The last white elephant


King Sihanouk in his Cadillac, white elephants at the palace gates, 1952.

White elephants are only theologically white. To the average eye they look like any other elephant. They get their whiteness from their resemblance to the white elephant which impregnated Maya, the mother of the Buddha, when the Buddha wished to assume human form at the beginning of the present age.

In Theravada Buddhism the possession of white elephant is a mark of divine favour given only to kings, and a sign that a wise and just ruler reigns over the kingdom. In other words, if you’re a king, you just gotta have one.


One of the King of Thailand’s royal white elephants

The King of Thailand has six males and four females, which he keeps in considerable comfort at the Royal Elephant Stable, but segregated, because white elephants are not allowed to breed. The generals who ruled Burma had five and were always looking for more. (They kept them in a compound near Mingaladon airport – I saw them a few years ago but I don’t know if they’re still there). The king of Laos had some, and although the communists starved him to death in a re-education camp there they now keep their own in a special enclosure in Vientiane zoo, where visitors can stroke his trunk to gain gifts of power and strength. So what about Cambodia?

First, you have to know that white elephants are a very delicate subject. Only kings are allowed to own them. When the king of Cambodia was subordinate to the king of Siam, having a white elephant would have been very close to treason. No Cambodian white elephant before King Norodom switched from being a Thai puppet to a French puppet. The French wouldn’t have cared or even understood.


Joachim Schliesinger, in volume 3 of hisElephants in Thailand” (surely the last word on the subject) says that the last time a white elephant was seen in Cambodia was during Jackie Kennedy’s visit in November 1967.  Schliesinger also mentions, and dismisses, a story that Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s vice-president, presented the doomed Lon Nol with a baby white elephant during a visit to Phnom Penh in 1970. Jon Swain mentions the same story in his River of Time  and seems to accept it (“In the circumstances, it was an absurd gesture“), but it seems to be untrue. Agnew showed no sensitivity to Asian cultures (indeed, his Secret Service bodyguards trained their guns on Cheng Heng, the titular Head of State, when he tried to welcome them to the royal palace), and it seems improbable that he would have had any notion of the significance of elephants in Asian diplomacy. So, take it as read that the last royal Cambodian white elephant disappeared sometime between Jackie Kennedy’s visit in 1967 and the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975. And now there are none.


Royal (but not necessarily white) elephants outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, date unknown. From the excellent blog called PhnomPenhPlaces (click on the image for the link).

But there is one interesting factoid that deserves a mention, and it might be the origin of the Spiro Agnew story. In 1951 Sihanouk, to show his appreciation of America’s strong stance on decolonisation in general and Cambodia’s bid for freedom from the last vestiges of French rule in particular, presented a white elephant to US President Harry Truman. Ok, so Truman was a Democrat and Sihanouk was sending him a Republican icon, but it’s the thought that counts. The elephant was named Harry, a home was prepared for him at Washington zoo, and all seemed to be going well until …  Harry died in Cape Town and was buried at sea. High hopes laid low. It could have been an augury for the future of Cambodian-American relations.

(P.s.: it seems Harry wasn’t a white elephant at all. The original intention was to send a white, but then some pedant pointed out that a white elephant could only be given to a supreme ruler, which a US president was not, and Harry was downgraded).



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.

Angkor_Guide_Sarak_Buddha b

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.

Samsara: the widow’s tale

DSCF2175Plong Chanthou is 79 years old and a widow. She was born in Battambang province and moved to Phnom Penh when she married. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated her family to Battambang, but to a different district from the one she was originally from. During this time she lost all her four children, three girls and a boy, plus her beloved husband, who had been a civil servant for the Lon Nol government. First he was forced to work, then he was killed.

Immediately following liberation in 1979 she ran into the forest and ate wild fruits and roots to survive. After three weeks she made her way back to her village, but found that her parents’ home had been appropriated by soldiers. So she walked all the way to Phnom Penh to look for the house she had owned with her husband, but that house was also now occupied by others.

She ended up living with relatives, but they treated her badly. She was suffering deep depression after the Pol Pot years and her losses and had no wish to find a job, so she helped in the house like a servant in exchange for meals. It was a bitter time. Eventually she went to live at Wat Champa monastery in Ken Svay district in Kandal and later at Dombok Kpuos, before finally settling at Wat Sampov Meas in 1993.

Wat Sampov Meas in Phnom Penh is now her home. She gets up at 4 a.m. to clean, sweep and cook breakfast for herself and the monks, then she prays and serves the monks breakfast, after which she washes the dishes. Breakfast is no sooner out of the way than she prepares, cooks and serves lunch and washes dishes again, and prays once more in the evening. She follows the Eight Precepts and never eats dinner.

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Funeral stupas at Wat Sampov Meas – they hold the ashes of important monks and laypersons. Copyright Amy Chang, Flickr.

She has her own room in the monastery, away from the monks, where she cooks her own food and boils her own water. She never eats her meals in the monastery as she believes that being able to live there is more than enough. She lives on donations and gifts. Her younger brother sometimes gives her money, and some of her old friends and classmates also help regularly.

She worries about old age. “When I get really sick and unable to help the monks, I will ask my niece in Battambang if I can live with her and ask her to look after me. I know that she is kind and will take care of me before my departure (death). I never want to bother the monks or anybody at the temple.” She believes that due to her good deeds her niece will arrange a good funeral for her when she dies.


18th century Cambodian Buddha image, found at Antique

Since 1979 she has had no other passion besides learning about Buddhism and doing good things to gather merit. “This life has been most unfortunate and lonely and miserable for me. My good deeds in this life should help me to avoid that fate in the next. People tell me I should file a complaint with the Khmer Rouge War Crimes Tribunal to seek justice for losing my family, but what use is revenge? I tell them I would only do this if it could bring my children and husband back to be life again.”


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Samsara: the wheel of becoming

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, central courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The figure is also known as the Leper King.

Yama, god of death and judgement, attended the Buddha at his Enlightenment. He was there because enlightenment means an end to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth over which Yama presides.

Yama is present when every man dies, holding up a mirror to the dying soul. In the mirror the soul sees the Six Realms – the three worlds of men, gods and asuras, from which rebirth into a higher realm is possible, and those of animals, demons and hell-beings (ghosts). Death therefore comes before birth, because death is not the end. The soul is about to undertake a journey to the realms of Yama.

What exactly is the soul? The Buddha’s answer is told in the Vacchagotta Sutta. The sage Vacchagotta asked whether the Buddha held that the immortal soul exists. The Buddha remained silent.  Vacchagotta then asked whether the Buddha held that the soul does not exist. The Buddha still remained silent. Vacchagotta got up and went away. Ananda, the Buddha’s favourite disciple, asked the Buddha why he had not answered Vacchagotta. The Enlightened one replied:

“If I had answered, There is a soul, would that be in accordance with my knowledge that all dammas are without Self?”

“Surely not, Sir.”

“And if I had answered: There is no soul? That would have created greater confusion in the already confused Vacchagotta, for he would have thought: Formerly I had a Self, but now I do not.”

The sage Vacchagotta questions the Buddha on metaphysics.Vacchagotta questions the Buddha about metaphysics: “Do you hold that the universe is eternal or not?  Do you say it is finite or infinite?” To each question the Buddha answers “no.” From Metta Dharma Refuge

Buddhism teaches that the cause of rebirth is vinnana, meaning consciousness, or more precisely still, consciousness of self. So long as this exists, rebirth continues, but consciousness of self is a false consciousness, and a self built upon it is a false self.

A popil, essential to many ceremonies. It's essentially a candle-holder - the cadle is stuck to the broad plate with its own melted wax, and the flame and smoke have both symbolic and magical importance.

Popil, a ceremonial candle-holder essential to many ceremonies – the candle is stuck to the disc with its own wax,

Vinnana is a rarefied notion. Ordinary Cambodians talk about pralung. Pralung is that which animates. It is not uniquely human. Animals have it, as do plants and even certain objects. Pralung is multiple – every individual has nineteen, according to the classic texts. Each night the pralung leave the body and each morning they return, and our dreams are the records of their wanderings. A person who has lost consciousness is said to have lost his pralung, and a folktale tells how some little girls lost in the forest are scared out of their minds “as if they had lost their pralung.”

The pralung seem to be rather simple-minded, even gullible. Evil spirits seduce them into the forest with lying promises of a life of luxury and ease, although in fact the wilderness is a place of great danger. If the pralung listen to the voices and wander off their human owner becomes psychically weakened, prone to bad luck and illness.

Hau pralung ceremony - an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

Hau pralung ceremony – an achar (specialist in ritual) is reading the hau pralung poem.

There is therefore a ritual for calling the pralung back to the body. It involves the incantation of a poem called the Hau Pralung (“Calling the Souls”), one of the oldest works in Khmer literature and the most widely-performed non-Buddhist work in the Khmer language. The poem itself is the most important ingredient in the ritual, but it also involves various symbolic props which appear over and over in Khmer religious ceremonies: balls of sweet sticky rice, cones made of rolled banana leaves, sticks of black sugarcane, and candles tied to leaf-shaped candle-holders called popil. Some of these, like the rice and sugar cane, are symbols of domestic life, but the popil, which is a modern version of the ancient Shiva-linga, is plainly phallic.


Tying threads to an infants wrists to keep its pralung in its body.

A full hau pralung is extremely dramatic. It begins by invoking the protection of the Buddha and all the gods and the tevoda in streams and hills, then warns the pralung of the ghosts and evil spirits in the forest. It appeals to them to come home to “silk mattresses and wool carpets, cushions and pillows,” and ends by welcoming them back to the family. “The nineteen pralung have arrived and are entering their home. After three days of calling I am tying strings around your wrists to unite you with your relatives, old and young, grandmothers and grandfathers. May you recover as of today.”

The two photos above are from Reyum, part of an article reviewing a publication on the Hau Pralung.


Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society - due out October 2015.

Spirit Worlds, a study of Cambodian belief and society – due out October 2015.

Buddha meets God

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Buddha worshiped by the gods

The 31 worlds are stacked like plates in a cupboard. The world we know is fifth from the bottom, the four below are the hell-worlds, and the 26 above are the heavens.

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The Buddhist cosmos: our world is the one where the two cones meet, heavens above, hells below. From Huntington archives.

There is, of course, no God in this cosmos, because it has no beginning and no end, and is not even real, being the product of mind and misapprehension. There are however, gods in the heavens, and one of them is surprisingly like the Christian (Jewish, Muslim) God (Yahweh, Allah). His name is Baka Brahma, (any resemblance to the name of the current President of the US is purely coincidental, I swear), and you can learn about him in the Brahma-nimantanika Sutta, one of the holy texts of Buddhism (look for a copy in your nearest monastery library).

This divine being – his name means “Crane Brahma”, and I have no idea why – is an object lesson in the sad effects of pride. He began as a human, a hermit named Kesava, and through his many good deeds was reborn as a deva (a higher god) in one of the highest heavens. Now the hubris kicks in: his confidence in his goodness led to pride, and thanks to his pride he began to sink downwards through the heavens, from one reincarnation to the next (because reincarnation applies to gods as much as to humans), until he arrived in the middle heavens where he was no more than a common or garden brahma (intermediate-level god).

Buddha+and+Baka+BrahmaBuddha reveals Baka’s previous lives, which he had forgotten – here Baka, as the hermit Kesava, saves some people from an an angry naga. In this life the Buddha had been Kessava’s student. From Amida-ji Retreat Temple Romania (there’s a Buddhist retreat in Romania?)

Gods, as you know, live very long lives, and the Crane God had lived so long that he now forgot that he had ever had any previous lives. He was, in fact, convinced that he was immortal, and had existed from the beginning of the universe. In fact he became convinced that he was the only god (God, Yahweh, Allah) and that he had created the Universe. It’s the sort of mistake any divinity in his position might make.

defeat4The Buddha, who knew better, went to visit this lonely god in his heaven in order to remove his illusions (“I believe in One God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and it’s me…”) The god, who wasn’t a bad sort at heart, welcomed the Buddha and couldn’t help bragging about himself (“I am the One God, etc etc”).  The Buddha informed him that his heaven was only one of many, and he himself  one of many brahma-gods.

Baka couldn’t believe this, and challenged the Buddha to a vanishing contest – each would disappear from the sight of the other, and sure enough, Baka was unable to escape from the sight of the Buddha, while the Buddha easily escaped from Baka. (It’s a little difficult to explain why the Enlightened One and the god chose this peculiar form of contest, but it has to do with the doctrine of Dependent Origination, which means that the apparent reality of the world originates from our ignorance of its non-reality – or at least I think that’s what it means. Baka is ignorant of his limitations, the Buddha has complete knowledge, so the Buddha has access to worlds where Baka does not exist, while Baka is confined to the one world that he thinks he created and rules).

History Of Buddhism

History Of Buddhism

The Buddha disappears from the sight of  Baka Brahma – from Daily

This is about as close as Buddhism comes to critiquing the Western concept of a single omnipotent creator-god. That concept is based on a complex of what are ultimately metaphysical positions – the apparent world (world of the senses) is real, and the senses therefore reliable (basic to Western scientific thought); time moves in a line, from past to future (Buddhist and Hindu time moves in cycles, forever returning to the starting point); the world, therefore, has a beginning and that beginning has a cause which exists outside it, which is God. I can’t see many points where Buddhism and Christianity could agree on fundamentals.