Devoted BeingsAugust 23, 2013
“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world … I feel like I can’t take it… and my heart is just going to cave in”, said the weed-dealing douchbag in that American Beauty film. But, douchbag or not, he has a point. I think we all, at some point in our lives, know the feeling of being drowned by the beauty of it all until there is nothing left but a sense of gratitude and bonhomie.
Hailing, as I do, from the rain-soaked islands of the UK, it’s a feeling I get a lot in a country with as benign a climate as Cambodia. As any tennis or cricket fan will tell you, English summers are notoriously temperamental – you get a week of glory, where the scent of roses and hay hangs in the air as you sip cider tender as a kiss from your first love; then – bang – rain pelts down for a month.
Since moving to Cambodia, I find myself emerging like a prisoner of Plato’s cave: dazzled by the sun, horrified by the dark existence I once led and afraid of what this new world might bring, because, along with the rapture, there is a suspicion that it’s too good to be true and, at any moment, the clouds will let out a rumbling “mwuhahaha” and soak me freezing once again.
Most mornings I awake to the kind of weather English wet dreams are made of. After rousing, one of the first people I see is the head monk sweeping the villa – his round head balanced like a Malteaser on a scrunch of orange robes. For the first few months things were a bit weird between us. The culture shock of meeting him for the first time hit me like an elephant. And I’m sure the culture shock of meeting me wasn’t much better for him either – he suddenly found himself in a house-share with a gangly white guy walking around with a permanent expression of “what the hell” frozen on his face. The head monk doesn’t smile much, which didn’t fill me with ease those first difficult months. When you don’t share a mutual language smiles are important because they communicate on a visceral level that you don’t intend to enact some kind of tribal viciousness on the other person.
I realised we were cool when I returned from a trip back home. As I disentangled myself from my moto, he gave a rare smile, sidled up, and stood with hands on his hips as if to say; “well, look who came back, I didn’t think you would, but here you are” and I smiled as if to say, “I know! I didn’t think I’d make it back either, but here I am”. The head monk is in his 50s and very tough. Perhaps, to Western eyes, most Cambodians are unimaginably hard; it’s clear from their physical scars and the ones etched behind their gaze. But this monk takes toughness to new levels. In 1982, he inherited a temple that had been completely smashed by the Khmer Rouge. He spent the first ten years living in a palm leaf hut while funds were raised to begin rebuilding. As if surviving the Khmer Rouge wasn’t enough, the hand of fate bitchslapped him with TB and some unidentied throat cancer that left him with extensive scarring down his neck.
Today, he sits on one of the largest and well-funded temples in the district. He has about 50 novice monks in his care and takes great pleasure seeing them learn the Dharma scriptures the Khmer Rouge tried to obliterate. His temple cares for village’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. And now wifi has been installed, his house often resembles an internet café as the young men of the village congregate to woo girls on Facebook using donated laptops. Sure, he’s not the typical Western image of an enlightened monk; in some ways he’s more businessman than a Buddha; but his temple brings comfort and support to villagers for whom religious festivities are precious escapes from the drudgery of subsistence farming.
As for me, having his approval is something that adds extra notes to the pastoral melodies that strum my heartstrings as I sit on the wooden platform outside our house swinging my legs and watching the people file into the food hall. Cows graze inbetween temple buildings; and the light is sharp enough to pick out each tile on the roof of the congregation hall and each trembling leaf on the trees; and the aesthetics of the scene capture me more than any great work glimpsed inbetween glasses of Pinot at a London gallery; and, yes, there is a feeling of ease and stillness that I have seldom found elsewhere. It lasts about as long as it takes me to get into the food hall, sit down, and realise that it is rice and fish paste for breakfast again.