge, provoking us into being with ourselves in the presence of others and noticing how we felt but for those around my immediate circle it seemed to be an opportunity to see and be seen, to take selfies and perhaps most importantly to be photographed with the friends and acquaintances of the presenter of which I was deemed to be one. Not only did I find this to be rude to Sandy, the presenter, who was trying valiantly to hold the attention of her distracted audience but also strangely disconcerting that a group of practicing Buddhists were seemingly so uninterested in the practice of loving kindness.
The same was true of audience behaviour throughout all of the speaker slots and I left the day feeling torn – on one hand, glad of the experience and happy to be taking away new knowledge and experience of Buddhism, but on the other confused and frustrated by the selfish, quite rude behaviours I witnessed.
I sat with those feelings, talking them through briefly with friends and family but not really drawing too many conclusions.
Fast forward to the weekend just gone and two more experiences have brought me to sharing the above in the writing of this blog.
Firstly, Saturday. A group of us arranged to visit Wat Phnom, one of the city’s tourist attractions – a working temple.
On arrival we climbed the steps, wandered around for a while and then settled to watch a ritual blessing taking place in one of the side temples. The blessing was being carried out by a rather portly man, and whilst we couldn’t understand what he was saying, his facial expressions and body language all pointed to a lack of true engagement in what he was doing and a sense of delivery of conveyor belt blessings – move along please your time is up.
At the end of his display of paper wafting, rice throwing and paper burning antics the assembled group presented offerings to the 3 stone tigers they were stood in front of. And here’s where it gets really odd – the offerings included stuffing big slabs of raw meat (pork one would presume as Cambodia truly is the land of pork with everything) into the mouths of the animals. This seemed to me both wasteful and disrespectful – meat slaughtered purely for the purposes of eating being offered up to the gods in a Buddhist temple!?
my musings sparked a conversation with a colleague I was with in which she shared with me stories around the lack of understanding of the teachings of Buddha she has experienced amongst communities she has spent time with whilst in Cambodia.
This, along with my earlier experience lead me to believe that, whilst the large proportion of the population practice Buddhism there is very little understanding of the principles underpinning the religion, with the focus being on taking part in the ritual and ceremony of the organised religion.
Ok, fair enough, there’s a lack of education and understanding – this is starting to make more sense to my fuddled brain.
And then Sunday happened and all that was starting to make sense collapsed in a heap.
I’ve been to the temple to meditate a couple of times since I’ve arrived. I enjoy sitting in the the dappled light and soft breeze of the halls basking in the solitude within.
Yesterday, however, I decided (with Totie) to attend an organised meditation at Wat Langka in the city.
On arrival, we approached the sign outside the temple which advised us of the times of the English meditations and how we should behave whilst in the hall: shoes off, phones off, shoulders and knees covered.
Ticking all of the boxes we headed up to the hall around 15 minutes before the appointed time to find a number of foreigners already in situ. We grabbed a mat and a cushion and sat down to wait. I think 8.30am came but nothing happened and so I thought F*ck it (I know it’s not a very zen think to think but hey I’m only human) and started my own meditation. After some time, a barely audible voice muttered something about first time, meditation, mutter, mutter and then we were back in silence.
My meditation (of sorts – I might share that one separately later) continued until I was rudely interrupted by a phone ringing behind me. The spell broken, I started to fidget and, with a head bob to gauge Totie’s buy in, left the hall.
We pondered the question as to why the meditation had been badged as English seeing as it hadn’t in anyway been guided thus rendering language specification of no consequence but accepting that this allowed the temple to maintain a rhythm and routine whilst welcoming those from outside.
We noticed 2 women leaving shortly after us and approaching an elderly monk outside the hall. He appeared to be showing them some books on meditation and so, once they had moved away I approached them to ask what had transpired.
And this is where my brain explodes just a little bit. The monk had apparently told these two young women that they had missed their chance to find out more about the practice as they should have come to him when he asked in the hall and now was too late. What the actual ****!?!!?!?!?!??! How is that displaying the Buddhist qualities of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity, and sympathetic joy.
I accept that there may have been an element of lost in translation in this transaction, the monk was Cambodian, the women were French and I’m English but all in all this experience has left a bit of a yukky taste in my mouth and a sadness in my heart. I will try hard not to judge the people in all of these experiences too harshly – things are what they are and these people are in their own process of discovery and being, just like me.
However, I don’t think I’ll visit Wat Langka for meditation practice in a hurry – I’ll stick to meditating in the warmth and solitude of my little terrace amid the rooftops of suburban Phnom Penh – a place where questions are welcome at any time of the day or night and it’s ok to just be.