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 Smiling Land

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 8.43.49 PMAn excerpt from Spirit Worlds, which will be in bookshops in Cambodia in the last week of this month. The chapter is on the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the question is how this happened in a nation of Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the greatest sin.


Professor Alexander Laban Hinton, who specializes in genocide studies, wanted to find out why Buddhists, for whom the taking of life is the gravest of sins, became mass-murderers. Possibly 1.5 to million people were killed in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge period, but when Professor Hinton went looking for some to interview he couldn’t find any:  former soldiers and cadres all denied ever killing anyone outside the battlefield. Finally he was put in touch with Lor, a former guard from Ponhea Yat High School on street 113 in Phnom Penh. This is now the National Genocide Museum, better known as Tuol Sleng.

Hinton was told that Lor admitted to killing 400 people, although according to the few prisoners to survive Tuol Sleng the actual number was closer to 2,000. In his time at the prison Lor “was savage like a wild animal in the forest, like a wild dog or a tiger,” said one ex-prisoner who’d known him.

What does a mass killer look like? Hinton was expecting evil incarnate, but when Lor arrived he was a simple farmer with polite manners and a broad smile. He denied torturing or killing anyone, though he admitted having been a guard. He said his job had been receiving new arrivals, transporting prisoners to the killing field at Choeung Ek on the outskirts of the city, and checking names off the list as each was struck on the back of the neck with an iron bar. Personally, he never harmed a fly.

“So you never killed?”

Lor hesitated. Yes, he had killed one or two.

Hinton didn’t press the point. The numbers weren’t important. He asked Lor to explain why he had killed.

Lor explained that one day his boss had asked him if he had ever dared to kill a prisoner. Daring seems to be an important and deeply ambivalent quality in the Cambodian psyche. In normal life impulses are suppressed and the self abnegated in the interests of social harmony and daring is a negative quality, but for those who live a little outside the mainstream – soldiers, gangsters, police – daring is desirable. For those who lack natural daring there are tattoos and amulets. And in Lor’s case, there was the challenge from a superior to conform to a new set of values.

Addressing his superior respectfully, Lor admitted that he had never dared to kill.

A little way off a prisoner was kneeling in front of a guard. “Then,” said the superior, “like your heart isn’t cut off, go get that prisoner and try it once. Do it one time so I can see.”

Here we have another deeply Khmer phrase, the order to act ‘like your heart isn’t cut off’. Possibly it means to act with courage; possibly it’s an instruction to give up detachment and act in the fires of passion.

The guard held an iron bar. Lor took the bar and struck the prisoner on the back of the neck. “When my boss asked me to do this, if I didn’t do it [pause] … I couldn’t refuse.”

Hinton’s book is called “Why Did They Kill”, and it forms the backbone of the chapter in “Spirit Worlds”

The evolution of the gods


20th century fairy. The older version was very different – no wings, malevolent, and more inclined to baby-snatching than wish-granting.

How god evolved. Almost all cultures believe in simple spirits who are responsible for the unexplained; only some believe in a “High” or “King” god who takes an active role in the world as the source of human morality. To put that in a Western context, spirits like the fairies would turn your milk sour or replace your baby with a changeling (a good explanation for Downs syndrome children), while God with a capital G threatened you with eternal damnation for coveting your neighbour’s wife.

Did moralistic “high” gods evolve to enforce cooperation within the group? (“do as we say or God will get you!”) Or were they a tool of the rich and powerful to control the plebs? (“God made me your leader, so you better listen up!”) The idea in either case is not that the High God was invented, but that he arose naturally, was found useful, and so thrived. (He was, in fact, a “meme,” the cultural equivalent of a gene, and subject to the same laws of natural selection).


Jehovah, the great I AM

Two anthropologists set out to test the first of these alternatives (that “high” gods foster cooperation). They examined 178 cultures to see whether larger and more complex ones were more likely to have “high” gods than smaller and simpler societies. For their purposes, “large” meant more than 1,000 individuals, and “complex” meant farming and pastoralism, since these require high levels of cooperation, although pastoral communities are typically smaller than farming ones. The results turned out as follows:

Amongst foragers – who can easily gather enough food with minimal co-operation between individuals – 88% had either no “high” god or a “high” god which did not bestow morals and did not interact with the world. At the other extreme of the scale, ~40% of groups dependent on intensive agriculture had a “high” god who interfered with the world and gave morals to the group.


The relationship between group size and belief in a high god.

To put that a different way, only 12% of egalitarian (foraging) groups had a “high” god who insisted on morality and intervened in human affairs, but 40% of societies with a class system/wealth distinctions did, rising to 80% among pastoralists (looking after animals requires even more cooperation than growing crops).

Conclusion: large societies dependent on cooperation give rise to “high-god” religions because they’re socially useful.

The article then touches very briefly on the evolution of religion in the present and future:

Co-operation will likely remain the foundation of civilisation but a “high” god may not. Secularity is rising in many countries – arguably for good reason – but we mustn’t forget that religion once played a key role in many societies. We must be sure that we do not loose the glue which binds us together and be sure to develop secular ways of ensuring humanity continues to work together.


The British bobby, suspected of complicity in the death of God.

I’m not sure that secularism is really so universal in modern societies, but I think it might be said that where the “high” god of European culture (commonly called simply God) has withered away, it’s when his function has been usurped by the rule of law and an efficient bureaucracy – in other words, in those Western countries where the citizens can rely on a police force and a public service that between them will provide the social and personal benefits once enforced by God. The one major Western society which more or less missed out on these two things is the United States. You might object, but compared to Europe, American police are violent and untrusted (think Ferguson) and the government provides nothing like a reliable social safety net.

And what about Cambodia? Some 80% of Cambodians live in villages, and the villagers rely on wet rice, which requires high levels of cooperation, which would predict the presence of a “high” god. But the villages are also pretty egalitarian, with little distance between rich and poor (this is changing with the rise of a class of villagers with urban connections – urban subsidies produce rural inequalities), which would tend to undermine “high” gods. So Cambodian village religion should be somewhere in between the “high god” model and the “spirit religion” model.


Pchum Ben at Wat Langka, Phnom Penh.

And, without having looked too closely at the evidence (meaning I might be wrong), it seems it is. The Buddha is not, of course a god, but in practice many Cambodians treat him as one. People worship and pray in front of his image, and he’s the source of a sort of morality – do good in this life or else you’ll have a bad reincarnation in your next with a nasty stint in hell in between. But his moral authority is pretty weak – it operates at the level of the individual, not the group, meaning that there’s no organised religious authority, like the Church or whatever the Muslim equivalent is called, to enforce this god’s decrees. If you disobey Buddhist morality you’ll be punished by karma in the next world or life, not by the priests in this one.


Village neak ta shrine – the neak ta are the ancestral spirits.

But the entire spirit world, or almost all of it, is equally moral – the village neak ta, the meba (family ancestors), the araks (more generalised village ancestors), even the little fairy-like mrieng kongveal who look after animals, all enforce morality. They do it very effectively, too – girls won’t have sex before marriage “because the meba are watching,” and farmers forebear from mistreating their cows for fear of being struck down with a stomach-ache by the mrieng kongveal. The monks might not come and get you in this life, but the spirits will.

And if I’m right about the link between secularism and the rise of impartial law and bureaucracy, then religion is likely to endure in Cambodia, because one thing Cambodia does not have is a police force and bureaucracy that work. But whether that religion will continue to be Buddhism, I cannot tell. All I can say with some confidence is that God and the gods will continue to evolve, as they have always done.


Cambodian nativity setting – from Global Christian Worship. The five figures from right to left rear (three wise men and two angels?) wear the traditional costume of Cambodian gods.

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.