The fourth Buddha

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMThis is the opening section of my book Spirit Worlds, which, Buddha willing, will be out in October. Look for it in Monument, Cambodia’s bookstore of choice. (It will also be available in Thailand and India, even Australia, but where I know not; it will not be available on Kindle, because the publisher says he doesn’t trust these newfangled inventions).

So: it opens, as you see, with a review of the story of the Buddha. And what could be more fitting, seeing as everyone knows Cambodia is a Buddhist country.

Except it’s not. It’s a mix of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism, which is what makes it so fascinating. You can never be bored in Cambodia. That mix is what I’m trying to explain, or at least illustrate: I want everyone to share my fascination. Anyway, on with the Buddha…



The Buddha becomes a Christian: Saint Josaphat, a charming medieval German illustration from the Getty Center in California. The blog whence this comes has some interesting links, including to the patron saint of hangovers – those medieval monks thought of everything. Click on the image.

According to Buddhist belief there have been many Buddhas (“enlightened beings”) in the immensely long history of the world, and the world itself has gone through an immense number of cycles in which it is created, destroyed, and re-created.

Siddhartha Gautama was the fourth Buddha of the current cycle. His life was practically identical to those of the previous three: divine birth into a princely family, a sheltered upbringing followed by renunciation of the world, the search for enlightenment and its attainment, the teaching ministry, death, and attainment of Nirvana. The life of the fifth will be practically identical again.

There are curious similarities between the life of the Buddha and the life of Jesus as described in the gospels, including an Annunciation, an Immaculate Conception and a Temptation. Scholars believe these are largely coincidental, although it’s a fact that in the first millennium the Buddha’s story made its way from India to medieval Europe, where he became Saint Josaphat  (from Bodhisattva, ‘Seeker of Enlightenment’) with his feast day on 27 November.

(See here for the legend of Josaphat and Balaam in the rather archaic English of the Golden Legend, and here for a review of a book called “In Search of the Christian Buddha”).


The Buddhist cosmos: the right-hand panel shows heavens above (gold), mountain of the gods in the middle (blue), world-continent surrounded by four islands, one of which is Jambudvipa, the Island of the Jambu Tree, the only land where humans live. Below are the hells (red). The left panel shows a top view, looking down on the top of the mountain of the gods, with the four continents in the surrounding ocean – Jambudvipa is the blue one, the sun and moon and stars circle round Sumeru, and the cosmos-filling ocean surrounds all. The blog whence this comes has many additional versions of the basic map – click on the image.

A Bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, a heavenly being who has the power to take human form and teach others the way to salvation. The Bodhisattva who became Siddhartha dwelt in the ‘heaven of the delighted gods’, where a single day is four hundred earthly years and a lifespan is four thousand heavenly years. When the time his birth on Earth arrived the gods of all the heavens gathered before him ‘with hands joined in adoration’ and asked him to be born so that living beings could learn the path to wisdom and enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva identified Jambudvipa as the best continent for his birth, Bharat as the best of lands, and Kapilavastu, city of the Sakyas, as the best of cities. He then searched with the all-seeing gaze of a Buddha for a woman who was chaste and modest and of the highest moral standards, one who through a hundred thousand reincarnations had accumulated merit and fulfilled the Ten Perfections. Such a woman he found in Maya, wife of Suddhodana, king of Kapilavstu.


Queen Maya’s dream of a white elephant – the ultimate origin of the Southeast Asian cult of keeping royal white elephants. Click for the source.

Queen Maya dreamed that the guardian-gods of the four quarters of the universe transported her to the sacred Lake Anotatta on the summit of Mount Meru, whose waters contain the elixir of immortality and will be the last to dry up on the last day of the world. There the heavenly guardians bathed her and led her to a canopied bed strewn with flowers, and the Bodhisattva entered her womb in the form of a white elephant with six tusks. At the moment of the divine conception the ten thousand worlds quaked, the blind saw, the dumb spoke, the lame were made straight, and showers of blossoms fell and lutes and harps gave forth music without the touch of human fingers.

Queen Maya awoke and called for her husband, who sent for his Brahmin priests. The Brahmins, when they heard the dream, said: “Be happy, O king, O queen, for a divine being has chosen to be your son. If he lives a life in the world he will become a World Ruler; but if he chooses to renounce the world, he will become a Buddha.”

The pregnancy of the Buddha’s mother lasted exactly ten lunar months. When the time for the birth approached she set out for the home of her parents with an escort of companions and servants, and as they passed the Lumbini Garden the queen commanded that her litter be set down so that she could enjoy the flowers and shady trees.


Queen Maya gives birth to the Buddha in the Lumbini Garden, attended by servants and gods. The infant immediately takes seven steps, signifying his dominion over the cosmos, and at each step a lotus springs up. Wat Ketanak, Rossmore (a Sydney suburb).

In the sweet-scented paths she reached up to touch the blossoms of a sal tree, beloved of the god Vishnu, which bent its branch down to her hand. On the full-moon day of the month of Vesak, standing upright and grasping the branch of the sal tree, she gave birth. The gods Indra and Brahma took the child from her side and the infant stood and took seven paces, a lotus springing up at each step. Looking about the entire universe he proclaimed:

Chief am I in the world,

Eldest am I in the world,

Foremost am I in the world,

This is the final birth,

There is no more coming to be.

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Birth, enlightenment and nirvana – the three landmarks of the Buddha’s career. The walls of Cambodian monasteries and shrines are encyclopedias of the life of the Buddha.

The anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, which is also the anniversary of his Enlightenment, death and Nirvana, is called Visak Bochea in Khmer, and is celebrated on the full-moon day of the sixth lunar month, which falls sometimes in April and sometimes in May. Visak Bochea is a time for gaining merit. The day begins with a pre-dawn assembly at the local monastery at which religious flags are raised and hymns chanted in praise of the Buddha, his teaching and the institution of the monkhood. Monks give sermons reminding the faithful of the way to salvation, Buddha images are washed and offerings of flowers and candles made, alms are given to the beggars at the gates, and birds and fish are released. Particularly important and impressive celebrations are held at the former royal city of Oudong, north of Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh itself the Royal Palace and the shrines on the Riverside by the Mekong are illuminated, and at Angkor there is a particularly impressive son-et-lumiere show.


Visak Bochea at Angkor – Telegraph, AFP/Getty.

Ancestral voices: the Leper King

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Sdach Kamlong the Leper King – the statue from the Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor, now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. From, which has some very nice photos from the museum (click on the image for the link).

In the late 19th century French archaeologists at Angkor discovered a statue of a squatting, bare-chested man, his right hand apparently once holding a rod or similar object, on a terrace next to the Bayon temple. Presumably it had been there for centuries, as the terrace was used in ancient times for royal cremations and perhaps for judgements. The statue, according to its inscription, was Yama, the god of death and judgement, but the local villagers were worshipping it as Sdach Kamlong, the Leper King, who, as legend has it, was Preah Thong, the Indian prince who married the naga princess and was first to rule over the Khmer people.

Preah Thong was warned by his wife’s father, the naga king, not to build a four-faced tower in his city, but he ignored the warning. Using the magical power of the four faces he captured the naga king and imprisoned him inside the tower, but the serpent escaped and sought to kill him. Each dealt the other many grievous wounds, but Preah Thong eventually dealt the fatal blow, although he was stained by the naga’s venom. The dying naga warned him not to remove the poison, but Preah Thong washed his body, and so was stricken with leprosy as a visible sign of his deed.

Seeking to cover up the murder from the naga’s daughter, Preah Thong killed a monk, thinking he could be reincarnated in the monk’s healthy body. This was a crime even worse than killing his father-in-law, and his outraged courtiers banished him to the forest, while his city became the haunt of monkeys and tigers. Eventually, after many trials, he was cured by the power of the sacred waters of the Ganges (the Siem Reap River) and restored to his city and throne.

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Base of the Terrace of the Leper King – there’s a modern copy of the statue on top of the terrace. From (click image for link).

The legend of the Leper King and the abandoned city is an allegory of the fall of Angkor and a hope for national salvation. However, the story is certainly older than the fall of Angkor, for the medieval Chinese traveller, Zhou Daguan mentions that a king of Angkor once fell victim to leprosy.

The statue is now in the central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, where worshippers ask for health and prosperity and for protection from danger. It’s especially popular with students from the University of Fine Arts next to the museum, and special ceremonies with offerings of flowers and fruits and music are held at New Year and Pchum Ben (the festival of the dead).

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

Faces of the Bayon temple, Angkor. The central tower contains a shaft from the summit to ground level, and when archaeologists explored this they found at the bottom a shattered statue of a multi-headed naga sheltering the Buddha.

According to popular belief the Leper King was Yasovarman I. This cannot be true, for the following reasons: (1) There is nothing to indicate that the statue represents a king or a leper or even that the terrace was its original home; (2) there is no evidence that Yasovarman or any other Khmer king was a leper; and (3), Yasovarman’s capital was somewhere else and the terrace wasn’t built till long after his death. (The acerbic note comes from my source, a rather mysterious but apparently well-informed pdf file by someone who goes by the single name of Sokheoun. Sokheoun is a stickler for facts, one of which is fascinating: it seems that, deep inside the Bayon temple at Angkor, there’s a series of bas-reliefs illustrating the Leper King story).

The myth of the Leper King is very much alive and well. Here’s some Cambodians discussing it on khmerconnection in 2009. The version of the legend someone gives here is slightly different from ine, but that’s how it goes with legends. Note the way they join the dots between the legend and modern politics:

Cambodia is curse until the true ruler of the kingdom reclaim his thrown and crowned king..

actual crowned king not select nor picked out…

Current king is king but has not wore the crown. It is said who ever wore the crown and not the true ruler lightning will strike you to death..Many high ranking politic and royal has tried but fear it. Even Hun Sen tried but the door close on him trying to enter…

(Yet another version of the story here – again an attempt to find “real” history hiding in a legend. Legends are poetry, the truth they contain is poetic truth, as the folks on khmerconnection have grasped).

(Last thing I have to say on the subject, promise There were once three Leper King statues in Phnom Penh, but now there are only two. Number One is of course the statue in the central courtyard of the National Museum, a national icon filled with magical powers. This is the original from the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor, Number Two is outside Wat Ounalom on Sisowath Quay, and receives worship on the four holy days each month as well as major festival days. This is a copy, donated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodia Peoples Party. Number Three was nearby, on the Riverside on the other side of the road. It used to have quite a lot of worshippers, but it’s gone now, replaced by a sewerage plant. Like Number Two it was a copy, but it was donated by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a political opponent of the government).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Sdach Kamlong the Leper King at Wat Ounalom (main gate to the wat in the background).

Ancestral voices: The Naga King

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PM(The following is from Spirit Worlds, my forthcoming book about Cambodian religion and belief. Part of that system of beliefs is the national myths that give meaning to being Khmer).


In India there  lived a prince, Preah Thong by name, who was told in a dream to take a ship and sail to a golden land in the east where he would establish a great kingdom. So the prince prepared his ship and crew and set forth, and after many days he came upon a beautiful and uninhabited island. Preah Thong named it Nokor Kok Tlok, Kingdom of the Tlok Tree, after a large tlok tree by the shore. Possibly feeling he had done enough for one day Preah Thong fell asleep under the tree, and when he awoke it was night. The moon was full and he gazed on the sea, wondering about his new kingdom, and especially about the lack of people, and as he watched he saw human figures emerge from beneath the waves.

The beings spread a feast under the trees, and the men fell to sport, wrestling and sword-playing on the sand, while the women strummed musical instruments and sang sweet songs. All were comely, but in their midst was a lady more arresting than any. Overcome by her beauty, Preah Thong stepped out from his hiding place and introduced himself, asking who she was, and how it came to be that she and her people lived beneath the waves.


Preah Thong (right) and the naga princess, Cambodian classical dance-drama.

The lady graciously permitted him to know that she was Neang Neak (Lady Naga), the daughter of the naga king, that this was the land of the nagas, and that she and her court visited the beach every full moon night for their pleasure. She informed him also that it was a serious breach of protocol to speak to royalty before being spoken to, and that he had broken this rule, but as she could see he was a stranger and ignorant of naga etiquette she would permit him to inform her of his name and family before ordering his execution.

Quickly Preah Thong told the naga princess of his foreign origins and princely station and declared his undying love, and after further gentle words the proud princess melted and agreed to take him to the underwater kingdom of the nagas so that he could ask her father for her hand in marriage.


Phimeanakas temple in the royal compound at Ankor. Only the base remains – the tower stood on top of this.

And so Neang Neak took Preah Thong to the kingdom of the nagas, the prince holding her scarf. For three days they celebrated their wedding, and at the end of that time the naga king swallowed the water that had covered the land and Preah Thong and Neang Neak ruled together over the Khmers, who were descended from the arriage of the noble Indians who had accompanied Preah Thong and the beautiful naga-folk who waited upon the princess.

In another version of the legend the Indian prince is a Brahmin named Kaundinya and the naga princess is named Soma. The plot is very similar to the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak except that the island is apparently upstream in the Mekong, and Kaundinya defeats Soma in battle before she agrees to marry him. In yet another version the prince was called Kambu, from which comes the name Kambuja, Cambodia.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 9.38.44 PMThe great enemy of the Khmers were the Cham, whose kingdom of Champa lay along the central coast of present-day Vietnam. In the year 657 a Cham king named Prakasadhamma left an inscription in his capital telling how the Brahmin Kaundinya ‘planted his spear’ (settled) in Kambuja and took Soma, daughter of the naga king, as his wife. Prakasadhamma mentioned this because, although a Cham king and a Cham by blood through his mother, he was a descendant of Kaundinya and Soma through his father, who was a Khmer prince. The inscription is important because it is the earliest mention in real history, as opposed to myth, of the name Kambuja.

The marriage of human prince and naga princess sounds fanciful, but the Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan says this in the record of his stay at Angkor shortly before the year 1300:


Zhou Daguan’s “A Record of Cambodia”, translated by Peter Harris with introduction by David Chandler.

Inside the palace there is a gold tower, at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine-headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die.

The tower is probably Phimeanakas, the only structure still remaining inside the palace compound at Angkor. I climbed to the top one cloudy and tourist-free day in the monsoon season, but found no naga-maiden awaiting me. Given what happened to the mythical Leper King, husband to the naga-princess and son-in-law to the naga-king, this may be just as well. That, however, is another myth.

Easy on the fertiliser…

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Photo by James Wheeler on Flickr

This famous tree at Ta Prohm, one of the temples at Angkor, gets its photo taken thousands of times each year, but this is one of the best. Saw it on an article called 21 Reasons You Should Drop Everything and Move to Cambodia. Sure, but first, make sure about the job.

cambodia_apartment-600x400Typical expat apartment in Phnom Penh – photo by Emily Lodish, weekend editor for GlobalPost magazine – I suspect it might be her apartment.

Would you buy a used karma from this man?

14guru-1Indian guru says Angkor built in India 3,000 years ago and shipped to Cambodia. Holds meditation workshop at Siem Reap, 500 participants at $10,000 each, which adds up to … a lot. Claims also to be “the living incarnation of super-consciousness” with 18 million hits on You Tube.

All this and more in the Phnom Penh Post.