“When critically ill, you sacrifice an elephant with your prayer. When better, you offer a chicken egg.” (i.e. Do not be pious only when in crisis.) – Khmer proverb [Source]
Although striking smiles from sheepish young monks no longer make freeze and fidget in my tracks, their living quarters still make me feel small and fall silent. Every one of Cambodia’s more than 3,000 pagodas has its own personality but they share many common architectural themes: gold-scaled eaves embellished with giants and naga, reservoirs choked with lotus blossoms, masterful paintings of Buddha’s life-tale from floor to ceiling, life-sized statues of beasts, heroes, and villains from Buddhist parables. The ornate arched-entryway of any pagoda can give one pause. This is a hallowed place of worship and reflection, the archways once whispered to me, so cover your sinful shoulders and prepare your remorse. This was all projection from a Bible Belt survivor, of course, done before I experienced the many places a pagoda can be.
Cambodia geographically systematizes itself beginning at the provincial level, divides further into districts within each province, then communes which contain roughly 5 to 20 villages. Most villages will have their own wat (“pagoda”) for which local donations are gathered year-round for upkeep and maintenance, i.e. keeping the statues freshly painted and water out of the drum closet. Wat grounds are often paved like giant courtyards with technicolor statues amid manicured greenery. Although walled off, the gates are left open all day every day. My fortune is such that the most objectively illustrious wat in all of Cambodia happens to be that of our village.
While it hosts a range of events, the wat is first and foremost a community gathering place for holidays and worship. In Cambodia these are mostly festivals of the Buddhist calendar but there are also national holidays and some Chinese festivals, as is the case in my village. For most of these holidays there are mass prayers and blessings officiated by the local monks who reside in living quarters on the pagoda grounds. Such homage is hardly limited to holiday fanfare, however. Thrice per month on the days of offering a member of each family – usually grandma or a younger sibling looking to garner favor with mom and dad – will deliver rafters of rice and other food to the monks in exchange for a routine blessing.
In most villages the primary, secondary, and high schools are situated near to if not adjoining the local wat. In the case of my pa’s primary school we lack sufficient classrooms for our hordes of kids, so three of the classes have spilled over into some of the collective spaces at our wat. Exit the library at pa’s school, hang a left, traipse between the morning glory plots and you can hop over a half-wall near the fifth grade’s wat classroom. Albeit a completely illegal solution to our lack of classroom space, pa assures that the kids would be the last to snitch about the arrangement. The well-kept wat grounds make for recesses comparatively safer and cleaner than the aged classrooms and the yet-to-be cremated trash heaps of their peers. Whenever there are larger events or holidays going on, Pa takes care to arrange smaller, parallel activities just for the students which can be used as opportunities to teach them specifics about the traditions and beliefs surrounding the festival. Any attempt to explain a separation of church and state to the boys lounging with their monk friends or girls hiding-and-seeking among the statues would likely be met with pity.
Beyond conventional worship and school hours, the wat is a free space in the way we think of public parks back in the states. The relative security and collective respect for the space makes it one of the few places I’ve ever happened upon Khmer friends enjoying some solitary time. Its curated but harmonious with the adjacent landscape and welcomes you however you arrive. This more relaxed demeanor, devoid of any religious pressures or dress code, is the space in which I learned to exhale at the wat. Every afternoon wat-walk provides some surprises. Greatest hits include roving bike gangs intent on tickling passers-by, music lessons with traditional Khmer instruments, and water fights in the ponds – all interpretations of worship by way of devotion to the moment. Also, at any one time at every wat in the country, there is always at least one selfie being taken while Ed Sheeren’s “Shape of You” blares.
The lenient atmosphere extends into the night hours for certain events – but a mood-shift toward the mischievous is evident. When there are wat activities beyond the dinner hour I’ve come to expect bass to thrum through the house from the wat’s loud speakers, carnival games and inflatable castles, foreign wares of travelling salesmen and women, and even wild dance parties in roped off arenas everyone refers to as the klub. If the pleasant smile on Buddha’s likeness that does not falter in the strobe lights is any indication, he approves.
Each of these moods are fun in turn, but the spectacle of traditional gatherings is hard to rival. By insistent grandmothers I’ve been made privy to two exemplary demonstrations of piety, both off-the-calendar.
Bon Camrouen Preah Juun: The Festival of God’s Progression
“Let your parents eat while their throat is still vertical.” – Khmer proverb
When a family wants to pay respect and ease the aged minds of their matriarch and patriarch before they shuffle off this mortal coil, the family hosts a Festival of the God’s Progression. This bon (“festival”) serves as an attestation of gratitude to the grandparents’ virtues and achievements during life and intends to counterbalance the perennial consecration their children will enact long after their deaths. When my host-mak and pa held this festival for mak’s venerable Khmer mother and Chinese father, it began at grandma’s home with a ceremonial blessing performed by their multitude of grandchildren. After hundreds of guests were served rice porridge and made donations (mak was a wreck that night) everyone retired for the next morning’s undertaking. Pa, my brothers, and cousins loaded into my aunt’s truck as escorts for a fresh new statue of the Buddha. Our monks led the god’s progression from grandma’s house to the wat with a parade of supportive grandmothers in tow. Once at the pagoda we circled the main gathering house three times before assembling and blessing the Buddha in his permanent resting spot. He still resides by the cathedral and bears my family’s name, for posterity.
Bon Vosaa: Festival of the Rainy Season
As the rains move in, so begin the muddy months. Some time back, the King decreed it too trying for monks to venture out for alms every single day in the mud. Cambodians now mark the beginning of rainy season by visiting their local wats to ensure the monks have adequate supplies and storable foods for the coming months should foot-travel through the village become too filthy. Each wat has an assigned day and the schedule seems to be known only by the grandmothers. The yaays (“grannies”) coordinate transportation amongst themselves as they prepare their sturdy baskets full of fresh cooked and non-perishable foods. At the wat everyone unpacks their food and goods into attractive dishes for the monks who eventually file in and lead a group blessing for the gathering. An emcee announces all of the individual monetary donations by name as the monks eat on a small elevated ledge. Once the monks have had their fill, the storable goods are ferreted away by the elderly women who manage the wat and the rest of us dig into the leftovers of fresh food. It’s always the best meal I’ve had in ages.
Grampa, I’ve always ironically counted it among my blessings that we were never a church-going family. During childhood “church” was synonymous with torture, a place to which I was shanghaied under the auspices of sleepovers at the homes of my devout childhood (so-called) friends. “Worship” meant repentance, “religion” was the practice of being made to feel shameful and filthy. It is something of a personal question in America, to ask what Gods a person holds and from where they draw their peace. Perhaps that’s why I’ve yet to ask you. A year in close proximity to a strong collective faith has made me consider the ways in which the freedom to adopt our own beliefs, however unique and empowering, can isolate. To close I’ll offer a verse from my Takeo province-mate and poet-extraordinaire, Professah Jenny Pisani, scribbled one night under her bug net. Love you all the time,