The reincarnation of Penh the beggar boy

agent-orange1Penh is a beggar on the Penh Penh Riverside, but a beggar with a certain claim to fame, because when he was very young the Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths included his picture in a book about Agent Orange. The photo was taken in 2000, long after the Vietnam War ended, but Agent Orange lingers through generations.

Griffiths says Penh is 14 in the photo but he looks younger, gazing up at the camera with big eyes, a handsome and intelligent little boy with no future and no arms or legs, because Agent Orange causes mothers to give birth to monsters.

Penh was born in Takeo province on the Vietnamese border, and his parents brought him to the capital at an early age because there was no support for his condition there. There’s very little in Phnom Penh either, but an NGO provides a wheelchair and he begs along the Riverside, taking cash between the stubs of his flippers and pushing it into a special pouch sewn into his shirt.

Some years after that photo I interviewed Penh for a magazine, and asked him if he could explain his deformities – I was looking for evidence, in the form of family memories, of American planes spraying the village with defoliant. What he told me was quite different:

“I don’t know why I was born this way. I never did anything wrong, never harmed anyone. People in my village say I must have done something very wrong in my previous life, but I don’t remember my previous life. I used to try to remember when I was little, but I never could. I don’t think about it any more. I try to be good in this life, and I hope I can be reborn to a good body in my next.”


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds – the interview was conducted in about 2006 for Southeast Asia Globe magazine. Philip Jones Griffiths’ photo of Penh appeared in his 2004 book Agent Orange.

Gay in Cambodia


Article in the PPPost: Discrimination a Fact of LGBTI Life. I had to think about the alphabet soup – Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transexual, and I still don’t know what the I means. But the message is clear: Cambodian society is traditionally homophobic.

The Post’s article is the usual depressing catalogue of life: tell your parents you’re coming out and you’ll get beat up and disowned. And maybe you’ll get told it’s a phase and you should marry and get over it. Yeah, sure, why not make two people unhappy for the price of one prejudice. More than two, since there’ll probably be children.

I did an interview with a gay Cambodian boy because I was interested in whether he saw his gay-ness as a reincarnation issue. Sort answer: he didn’t. For that matter, “gay” is a Western category – a pretty modern one, since in living memory Yeats could write about his old crones whose glittering eyes were gay and not raise titters. What’s the Khmer? I still don’t know. Back to the coalface.

Before moving on to the interview, the reason I’m coming to this is that I have a young relative, all of 13 years old, who is obviously gay – his body language, his interests, his personality. The kid is only 13 for Christ’s sake! Can’t he be allowed to grow up and be himself? His sexuality is not his defining feature. For that matter, who has sexuality as their defining feature? Is David Cameron defined as a well-known heterosexual? Is Vladimir Putin the heterosexual leader of Russia? Leave this kid alone!

Back to the interview: the boy was in his early 20s, grew up in a village, came to Phnom Penh, enrolled at Royal University of Phnom Penh. At this point he didn’t know he was gay (he was speaking Khmer so I don’t what word he used). Met another boy who was very flamboyant, they became best friends, and he realised he also was gay. At 20+? Now works with his sister in her fashion boutique. A very unhappy young man. I asked him if anyone in his family said he must have been a woman in a previous life. Answer: no. No particular explanation, in karmic terms. But: “I wish I could be one or the other in my next life, not half and half.”

Our treatment of difference is one of the worst of our inhumanities.

The third monk’s tale

monastery cat_DSF4805(This is the third monk’s tale because there are two more before it – it’s an extract from my forthcoming book Buddha and Naga, which is sort-of due out in October this year).

Wat Koh on Monivong Boulevard is one of the oldest monasteries in Phnom Penh. Founded by King Ponhea Yat in the early 15th century, it was destroyed in the 1970s and rebuilt in the 1990s. Its claim to fame is that the abbot has made it a refuge for stray and abandoned house pets. This is entirely in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching of compassion for all living creatures, but I know of no other monastery that does it. Wat Koh has an even more notable eccentricity: the monks are forbidden to go out on the alms rounds in the morning, and the laypeople have to come to them instead.

Reach Kim Sam is a monk at Wat Koh and a graduate of Buddhist High School, which means that he is proficient in both Pali, which he began learning in Buddhist primary school, and Sanskrit. His studies covered both grammar and scripture and took up five hours a day, two in the morning and three in the afternoon.

Vipassana, he says, is not meditation, as it is carried out under the guidance of a teacher; true meditation is done in solitude to calm the mind and reflect on what has been done during the day, and to discover whether one’s actions have been positive or negative.

The aim of the monastic life is to escape dukkha (see page XX). Every human experiences dukkha because in life we meet problems, and these are dukkha. Sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, bereavement is dukkha, death is dukkha. Even those things we think are not dukkha, contain it. A couple who marry and have children will have happiness, but they will also have unhappiness, because every act contains dukkha in some measure. This was the beginning of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of reality.

Yet despite this we should not refrain from action. Consider the man who sees a child in trouble in the river. The child calls out for help. The man can swim and could save the child, even though he knows that doing so will lead to dukkha. Can the man do nothing? No, because doing nothing is also action. He must save the child, because not to do so would be a lack of humanity. Perhaps the child has rescued the man in a previous life, so rescuing the child will be a return of merit for the one who once saved his life.

People are born with the kamm (negative energy) they have accumulated over the sum of their previous lives. Bap is what they add to it in this life. If a thief steals and is arrested, that is bap. If the thief is not arrested it is because he has accumulated bonn (merit) in previous lives, but eventually, if he continues to do evil, his bap will come to outweigh his bonn.

A monk is not selfish. He is motivated by compassion, just as was the Buddha. This compassion is exercised primarily on behalf of humans, but not solely, for animals are also living beings. The abbot’s concern for animals comes from his understanding of the Buddha’s teachings regarding compassion.

It was the abbot who decided that the monks of Wat Koh should not go out into the streets in the mornings to gather alms. He did this because many monks in the city collect alms at places where monks should not be seen, such as markets and beer-gardens, and even massage parlours. In crowded residential streets they enter apartment buildings where women dry their underwear, and at restaurants they stand outside in a manner that approaches moral blackmail. For this reason the abbot decided that laypeople who wish to support the monks of Wat Koh should bring their donations to the monastery, alowing them to gain merit while protecting the morality of the monks and the reputation of the Sangha.

The Cosmic Mountain


 01Mount Meru surrounded by heavens and hells

Meru stood at the centre of the world, square, vast, and so high that the sun and moon and stars circled round it. In the gardens and palaces on its summit lived the gods, including Indra their king, Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, together with the divine apsara dancers and gandharvas musicians and the innumerable devada handmaidens, nagas, garudas, and many others. Spread out below Meru was Jambudvipa, the world-continent, home of humans, which they shared with animals, and also with spirits and ghosts and demons, and beneath Jambudvipa were the many worlds of hell, and surrounding it was the boundless cosmic ocean.

About a thousand years ago, in the land of the Khmers on the continent of Jambudvipa, a king built a temple in the shape of the universe.

As a visitor to Angkor Wat you start at a moat, representing the cosmic ocean. Crossing a causeway lined with naga-serpents, you pass through a colonnaded boundary wall representing the circling mountain ranges of Jambudvipa and enter the outermost sacred area. When Angor Wat was first built it would not have been permitted for ordinary people to go further than this. Nor would they have wanted to: their gods were family and village spirits, the ancestors who protected them from ghosts and demons. But they would know that at the top of the temple there was a chamber, that this chamber was visited by the god Vishnu, and that important rituals took place there involving the kings and priests.

Time passed, Buddhist monasteries and monks replaced Hindu gods and Brahman priests, and the spirits, the gods and the Buddha became the faith of the modern Khmer people.

Buddhism introduced only a few changes the Brahmanic cosmology. Extra heavens were added above Meru, divided into three realms of Desire, Form, and Formlessness. Beings in the Realm of Desire are governed by the senses and are therefore subject to illusion, even the gods on Meru, who take pleasure in music and dance and sweet scents. The beings of the higher heavens of form and formlessness above Meru are not subject to the senses but are still the victims of illusion. They live for immensely long periods, but even they eventually die and are reborn.

The Roots of Buddhism

 Buddha04.0Buddha in meditation

 Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was a man, not a god. He lived in the foothills of the Himalayas some two and a half thousand years ago, and through inquiry and meditation he came to understand the nature of things. For this reason he is called the Buddha, the Enlightened One, and because he came from the tribe of the Sakyas he is called Sakyamuni, the Sage of the Sakyas.

The Buddha’s teaching was a reaction to Hinduism, the religion of India at his time. The historical Siddhartha would not have been aware that he lived in India. India in his time was called Bharat; our modern name comes from the word Sindhu, meaning simply “the river,” the modern Indus River in Pakistan.

In ancient times the Persians, close neighbours to the Indians, changed Sindhu to Hindush, and the Greeks adopted this as Indos (for the river) and India (the land). The Romans inherited the name from the Greeks, and Europe inherited it from the Romans. The Arabs called the country, its people and its religion al-Hind, and 19th century European scholars, wishing to discuss the religions of India, invented the term Hinduism.

In Buddha’s time religion was dharma. Dharma was not then, and is not now, a single belief. It encompasses the role and teachings of the Brahmans, the insights of philosophers, the visions of hermits and ascetics, the spirits of nature and the ancestors  worshiped by the villagers, and much else. There was no such concept as Hinduism until scholars tried to draw all this together. For this reason modern scholars talk about Brahmanical religion, a term that includes “Hinduism”, (the inverted commas are because of the difficulty of defining the term), cults such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which come close to being religions in their own right, Jainism, and many other traditions of which Buddhism is only one.

Three Gems, Four Truths, and the Eightfold Path

 buddha1Buddha teaching

Buddhism begins with the Three Gems:

  • Buddha: The aim of human life is enlightenment, as was reached and taught by the historic Buddha;
  • Dharma: Enlightenment can be attained through understanding dharma, the law of cause and effect that propels the world forward; and
  • Sangha: Dharma can be learned through the sangha, the monkhood.

Having grasped the Three Gems, the student moves on to the Four Noble Truths:

  • Human life is dukkha;
  • The cause of dukkha is craving;
  • There is a way to end dukkha;
  • That way lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.

Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It does refer to the ordinary sufferings of life, but dukkha is also latent in pleasure, because pleasure is transitory. So long as we crave pleasure, we suffer. It is therefore desirable to end craving through the Eightfold Path, whose eight steps, grouped into three categories of wisdom, virtue and awareness, are:

  • Right understanding (wisdom)
  • Right intention (wisdom)
  • Right speech (virtue)
  • Right action (virtue)
  • Right livelihood (virtue)
  • Right effort (concentration)
  • Right mindfulness (awareness)
  • Right concentration (awareness)

Wisdom is found in the Pali scriptures, which must be studied under a teacher, and meditation is also best done under the direction of a teacher. Both are best followed within the monkhood, but virtue is open to all. The essence of virtue is set out in the Ten Precepts.

The Way of Virtue

Monks-in-front-of-the-Royal-PalaceMonks at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Ten Precepts are divided into three groups, of which the first, the Five Precepts and their converse the Five Virtues, form the basic moral code for every Buddhist. The Precepts are formulated as undertakings (“I undertake to…”):

  1. Refrain from destroying living creatures;
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not given;
  3. Refrain from sexual misconduct;
  4. Refrain from incorrect speech;
  5. Refrain from intoxication;

Like the Ten Commandments, the Five Precepts are easy to grasp but difficult to follow. The First Precept forbids the taking of life – not just human life, but any life at all. Yet fish is the national dish, chicken runs a close second, and every villager keeps cows. How are the facts of life to be reconciled with religion? Sin lies in the act of killing, and to eat meat is not itself against religion. City people buy their fish and chicken in the market, which exempts them from guilt; villagers, closer to the realities of life, will say if asked that the fish that swims into the net has not been killed by the fisherman, that the little boys who wring the necks of chickens are too young to be held morally accountable, and that pigs and cows are slaughtered by non-Buddhists such as Chinese and Cham Muslims Despite the casuistry, there is widespread respect for life and for the welfare of animals.

The second and fourth precepts prohibit stealing and lying, and this raises major problems in a country where teachers expect daily “tea money” from even the youngest pupils and firemen will not begin to put out fires until they’ve been paid. This is endured but not approved. A young food vendor who was interviewed in the course of a study into Cambodian social values said that a good man is one who neither lies nor cheats and takes only good and legal employment, but that there were not many good men in Cambodia.

Precepts three and five prohibiting sexual misconduct and alcohol are widely broken, but as with the second and fourth there is a general recognition that this is not good behaviour.

Corresponding to the five precepts (undertakings to avoid) are five virtues (undertakings to practice). These are:

  1. Practice compassion towards living creatures;
  2. Practice patience in right means of livelihood;
  3. Practice contentment in married life;
  4. Practice truthfulness in speech;
  5. Practice watchfulness (intoxication prevents the mind from being watchful).

The Five Precepts plus the following three are mandatory for monks and are followed voluntarily by many religiously-minded lay people, making a list of the Eight Precepts:

  1. To refrain from eating between midday and morning;
  2. To refrain from dancing, music, singing, and other such pursuits;
  3. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and beds. (The last can be interpreted as the avoidance of luxury in general).

Monks observe two additional precepts, making up the Ten Precepts:

  1. To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and other things used to beautify and adorn the person;
  2. To avoid handling money.

Karma & Reincarnation

 _DSF4124Coffin at Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh

In the opening verses of the Book of Job we find the upright Job blessed with sons and daughters, possessing sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and servants, “the greatest man among all the people of the East.” His friends take his blessings as the outward sign that God has rewarded him because he is a righteous man. God puts Job’s righteousness to the test, killing his sons and daughters, robbing him of his wealth, and afflicting him with loathsome diseases, and his friends now advise him to look into his heart and discover what evil he has committed that has caused God to replace blessings with suffering. The assumption, in short, is that good fortune is the divine reward for good deeds, while suffering is the outward sign of inner corruption.

The concept of karma is similar, up to a point. Karma means the way actions determine outcomes – good deeds lead to happiness, bad deeds to suffering. Where karma differs from the Old Testament is in the absence of God or gods – karma is as impersonal as the law of gravity.

Reincarnation is the idea that there exists a kernel of individual existence – a “soul” – that survives death and is reborn. When this concept is linked to the workings of karma, it becomes clear, or at least plausible, that the good and bad deeds of this life will have their rewards and punishments in the next.

Enlightenment and Nirvana

Nirvana-BuddhaDeath and Nirvana of the Buddha

The Buddha taught that the conscious mind forms an an impression of its existence as a unique self, but this is based on a misapprehension. This misapprehension is the cause of craving, and thereby of the endless cycle of suffering, death and rebirth. This cycle, called samsara, is what the Buddha’s teaching promises to end.

Even the gods are not immortal, although their lives are immensely long, millions and millions of years, but they too are subject to the workings of karma and rebirth. The ultimate goal is not to be reborn as a god, but to move beyond rebirth and the three realms and reach the state of nirvana.

In Pali nirvana is called nibbana. The word means “blowing out”, as in extinguishing a candle, and fire imagery is frequently used when the scriptures describe nibbana. The fires to be extinguished are those of attachment, lust, and ignorance. We are attached to the things of this world through our senses; because we are attached to them we lust after them, wanting those things we don’t have, fearing to lose the things we possess; being ignorant of the means of escape we remain attached, and the world continues to be dukkha.

Dukkha is the result of attachment to things which are not-self, attachment arises from the illusion that self and not-self are separate. Dukkha can be overcome by understanding the nature of the illusion.

Every act, good or bad, will sow a seed in the mind, and this seed will bring its appropriate crop. Most karma will keep the individual bound to the wheel of rebirth, but some will accumulate merit and lead to nibbana. The monk, and indeed the religiously awakened layperson, will therefore strive to accumulate merit.