This 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…
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”).
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 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.
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.
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.