Of Bonn and Kamm

(This is a piece I’ve just written as part my current and ongoing project, a study of Cambodian religion and belief. It deals with bonn and kamm, which form part of a nexus of values which govern much of Cambodian life. They’re based in Buddhism, but you won’t find them discussed in any textbook on Buddhism. Nor so far as I know is there any book on the market that explains these things for the interested layman)

Afternoon rush-hour at Independence Monument. (From the blog Living in Asia - link in the blog-list to the right)

Afternoon rush-hour at Independence Monument. (From the blog Living in Asia – link in the blog-list to the right)

(which is why I’m writing it).

 Bonn means merit. It is not, however, merit as the West understands it. It is specifically Buddhist merit, the sort acquired through giving food to monks every day, through building new buildings at the local monastery, and other acts demonstrating devotion to the Teaching.

Bonn is acquired in this life but also inherited from past ones. The bonn of past lives accumulates, and accumulated bonn leads to a meritorious incarnation with status, wealth and power. Bonn is like a credit balance in the spiritual bank: people who possess it can escape the consequences of actions that might logically land them in jail.

Kamm should mean karma, the inherent result, good or bad, of actions. It does in the textbooks, but not in real life, not in Cambodia. In Cambodia kamm means bad luck. Not bad luck in the sense of unfortunate events, but bad luck as a very real, if impalpable, store of misfortune that accumulates in the individual so that he attracts bad events the way a magnet attracts nails.

The following story is about kamm and bonn and everyday Cambodian life.

On the afternoon of Friday 3, March 2013, a young female medical student hit a motorbike near the Independence Monument traffic circle in Phnom Penh. No doubt panicking, she sped off down Norodom Boulevard, with the police in pursuit. At the Ministry of the Interior she lost control of the vehicle, mowed down nine motorbikes and four bicycles, and crashed into the wall. Three young children were killed on the spot and another eleven people seriously injured. The driver was taken inside the Ministry building to save her from the enraged crowd.

Three months later, on 12 June, Keam Piseth Narita was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “driving causing death and serious injury.” The judge, noting that Miss Keam had been taking medication at the time and that this had made her drowsy behind the wheel, suspended the remainder of her sentence but issued a fine of six million riel ($1,500), which would go to the State.

Keam Piseth Narita at her sentencing  (Phnom Penh Post)

Keam Piseth Narita at her sentencing
(Phnom Penh Post)

Her father, the deputy director of Kandal Provincial Hospital, paid compensation to all the families of the victims, all of whom withdrew their complaints. (See this illuminating article from the PPPost relating to events of the Monday following the accident). According to one informed source the compensation amounted to $20,000 – a sizable amount even for the director of a hospital.

Piseth Narita served just one month for each life taken. Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told the Phnom Penh Post that he felt the judge was far too lenient. And it was true that the compensation paid to the families could not bring the dead children back. But neither could sending Piseth Narita to jail for three years. Indeed, jail would have served no purpose other than revenge.

Yeng Virak (no relation – the first is Mr Ou and the second is Mr Yeng, and they share the same personal name, Virak), executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, took a contrary view, pointed out that Piseth Narita, who had not intended to kill anyone, had been given the maximum possible sentence for her crime. Indeed, he said, the fact that the driver was tried and sentenced at all marked a major improvement. “To me, it’s quite, quite fair. If she commits the same thing in the future, she should be severely sentenced.”

Such arguments belong to the realm of law and justice. On the spiritual plane, Piseth Narita’s life had filled with kamm. Kamm allowed the terrible events to happen. Had Piseth Narita been a young woman of no social position she might well have gone to jail, but she was not. Her position in society was proof of that. Piseth said, and I believe her, that she deeply regretted what had happened and wished to complete her medical training so that she could help Cambodia’s poor and unfortunate. It was fortunate that she and her father possessed an ample store of bonn to overcome her kamm.

Scam in Phnom Penh

SCAMMEDWhen I started this post the almost-first thing I looked for was an illustration. I typed Filipino Blackjack Scam into google, hit Images, and look what came up: Bren On The Road (never heard of him till now, but Hi Bren!) Bren posted this story on his blog on 7 July, with a lovely pic that I’m stealing. I’ll leave him a message requesting permission.

Anyway, Bren says that he was almost scammed by Filipino con artists on or around 7 July. First day in PP and he’s walking aimlessly near Riverside when two middle-aged Asian ladies hail him and start a conversation. (WARNING SIGN 1: THEY APPROACHED HIM FOR NO REASON).

Well actually they did give a reason: they asked him where the Royal Palace was. Excuses excuses. He said he didn’t know. “Oh, you not from round here?” (WARNING 2: THEY WANT TO KNOW IF HE’S A LONG-TERM EXPAT OR A ROOKIE TOURIST).

He says no and they ask him where he’s from. New Zealand he says. The eyes light up. “You know Aukland? My sister/daughter/ you name it is going there!” (Yep, that’s warning sign 3).

“I can’t believe we met someone from Aukland/Manchester/Ulaan Bator! What a coincidence.” (If he’d said he was from Vladivostok…) “My sister/daughter/pet poodle would love to talk to you, do you think you could come and see  her for a minute? It’s not far.”

Bren escaped. From what exactly, he never knew exactly (he wriggled off the hook before they could pull him up, gut him, fry him, and serve him with a light Chablis). If you want to find out, this rather older post by LTO, and the comments. Basically it involves rigged gambling sessions with the threat of violence.

But the real point is, these Filipino scammers (and they are always Filipino) are thick on the ground in Phnom Penh at the moment. I’ve met two ladies in the last two weeks. The first one lost interest when I said I live in PP. The second time I had my camera and offered to take her photo. Never have I had such a quick and negative reaction to the idea of a portrait. “I warn you, if you take my picture it’ll be expensive!” And she glances at a bench where what might be a couple of her buddies are sitting.

These guys can be dangerous – see this very good article from Travelfish. Don’t go anywhere with them, just walk away. Be rude if you must – your politeness is what they use to reel you in.

Untrodden Fields etc.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 12.17.30 PMLasciviousness, gambling, pederasty, and sodomy, are innate in the race; having definitely stated this fact, let us pass on to another subject.

 My word yes indeed.

The above concerns the citizens of Vietnam, esp. Saigon, and we now pass on to Cambodia.

Our guide stayed, he tells us, several months in Cambodia in the year 1866. At the time the king, Norodom, was busy trying to chase down and kill his brother, who felt he’d make a better king. The resulting mayhem restricted our author’s ability to get around the country, but nevertheless he fitted an awful lot of observations into a brief period. So many, in fact, that he has to limit his scope: “I shall deal very briefly with all those manners, customs and habits which do not directly concern sexual intercourse.” One chapter on manners, customs and habits, then one on sex.

First up is a description of Cambodian genitalia, of both sexes and all ages. It may be very brief but it tells me more than I ever wanted to know. But the po-faced seriousness is compelling: “The clitoris I found, in some cases, fairly well developed, and also the lesser lips, but generally speaking the dimensions of these two parts are normal.” Normal?

Then on to other matters. “The mandarins are much more numerous than is needed… They are insatiable, and ruin, or impoverish by their exactions, the people…” Free men “have liberty and nothing else.” They have hardly any property, and no redress against the mandarins. “Men of the lower class are thus obliged to chose a patron amongst the mandarins of Phnom Penh.” There is also a class of hereditary slaves, some of them tribal people hunted or purchased for this purpose, or debtors who have failed to repay their debts.

"Cambodian man" - John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer  who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

“Cambodian man” – John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

Unmarried girls wear their hair long, but cut it short on marriage, giving them “a harsh, unfeminine appearance.” The men are “mild-tempered, indolent, and very fond of amusement”; they fly kites, play ball games, and bet on cricket-fights. They are brave and fearless of death, but fight modern rifles with spears and lack leadership. They hunt elephant, rhinoceros and wild bull, all of which are very numerous.

The religion is Buddhism, but “disfigured by numerous superstitions,” notably a belief in ancestral spirits. Buddhism is by nature a noble and philosophical religion, but has been much debased, and the paintings in Cambodian temples “are often of a licentious and libidinous character.”

The king has a white elephant. When the country was under Siamese vassalage he was obliged to send all such animals found in his kingdom to the King of Siam, but since becoming a French vassal he’s allowed to keep them. (This is one of the last white elephants recorded in Cambodia, although there’s a story that Sihanouk sent one to the President of the United States – this would have been in the 1950s, if true).

Human sacrifice was widely practiced until recently, but is now restricted to condemned criminals, who are executed “under the protecting tree of the province” as a sacrifice “to the tutelary genii” (the local neak ta?) There are 21 prescribed methods of execution, such as burning alive, being thrown to wild animals, etc.

To leave a young girl alone with a young man is like entrusting an elephant with the care of a plantation of sugar-cane

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

King Norodom has eleven wives and unlimited concubines. “In appearance he is dried-up…” Khmer girls are chaste and modest and do not allow themselves to be seen in public by strangers; illegitimacy and prostitution are almost unknown. Copulation is undertaken in the missionary position. “Pederasty has not, in Cambodia, the place of honour it finds in Cochin-China,” and the Frenchman visiting Cambodia must therefore take a native mistress. (Ok, so I’ve twisted that a little for the sake of humour, but see page 198).

And it’s all free on-line. Untrodden Fields of Anthropology, by a French Army Surgeon (2 Volumes, of which this is Volume 1), privately re-issued by the American Anthropological Society. The original limited edition of 500 copies (i.e., the AAS’s translation) was an unexpected best-seller. It was then re-issued with a rather defensive Introduction in which the anonymous author is defended against the charge of indecency on the grounds that he was a student of the Sixth Sense:

I believe in the existence of a Sixth Sense, the genital sense, the existence of which he (Dr. Moreau of Tours) has psychologically proved … It is the psychological and medical study of this sense that I had in view in compiling this work…

Yes indeed again – today we’d call it the sex drive, and it drives 90% of our waking hours. Although as I get older I find that eating comes to compete quite strongly.

A final word of acknowledgement to Shizzle, whoever he or she may be, who made a post on Khmer440 that alerted me to the existence of this book. As one of the comments on K440 says, it’s pure gold.






Siddhartha Superstar (The 5th Coming of Buddha)

e93da0db-f7c0-4cc8-813e-fcdc7e7479c2The Ministry of Cults and Religion has finally asked the Fifth Incarnation of Buddha to explain himself (see the Cambodia Daily).

To explain the background: the Buddha we know, Siddhartha Gautama, was the fourth; he’s supposed to be followed by a fifth incarnation, the Maitreya Buddha. (I have no doubt that indignant Buddhists will be writing in to tell me I’ve got it all wrong, but that’s close enough for a two-line statement). And up in Kompong Thom there’s a man who claims to be that final Buddha – that’s him in the photo. The Maitreya Buddha is supposed to be the final incarnation, his coming marking the end of time – though perhaps “end of time” is putting it a bit abruptly, since the world will last another 80,000 years after him. So don’t panic.

Here’s an article about Maitreya Buddha, and I owe thanks for Khmer440 for providing the link. Khmer440 is not for the faint-hearted – you’ve been warned! – but it does provide a list of what the police seized when they raided the Buddha of the Future’s HQ:

180 photos (assorted sizes)
64 glass framed photos
787 CDs
175 red cloth talismans
410 card talismans
110 million dollar bills

All of the above were for sale to believers. The million dollar bills carried a picture of the new Buddha in the place you’d find Ben Franklin. His name is Thean Vuthy.

So the million dollar bills weren’t worthless.

PreahVihearThean Vuthy (temple above) has been a controversial figure for quite a while. Here’s a well-produced video, complaining about him. It’s in Khmer, but read the comments.

But Thean Vuthy offers his followers exactly what American evangelical preachers offer theirs – personal salvation in a time of tribulation, plus showmanship and very big statues. The statues are quite mind-boggling: he started with one 21 meters tall, then one 33 meters, and is now working on or planning statues of 108 and 210 meters.

Thean Vuthy’s fame has spread as far as Thailand, and it seems the Thai authorities have issued a warning. It also seems that from being a charismatic preacher he’s now elevated himself to the status of a god. Possibly these two things combined prompted the raid on his temple. But  Thean Vuthy wasn’t there. He seems to have some powerful patronage at the provincial level. Plus, apparently, a lot of money. The story continues.